Ginger Nuts of Horror
thus the Cheshire Cat becomes a kind of mangey, gangrel sage
Games about mental illness and depression are becoming increasingly vogue these days, thanks in large to the efflorescence of subject allowed for by the independent market. There is no onus on video games to be “action packed” or particularlty violent; to conform to the templates or standards enshrined by historical markets anymore. Thus, video games are becoming more and more a medium of inner expression, of art.
Games such as Dear Esther, The Binding of Isaac, Braid, I'm Scared, Tick-Tock, Fran-Bow, Undertale et al all serve to subvert what players have come to expect from certain genres and, indeed, from the format itself. In terms of story, subject, structure and even mechanics, they are highly experimental, strange and distorted affairs, not perfect by any stretch of the imagination; often deeply flawed by the technical and financial constraints they are working under, but draing to tread waters that video games have barely dipped a toe into before.
American McGee's Alice was the first video game I ever played that included mental health as its primary theme and subject: a fairly obscure but increasingly cult title from 1999, Alice serves as both a sequel to and adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
No longer a child, but a young woman, Alice finds herself in near comatose state at the game's beginning, a ward of the hideous Rutledge Asylum following the death of her family in a housefire of which she was the only survivor.
As her mental and emotional condition has fractured and dissolved, so too has Wonderland; the realm of her inner fantasies; the psycho-scape of her childhood, become a twisted, polluted, horrific nightmare, familiar lands and characters now manifesting elements of her personality, each vying to survive or to control what has become of their land.
As Alice, the player must guide her through the realms of her psyche, confronting the diseased elements that gnaw at its roots or that swell throughout like cancer and finding those scattered remnants that represent, for example, courage, self worth etc.
The game was and remains an aesthetic masterpiece; whilst the then-revolutionary Quake 3 engine the game utilises has aged somewhat, the style and design of the game is still not only pungent and evocative but also unique: there are elements of the original Wonderland's feyness, here, but shot through with and contrasted by starkly disturbing and horrific elements, from tendrils or red raw flesh that worm their way through every stage (originating from the truly monstrous Queen of Hearts, who is the very personification of Alice's madness) to realms that echo universally experienced nightmares: floors cracking apart and splitting beneath Alice's feet, revealing a swirling delirium of light and colour, fog-bound veils and mires whose depressive qualities and ineffable sadness evoke genuine emotion in the player. Environmentally, more than anything, the game is a marvel: every realm, every stage, metaphorically represents some element of Alice's diseased mind, but this is not made overt: there is very little dialogue in which it is explained what, for example, the Mad Hatter's clockwork realm represents, or the nightmarish Fungiferous Forest, or the monochrome “Pale Realm;” that is largely left up to the player, with only hints and suggestions as to what might be. In that, the game is fairly sophisticated in terms of its story-telling; rather than bogging itself down in needless exposition, it realies upon imagery and visuals to both evoke mythology and add layers to its narrative (the Queen of Heart's realm at the game's climax is particularly and starkly distressing; a great fortress of flesh and bone, originating from the Queen herself, who sits at its heart as the very culmination of Alice's insanity).
As a game, in purely technical terms, it is no great shakes; nothing revolutionary; a decent, well composed 3D platformer, with a great deal of variety in terms of gameplay, some beautifully set out levels and situations; some well conceived puzzles and combat, but nothing that cannot be found better implemented in other titles.
Like many games of its ilk, the “game” elements are almost tertiary; it is a work that is intent on expressing itself and evoking emotion: that is its principle aim. Thus, it works far harder trying to disturb or unsettle the player with the revelation of a particular image or the occurrence of particular situations rather than the smoothness of its gameplay, the composition of its stages etc. It is not a technical exercise, but an artistic one, and, in that, it is a remarkable success.
Nor is it the kind of game that seeks to make the player jump out of their skin; it is not a typical “horror” game, nor is it marketed as such; its quality is one of disturbance and distress rather than shocks and scares: it revels in making its audience uncomfortable, in dragging them deeper and deeper into a sense of being fractured inside; a mind on the very verge of total collapse; of taking extremely familiar characters, images and situations and infusing them with a kind of horrific wit, thus the Cheshire Cat becomes a kind of mangey, gangrel sage and Alice's guide through Wonderland, peppering every appearance with abstruse epigrams (“Only a few find the way, some don't recognise it when they do. Some don't ever want to.”),
the Duchess becomes a cannibalistic ogress; a kind of consumptive, domineering parent figure, the Jabberwock a flaming, partially mechanical living furnace; the incarnation of Alice's guilt over her parent's death and her own survival. Presiding over all is the Queen of Hearts; Alice's living, sentient insanity; her own self-hatred but, interestingly, also her adult self, that she is so reluctant to embrace or become.
The game works on multiple levels and layers of interpretation; on the one hand, it is stylistically interesting, solidly produced platformer. On another, it is an abstract, symbolic examination of a broken mind, its fractured elements turning on one another in murderous, sadistic self loathing. Deeper still, there is a certain metaphysics implied in the situation; the very stuff of Alice's madness; her tortured imagination, also being the medium of her self-redemption and of her evolution into adulthood; the Hell through which she puts herself is a necessary one, for all its dangers, for all its horror, its despair, without it, she would remain in a state of comatose passivity, unable to cope with or even face what happened to her parents and the life she is mourning for. In that, the game almost celebrates its own darkness, revels in its disturbia. It is in advocacy of experiencing trauma, of the transcended states that can result, and, in that, a fine example of all that is best not only in video games, but horrific and disturbing material in general.
On a purely personal level, the game came about at a point in my own life where I was experiencing what would later come to be diagnosed as severe depression, social anxiety and myriad other psychological issues; a state of uncertainty and confusion that the game echoes and explores: along with various examples of media too numerous to list, Alice is one I attribute with helping to provide virtual arenas and contexts for me to work through these problems; a means of expressing them through the filter of other eyes, another's imagination. Certainly not the first example of a video game to explore issues of mental illness, madness etc, but certainly one of the more prominent at this point in time, especially in mainstream markets. Echoes of Alice can be found in numerous works in more recent years, primarily in the independent market whose works it is highly redolent of in more ways than one.
A profound experience, carrying the player through a journey that is as much emotional as it is aesthetic or philosophical, and still a sincere joy, even over a decade later.
GEORGE DANIEL LEA