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.