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Patrick Hope: ‘Alice’ turns up in several games

By Patrick Hope

Back in September, I was going to write about a game called Killer is Dead. Then I got to the first boss.

It’s a young woman in a Victorian-looking dress named Alice. She lives in a weird MC Escher-inspired mansion where things aren’t quite right. She also turns into a spider … thing that you fight while harpsichord music plays in the background. But that’s not the point.

The point was that this section of the game is a tribute to Alice in Wonderland. The trophy that pops for beating the boss is even entitled “Alice in Deadland” to really drive the point home.

Lewis Caroll’s novel and its titular heroine have been referenced in an incredible number of games and in an even larger array of roles. In the Shin Megami Tensei series, Alice alternates between a high-level monster that you can have fight for you and an optional superboss, always with her signature Die for Me! attack which has card soldiers dropping on her opponents.

In Thief: The Dark Project, you break into a weird mansion that gets curiouser and curiouser as you progress inside. Kingdom Hearts has a Wonderland world. And the two American McGee’s Alice games feature a different, darker take on Wonderland, as well as the only video game reference to Bleak House I’ve ever found. Games really like using Alice, and for good reason. It and “Through the Looking Glass” (I’m counting them as one work here) is one of the most famous books ever written. But the fingerprints of Alice can be seen in more than just its numerous in-game shoutouts.

Alice in Wonderland is, even by the standards of the fantasy genre, a weird book. Instead of the standard dwarves and swords, there are Mad Hatters and tea parties. The setting makes no sense. There’s a sense of, ahem, wonder, about the whole thing. But an awful lot of video games don’t make much sense when broken down.

Mario is the story of a plumber who jumps on things in order to save a princess who rules a kingdom of sentient mushrooms from a fire-breathing turtle. A bizarre, fantastic setting like Alice is more or less ready-made for inspiring video games.

But the influence doesn’t end there.

Throwing lots of weird, disparate elements into a game without a second thought won’t result in anything besides a game with weird, disparate elements. And there are a lot of games out there whose sole notable quality is that they’re really, really strange. Like a good game, Alice makes all of its weirdness work in concert. There’s nothing wasted. Compare that with a good game. Everything has a purpose, even if it seems kind of out there.

Consider the example of Majora’s Mask, which is often considered the Alice of the Zelda series. After all, it does start with Link chasing something down a hole to a strange land. The in-game character Sakon even says “I’m late for a very important date,” if you talk to him. And make no mistake, Majora’s Mask is a really weird game. The final area is a lush, green meadow with a single tree. It’s also on the Moon. It makes you uneasy. But the strangeness serves a purpose. It’s part of the total package. There’s nothing extraneous about it, exactly as you’d expect from a game in the Alice mold.

Alice also features one of the earliest examples of one of the most important features in any game: world-building. Wonderland isn’t a normal place. It has its own rules and personalities. They need to be explained and Carroll did a masterful job of it. By and large, games also need to build their own worlds. Whether through dialogue or gameplay, it has to be established how the game world works. Alice learns about Wonderland by traversing it and talking to its inhabitants, which also sucks in the reader who wants to learn with Alice. Likewise, a good game will organically teach the player about how it works, avoiding the dreaded info dump or use of the exposition fairy to explain what’s going on. Alice showed how to create a fantasy world long before anyone had any idea video games could even exist.

While Lewis Carroll’s works inspired many forms of popular entertainment, their influence can be clearly, and perhaps most notably, applied to video games. He unknowingly wrote a primer on things for developers to consider a full 120 years before the release of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. And it’s a good thing he did, because who knows what would have happened without his works?

To be honest, that’s a rabbit hole I’d rather not explore.'

Hope is a Dickinson attorney and video game enthusiast.