Down the Rabbit Hole: Alice in Wonderland’s Influence on Video Games

Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic provides an excuse—and a cultural marker—when game-makers want to change the rules of their own universes.

A still from the video game Alice: Madness Returns (EA)

The bed is on the ceiling. The faucet is dripping up. A fish floats above you, bleating sonorous, pun-filled pronouncements. In the center of the room is a tiny door; on the table, a potion. “I’m constantly observing my declining behavior as if through a looking glass,” the protagonist mutters to himself.

I think you might know what happens next.

Why do video games love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Again and again they return to it as a reference point, regardless of genre, regardless of style. The scene I just described comes from The Slaughter: Act One, a point-and-click adventure game released in January that mixes noir with Victorian London, much as 1998’s Grim Fandango did with Aztec mythology. You play as Sydney Emerson, a private eye who likes to mutter ironies to himself between hitting the pub and pursuing … Jack the Ripper. The game arguably has more reason than most to toss out an Alice reference like it’s no big deal; it takes place, after all, in the historical setting that begat Alice in the first place. And yet, the dream sequence I’ve just described—referred to as “Lynchian” by its creator, because the only thing games love as much as Alice in Wonderland is Twin Peaks—is less immersed in the history of Victorian literature than in the history of video games themselves, which are rife with Alice moments just like it.

When things get druggy in 2012’s Far Cry 3, the game brings in Alice as epigraph and intertitle; the action stops and lines from the book pile on top of each other in that blocky blue font. When things get almost unmanageably disorienting in the 2014 first-person exploration game NaissanceE—a game almost as devoid of words as it’s devoid of color—you find yourself running through the same hallway over and over again, getting tinier and tinier as the camera is knocked askew. Alice is the very first world in 2002’s Kingdom Hearts, and the world that arguably sets the tone for all the illogical encounters after it—every Heartless derived from the Queen, every level subject to sudden and arbitrary reversals of the rules. In the Shin Megami Tensei series, Wonderland is sometimes a dungeon and Alice is sometimes a boss. In The Elder Scrolls series (especially 2007’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles), the books creep in via Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness, lord of his own wonderland where the laws of the mind take hold.

There are games that are based completely in Alice’s world: American McGee’s Alice (2000) and Alice: Madness Returns (2011)—sequels to the books that star a grim, dark Hot Topic version of Alice herself—as well as direct adaptations of the story on many different gaming platforms, going all the way back to Commodore 64. And yet, so much more often, the books seem to show up in games that are not about them, and in much more managed ways—as interludes, interpolations, allusions, shoutouts. A lot of games have a tendency to invoke them at penultimate moments. “Down the Rabbit Hole” is the second-to-last mission in 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3; “Deeper into madness” is the second-to-last major section of 2014’s NaissanceE, a brutal kinetic gauntlet before the endless stasis of the desert. In The Slaughter, Sydney has his Alice dreams. But they’re premonitory, arriving before something horrible happens in reality.

The literary theorist Jonathan Culler once maintained that when poets begin with an apostrophe, “O whatever!” (e.g. “O wild West Wind”), they’re doing nothing so much as implicitly inserting themselves into the canon of every other big-name poet who begins poems with an apostrophe; they’re adding an aesthetic hashtag, a tacit marker of cultural seriousness. A lot of Alice references in games work in kind of the same way. Games like Madness Returns and Far Cry invoke Alice to reach for a marketable tone, casting themselves into a higher plane of mordant cynicism, as if to say, “We’re dark, man, like this famous children’s story about death and drugs.” Other games (like NaissanceE and The Slaughter) seem to invoke it at least in part because of its highbrow baggage—because to reappropriate Alice is to do something that avant-garde movements were doing throughout the 20th century, from modernism and surrealism and Dada to ’60s drug culture, psychedelic rock, and Jefferson Airplane (and to a lesser extent, 1999’s The Matrix).

Beloved cultural touchstones are beloved cultural touchstones, of course, and if people tend to invoke them it’s probably because they’re beloved. At the same time, I think it’s a lot like how puzzle games that want to be taken seriously as aesthetic experiences and intellectual achievements—2012’s Fez, this year’s The Witness, NaissanceE once again—have an extremely high chance of invoking the inscrutable black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It profits the creator of something new and strange to be in good intertextual company, to be among the heavy-hitters. At least until you make too many Moby-Dick (1851) references and it gets a little stupid.

But there’s a much better reason for games to invoke Alice, and I think it’s a reason that ultimately underwrites their abiding tendency to do so: because Alice is itself a game. Alice might very well be the original attempt to resolve the “ludology vs. narratology” debate that game critics and designers have been trying to work through for the last 20 years—the original attempt to make storytelling game-like and gameplay a form of narrative experience.

The textual chessboard at the beginning of Through the Looking-Glass (1871) makes this crystal clear, establishing the whole book as a game—or maybe a metagame—that unfolds through the act of reading, each chapter corresponding to a “move” by Alice’s profoundly overwhelmed pawn. But the original is also fundamentally gamelike, not only in the way it contains games (e.g. the wacky croquet match between Alice and the Queen) but in the way it invites the reader to play language games at every turn. Just as Alice is asked to solve riddles by seemingly every vulgar, indignant animal she encounters in that topsy-turvy world, Alice’s author Lewis Carroll implicitly asks the reader to puzzle through the linguistic inversions, looking not necessarily for meaning—as Alice says about the poem “Jabberwocky,” “It fills my head with ideas—only I don’t know what they are!”—but for logical, or at least ludic, consistency.

It’s hard to see Alice clearly through the Genius-like cloud of its annotators and 20th-century interpreters, who often associate it with things that aren’t game-like at all—dreams, trips, the formlessness and illogicality of altered states—or even turn it into a straight-up drug allegory. But there’s an alternate tradition of commentators who attach themselves to the hard precision of its weirdness, and the clearly defined rules of its textual engagement. Like his fellow Victorian “nonsense poet” Edward Lear, Carroll (also known as Charles Dodgson) was a professional logician, and the genesis of his project can be traced not only to a deep love of order—apparently he kept an exhaustive database of all his incoming and outgoing letters for 37 years, totaling 98,000 entries by the time he died—but also to his proclivity for making word games for children. As the critic Elizabeth Sewell put it in her classic 1951 study The Field of Nonsense:

Nonsense as practiced by Lear and Carroll does not, even on a slight acquaintance, give the impression of being something without laws and subject to chance, or something without limits tending towards infinity.

On the contrary, it’s “a carefully limited world, controlled and directed by reason, a construction subject to its own laws.” The challenge of the books is to see those laws in any kind of clarity, and it’s a challenge that yields apparent (if fleeting) win-states. When the Cheshire Cat says, “You see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad,” it’s ridiculous. But it’s also a perfect inversion, as beautifully self-enclosed as a square on a sheet of graph paper. To be “mad” is to be at the other end of a “therefore,” a clockwork determination. To be sane is to see what madness is and simply do the opposite.

What is nonsense, anyway? In the realm of language, the term designates a lack of meaning: words and phrases arranged into shapes and sequences that bear no definite (or at least obvious) semantic fruit. Yet that very definition puts emphasis on the “arrangement” part, which is what nonsense literature tends to have in paradoxical abundance: As the academic Hugh Haughton observed in 1988, “Nonsense is more shapely, more brazenly formalized and patterned than other kinds of language—not the reverse.” Nonsense is language unshackled from semantic reference and hyper-arranged according to some other internal system—probably one more organized, since meaning is itself so messy and infinite and prone to change over time. The result is a piece of language that’s gamelike almost by default, since games, in Sewell’s view, have three distinct components:

1. A desire, on the part of the player, to play;

2. Objects for the player to manipulate: chess pieces, cards, croquet balls, Companion Cubes;

3.  A constrained field of possibility: a board, an arena, a battle, a level.

Nonsense invites sense-making; we feel a drive to crack the code. At the same time, it strips words of their usual meaning and context, making them manipulable, movable, in ways they weren’t before—hence all the puns in Alice, which allow words to move in a completely different direction (e.g. the “tale” of the mouse that Alice encounters early in Wonderland, both a piece of text and a piece of its body). And nonsense happens within its own frame, in a special field: a field of absurdity but also liberating possibility, enabled by conceptual constraint. Every page offers a new Zelda room full of blocks, levers, items, and switches, with no particular door to open. Reading becomes playing, no matter how fast you proceed.

Perhaps Alice is still rooted in the stuff of the subconscious, dredged up from a dark and merciless place beyond the light of reason. Theorists of nonsense tend to maintain nonetheless that its “nonsense” is opposed to dream-logic rather than the same thing—a way of containing and managing the disorder of the mind rather than giving it total, all-encompassing freedom. Games particularize the world, breaking it into manageable chunks. Video games do this with even greater intensity, bound as they are to the binary architecture of computers; the most realistic games are also the ones that most visibly abstract the real into manipulable units and blocks, like the wooden pallets in 2013’s The Last of Us. You can’t play a game unless it has objects you can control.

The disorder of dreams, by contrast, in Sewell’s view, offers nothing less than the prospect of everything being unmanageable and all-consuming—the prospect of the self or the mind being the thing “played with,” in a game far beyond its control. It would be wrong to say that there’s nothing dream-like about Alice, since the story takes place explicitly in a dreamscape. But it has a way of managing that dreamscape that staves off the most destabilizing qualities of dreams themselves. It divides them so that we might conquer them, even in moments of profound disorientation. “The game of Nonsense may, then, consist in the mind’s employing its tendency towards order to engage its contrary tendency towards disorder,” Sewell writes, “keeping the latter perpetually in play and so in check.”

Games often invoke Alice as a way of introducing disorder, a way of subverting their own carefully designed world-logics at the nadir of the player’s journey, when things get darkest before the dawn. Before its Alice chapter, NaissanceE works like any other first-person exploration game; you know the height and length of your jump, the speed of your walk, the general direction of your journey—forward and down, forward and down—even as the game impedes your path with labyrinths. In the Alice chapter, all bets are off; basic truths like gravity and perspective stop working the way they’re supposed to. And yet, I can’t help feeling that the very invocation of Alice in moments of despair like this is inevitably a way of keeping them corralled, contained, bound within a limited field of possibility. Things get weird in NaissanceE, but without an Alice reference they would be almost unimaginably weirder: The reference provides an implicit intertextual instruction manual, a way of navigating and understanding the disarray.

Things get weird in The Slaughter, but when Alice shows up, the weirdness becomes almost reassuring in its predictability, its containment. We find ourselves in a world already framed and divided by its ties to Wonderland. Its rules are strange—but there are rules. In this way, almost every game that invokes Alice as a reference point is true to the source material whether it wants to be or not, given that the source material is precisely about arranging disorder into manageable chunks, using play to contain the unbearable. Alice lives on in every game that uses Alice—or anything else—to make madness recognizable, to give it a face and a name.

VR is a realm of endless promises, and one of the things it promises is to give us a new breed of Alice game. The upcoming A.L.I.C.E. VR, yet another first-person game with explicit ties to the books, seems to follow NaissanceE by invoking them not only as a reference point but as a kind of template for the entire genre. You, like Alice, are wandering—this time on uncharted alien planets. Things are weird, and you can’t quite discern why from your limited, small perspective; the laws of reality are subject to sudden abrogation. I don’t doubt that it will be disorienting. Nor do I doubt that it will be a lot like Alice in Wonderland, even if it has nothing in particular to do with Alice in Wonderland: Not only because it is a game, but because it needs to be one.

This post appears courtesy of Kill Screen.