American McGee's Alice
a game by Rogue Entertainment
There's definitely something weird going on. American McGee is not your typical game designer. He hasn't got a beard for a start. He's even got short hair. He tends to look at you when he speaks and not mumble into a coke can. Some might even consider him good-looking. Truly, this is all very strange, yet none of it is as weird as the game he's currently showing us.
American McGee's Alice is no children's story. As reported in this adaptation takes place after the original two Lewis Carroll books and stars a rather paranoid, almost psychotic Alice who begins the game insanely rocking back and forth inside a loony bin. Wonderland has been transformed into a dark twisted version of its former self, thus mirroring Alice's own state of mind, and nothing - absolutely nothing - is as it should be.
The question is: why has a man previously involved in the creation of fairly straightforward first-person perspective shooters such as Doom and Quake branched into something so different? McGee himself offers the answer: "The idea of doing Alice In Wonderland came out of my frustration of having done Doom, Doom II, Quake and Quake II, and feeling that it was all just the same stuff. You know - space marine versus space alien on a space station using space weapons. I definitely wanted to get away from the classic machine gun, rocket launcher, grenade launcher kind of thing - it just seemed a little tired."
McGee continues: "I had a couple of thoughts about games where players could walk up and down ceilings and walls, and then this popped into my head."
So, the original story was never an on-going fascination from childhood?
"As a child I read the fiction a few times, hut I've never considered a version before now. Since I was, say, six or seven years old I've never really thought about it. I actually made a point of not watching the Disney version until very recently."
Thank God for that. Nothing against Disney's happy-go-lucky singalong cartoon, but what we have here is far more interesting. Experiencing this Alice is a veritable third-person perspective trip through anguish and despair. As McGee explains: "Essentially what Alice is doing is fighting for her own psychological redemption. All the characters represent different bits of her emotions that still haven't been dealt with and the locations actually map out the different fears in her mind that she's got to face - pain and suffering and so forth. She's got to save Wonderland and save herself from the trauma that she's suffered."
This is not a game full of singing oysters. In short, this is the closest anyone has ever come to the original philosophy behind Lewis Carroll's books. So, prepare yourself for a very disturbing experience, and as American says: "This is definitely one for the adults."
The ultimate goal of Alice's quest in Wonderland is to find out why she has become this kind of psychologically screwed up teenager. Assisting you for most of your journey through Wonderland is the Cheshire Cat. He naturally assumes the role of your guide in much the same way that Navi did for Link in Zelda on the N64. Unfortunately, trusting everything he says is going to lead you into hot water. So, another part of your on-going mind-bending predicament involves assessing whether the information he gives you is even slightly helpful.
Other characters are easier to work out - they usually just try to kill you. Yet instead of just chopping off your head for the sheer hell of it, there have very profound reasons. McGee again emphasises the psychological storyline: "Each one of the boss characters represents one of the major emotions she is fighting against, or fighting to resolve. For example, the Hatter is anger, the Jabberwocky is fear and the Queen is sadness. She is essentially breaking down emotional barriers in her mind."
On screen, the bosses are absolutely massive. They tower above Alice and show all the devilish malice you'd expect from what are basically Alice's worst nightmares. Even the more insignificant creatures in the game carry an aura of deadly mischief about them. What's more, the denizens of Wonderland know how to gang up and attack en mass. Groups of enemies will contain leaders who will coordinate assaults. Apparently the AI routines were inspired by a game called FAKK2 that did fairly well in America but has yet to be released here.
When released, Alice will feature more than 30 different characters, including Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the March Hare, plus characters that McGee and Rogue Entertainment have concocted themselves.
With such a well-known brand and characters at their disposal, American and Rogue are aiming for a mass-market appeal as opposed to a hardcore-gamer audience. There will be plenty of control aids for the novice gamer, including an auto-jump feature when Alice is close to a drop, as well as arrows that point her in the right direction. More experienced third-person adventurers can forego the stabilisers and dive straight in. But make no mistake about it, even though the Quake III engine is at the heart of the game, the large majority of Alice has come straight from the Super Mario Bros school of platform survival.
There is plenty of blasting action, but Alice is primarily intended for those who want to think - this is a brain game in every sense. "All our puzzles are going to be environmental puzzles and jump-based puzzles," says American"
Essentially, this means that the banal 'correct key for the correct door' puzzle routine is not what the game is all about. Subtlety is the key: if you walk onto a giant-sized chess set, you become a piece and have to work your way across to the other side of the board without being taken. In fact, the closest you'll get to unlocking a door, is talking to a door.
The platform-jumping puzzle situations are more your standard fare, but with floors likely to trail off into swirling, fractal nothingness for no apparent reason, there's scant relief from the game's overriding warped sadism. The end gameplay breakdown is set at 70 per cent action and 30 per cent puzzle, so there's, erm, plenty of shooting to be done.
The dozen or so weapons Alice finds on her adventure are varied and spectacular. There's an Ice Wand that freezes and shatters creatures, and there's something called a Jack (in the box) Bomb that shoots out and explodes. Alice also owns some lethal playing cards that can be flicked out like flying razors so that they cut, slash, slice and dice her enemies. The version of the game we were being shown was quite graphic, with rivers of blood spouting profusely from wounds. So, was this one element of Quake III that would remain?
"Er, actually they've gone a little crazy with this part," states a bemused McGee. ''They've just got the blood in there. It's a little bit over the top but we are going to try and have comic gore, nothing too gratuitous because it really doesn't serve the story very well."
Second That Emotion
Another of the games that McGee cites as an inspiration for Alice is Valve's Half-Life. He explains why: "In the story we're trying to evoke emotions in the player. Half-Life had twists like that where you feel an emotion rather than just killing stuff. We want you to feel anger, remorse or guilt if you don't do the right thing."
One way in which McGee and co are hoping to capture players' emotions is by including plenty of cut-scenes w ith a decent script. One scene showing Alice running away from a giant boulder as it follows her down a tunnel was even shown to Steven Spielberg who allegedly lapped it up, saying it was like watching Indy in a skirt.
Another more interesting way to evoke player emotion has been achieved by continually changing Alice's appearance. Most of the time Alice will look pretty pissed off, but that will change depending on what's happening around her. Sometimes the miserable cow even cheers up a bit, although generally speaking her spiralling descent into total madness becomes more and more etched into her features as the game goes on.
There is the odd occasion when she'll actually change into something entirely different altogether. We won't say anymore than that because it will spoil the effect, but rest assured it's something other than a chess piece.
To further enhance Alice's character she will sporadically talk to herself and to the player, encouraging you to feel as though you are an inherent part of what is going on in Wonderland. American does not want the player to perceive themself as a disembodied hand leading an angry teenager home...
The Ultimate Sacrifice
The inclusion of the Quake III engine automatically conjures up images of a manic multiplayer game with Mad Hatters, White Rabbits, Queens and Alices coming out of your ears. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Alice will be a single-player journey only. So, please explain yourself, Mr McGee...
"When you focus on multiplayer and single player at the same time, you take away from one or the other, or both. A game like Quake III or Unreal Tournament is going to he able to provide a better multiplayer experience than we're able to do, so we're going to stick to single player."
At least he's honest about it. How many developers would be willing to simply tag on a multiplayer option at the last minute to the detriment of proper game testing and bug fixing? Quite a few, we'd wager.
All things considered, there is no doubt that Alice is one of the most original game designs we've seen for a long time. But is McGee worried that he is effectively messing about with a classic children's fairytale? With his involvement in the Doom games, will some people see Alice as an irresponsible aberration? "I was worried about that in the beginning. I was concerned about taking it and kind of subverting it. I'm concerned about violence in games and whether or not people are going to perceive this as some kind of bastardisation of the fiction.
"So far there has been little negative response. Literally one person has written an email to me with an article that was negative. Personally, I feel that this is actually a truer version of Alice In Wonderland than Disney ever created."
As far as we're concerned there really is no argument there. What remains to be seen is whether the warped ideas and the game-play can blend together, if so, we are looking at what could be one of the most enthralling games of all time. On the other hand, could Alice be just too psychedelic for its own good? We will let you know as soon as the review code enters our own little Wonderland this November.
A Diseased Land...
Each of the five areas in Wonderland contains three levels. Here's a quick taster of what you can expect in each...
The Vale Of Tears
The playground of Alice's youth is dying. The first area contains a decaying city called Pandemonium and the Fortress Of Doors, which is a maze-like area where Alice has to talk to doorknobs to And her way through. Once beyond the doors Alice shrinks to the size of an acid tab and has to make her way through a seemingly idyllic forest to the Pool Of Tears.
In the Forest Of Shrooms Alice gets to try out some of the local hallucinogens. Things get even trippier in the Caterpillar Garden as Alice attempts to avoid the smoke from the Caterpillar's hookah. The Anal level, called the Centipede's Lair, sees our tripped-out heroine battle against an evil centipede for a giant mushroom.
Mad Hatter's Area
Plotting her way through the Chess Village leads to the Psychedelic Funhouse that resonates with incessant mad laughter. Here Alice must contend with a hall of mirrors and seven years' bad luck. A Alice's luck doesn't completely desert her she'll arrive at the Mad Hatter's Castle Just in time for dinner...
Land Of Fire And Brimstone
This is the area where the platform puzzles hot up. Alice will need her hopping skills to avoid the flames in the Volcano Village Incline. After that the Fire Imps should be avoided at all costs in the Citadel Of Fire. When Alice finally reaches The Lair Of The Jabberwocky she must kill it to enter the final area of the game.
This Is a nightmare labyrinth. Ultimately Alice enters the Queen's Keep where she must face the final test and vanquish her fears once and for all.
2018-12-04 American McGee's Alice game added.