Tuesday, April 3, 2012

All Things Alice

I've seemingly been in Wonderland the last two months.

Once I realized my voice is soothing to my son (now three months old), I realized it was time to start reading to him, as I was quickly running out of songs in my mental database to sing to him.

So we plowed through every Dr. Seuss book I have, until I decided, perhaps something a bit longer won't have me trying to get up and jostle the poor sleepy kid every time I finish a book.  Plus I realize he isn't understanding anything I am saying at this point.  I could just as easily read him Dante's Inferno for all he will retain, but I decided to keep it fairly kid friendly in any case.

So I picked up one of my favorite reads of all time, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Through the Looking Glass is the real gem and the book I have the most fondness for, but to get to it, one must pay homage to Wonderland first.  "Jabberwocky" specifically is the poem that changed my life, when I first heard it in seventh grade, and I can still recite the entire poem from memory to this day.  In fact, just last week, at a good friend's Bachelor Party in New Orleans I recited the entire thing in the middle of Bourbon Street after a few too many shots.  As you might imagine, anywhere else in the world that might garner some attention, but hardly anyone batted an eye.

Regardless I have a great fondness and affinity for the works.

So as typical of how I work, when I get into something I emerge myself in all things related to the work, going down the proverbial rabbit hole myself in a vast wonderland of pop culture.

For some reason, the first thing I checked out was the Grimm Fairy Tales comic book Return to Wonderland.  I believe I just typed Alice into the search bar on my comicology app on my iPhone and that was the first thing that popped up.  I wasn't really familiar with the Grimm series of comics other than their usually racy cover art.

Without any expectations about what the comic was beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found there.  It wasn't anything mind blowing, as it was pretty standard comic book stories and characters but it was really enjoyable.  It reminded me a lot of the hack/slash series I covered on this blog awhile ago.

The plot is about the daughter of "Alice" who was taken to a demon dimension called Wonderland as a child and is kept alive as long as a a part of Alice of her family goes into Wonderland.  The familiar Wonderland characters are here except they are all evil and they all want to kill Calie (Alice's daughter).  Like I said it isn't very deep, and a lot of the panels are excuses to show Calie in some state of undress, but the action and suspense are good and it's knowledge of the source material is also evident, unlike the abomination of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

This is one avenue I decided not to go down.  Although I saw the film in theaters when it was released, watching it a second time is not a mistake I will make.  Clearly, Tim Burton had either never read Alice's Adventures, or even watched the cartoon version from the studio who funded his insult of a film.  Clearly he wanted to make a Wizard of Oz movie because he missed one important point in Wonderland that isn't true about Oz.  Alice isn't really good friends with anyone in Wonderland except MAYBE the Cheshire Cat.  Alice is like a wave of destruction through Wonderland and the Looking Glass world.  Just ask poor Bill the Lizard, who's life she makes a living hell.

In Through the Looking Glass Alice says to her nanny, "I will play the hyena and you can be the bone."  This is a 7 year old girl with an appetite for destruction.  On top of that, nearly everyone she meets she is instantly bored with and ready to move on to the next odd character.  She doesn't even recognize the Mad Hatter and the March Hare in Through the Looking Glass, because she hardly gives anyone or anything a second thought.  But in Tim Burton's film she remembers everyone and everyone is so happy to see her and it is just like when they all got together and made their way down the Yellow Brick Road to meet the Wiz.... oh wait... yeah now you see the problem.

So enough about that loogie that Burton spat of Charles Dodgson's grave.

Somewhat by chance I then stumbled upon the PS3 game Alice: Madness Returns.  Using some coupons and discounts I was able to snag this game for $4, so I decided not to pass up this chance.  For whatever reason this game went way under my radar when it was released.  Being an Alice fan you would have thought I would have been all about it.  But I really didn't watch any videos or read any stories about it at all.  I think it seemed to come out of nowhere.  It was a sequel to a game over a decade old.

Ignoring the game was even stranger as I actually loved the original game: American McGee's Alice.  In 2000, when the game was released, I was 19.  I had just bought a new computer and that was one of the first games I bought for it.  I remember combing over the included booklet that came with the game, which told about what was happening to Alice in the real world while the game was happening.  After her family house was burned to the ground, and she was blamed, being the sole survivor, she went mad, and thus Wonderland went mad with her.  Her journey through the game is her catharsis to get well.  Repairing Wonderland would repair Alice.

That said, while I loved the story concept and the characters in McGee's Alice I also remember finding the game very bland.  The first level you are dropped into is very dark, claustrophobic, and didn't hearken back any feelings of "wonder" and imagination that inspired me from the original book.  Of course this was a corrupted Wonderland, but it just didn't seem to resemble any Wonderland I knew.

Also, perhaps I wasn't very familiar with PC games, but the controls seemed difficult to use and archaic, in a PS2 world.  

Still I had fond enough memories of the characters, where the sequel should have registered on my radar to some degree.  But for whatever reason it didn't.

So I put in Madness Returns with zero expectations or knowledge of what to expect.  I really wish I could do this with all games, because I think it would heighten my enjoyment of everything.

Madness Returns, so far, is the Wonderland experience I have been waiting for.  From the get go, after a brief stint in the real world, when Alice drops into Wonderland and you get control of her for the first time it is clear that all my complaints about the first game is gone.  Wonderland, while still corrupted is absolutely breathtaking.  The art design in the game is about the best I've ever seen.  The colors are vibrant, rich and deep.  She now has a cool Mario-esque floating spin jump.  She can lock onto enemies like Link and has an arsenal of different moves.

Playing the game feels like playing a cross between Batman Arkham/Mario/Zelda.  And that is a hell of a combination.  And going back to the Batman: Arkham Asylum connection, the overall feel of this game is probably akin for Alice fans as Arkham Asylum was for Batman fans.  The amount of respect and love for the source material in this game is evident, and Alice is very much like she is in the original stories.  Other than the Cheshire Cat (and white rabbit), she pretty much regards everyone else as a nuisance or a means to an end, but is still as polite as she can manage.

I imagine, if you don't have a love for the original stories this game would seem kind of mediocre, as half of the appeal is wondering what classic Wonderland character is going to be waiting for you in the next section.  But the game is fun to play besides just the classic characters, and the puzzles and platforming are all really well designed.

After playing and reading these different works inspired by Alice in Wonderland, it dawned on me however, that these are all "dark" takes on the original books.  I can play Madness Returns in front of my son for the most part, but if he were a little older that would be a no go.  He likes watching Alice jump as she emits colorful butterflies when she does, and all the colors capture his attention.  But this is also a bloody gory game and not meant for little ones who have concepts of what these things mean.

But the game is so beautiful.  It makes me really wish someone would make an actual Alice in Wonderland video game with no fighting where you can explore a world as vast and beautiful as the one in Madness Returns.  Not just so my kid can enjoy it, but so that my inner child with fond memories of the original books can get swept away in it as well.