As you all are all probably well aware I'm quite a fan of the American McGee's Alice series. I love the Alice mythos for one thing, the original book and all versions of the movie hold a special place in my mind and heart and soul really. I love the characters, the weird twisting of expectations and the pushing of the boundaries between possible and not.
The two games, American McGee's Alice and its sequel Madness Returns, only further deepened the level of complexity and wickedness the original novels could claim with the brilliant concept that Wonderland is actually a psychological nightmare Alice is suffering after she falls into a catatonic state.
The imagery is much more violent and disturbing then the books which were primarily intended for children, but to me it was an inspired step to mature the story and its meaning as well as giving the character more perils to contend with, making the inevitable happy endings in both games all the sweeter to attain.
But… is there only one ending to the sequel Madness Returns?
Someone of you might wonder why if I enjoyed the game so much I sent it far away in the post recently. Well as incredible as it may seem I did so because of events I cannot fully explain to the day. I'm certain whatever it was I encountered is gone, or perhaps it will only haunt me since I've heard of no other incident like the one I encountered.
I do regret passing the game on to a close friend, but I keep telling myself that everything I saw, all of it no matter how worrisome, is the result of some kind of one time glitch in the programming or lack of sleep or just plain seeing things. One day I might convince myself. As stands, enjoy my tale perhaps for it is a strange one, but take it as a warning as well. Perhaps the looking glass looks both ways.
Anyway. I bought the game at Bestbuy. I'm a fan-addict of the series, in fact all things Alice related. I even have a limited edition set of official Alice and the Cheshire Cat action figures another good friend of mine clued me into.
The EBay auction was a fierce one, but I pride myself on devotion to the fandom. That's why when the only copy of the game I could find had a 'Used' sticker on it I paid no heed. All the components (except the manual, and who reads those anyway) seemed to be there when the cashier checked it out before handing it back. I all knew for certain was that the copy was the last on the shelves and it came at a hefty discount. Not bad. Problems arose after getting home though.
The upstairs computer wouldn't run it and I needed to borrow my brother's desk top to finally even get it to properly install. It took a bit of cleaning too since the disc was scuffed, but nothing too terrible. When the morose violin music kicked in I couldn't suppress a wide grin. It had been at least seven years since I last entered American McGee's twisted Wonderland and now at last I could get back to the story I hadn't even dared to hope would continue! It took a solid week of playing to get around the devious puzzles and pitched combat but finally I reached the end game.
I got to what still has to be the scariest level I've ever seen in a video game: The Dollmaker's Domain. Something about that disturbing music box incessantly playing in the background and the bloodstained surroundings of seemingly innocent children's dolls and dollhouses makes me skin crawl just remembering it. But all that had been designed to scare so there was a certain amount of distance to the spookiness; more like walking through a cleverly designed fun house then any kind of real terror.
Until I walked into the dark sanctuary where The Doll Maker supposedly lurked.
Now I had several months previously seen the whole game as a walkthrough on YouTube. Yes I'm impatient, but even still I wanted the twisted joy of slashing my way through the game myself even if I knew how the cut scenes played out.
For instance I knew The Doll Maker was in the next room after the tough boss battle with two towering doll girls and tons of bitch babies. I kept saving my roses/health for the final push to see that room. But it never came.
I entered the doorway that would lead to the room right before The Dollmaker's hideaway and everything went black. It stayed that way for much, much longer than normal until I almost rebooted my brother's desk top for fear it had crashed. But the sounds of the computer were normal. The music had dropped out but I guessed it would kick in as soon as I saw the familiar red pocket watch that would indicate the game was loading.
At last the pocket watch appeared, but something looked… off about it. After awhile I noticed the hands were turning backwards, and then I felt an involuntary shudder as some of the red of it began sliding down the black screen.
This wasn't an animation I recognized at all, especially the way that the red line dripping from the watch actually began to collect just at the spot the screen of the desk top met the frame! Like a raindrop. Fine added atmosphere I suppose, but I was very thankful when the game finally flickered (yes, flickered) back to light.
But here again something seemed very wrong. The music was gone entirely. I quit to the menu and squeaked in shock aloud (to my shame). The model of Alice in the menu was the eye-less, bleeding tears, chalk white model she assumes when she enters hysteria. This was very odd. I hadn't entered hysteria recently and even if you do the model in the menu doesn't even have a skin for it to my knowledge. I hurriedly checked the sound options. All the levels were up above mute.
So why was there no music? I listened. There WAS something, but it was barely above a whisper. Almost a low hissing sound over the speakers. Fiddling with the volume tabs did nothing to make it louder. I put my ear to one and listened hard. It did sound very much like many people whispering on a loop, their voices echoing.
I wouldn't let this game's weirdness throw me! This must be something like that level in Arkham Asylum where Scarecrow gasses you and the game starts to make fake glitches just to mess with your head. Trying not to look into Alice's empty sockets I returned to the game. The whispering continued. Even more confusingly Alice's model in the game was not her hysteria form! But it wasn't her "doll" dress either. She was now inexplicably in her iconic blue dress.
I moved forward. Whatever this was I wanted to get through it quick because this was getting on my nerves. Really I needed some enemy to fight to break the tension and I knew as soon as I entered the center of the room with the platform mounted by two chains hanging from the ceiling that I would instantly be attacked by lots of Ruins.
But try as I might, search as I could, there wasn't a single enemy there. The architecture was the same in the last room but no triggers activated, no cut scenes. Nothing. This was irritating! In order to even get to The Dollmaker I needed to kill the enemies to make the stairs appear. The thought of just quitting here though after all the work to get to this was too much. I figured I'd give the game a little more time before I decided whatever fatal problem had come up would make progress impossible.
Then I saw him.
Initially he was in the shadows and because of that I figured that it couldn't be who it looked like. No walkthrough I'd ever seen had the White Rabbit show up in this level. But when I walked Alice over to him, that's indeed who it was! Same model, only different because he cast no shadow.
This must have been one heck of a bug. I'd seen some pop-up and had a few clipping errors in previous levels, but I'd never seen a character spontaneously appear in a level he didn't belong in. More disturbingly was the fact that the sound track now had a pounding heartbeat in it. I'm not sure how long that had been going on.
Suddenly Alice stopped in her tracks…and a cutscene began. The black bars appeared beneath the screen and the Rabbit turned to stare at Alice with unblinking eyes. He spoke and the voice was unmistakably his voice actor, but the tone of it was so plaintive, so sad. I'd never heard any recording of this scene so I listened with rapt attention.
"Why…?" Rabbit said, voice almost sobbing. "Why did you do it Alice?"
Then Alice threw her head back and laughed.
My hands on the keyboard were shuddering. After everything else this was the worst shock. There was no humor in that laugh. It was worse even then the maniacal cackle of The Queen of Hearts because this was joyless, cold, piercing.
Then the cut scene ended, I regained control, and The White Rabbit drew his sword cane and lunged! I was so shocked I lost three hearts before I realized this was actually a battle.
In a daze I turned back on the menu, just so the images would stop. I saw that the objective to "Find the Dollmaker" was gone, replaced by another objective. "Kill The White Rabbit"
I felt… ill.
I've rarely played a game that made me want to quit for good, step away and be done forever with it, but Alice 2 had gotten to that level. This was sick. But the only way to be rid of this was to finish it. I was convinced if I didn't The Rabbit's words would haunt me forever.
I got out of the menu and went on the attack. The pitiful creature didn't just grunt when Alice struck him he yelped horribly, dancing in pain. At last Alice darted in with the Vorpal Blade for the final blow, and struck the Rabbit's head clean off.
The stairs appeared that were supposed to have when I'd killed the last of the Ruins and Doll Girls. What could I have possibly done to make The White Rabbit the second to last boss? Really at that point I should have quit. Madness Returns was weird and dark and gory enough without it playing these sorts of games.
Somehow though even the bloody massacre scene in the Walrus and Carpenter level couldn't compare to how I felt seeing the headless body of White Rabbit lying on the floor, somehow not dissolving like all other enemies had. It must have been my imagination but I thought I saw him twitch.
I jumped up the stairs and felt that now I would finally get to The Dollmaker and end the game. But again I was frustrated, baffled, and very worried. The cut scene of meeting The Dollmaker began to play but there was no Dollmaker to be seen! His original model took up most of the room, but for some reason not only was he absent but so was any decoration or anything beside. It looked like an unfinished level: a great big wooden room. Still the camera played out as if it was introducing The Dollmaker and Alice walked in on cue, but she said nothing and there was no response.
When the camera cut back to Alice she was wiping the Vorpal Blade off on her dress (another animation I'd never seen before) and for some reason there was no door behind her.
Then I heard him before I saw him. "This is all your fault, you know." The camera cut back to where The Dollmaker might have been if the model hadn't vanished. It was the wrong angle to see him properly, but by that camera I could make out The Cheshire Cat sitting and staring at Alice.
The camera cut back to Alice's face close up. Something about her blank expression that close made me shudder. Back to the high angle. I was certain this wasn't programmed since I could still only see half of the Cat and he was at a weird slant. "I will not let you destroy us," the Cat said. It was definitely the real voice actor saying the line. Then I had control again, and the Cat was dodging around in front of me.
I pressed the targeting button and it focused on him as if he was an enemy! Not willing to believe my own eyes I flipped to the menu again and saw the new objective right below the other that had been crossed off. "Kill The Cheshire Cat."
What the hell?
I quit and attacked him, out of desperation more than anything else. He animated like the real thing and his attacks and special moves corresponded with how I imagined The Cheshire Cat might actually maneuver. For instance he would vanish then reappear and sneak attack or lash out with his claws and tail.
Someone had to have programmed all this to happen. Then how come I'd never seen this before anywhere? Not on Wikipedia, not on YouTube, not on any forum I could recall. It didn't help he was the hardest enemy I'd ever fought. His speed was nearly double Alice and he took down two roses/health with each slash. I had to spam The Vorpal Blade that was troubling to say the least. Each slash drew out a yowl of fury from the animal until at last The Cheshire Cat fell, writhed, and fell still in awkward pose. Like the Rabbit he didn't dissolve and his eyes didn't close. That accusing, yellow slit pupil glare frightened me even though I knew it was all just a game.
Another cut scene? How many glitches can you name that have this many? This time it was even weirder if that was possible at this point. The cut scene showed Alice entering one of the "Liddel" doors that led to a memory of her childhood. After killing The Cat in cold blood I don't recall no matter how hard I try doing anything or pushing any buttons before the scene of Alice entering the burning doorway.
The pocket watch returned. It wasn't bloody, but "Loading" was backwards underneath it.
Then the screen flickered again and herself had replaced Alice's model as a young girl! Every other memory door I'd entered had played a "cut-out" style cut scene showing Alice remembering events before the fire. This time though it seemed like a whole other level. The young Alice model was actually standing in her own room, the colors muted by nighttime out of the windows. I found myself pondering why all this effort went into making a level based on Alice's childhood if it wasn't part of the main game. She had no weapons, no objectives in the menu.
I really had nothing to do but wander out the door and into the hall. Now there was the incessant ticking of a clock in the background. It looked like there was nowhere to go but down the stairs but I'm too experienced in games to go the way the game tells you to without looking off the beaten path for items. The hall above the stairs had two other closed doors and a bathroom. The bathroom could be opened fine (nothing was in it) but when I approached the other doors a young girl's voice, presumably Young Alice's herself, said "I shouldn't wake mommy and daddy," at one, and, "I shouldn't wake sister," at the other.
I went down the stairs, past the foyer and to the front door, still marveling at all the details of this house level which I've even now yet to see in screenshots or videos.
At the front door Young Alice stopped dead and said 'I have something I need to do' One other door was open: The Library. Maybe now I'd be able to leave this memory and continue the game. Maybe, I hoped fervently, the game would have worked out its glitch and gone back to normal. The library looked exactly as it had in the pre-rendered cut scenes, surrounded by Mr. Liddel's photography equipment, only it was all rendered in three dimensions like the rest of the game.
There was nothing to interact with I could see so I moved to the fireplace to investigate. For a moment only I saw a button prompt to use the interact command. I kept searching for it around the library with no success until finally I walked back to the fireplace. Then I saw it clear as day and felt my heart sink.
"Burn Down House".
It took me awhile to select the interact command.
When I did it didn't enter a cut scene, I just lost control and looked on in horror as Young Alice took out a flaming twig and tossed it into the flammable photography equipment.
Then, still in third person with the Heads Up Display still on, Young Alice pulled down some books, opened one and ripped out its pages, then set fire to the pile. All the while she made this horrible demented giggling, singing to herself as the flames caught the shelves and began to roar to the ceiling.
I couldn't move. I didn't know what was going on, especially when the screen flashed red and Alice began to take damage! Her model actually caught fire in a way it might if Alice was really burning from an enemy attack or hazard. Eventually the rose/health counter reached zero but there was no death animation. The screen just slowly faded to black.
It stayed that way for ten minutes. I wished my brother had been home, or anyone at the time, so I could have the comfort of another human. Some kind of connection with the real world after all this.
Abruptly there was a loud screech; the kind a computer generally makes when the drive is corrupted or a music file is skipping. This was so loud I flipped the speakers off and I felt like I had a headache afterwards.
The screen flickered, stayed dark, and then it turned on again. It looked like the ending of the game this time: the proper one. The melding of London and Wonderland loomed into the sky as if everything had played out the way it was supposed to.
I turned back on the sound.
No music. Just distant humming like insects. I noticed the models on screen were moving (the flowers swaying, clouds shifting etc.…) but the camera wasn't. I couldn't see Alice or anyone, just Wonderland/London or "Londerland" as it's known.
Then I heard a light thud and shifting of gravel. When the sound repeated I recognized it as a footstep. Alice was approaching the screen from far away. I jiggled the mouse, trying to change the camera angle, but it stayed fixed. Alice continued to walk at a deliberate pace, expressionless as ever.
I actually drew away from the screen when she leaned over and looked directly forward, as if trying to meet my eyes!
Then she smiled. When I close my eyes I can see that smile. "You must be," she said enigmatically, "or you wouldn't have come here." It sounded like the voice actress, only for some reason the sound quality made it seem… closer then the usual speaker sound.
Then her eyes went… strange. Blood red entirely but with slit pupils. Her smile broadened too far to be natural. The image froze and over the speakers came a rising howl that just seemed to get louder and louder, like someone in mortal agony!
I punched the start button hard until finally the computer mercifully shut off. I was quivering like a leaf when my family got home.
I tried to explain what I'd undergone but I figured it would sound…crazy. Probably still does even after
I've gotten the courage to write it all down here, but as I say it was probably just an unlikely series of game issues and my own overactive imagination. Either that or the scariest video game alternate ending it's ever been my misfortune to see.
And before you ask I have no idea how I managed the alternate ending to Madness Returns, and I never intend to try and repeat it either.