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Dark Alice

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 9 months ago


Dark Alice and the Technology of Gaming



By Rama Hoetzlein, The Alice Project







American McGee's Alice is a third-person video game on the theme of Alice in Wonderland with a unique twist. Shortly after its release (Oct 2000) , it received both praise and criticism for its dark interpretation of Carroll's classic text. The game introduces a gothic element, with Alice as a vengeful teen who lost both parents in a fire. Chapter seven of Will Brooker's book "Alice's Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture" examines the theme of McGee's Alice, with detailed descriptions of the opening video sequence, the box art, and the image of Alice portrayed in the game. Brooker's goal is to understand the mood of this adaptation and the intention of its creator. He engages in a close reading of the particular feelings conveyed by the game. Yet another way to examine McGee's Alice, however, is as a technical product of video game design. Brooker examines the medium of the game to some extent, for example when describing the user control of Alice as a kind of "tourism", but does so always in term of understanding the mood of the game. This is a natural interpretation, as the theme itself is equally captivating as it is disturbing. However, we may also ask what affordances are offered to Alice through the media of the video game, and what is lost? What rules of game making are broken, and which are upheld? As McGee's Alice is far removed from Carroll's original, we may be able to evaluate the game more easily on these terms.




McGee's Alice opens with a scene of Alice at home, awakening to a fire consuming the house. As she attempts to approach her parents, the flames drive her to a window where she falls unconscious to the snow below. The scene then cuts to an image of a gothic Alice in an insane asylum, and whose stuffed Rabbit begins speaking to her to "save them". The entire opening sequence is composed in a horror film style, complete with eerie musical acompanyment. The actual game play begins when she falls down a long tunnel and lands in a dark underworld of earth and rock. William Brooker examines these events in relation to other adaptations of Alice:


"The first shot of the game itself is the swirling violet void through which Alice falls; she screams as she plunges down the chute, but lands safely on leaves. This seems to be another interesting case of a small detail from Carroll's original - 'down she came upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over' - being amplified by inclusion in film version - Svankmajer and Willing, for instance - until it becomes a key iconic feature in representing Wonderland." (p.236)


When we begin to take the role of Alice ourselves (as the player), certain features of Alice and her environment are both expected and unexpected. The means of interaction (expected), the visual richness (unexpected), the informative dialogue (expected), the gothic theme (unexpected). Brooker continues by examining the relationship between the cut scenes and the game play (p. 238), focusing on the personality embodied by Alice. For example, Brooker asks, "What do we learn about Alice here? She treats new situations with a bravado that may be false; she seems anxious to keep moving and never stands fully still; she speaks in an upper-middle class English accent..." In this way, Brooker continues an exploration of the game with the explicitly stated intention of "capturing and questioning the experience of playing this Alice." (p.230) Moving in a different direction than Brooker now, another approach would be to examine McGee's Alice from a technical perspective. Where Brooker hopes to examine McGee's Alice herself, as a character and narrative in relation to the original text, another way to describe the game according to the affordances and limits of the medium itself. Rather than ask how McGee's Alice breaks the rules of Carroll's original textual narrative, we might ask how the game breaks or upholds the rules of video game making?


Returning to the initial role of ourselves as Alice (similar to the third image above), we immediately find a rich visual world. One of the defining features of this world are machines and gears which are constantly humming and whirrring as Alice navigates. In addition, spaces like the one above appear not as a single house, or room, as they do in Carroll's original, but as vast caverns with an organic arrangement of stacked buildings and windows. In these experiences, we find one of the first affordances of the video game medium itself - mechnical wonder and rich, dynamic visuals. More than just artistic achievement, the technology of computer graphics adds a certain dramatic, and science ficition-based, distant reading of a world as a society, people as a population, and architecture as a multitude. This is very unlike Carroll's original text, in which Alice engages in very specific, small spaces and situations. The game, instead, introduces an experience of scale and exploration which may help make the game particularly attractive as a post-modern artwork - playing it is a systematic experience.


We experience Alice herself as an avatar, looking over her shoulder, in which the interface upholds a "rule of participation", as is observed by Brooker (p.237). This is viewed as a necessary aspect of game making, to cue the user as to how to play the game. Shortly after taking on the role of Alice, we meet the Cheshire Cat who offers specific advice on how to act.


   "Your knife is necessary, but not always useful. Collect what magic you can find. Reject your ignorance.." - McGee's Alice, Cheshire Cat


In another example, Alice comes to an impassable cavern with steam rising from it. The Chesire Cat materializes, to provide advice:


   "When the path is problematic, consider a leap of faith. Ride the wind!" - McGee's Alice, Cheshire Cat


Unlike Lewis Carroll's original, and the Disney adaptation, in which the Cheshire Cat intentionally misleads and confuses Alice, here the cat acts as her guide, giving her explicit instructions on how to act. (As the examples above show, these instructions are often painfully obvious). The gothic Alice is much more independent and motivated than in the original text, for example when she says "I'll do what I can to find a key, but there's more than one way to skin a cat, if you'll pardon the expression." Yet the response of the Cheshire Cat is perhaps more suprising, when he gives Alice rules of speech in return, "A most unpleasant metaphor, please avoid it in the future." Thus many of the characters in the game act a explicit guides not only for what Alice should do, but also how she should behave.


While the scenery is thematic and visual rich, the motion and space of the game follow many basic principles of physics. In this way, the game is like other first-person video games. Rules of gravity, physicality and solidity are upheld by the mechanism of the game. With the exception of Alice changing size, and the cheshire cat rematerializing, the motion of objects is very consistent and predictable. Unlike the cheshire cat in Disney's Alice in Wonderland, where we occasionally see only stripes, or only a mouth, or the body of the cat literally standing on its head, in the video game adaption the cat either appears or disappears as a whole. This can largely be explained by the use of a first-person game engine (in this case, the same engine used for Quake III), in which "objects" are more easily described as complete units. Thus, where the technology of the game makes it is easier to create a visually rich experience, it makes it much harder to provide for fluid, illogical relationship among the objects and characters. McGee's Alice may be understood, generally, as venturing in new directions, i.e. breaking rules, in the areas of theme, plot, mood and visual richness while at the same time upholding rules of behavior, motion, and interaction due to the affordances and limitations of the medium of video games.




The experience of playing the game is not unlike many other first-person shooter games. One walks around, examining things, and occasionally shooting knives, sticks or even playing cards in the case of Alice. The oppontents in the game, themselves playing cards, shoot back. In this way, the rules of modern video game making are upheld. Whereas in the medium of literature Lewis Carroll was free to create or break whatever rules he liked, one therefore wonders how much control McGee had in the rules he chose to break?


The technology of video game making varies widely. We tend to imagine machines as ultimately capable of anything, yet certain relationships are harder or easier to encode. With 2D games, such as Pac-Man and Centipede, it is often easier to create abstract objects and motions than it is in 3D. Certain tasks such as believable physics are much harder in 3D, yet when they are accomplished it is possible to create many games with the same basic rules. Thus, we notice in McGee's Alice that the rules of physics are the same as other games. Similarly, it is more difficult to express objects with flexible parts, for example a character whose body parts can act independently (as with the cheshire cat is Disney's adaptation), than it is in pure animation or literature.



Thus any adaptation of Alice in Wonderland to the medium of video games, and which relies on established tools, must unhold the rules of the tool. Developed and distributed by major game-makers, Rogue Entertainment and Electronic Arts, these rules are provide by the context of the medium. Interestingly, the rules of physicality and space enforced by the game engine are exactly those with which Carroll was so liberal with in the original text. Jan Svankmayer's film freely changes scale, material, and boundary of objects while McGee's Alice, despite being entirely virtual, cannot. To retain some of the essence of the original, McGee must rely on sequences and characters. The sequence of Alice falling down the tunnel is conveyed, and the characters are recognizable from the original text.


More interestingly, to continue in the spirit of the original, McGee found a way to break new rules by transforming the visual design, theme and plot. Did McGee intentionally break these particular rules, or was he forced to break them because the rules of space, physicality and scale could not be broken with the available technology? Just as Alice has a certain "bravado" and decisiveness in the video game (as Brooker describes), one way to understand McGee's Alice is that he held a unique vision of particularly how to break the rules of the video game medium and the text of Alice at the same time by transforming the narrative from a whimsical one into a gory, gothic one. Of course, we might imagine with an entirely new technology, not dependent on first-person game physics, the rules could be broken yet again in this medium.


A final way to examine McGee's Alice is on a cultural level in relation to the image of Alice herself. During the Victorian era it was written, Lewis Carroll's image of a care-free girl with poor etiquette, a strong imagination, and questionable logic goes strongly against the culture of the period. However, while the idea of a gothic teen Alice is surprising, it is surprising more in contrast with Carroll's original image than it is with current cultural expectations. In other words, if it was some other angst-ridden teen, we might not be nearly as surprised. It is because McGee created a gothic Alicethat we are surprised. In this way, we could say the while Lewis Carroll was breaking a cultural image at the time (of "proper girls"), McGee may be seen as actually upholding a cultural image of the present ("gothic teens"). After all, the game is an industry creation, not unlike Electronic Arts other very popular female game character Laura Croft ("sexy adventurer"). Thus Alice herself is a paradox. In adaptation, she can take on any image of woman, so long as it is extreme. Yet, while a revolution in Carroll's time, this is exactly what our modern culture expects, identifiable images. And yet, if Alice is just a normal girl, like any other, she would no longer be her unique self.


Given the technological limits, and our cultural appetite for novelty, is McGee's Alice really all that surprising? While the gothic theme is certainly novel, rules of first-person game play are not broken, nor are rules of physicality and space broken nearly as much as they are in Carroll's original. Does McGee's game really break our expectations of the teen image, or of the video game itself? Or does it really re-enforce them? Regardless, it is fun to play, and the persistent sound of machines has a kind of creepy wonder to it.


PS. For a game that really breaks the medium, try Liquid War, in which each player is a "liquid".




1. American McGee's Alice, 2000, Rogue Entertainment & Electronic Arts. Created by American McGee. Youtube trailer 


2. Brooker, William. "Alice's Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture". Contiuum, New York, 2004


3. Svankmajer, Jan. "Alice", First Run Features, 1988


4. American McGee. "The Making of Alice". Retrieved from http://alice.planets.gamespy.com/files/movies.shtml


5. Wolf, Mark J.P. "The Medium of the Video Game". University of Texas Press. 2002


6. Mukherjee, Souvik. "And Alice Played a Video Game: A Study of the relationship between children's fantasy adventure storeis and interactive computer games". The London School of Journalism. Retrieved from http://www.english-literature.org/essays/alice_video.html


7. Cook, Brad. "A White Rabbit, A Crazy Alice, and Mac OS X". Retrieved from: http://www.apple.com/games/articles/2001/07/alice/



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