In the aftermath of Doom and Doom II‘s critical and financial success, many software companies sought to duplicate id Software’s successes. Some chose to attempt to out-Doom Doom, bringing forth various first-person shooters in an attempt to capture the same market. Some chose the classic business maneuver of poaching talent, seeking to duplicate the successes of id Software by tempting their brightest minds away with a van full of candy. American James McGee (yes, that’s his name; no, it’s not a nickname), whose resume included everything from being a tester on Wolfenstein 3D, to a level designer for Doom II, to a co-producer for Hexen: Beyond Heretic, was one of those targets. At the tender age of 28, McGee jumped ship to Electronic Arts in 1998, and was given free rein to direct, write, and design the game of his own choosing. That game, of course, was American McGee’s Alice.
Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass had long since passed into the public domain, and several new visions of the setting had already come to pass in cinema, literature, and gaming (such as Wonderland). However, McGee’s take on the Alice mythos pushed its darkness further into the open. The game begins with a tragic house fire claiming the lives of young Alice’s family, sending her spiralling into despair and catatonia. For years she remains within a sanitarium, until one day the White Rabbit returns – not the delightful White Rabbit of her youth, but a somewhat bedraggled White Rabbit, its absent-mindedness no longer charming, but eerie. Once again Alice follows it into Wonderland, where all is not as it was: the Cheshire Cat is mangy and underfed (but still smiling); the Duchess and the Mad Hatter want to kill her; and the Red Queen rules with a bloody, iron fist.
The level design was absolutely stunning in its 3-D dark surrealism. Alice follows the White Rabbit into the Village of the Damned, where she is reintroduced to the Cheshire Cat, and can locate the Vorpal Blade so she can go all snicker-snack on her opponents. Next comes the Vale of Tears, a foggy realm that is home to the ravenous Duchess and the poor Mock Turtle who needs his shell back. Other areas include finding the wise Caterpillar in the Cave of the Oracle; experiencing the chessboard realm of the White Queen; the twisted version of Rutledge Asylum that houses Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as well as the Mad Hatter; the volcanic lair of the Jabberwocky; and the final castle level of the Queen of Hearts. Each level shows the strength of American McGee’s talent for level design as well as the versatility of the Quake III Arena game engine it uses to bring it all to life.
Another element important to the atmosphere of American McGee’s Alice is its aural component, including the voice acting, sound effects, and musical score. On this front, the game excels. The voice acting was performed by professional voice actors, with experience in film, television and gaming projects, such as Roger Jackson (who voiced the Cheshire Cat, the Jabberwocky, and the Dormouse…as well as the telephone voice for the Scream movies), Susie Brann (who was the voice of Alice), Andrew Chaikin (who voiced the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare), Anni Long (who voiced the Red Queen and The Duchess), and Jarion Monroe (who voiced the Caterpiller). As for the game’s soundtrack, Chris Vrenna (who drummed for Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails for 8 years), approached the challenge of composing the music for the game by looking for instrumentation that sounded like they could be from the Alice’s era, but also having a “creepy” or “bizarre” sound that “created a mood”. To this end he used toy pianos, penny whistles, toy accordions, wind-up musical boxes, zippers, grandfather clocks, and more. Ultimately, between the eerie music and the wonderful voice acting, the game fulfills all its audio expectations.
Of course, American McGee’s Alice is not a perfect game. The level design is brilliant, but the gameplay has its pedestrian moments. For instance, if you are a fan of games that require platform-style jumping to avoid enemies, locate items and switches, and to find level exits, this is the game for you. For those that find all this leaping about a tad annoying…not so much. It’s best to familiarize yourself with the controls for jumping quickly in this game, as you will be doing a lot of it. However, if you can get past that, the rest of the gameplay has enough variation to keep the player wanting more.
American McGee’s Alice proved popular enough to inspire a toy line from Milo’s Workshop. These limited movement action figures featured Alice with the Cheshire Cat, the Card Guards, the Jabberwocky, the Caterpillar, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mad Hatter, and the White Rabbit. The quality is similar to Todd McFarlane’s toy line, and were released from 2000 through 2004, and continue to have some value on the collector market.
It’s been over 10 years since Electronic Arts released the game that gave us all a disturbing insight into the mind of former id Software level designer American McGee. That’s right, American McGee’s Alice was released in October, 2000, so those who remember buying it on its release date, should take a moment to realize time is marching on. For those who never played this classic PC game, pay your respects to those of us who did. After all, we’re probably Elders of the gaming community at this point. With the sequel finally being released, do yourself a favor and play the original. Your Elders demand it.