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Page to Game: American McGee's Alice

Updated on July 24, 2015


Games based on books are very few and far between. That being said, very few are expected to fully carry out the original story word-by-word; there's little to no interaction in gameplay and is instead filled with cutscenes and hopelessly scripted events. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a unique nonsensical tale with vibrant characters and plot devices. American McGee's Alice transfers the elements of the story to be recreated in a psychological refuge/setting for an orphaned Alice who's survived a fire that's killed her family. And to be clear, this Wonderland is by no means safe.

American McGee's Alice


The Games

There are actually two entries (both are essentially platformers with small RPG elements) in American McGee's re-imagining of Wonderland, American McGee's Alice and Alice: Madness Returns. Both are chronologically after Lewis Carrol's books, prompted by a fire that was started in Alice's house that kills her family and sends her to a mental asylum. In her mental breakdown, it has affected her place of refuge, Wonderland, causing its denizens to become erratic and corpse-like while the true nature of things degrades. Both games were strong successes, if but simple, if for nothing else but their very strong presentation in story, music, art style, and voice acting.

Between the two games, Alice manages to prove her sanity and is able to leave the asylum and live at an orphanage under the watchful eye of a therapist. It's her blocked memories and outside interference that warps Wonderland again, and she must save it once more to reclaim whatever remains of her sound mind.

The Books

The subject books that are used as source material for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) & Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). Both works were written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known better by his pen name Lewis Carrol, and are classified as literary nonsense, filled with talking, anthropomorphic animals and plants, puzzling scenarios that force one to change size, and excellent wordplay.

With its otherwordly fantastic setting, it makes sense to create a video game with a setting in Wonderland. While not immediately accessible in all video game mediums (it's hard to imagine Alice running around getting headshots for instance), many fans of the original works would take great pleasure at exploring Wonderland in their own way.


The Adaptation

Obviously a transfer from nonsensical to horror is a big one, but McGee does it well. In the words of Chesire Cat, "We're all mad here," and it's with this thought in mind that things work so well for a horror-themed Alice in Wonderland.

Character Presentation
Characters are represented as different forms of madness or irrational behavior. It's not just how they act, but their physical forms too. Chesire Cat is unnerving in appearance, looking like something starved to the point of death. It speaks miles of the writers and voice actor that there is genuine sadness at the Cat's departure from the story. Furthermore, if a character doesn't look like a freshly risen corpse, they're usually outfitted by an assortment of mechanical 'upgrades,' courtesy of the truly Mad Hatter. Allies and antagonists always stand out from among their ranks, even if just by little quirks. Having to deal with the cannibalistic Ugly Duchess and blowing her head up via pepper is, needless to say, an inventive yet somehow attributing conversion of the material already present in Carrol's work.

The Levels/World/Setting
While it's inarguable that American McGee put a lot of work into these characters, one can't help but marvel at the world itself. As Wonderland's name implies, the world should be fascinating and eyecatching, causing one to simply stop and take it all in. Both games largely do this (even if the first is somewhat dated in graphics), although not always in the cheery way the book presents it. True to the horror genre, a player will encounter an asylum of robotic, maimed children or encounter a castle filled with living, hateful tentacles sprouting out of organic matter searching for the player. The second game strays a little from the books in order to create fascinating new set pieces (such as a speeding Gothic train or Eastern-inspired mountain seclusions being plagued by samurai wasps). However, every setting is visually gorgeous, even if macabre, and lingers in the player's mind.

Gameplay Screenshot


Many adaptations of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland go wrong when attempting to give a plot to the plot-less work. McGee handles this well by not forcing a plot into the game so much as using the world of Wonderland as the device in solving the conflict Alice faces. As mentioned before, Alice suffers from mental issues such as survivor's guilt and these manifestations are given form in the various creatures in Alice's Wonderland. The Jabberwock, for instance, appears and taunts Alice, blaming her over and over for being the one to survive the fire that destroyed her life and family. It is in its defeat does Alice find some solace. Furthermore, it's revealed that the Red Queen in the second game was more or less a manifestation of Alice's conscious (almost like an alter-ego) that sought to control Wonderland, and only by her defeat was Alice able to put all of her woes to rest...until the second game of course, but even that shows Alice solving the mystery of the fire and obtaining the resolve needed to avenge the wrongs committed to her and other orphans. It's not on par or as subtle as Silent Hill 2, but it's most definitely an interesting setting that isn't used often.

Trailer for American McGee's Alice

Alice as a Protagonist
In the books Alice does little more than walk and talk. She doesn't save some great big conflict and acts more like a tourist in Wonderland, which she basically is. In this game she's the protagonist set to save her world, and thus, herself. However Alice as a protagonist is truly unique and yet faithful to the original work. Alice doesn't have to don a suit of armor and a sword to win self-respect (as she does in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland), nor is she only fighting against a power-hungry Queen that seeks to rule the land unjustly. It goes deeper than all of that. Alice fights not for anyone but herself and the aspects that take the form of characters but she is not inherently strong, either of body or of mind. In fact, she's the opposite, smaller and weaker than most of the other characters and easily identifiable as teetering on the edge of insanity. In the original works, Alice was not an active part of any demonstration, but her mind was always working, always thinking, always contemplating what she viewed. It's not a direct parallel, but the Alice from both imaginings is identified to deal with things intellectual with a handicap of sorts.

Trailer for the Sequel, Alice: Madness Returns

Closing Thoughts

There have been attempts at creating a creepy Alice rendition in both games and film, but it is my opinion that American McGee makes his titles the definitive ones. While the original works are far from the horror genre, McGee infuses his own adaptation with such creative thought and life that things simply feel as if they always should have been this way. While not inherently a faithful adaptation, McGee has paid a great amount of attention to the original works and incorporates so much that fans of the original work will be pleased.

As a Game Based on a Book

Do you feel this does the original work justice, despite greatly re-imagining the world?

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Further Reading

For more Alice in Wonderland adaptations, you can check out my commentary on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) or another popular adaptation in the 1999 version. You can read also commentary on the Page-to-Game adaptation in American McGee's Alice series. Also, there's the other, lesser known adaptation that this director also had a hand in, Alice (2009).

You can read some more of my Game to Screen adaptation commentaries as well.

© 2014 Travis Wood


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