Essays, Games

Seeing Myself in Wonderland: Mental Health in American McGee’s Alice – Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part piece. In case you haven’t already, be sure to click here and read part one first in order to acquaint yourself with how my history interweaves with that of Goth Alice in Depression Wonderland. Otherwise, you’ll probably be really confused.

American McGee's Alice by Electronic Arts

‘Twas brillig, you big bully.

The next big battle is with the Jabberwock, and it was another battle I found myself personally invested in. The Jabberwock represents Alice’s survival guilt and insults her—“You selfish, misbegotten, and unnatural child!” being one of my favorite video game lines, ever. I could relate to this so much, since every day for the last year, I had been mentally beating myself up, telling myself horrible things and blaming myself for the divorce.

When she finally infiltrates the Red Queen’s castle, it’s filled with these grotesque, pulsating, fleshy… appendages. I always thought that this implied Alice was so deep inside her own mind, even the surroundings were reflecting the insides of her own body.

After the first battle with the Red Queen, which honestly looks like something out of the Resident Evil series, the Queen reveals her true face, which looks like a human face without skin. Then she opens her hideous maw to reveal the Mad Hatter’s face, who opens his mouth to reveal—SURPRISE! Alice’s face! I know it’s cheesy, but back then, I actually gasped out loud.

“Your pathetic attempts to reclaim your sanity have failed,” Red Queen/Alice says in a distorted, deep voice while Alice weeps in front of her. There’s even the age-old, “you destroy me, you destroy yourself” trope that comes into play. It’s magnificent.

Of course Alice doesn’t give up. There’s one final boss battle, after which the Red Queen explodes and sends a shockwave throughout all of Wonderland. The gross, decayed landscapes become green and pretty again. All of Alice’s friends come back to life, and the ones that were evil are good again. The camera transforms a shot of Alice standing with all her Wonderland buddies into a page of a book with one of the classic John Tenniel illustrations. The text on the page reads:

“YEA, ALICE! YOU’VE SAVED US!”

And she had done more than that, she knew…

She had saved herself as well.

The book closes, and it’s shown that Alice is the one holding the book. She’s looking happier than ever, standing outside the asylum with her luggage. She picks up a little black cat and is on her merry way. (Was it the same cat who started the fire in the beginning? I never found out.)

For such a long time, I’d been trapped inside my own mental prison living in a terribly dysfunctional family, and then dealing with the fallout from the divorce. Seeing my own pain reflected on the computer screen during one of the worst periods of my life was so crucial for my healing and beginning to accept myself with all of my weird brain problems.

I had never been so enthralled with a video game up until that point. I can still remember the adrenaline I felt as the levels became increasingly more harrowing and difficult. Then it culminated in that cathartic boss battle, before I even knew what the word “cathartic” meant. I remember the first rays of dawn peeking through my window as I sat there, paralyzed in front of the computer screen after the final cutscene ended. I remember both my cats were looking at me like “Seriously? Go to bed.”

American McGee's Alice by Electronic Arts

@me next time, Queen.

I don’t even know how many times I played that game that summer. I would beat the game and then start a new save file immediately. I’m pretty sure certain levels in that game are forever hard-wired into my unconscious memory. I can immediately call to mind the “unh!” sound Alice makes when she jumps, or the mystical wind chime sound the Cheshire Cat makes when he appears out of nowhere. The sound effects and game soundtrack are buried deep into the root of my brain, alongside the theme songs of 1990s Nicktoons and the “BLAAT!” noise the gnorcs make when you headbutt them in Spyro the Dragon.

I’m pretty sure Alice was the catalyst that made me become the gamer I am today. I kept seeking out games that would make me feel the way Alice feel. And while I’ve found plenty of emotionally engaging games, none have hit me in the right way, at the right time, as Alice did.

There was something about the story that was so compelling to me that, at the time, I didn’t have the language or the theory to express how it made me feel. I had controlled Alice as she dove head-first into her own psychological torment, took out all her inner demons (I know, I know), and confronted her biggest enemy: herself. During a time when I felt so broken and helpless, this gave me hope that I, too, could escape my shitty Hot Topic Wonderland. I could defeat all the terrible monsters in my head who screamed cruel things at me. I could make my mind a beautiful place to be again.

Later that summer, I would start therapy with a new counselor, who was wonderful and taught me how to cope with a lot of my feelings and how to curb my self-injury habits. I also had a psychiatrist who actually gave a shit about me, and helped find a combination of pills that made me feel better. These two women helped me throughout most of high school.

I started my second year of high school carrying my Worry Stone with me everywhere, like my therapist suggested in order to help with my intense anxiety. I wore a cut-up black-and-white sock on my wrist to cover its scar. Peak Tim Burton. I wasn’t exactly happy-go-lucky, but I also wasn’t the numb zombie I was before. I was sad and worried all the time, but I was also unapologetically me. I also stood up to bullies for the first time that year. I started to make friends.

My English teacher that year was an outspoken geek who was vocal about his love for video games. During passing periods, I would chat with him and geek boys about video games and other nerd culture. I kept praising Alice, boasting how many times I beat the game that summer. He told me he owned the game, but was never able to beat it past a certain level.

The boys would say things to me like, “Why do you like that game so much? It’s old. It’s not that good.” And because I was 16, I would say something like, “It’s the fucking best game ever and you don’t know shit.” I didn’t know how to explain to them, or even to myself, really, why the game was so important to me. I wouldn’t fully understand until years later.

I still have the copy of the game that my 10th grade English teacher gave me.

At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher gave me his copy of Alice. I still have it.  I brought it with me to college, and I even have it with me now in my crappy apartment.

A lot has been said over the last few years about video games’ place in art. With the increasingly advanced technology and popularity of story-driven games, the answer seems obvious that people can get just as emotionally invested in games as they can books or movies. Does that make them art?

I have no idea what the answer to that question is, or what “art” really means in this context. All I do know is how I felt as a severely depressed teenage girl who felt a sense of purpose or motivation for the first time in months by helping Alice hack and slash her way through Wonderland. I know is that I had tears streaming down my face as the Red Queen taunted Alice in the cut scene before the final battle.  

It’s that experience that comes to mind every time the conversation comes around that video games have the potential to be more than games. Video games can change people’s lives, and it’s important to put as much careful thought and love into them as any other media. 

It’s been almost ten years since I first fell down that rabbit hole with Alice. (Did you really think I was going to go this entire piece without making that cliché? Ha!) I’ve battled with depression several times over this decade. I’m an adult now, and I mostly have my various mental disorders under control with medication and years of practicing coping mechanisms.

People often react with shock when I open up to them about my depression, my mom, my old life spent in isolation. They say I seem really confident and happy. They don’t know how it’s taken me years to get to this point, and how at my lowest moments, I still feel like that lost, sad little girl who never left her bedroom.

I still have lots of harmful habits to unlearn, and a lot of challenges I still have to face because of my anxiety. Depression has been avoiding me for a couple of years, but I know that I’ll face that Queen of Hearts again and again throughout the rest of my life. And I know that the next time that Wonderland needs me, I’ll know what to do. Because Alice is there with me.