A Journey Through ALICE: Madness Returns

A Journey Through ALICE: Madness Returns

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All's well that ends well. Or so the saying goes. But sometimes, an ending is just the beginning of the next chapter. - [Teddy] Then what happened? - [Gordie] What do you mean? - I mean... what happened? - What do you mean 'what happened?', that's the end! - How can that be the end, what kind of an ending is that? - In American McGee's Alice, we fought alongside our young protagonist who, locked up and catatonic in the Rutledge mental asylum, ventured through the depths of Wonderland, the dreamscape-id-machine in which manifestations of her follies, fantasies and innermost fears led lives seemingly on their own.

We met old friends, from the Lewis Carroll novels, and fought alongside new ones, battled against sinister adversaries and their totalitarian armies, and eventually confronted and defeated the Queen of Hearts, the ultimate manifestation of Alice’s intrusive thoughts and mental illness. Alice, a game that grapples with dark and mature themes and pulls no punches when it comes to visceral and graphic depictions of violence, concluded on a surprisingly bright, hopeful, and positive note. After the Queen is defeated, Wonderland is restored to its former, uncorrupted lush beauty, and our heroine steps, cat-in-arm, smile-on-her-lips, across the threshold of the Asylum, into a new, and better life.

Her demons seem defeated for good, and it almost suggests that the “struggle” is one that can be won for good, like a game of chess with a clear beginning and a just as clearly defined winning state. But that...is not really how this works, is it? As anyone who’s lived through any form of mental health struggle, mental illness or long-term trauma in their own lives knows, the things Alice confronts and aims to overcome are not as simple and straightforward, (thunder cracking) they’re not plain logical problems that can just be "fixed," like tightening a screw on a leaky tap.

It is, in most cases, a lifelong dance with inner demons that will, in some form or another, always be a part of you. For better or for worse. It never quite goes away.

So it’s no surprise that sooner or later for Alice, The Madness Returns. (distorted screeching intensifies) (Monsters of the Week Intro theme) Alright, before we continue, a thank you to Honey for sponsoring the production of this video. So let me take a minute to show you what they have to offer to you! I’ve had Honey installed in my browser for a long time now, because it’s just neat. Basically, every time you shop something online, fill up your cart and eventually go to the checkout – if the site offers a promo-code field, with Honey installed, quite frequently it pops up and says “Hi, I might have some coupons for you if you want!” and if you let, Honey skims its database for any available coupon and automatically applies the best discount it can find for you. It takes only a few seconds and works completely on its own. Instead of skimming promo-code websites manually, wasting lots of time and most of the time not finding anything, Honey takes care of that process for you automatically.

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or simply follow the link I’ve put in the description. So.. thanks a lot again to our sponsor and for your attention, and now, I hope you enjoy the rest of the video! (clock ticking) (dreamy/pensive music) Our tale begins in hypnosis. Alice, now 19-years-of age and living in a Home for Wayward Youth, aka, an orphanage in late 19th century London, re-enters and explores Wonderland, guided by her psychiatrist Dr. Bumby, who uses hypnosis to help his child patients “forget” memories, ostensibly, especially the painful and traumatic ones. - [Bumby] Charlie! Your pa was hung for killing your ma who beat you.

Let's... forget that, shall we? The past.. is dead, Charlie. - On her cerebral visit to Wonderland, it seems idyllic and peaceful at first, but her thoughts quickly turn dark and violent. Something is corrupting the peace. - [Alice] Pollution.. corruption... it's killing me!

Wonderland is destroyed! My mind is in ruins! - Alice’s Doctor, who bears a curious resemblance to Siegmund Freud, insists that she forgets and suppresses her past at all costs. While she is not so fond of the idea. - [Bumby] Memory is a curse, more of than a blessing. - [Alice] So you've said, many times! And - - [Bumby] And I will say again: The past must be paid for! Now, before our next session, collect those pills from our High Street chemist. - Very well. - After the therapy session, we finally step into her shoes, stroll through the Orphanage and venture into the dark, atmospheric and moody Victorian London, where eventually a white– -no, not a rabbit, this time- -a cat beckons Alice to chase it through the alleys of the city.

- Hello Puss. Puss, Puss, Puss, Puss! Don't be afraid! - It doesn’t take long until it gets seriously creepy, when Alice is overcome by what appears to be a hallucination, with sinister creatures emerging from the darkest depths of Wonderland and stalking her into the real world and eventually forcing her “into the looking glass” world again. (earth collapsing) (dreamy music) (ethereal explosion) Ahhh...home again.

It’s like putting on an old suit that still fits, literally, just with a few blood stains here and there. Our old friend Cheshire Cat greets us after our arrival, just like in old times. - [Alice] Blasted cat! Don't try to bully me! I'm very much on edge! - [Cheshire Cat] Purrrrrfect. When you're not on edge, you're taking up too much space! - But the apparent serenity of Wonderland, just like in her hypnosis, is short-lived, as it’s being corrupted and shattered by The Infernal Train, an entity that, for reasons Alice can’t quite place yet, leaves a trail of ruin and devastation in its wake. The Cat confirms that this train is not of this world, but in fact an outside source that threatens to obliterate and annihilate the very fabric of Wonderland, and so he urges us to do what you gotta do in therapy.

Explore and face up to your past, which in this context means we gotta travel through Wonderland once again to seek out and confront old friends and foes, to learn about the true origin of the Train and, hopefully, to stop it. This is where the actual game, the core gameplay loop, starts. We jump and skip across the lush, green slopes of the Vale of Tears, yep, and learn Alice’s basic movesets. Running, jumping, and- -Well, it is, by now, an established law of nature, that any platformer’s game-feel will immediately increase threefold, the moment you add a double-jump. So just like Prodeus succeeded with flying colors when improving Doom’s legendary two-barrel Super-Shotgun by turning its Super-Shotgun into a viscerally satisfying FOUR-BARREL monstrosity, Madness Returns makes Alice’s graceful and naturally flowing movement feel even more smooth and satisfying by giving her a double-triple-quadruple jump, twisting and pirouetting through the air with sparkly sprinkling, butterflies and flower petals, followed by a gently sliding skirt-parachute descent to the ground. Very much in line with the aesthetic of the beloved Disney Classic.

- [Alice] OoooOOohoo! (flap) Whoof. Replaying this game, more than ten years after I last touched it, - Replaying this game, more than ten years after I last touched it, I was surprised by how good, how smooth, how well-polished, and how kickass the gameplay still felt. Traversing the rich and colorful Wonderland with Alice walking, sprinting, jumping, flying, gliding, whooping and swooping, dancing and spinning around feels as magical girl as it gets, while controlling overall precisely and accurately enough to never be in the way of the many, many platforming challenges this game puts you through from start to finish. I base this, in part, on the fact that I’m usually a mouse-and-keyboard guy, who, nevertheless, played the whole game on a controller and never had any significant struggles throughout the entire experience, even in the later stages when the parcour becomes a good bit more convoluted. Now, I’ve thought a lot about where to place this game. Because it inherits a lot of DNA from the first game, which was a hybrid between combat-centric action game and early 3D platformer, just as much as it is, very much a 3rd person action adventure of its time, derived from the Ubisoft Prince of Persia era.

In the style of the genre, platforming challenges- -often introduced with a panoramic dolly shot through the current stage and sprinkled with dexterity and lateral thinking challenges to get to the goal- -regularly take turns with arenas in which a predefined mob of scripted enemies is thrown at the player. Yes, there are occasionally stray enemies encountered throughout the platforming sections, but the overall rhythm is that the platforming segments and fighting arenas are largely structurally separated. This is different from the original Alice, which was far more structured like a classic First Person Shooter of that time: (loud bang) featuring corridors and hallways filled with legions of enemies you had to fight through, tightly interlocked with the platforming challenges. And while the original Alice was far closer to games of the classic era Doom in many aspects, when it comes to secrets, it's actually Madness Returns that turns this staple of the genre up to 11. Because while the first game did feature the one or the other hidden gimmick or weapon it wasn't nearly as prominent a feature as it is in Madness Returns since the sequel is positively littered with secrets all across the game hidden behind optional platforming, fighting and lateral thinking challenges, while also feeling far more in line with contemporary game design standards of its time.

It more organically weaves those secrets into its overall flow and game-design, by hiding them behind some of the game’s core mechanics- –one of which is the infamous “Drink Me” bottle that shrinks Alice to the size of a toad. In Madness Returns, we get this ability pretty early on– -just like Obelix who fell into the magic potion as a baby– -permanently; at the push of a button, Alice can shrink herself on the spot to make tiny crawlspaces and keyholes, the main guardian of secrets, instantly accessible, as well as gain Shrink-Vision that allows us to see hidden messages and platforms all across Wonderland. So it’s an interesting cross-breed that is clearly a descendant of the first game, while successfully making its formula work in a new, more contemporary framework. Alice’s arsenal of tools and weapons, for instance, is designed with that same dichotomy as in the first game.

Next to the legendary Vorpal-blade, Alice’s primary melee weapon with which she viscerally slashes her foes into pieces, common household items and playthings from the toybox– -some of them even making a re-appearance from the first game– -are repurposed into regular instruments of warfare. Like here’s a wonderful early example and a nice re-enactment of my earliest encounters with the game’s weaponry: The Pepper-Grinder. Not long after entering Wonderland, we encounter the first on our list of people to meet on our journey: The Duchess. In the first game, she was a major boss encounter which ended with us blowing enough pepper into her nostrils to make her...

- [Duchess] Achoo! (explosion, splatter) head explode. This time around- –yeah she’s fine, it wasn’t a permanent decapitation, no worries- -we meet her in her cozy little cottage-core kitchen, far more amicably than during our last run-in, and she ironically lends us her Pepper Grinder as our first distance weapon. And so I thought, "ah that’s cute, a pepper grinder," "probably makes us puff some cutesy clouds of pepper-dust into the air" "to disorient enemies or something, very cute idea indeed."

"Let's give it a spin." But it... (machine gun sounds) I-I was genuinely floored when I tried this weapon for the first time, because contrary to expectation, this boomstick feels like a regular high-caliber hip-fired machine gun, with the milling-lever inventively functioning as a gatling hand-crank.

It’s so loud and juicy and powerful and oomphy that you forget in a heartbeat that it’s not an MG 34 you’re wielding here. It turns the combat into a real...grind though. (badumm, tss) Madness Returns pulls off this dichotomy– -to transform the cute and homely into something gritty, dark and visceral without it feeling corny– -with surprising ease, which has a lot to do with good game-feel and incredibly punchy sound-design.

Smacking down the hobby-horse as a war-mallet, (loud smack) shooting exploding tea-bombs from your teakettle-grenade-launcher and blocking incoming projectiles with your Mary-Poppins umbrella feels and sounds damn satisfying. (crunchy explosion sounds) Shots and impacts are acoustically mixed for maximum loudness and to sensorally amplify impacts, the game uses 300-like short instances of momentary slow-down, which feels just absolutely kickass. I've been using that word a lot, but makes sense; it fits. The Pepper-Grinder is also tied to one of the cutest and most fun secret-mechanics of the game: the flying snouts.

They’re quite often well hidden and announce their presence with a recurring grunt. (oink oink) So everytime you hear this, you start scouting every inch of the board in search of the hidden snout. Then you have to shoot it chock full with pepper to bring it to bring it to sneeze, and by that reveal a secret. It’s neat and clever and a fun diversion all the way through. And to me, this satisfying game-feel and constant alteration of moment-to-moment gameplay challenge is what carried the game across the finish-line, even if it’s often said to overstay its welcome a bit. But we’ll get to that later.

I want to share an anecdote to emphasize just how good the sound-design of this game is, overall, not just in regards to weapons and combat encounters. See, whenever I record footage for a game, I usually either dim the music to barely audible or turn it completely off, so that when I cut the video, I can use the game’s footage with game-sound in the background without music tracks clashing with the background-music track of the video, right? So despite absolutely loving the wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack that was co-composed once again by Ex Nine Inch Nails member Chris Vrenna, I played the game without any music and you know what? I’ve never noticed that anything was missing. The soundscapes throughout Wonderland and London are so dense and always create the perfect ambiance, from eerie and ominous to lush and vibrant to hectic and pulse-pounding, that it worked, completely on its own merits. Never did it feel empty or hollow. Which truly speaks for itself. (machine clank) I often think that about a lot of modern horror movies.

So many films rely on non-diegetic elements, like music and percussion to carry the entire spook factor and scariness, but if you’d put it on mute, it would fall flat. (someone banging very loudly on 10 different metal pots at once) A good piece of horror media must work standing on its own two feet, without non-diegetic crutches that are not part of the universe portrayed on screen. And Alice, which is, by all means a horror game through and through, pulls that off admirably! (piano tone) After our little run-in with the duchess, the next stop on our journey to all the old faces of Wonderland is the Hatter’s Domain, which, after we defeated and incapacitated him in an epic boss battle during the events of the first game, was overtaken over by March Hare and Dormouse who turned the place into a hellish steampunk tea-factory and suspended pay of all the workers and EXPLOITED THEIR LABOR for the production of the infernal train. - Payday for good workers has been postponed indefinitely! - If I didn’t have enough of an incentive to villainize the train, as the embodiment of evil, NOW I do, and for real! Nobody exploits the labor of MY dodos, not on MY watch! (ratatatata) Up here in the flying factory-islands, we jump and fight our way through cogs and gears, molten metal streams and vast skyscapes and eventually find the dismantled Hatter in the garbage disposal, where he bids us to venture out and collect his lost limbs to re-assemble him if we want his help. - [Alice] Will you help me in return? - [Mad Hatter] Cross my heart if I had one. Find my limbs and toss them into the chute.

Machines will do the rest. Be on your way now, that's a good girl! - Over time the game gradually introduces new enemies to us, such as the locally-manufactured Eyepots, as well as the Madcaps that present the first opponents that require a more tactical approach, forcing us to avoid their strengths and exploit their weaknesses to defeat them. (explosive splash) Now, one of the most obvious things to notice here is that Alice is not wearing her signature blue-white Gothic-version of the original Lewis Carroll dress design but a flashy new Steampunk Gothic Lolita attire fittingly dubbed Steamdress, which is...probably one of my favorite features of the game. Getting a new dress for every major region, all unique in tone and style fitting to the setting, and all seriously iconic cosplay bait. Like, I said in the previous video that American McGee’s interpretation of Alice is, (old-timey radio voice) ... as if Cardcaptor Sakura went full emo and trader her Mahou Shojo uniform for threads from Hot Topic.

- And if that’s so, then this iteration of Alice is the living proof that It's Not Just A Phase Mom. If you’re Goth, you’re Goth for Life. We all know this, so you better go All Out! (ratatata smack smack schmack) I have long been of the opinion that there’s far too little actual alternative subculture representation in video games, so little in fact, that every title that accurately depicts facets of it (Ministry - Bloodlines playing) ♫ How did I make this choice? ♫ ends up on my "Most Beloved Titles of All Time" list, immediately. Playing Madness Returns for the first time and realizing that every. new. chapter. will. yield. you. a. new. kickass. outfit was one of the most tantalizing hooks I could imagine.

Every Magical Girl knows that it’s the attire that makes a truly powerful heroine! The devs were certainly extremely proud of that aspect and put a lot of time and heart into it, which is probably the key reason the main menu sports a “Pose Alice in the Dress You Want” simulator. And I’m sure, since it was a video game that, once again, introduced a lot of traditionally non-gaming inclined players to video games solely on the merit of its distinctively different aesthetic flair and narrative... Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if it served as a great entry drug and incentive for a lot of video game fans to explore Goth, Emo, Punk, Alternative and various substyles of Lolita fashion through it as well, and maybe get some gender feelings here and there. I know a few people. (wind howling) (Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines main theme playing) Like, already in this first larger region, and not just regarding the dresses, the game oozes so much aesthetic beauty and gorgeousness.

I’m one of those people who sometimes just takes a stroll in a game and deliberately walks instead of running just to take it all in and I so appreciate this feature in Madness Returns, because it litters the player with breathtakingly framed vistas every step of the way. When I’m trailing across cogs and gears past moody, cloudy skies with floating factory-islands in the distance, glide through the aurora-illuminated antarctic regions of Tundraful, step across the ocean’s floor into underwater dwellings dressed as a mermaid, when I’m ascending the peak of the Oriental Grove in front of an ominous kanji-raining sky dressed in a kimono-inspired Silk Maiden Gown, when I enter the dark and ominous remnants of the medieval burg of the Queen of Hearts in this kickass card-game-themed attire (my personal favorite by the way) Every step of the way I find myself just taking it in, serenely strolling through the scenery because it’s just so damn beautiful. The game is now over a decade old, but its gorgeous locales keep taking my breath away. Despite two new console generations in between allowing us massively higher amounts of polygons to render and incredible mega shaders and raytracing and whatnot, this game is one of my favorite examples of how aesthetics will always triumph over pure graphical fidelity. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

At the end of the Hatter’s domain, we’re left with nothing in hand really because during the final showdown (which surprisingly doesn’t end in a giant mecha fight as it suggested, but with their construction just embarrassingly falling apart. I really wonder if the mecha fight was initially planned and then scrapped sometime in development when they realized it was too much to pull off). Anyway, in this cutscene, the hatter ends up, um, actually killing Dormouse and March Hare in their attempt to attack us with their giant Mech. Yeah, not just here, I definitely got some mild Yoko Taro vibes at times in this game. So now, sad over their demise that he caused, the Hatter ends up not being in the mind to keep his word and share the information we need with us, because he’s obsessed with holding one final tea party with his dead comrades, before the whole factory gets flooded with boiling tea and everybody supposedly drowns or boils to death.

The End. Or well, not really, because we come to back in “The Real World” washed up on the London Pier, where we seek out Nan Sharpe, Alice’s former nanny, in the brothel she now works at, as a prostitute. We enter the place and find her sobbing on the floor after a violent confrontation with her Pimp. Alice, fierce as she is, sees this and immediately intervenes and (smack) just as immediately gets knocked out by him before he sets the whole place on fire.

Out cold, quite literally as it turns out, Alice gets sucked back into Wonderland yet again, and descends like a comet into the icy depths of Tundraful. (dreamy music) Madness Returns is to American McGee’s Alice what The Lord of the Rings is to The Hobbit. Where the original, Alice, was a tale that kept its scope small, contained and comparably homely, merely brushing on the notion that we’re on a journey of epic proportions, Madness Returns goes all out on all channels.

The presentation and aesthetic is, as I’ve mentioned, across the board opulent and grand, and the visuals regularly invoke a feeling of vastness far more than the previous game. Which has as much to do with technical capabilities of the time, as well as with pure artistic prowess that comes to play here. Narratively, more than anything, the game’s structure– -this back and forth between Wonderland and London, with the two places eventually bleeding into each other– -tries to tell a tale of equally more epic proportions. More than just the small, self-contained inner struggle of the protagonist, we’re introduced to a greater cadre of characters that all played a key-role in Alice’s life outside Wonderland and in the central mystery and McGuffin of Alice’s quest to uncover the truth behind the fire that killed her family. Like her alcoholic caretaker Mrs. Witless who used to extort money from her,

Mr. Radcliffe, the Liddel’s family lawyer who, weirdly enough, stole Alice’s stuffed rabbit from her during her time in the orphanage, and most importantly her Psychiatrist Dr. Bumby and his secret role in the whole affair. Each of these characters has a corresponding chapter in Wonderland that is symbolically tied to their significance in the mystery, and at the end of which we meet one of the Wonderland-characters of the first game to unveil another shard of the grander mosaic. Like how the antarctic ice of Tundraful leads us to meet Mock Turtle on his pirate ship, with which we escape to the bottom of the ocean; ending up in dreamy underwater landscapes, traversing a sunken shanty-town and eventually the theater where we meet the Carpenter, the Walrus and the Oysters from the original tale, and since we’re dressed in a siren costume reminiscent of Mermaids, the whole region thematically fits the the real-world brothel named “The Mangled Mermaid” where Alice’s old Nanny now lives and works. At the end of the chapter, when the Infernal Train ravages everything once more, the Caprenter sends us on the trail of the Caterpillar, who resides on the mountain of the Mysterious East, which we have to ascend while allying ourselves with the oppressed origami mantises, battling against an army of Samurai Wasps in duels that feel positively Kurosawa-esque. The theme of this landscape is tied to the Liddel-family’s lawyer who was obsessed with the culture of the far east, which influenced and represents Alice’s unconscious connection to him.

By making our way through the bits and pieces of the linearly structured story, we gradually uncover the...truth behind the central mystery, piece by piece, key by key. So, aside from introducing a greater scope of lore and mystery, compared to the original game, the story and themes of Madness Returns have also shifted the emotional focus in a different direction. Which is neither objectively better or worse, it’s just aiming for something different than the previous game. Where the first game had its focus on Alice’s struggle with her inner demons, the goal to overcome the perils of her trauma and mental illness in an allegorical odyssey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, in Madness Returns these demons of the old tale have been accepted as integral parts of Alice’s inner landscape; still weird, unruly and often annoyingly hard to communicate with, but nobody’s been erased to make things better or anything. The first game was about understanding how each piece of the mosaic of Wonderland is an innate part of Alice’s identity.

Madness Returns focuses more on an external threat to Wonderland, embodied by the Infernal Train, sporting a cataclysmic scorched earth philosophy and effect on the world. Though Alice doesn’t yet understand it, the train is a manifestation of the havoc caused by a handful of people in positions of power over Alice, who exploit their social dominance over her to mistreat, abuse, and prey on her in some form or another. The contrasting themes used for this are clear and binary: things that are natural, soft, gentle, organic, flowing, as well as the whimsical, the joyful, the mystical, the fantastical, and the weird– -that is Wonderland, untouched purity, innocence, Life. On the other side are things that are artificial, metallic, hard, cold and sharp, like the world out there, the machines, the engines, the smog, and looming over everything the suffocating harshness of oppressive Industrial Revolution architecture and technology, Death. I have multiple friends who are big fans of the first game, who are personally not fond of this shifted focus, but to speak for myself, I never had a problem with it. The change in emotional emphasis feels like a natural evolution.

It’d be sad if, after putting in all the hard work in the first game, we’d just start at square one and fight the same old demons again. After all, there are a lot of external elements that can contribute to, and often worsen, our mental health significantly. Stuff that’s really hard to even understand and often takes a long time to figure out for oneself. The shift in focus is fine; Alice has grown up and new things to deal with.

It makes sense. You only have to make sure to...stick the landing. (Bubble Bobble Ghost Theme) When I was playing through Alice this time around, something interesting happened to me which actually made me think of the way we culturally engage with video games these days.

I had made my way through the Hatter’s Domain, traversed the Deluded Depths, had ascended the Oriental Grove and met the pupated Caterpillar and, after leaving the gaol made my way across the beautifully abstract card bridge towards the Queen of Hearts’ domain, fighting zombified card guards and running away from the pulse-pounding chase-sequences of the invincible Executioner– -and I’d been having a fantastic time, all the way through. Then I shared this on Twitter, the fact that I’m having a blast with it, and some people commented on it, with someone mentioning that “The game was just a bit too long, other than that it’s great” kind of message. And then suddenly I remembered old reviews of the game that kept criticizing it for being too long and repetitive.

And the weird thing was that, after hearing this and then reading up on old reviews, I eventually got back into the game and suddenly I started becoming impatient too. For the first time since I started my playthrough but pretty quickly. Suddenly I felt like the game was really stretching out its welcome, and I felt the desire to get ahead in the story with more urgency than before. This was totally inception. (inception horn) I hadn’t felt like this the entire way through; I'd been having a blast, as I said, including the “Mysterious East Chapter”, which yeah, I realized by then, could have easily cut a third of its playtime while still getting across the same idea. It’s all...valid, but it irritated me, because I had never noticed this before.

Before hearing outside opinions, I was enjoying myself. I still found the platforming elegant and fun even though it didn’t always feel extremely challenging and was sometimes a little repetitive. I kept having a lot of fun with the fights and how visceral and punchy they felt, and even though the game keeps introducing new enemies and attempts to create new challenges by confronting you with new combinations of enemies, a lot of the fights did feel like I had done them before. But it never felt like boring repetition to me because I enjoyed doing them, until someone pointed out that I’m supposed to feel impatient now. Madness Returns continually tries to mix it up with all kinds of different minigames and variations; there’s the underwater side-scrolling passages on board of Mock Turtle’s pirate ship, multiple 2d platforming segments that play out on ancient painted scrolls in the Mysterious East; there’s chess-themed puzzles in Queensland and various instances of rhythm games and...well okay, sliding puzzles, where you first have to collect blocks

and then slide the correct image in a set amount of turns. And later in the Dollhouse chapter, we play a version of Marble Madness meets Donkey Kong Country Cannonball Platforming. And hey, granted, sliding puzzles are from hell. I understand how they’re solved, like the algorithm behind it because Black Mirror, the 2003 Czech horror point and click, forced me to learn it or abandon the game for good, but I’ve always felt like putting them in your game as a roadblock is a bad cop-out for finding better ideas for more engaging puzzles. They can go jump in a lake.

Luckily, since each of these can easily put up a drastically different type of challenge that might bar players, who are simply not good at them, from advancing, the game gives players the fair option to just skip them all. Oh yeah, and you have several slidey-slide passages that feel like a conscious throwback to Mario 64. And yeah, granted, none of these minigames are anywhere close to perfect by any means, and at times there’s more instances of them, especially of the sliding puzzles, than needed, making them overstay their welcome a tad, but my point is: I had not minded any of it and found it refreshing and rich in variety in ways that always made me excited to see what’s to come next, until I heard that the game journalistic consensus doesn’t agree with me.

And honestly, it says a lot about how heavily the mindset and expectation with which we approach a video game influences the way we enjoy or...don’t enjoy it. And it’s not easy these days, especially when playing games that are hotly discussed at the moment on social media, to avoid the discourse and enjoy a game the way it used to be- -well, without wanting to sound like old man yelling at cloud– -before the internet. When your pool of opinions was restricted to a very small group of friends who might have played the game before you and other than that, you approached it completely unbiased and far more easy to impress, honestly. I’ve actively tried to re-cultivate this mindset over the past years when it comes to games. People who follow me might have noticed by now that I rarely focus on taking a game and shitting on whatever I can find to shit on because it makes me sound smart and knowledgeable and powerful, but that I try to focus on finding the joy in the games I play and feature here.

Because the time and space I have to talk about games on here is very limited, so why spend it turning things sour that you might otherwise love? So, anyway, if you pick up Madness Returns- –which just returned to Steam, by the way, a few days ago– -my suggestion is try doing it as much on your own terms as you possibly can. This is a game that received mid-70s scores by critics, but that users rated much much higher on average. It’s another great example of why I hate numerical scores because the reason why so many people rated it much higher was because it meant so much to so many people that this game became more than just a fun romp to them. Which it is-it absolutely is a fun romp.

No question. So, if you’ve never played it before, and watched this video until now thinking “you know what, I’m gonna give this a spin,” then I’d say do it now, because I’m about to break character and go a little bit into what exactly it is that made it so important to so many people, and where it, in my humble opinion, sadly missed the mark a bit by a few yards. Yes, you heard right, I, professional game gusher, notorious Good-Humored-Video-Game-Nerd, am going to... *inhale* Criticize™ And for that I will have to disclose the final twist at the end of the game.

There’s your spoiler warning. (ominous music) Alice: Madness Returns is a true blue horror game. It might appear like a common action adventure story with a dash of horror and macabre elements added for seasoning throughout the first chapters, but the further we get into the story, the more every facet of it becomes darker, eerier, gorier and more sinister altogether. The Queensland, formerly the final stage of the first game, is now in disrepair, falling apart and the previous guards have been turned into fierce and menacing zombie-abominations. The burg itself is desolate and becomes more horrifying, putrid and organic the further we venture into the literal heart of it all.

When we eventually get to the queen herself, we’re met with the revelation that she’s embodied by none other than Alice’s sister Lizzie– -or rather Alice’s mental projection of her– -who reveals that the fire that killed Alice’s family, her sister included, was actually started by none other than Alice’s Psychiatrist, who snuck into the Liddel house at night, and physically abused Lizzie before locking her in and then setting the whole place on fire. Yeah, there’s a twist for you. Now, I’ve actually talked with a good few people about the Alice games leading up to this video-duology of mine. As I mentioned in the previous section, I know several people who loved the first game, but had some issues with the sequel. I noticed, through these conversations, that, those who were diehard fans of the first game for its encouraging metanarrative about the perils, trials and tribulations of mental illness felt disappointed by this change in direction Madness Returns took here, because it does shift the emotional focus. (heavy stomp, squish) After this revelation, Alice wakes up in the mental ward, head shaven and debilitated by drugs and potentially a lobotomy.

We stumble through the corridors of the sanatorium to unveil the horrible abuse that Alice endured during her stay in Rutledge Asylum under the supervision of none other than Dr. Freud– -I mean Bumby himself. - [Bumby] It's that... or back to Rutledge! - And the horror doesn’t end here, as we’ve yet to traverse one last region of Wonderland: the Dollhouse. This is where it gets even more psychological-horror creepy.

I find it interesting that the first Alice grappled with subconscious id-machine type psychological horror before Silent Hill was even a big thing, and now the second game, especially in this chapter towards the end, feels aesthetically cross-pollinated with the massive cultural influence of the Silent Hill franchise. It gets really dark and eerie towards the end, as hinted elements of Childhood Sexual Abuse become more and more prominent over the course of it all until we finally confront the doctor himself in his most purgatorial form. - [Alice] My mentor is an abuser and purveyor! I sought relief from my pain and you turned me away from the truth! - [Otherworld Bumby] You are almost there, almost free from what you fear! You could have been cured; you could have *forgotten*! - Abandon the memory of my family?! - Everything up until this point is really...fine, and even the inclusion of a genuinely unsettling and difficult to handle topic such as childhood sexual abuse has been handled with enough subtlety and discretion until now. Granted, the twist of “It was actually the doctor who snuck in at night, and not the cat as we believed all along” has a bit of a pulpy penny dreadful feel to it, very after-the-fact retcon-shoehorned, but the game still clearly has the intent lead up to a greater point about systemic abuse, so we can roll with this for now.

The change in direction is palpable though, because, like I said, while the tale is still, at heart, about Alice overcoming inner turmoil, it’s not so much about the allegoric struggle against self-loathing, depression and anxiety anymore, but far more about something external that she has to realize. Embodied by the central metaphor of the train. Which, it still handles with enough grace. My partner, for instance, told me when playing through the dollhouse chapter that just watching this segment with its heavy symbolism alleging to medical abuse and trauma is really hard to stomach as someone who’s dealt with a lot of medical trauma in their own life, just as an example. Where the game ultimately lost me is the final revelation: where Wonderland and the Real World keep moving closer and closer together as we finally catch up to the Infernal Train.

We finally enter the train and stride through the compartments, which- -damn, just saying how cool of a design is this train that consists entirely of Gothic churches? I can’t get over this. This is like Bloodborne design before Bloodborne- -and parallel to that, we confront the doctor in the subway station in the real world. the friends we made along the way reveal pieces of clarity to Alice to break through the doctor’s lies, conditioning and gaslighting manifested in her mind, and before the final showdown we get him to confess his evil machinations.

- [Alice] You oozing soar of depravity! Children wearing their names around their necks as if they're breeding livestock! - [Bumby] A declaration of their pedigree. You could use one; they're proud to display their provenance.. (maniacal villain laughter) - You brute! They can't remember who they are or where they're from. How many minds have you twisted into forgetfulness? - Not enough! Yours would have been a triumph. Still, you're an insane wreck.

I could have made you into a tasty bit! Clients out the door waiting for a piece from a raving, delusional beauty with no memory of her past or no sense of her future. But you wouldn't forget. You insisted on holding on to your fantasies. You're MAD. Like your sister... - Uh... what?

Yeah, this is where the story lost me, because it drifts off the edge into a cartoonish depiction of an extremely serious type of trauma that requires careful handling. cartoonish depiction of an extremely serious type of trauma that requires careful handling. cartoonish depiction of an extremely serious type of trauma that requires careful handling. It’s a delicate dance with nuance that sadly takes an unfortunate misstep or two in its final portrayal here.

(evil laughter) What has transpired is that a well- regarded man in a position of power has sexually abused a young girl in her childhood and gaslit her into believing that this act of abhorrent abuse never really happened. So far, a stark portrayal of a very real phenomenon that happens to too many people, extremely fitting for the central villain in a story that’s, at the core, about systemic abuse of power. If the game would have stayed this course, remained a last veil of vagueness, and left things more up to interpretation, everything would have been fine, I think. But the Alice games, both the first and the second, have always had the tendency to spell out most of its symbolism for the audience, instead of leaving things cryptic.

And that is also, all across the board, fine, nothing wrong with that. It’s never been done in a way that harms its message and its emotional impact on the player. But here, at the final junction, the proverbial train derails into the borderline farcical. By taking this extremely delicate situation and then portraying it as a Very Literal conveyer-belt of mass-produced hypnotically indoctrinated child sex slaves, risks making these things feel like an InfoWars tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory- [Alice Jones] I'll beat your goddamn ass you sonofabitch. You piece of shit! (smack) -and by that it turns this otherwise extremely serious subject matter into a parody of what it’s supposed to criticize.

Alice is a cartoonish game, but this instance here might be the one, most crucial moment where restraints would have been the better course of action to get across the message. Ultimately though, I really, dearly want to see past this, as I never felt that this portrayal turned outright exploitative. And just like the rest of the game, came from a place of honest intentions, even if it ended up in an imperfect resolution. It is an incredibly difficult topic to get right, and I know of very few pieces of media that have handled it with enough nuance to pull it off gracefully.

It requires no punches being pulled, while simultaneously showing a ludicrous amount of tact and restraint. It’s a narrative tight-rope walk. Madness Returns ultimately loses itself a bit in syllogism and too rigid symbolism towards the end, and the moment in which the big bad villain reveals his evil scheme with a maniacal laugh feels too video game climax comical to be credible and add any meaningful commentary to the final payoff, because that’s ... (evil laughter) ... not how systematic abusers work in reality. It turns this story about power and control into something that’s fixed by pushing an individual on train tracks.

Which, in all fairness, he absolutely deserved. Good riddance. Byeee Buddy, I mean Bumby! Like okay, this might be a somewhat botched landing or rather a landing that gets the plane down but misses the runway by like a few hundred yards. But despite that, Madness Returns is still an extremely cathartic tale of feminine empowerment at heart. It has the heart in the right place, which is why I want to stop being too harsh here.

It is very much a product of its time, and of the three stories I can think of that were released within two years of each other that all had nearly identical plot beats, Madness Returns is, despite being often very spell-it-out-literal, the one with the most nuance, tact and the least exploitation, the least convoluted and messy and the one that sucks the least. Because it doesn’t. It doesn’t suck at all. It’s a great game, I love it. (machine gun sounds) Watching the game’s suggestion for the ultimate embodiment of institutional, systematic abuse be pushed on the tracks by a fully emancipated and self-actualized Alice, and be subsequently pulped into mush by the very train that’s been threatening to annihilate Wonderland and thereby Alice herself.

It...let’s be honest, it’s what I’ve secretly hoped for during that scene all along. This is Lisbeth Salander/Cat Lady type abuse/rape-avenger vigilantism who... doesn’t fix the system– -it’s far beyond their agency– -but wreaks bloody havoc in retribution to individuals who embody the unfairness of an unjust system. And that. just. feels. good.

(big explosion) (screams in the flames) ...just. feels. good. And I like that the story does not suggest anything along the lines of simply replacing “bad” people within a broken system will magically make everything good. This isn’t Harry Potter. But...in the final moments, when we see Wonderland bleeding into London and becoming Londerland- -when we see Alice breaking free from her shackles, the brainwashing, the indoctrination, the lifelong trauma, and reclaiming her memories, and by that her true identity– -it’s only just a milestone on the road ahead.

There is no finish line. The road goes ever forward. I appreciate Madness Returns for what it tries to say here, that the world is full of those that prey upon the weak, the freaks, the misfits, the outcasts, who try to violently suppress that which makes us different. Because deep down, they fear us. Our Otherness is a force that, once unleashed, holds the potential of true and meaningful change and improvement; the promise to shape the world into a better, brighter, fairer place for everyone.

And as we know: An ending is just the beginning of the next chapter. - [Cheshire Cat] Forgetting pain is convenient. Remembering it... agonizing. But recovering the truth is worth the suffering. And our Wonderland, though damaged, is safe in memory... For now...

At the end of my video on American McGee’s Alice, the first game, I asked if people wanted me to continue with Madness Returns, and while I expected there to be some positive replies to that here and there, I did not at all anticipate the standing ovation resonance it ended up having. So many people who were incredibly excited for a video on Madness Returns- -including American McGee himself, dropping a comment, so that was cool- -for so many people out there this game really, really means a lot and is dear to their heart. And so, yeah, it’s an honor to have the trust of my audience and you being excited for me making this. It made me really look forward to replay it after so much feedback, and I wanted to see what you see in it, and I get it.

Like, besides having far more pure, unbridled fun in playing it than back in the day, and absolutely digging the gorgeous and one-of-a-kind aesthetic start-to-finish, I also get why it was such an important cornerstone in the lives of so many people. And I must say I’ve gotten a newfound appreciation for it, despite being now far more critical than I was 12 years ago, I also ended up appreciating it so much more, than I did before, and I know, from now on, it’s gonna be a game I’ll regularly revisit in the future aaaand it makes me excited to what’s to come in the future for Alice. For those who are not aware, there were two short films called Alice: Otherlands that were released in 2015 that continue Alice’s story and that are very much worth watching. American McGee is still working on convincing EA to greenlight the third Alice game that’s been in pre-production via Patreon crowdfunding for a while, AND between the last video and this one, he announced that there’s gonna be an animated TV show of the American McGee’s Alice universe in production, screen-written by none other than legendary Snake voice David Hayter.

He’s a fantastic screenwriter, so I’m surprisingly optimistic here! Oh yeah! So, that’s where I’ll leave you off for now. Thank you so much for watching me talking feature length about these wonderful games, and if you enjoy my dissections of old games, indie games, horror games and combinations thereof, then I’d be super thankful if you considered pledging a monthly donation over on Patreon to support this channel. It’s what kept the light on for all these years. Thank you so much, and a special shout out, as always, goes out to these top-tier supporters: Support the channel at www.patreon.com/RagnarRoxShow/ Until next time... ta ta!

2022-04-02 16:43

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