This post contains minor spoilers for Alice: Madness Returns
Alice: Madness Returns is not a technically impressive game. The landscape is blocky, filled with sharp edges and screen tearing. Textures don’t load properly, turning what should be a stylized rock into a brown/grey blob. Amongst all this poor quality, Alice herself shines. Her dress is always detailed, its every stitch and fold noticeable, and it flutters with every gust of virtual wind. But it’s her hair that stands out most. It looks like every strand is modeled separately, and based on how realistically it moves, one might assume that every available programmer was working on hair physics, ensuring that every strand would fall over her shoulder rather than through it. Their attention to detail is commendable; in a level that takes place underwater, Alice’s hair floats around when you stop moving.
However, what’s most interesting about Alice’s hair tech is how much it supports the gameplay and character development in this title.
The game revolves around Alice trying to find out who burned down her childhood home and killed her family. She goes around London questioning those who worked for and with her family, and whenever she suffers a mental trauma, whether from a shocking revelation or a blow to the head, she retreats into her mental Wonderland where she continues her search for answers by trying to piece together her repressed past.
For a platformer like Madness Returns, movement is important, and Alice’s hair accentuates her every twist and turn. It hovers almost horizontally when she runs and pops up every time that she shrinks or tht she falls. This exaggeration makes her jumps feel higher and her running feel faster. It’s a nice visual flourish. It also makes her more a part of the world because wind affects her, the momentum of a moving platform affects her, the air jets that she can hover over affect her dress, hair, and arms. The world of Wonderland has a tangible affect on Alice’s body; she has a physical presence in her own mind.
The movement of her hair also adds to her attractiveness. Alice is pretty, thanks in large part to her hair and big eyes, and her character model is easily the most detailed one in the game. This makes her stand out amongst the twisted caricatures that make up the rest of the population. One expects the characters within Wonderland to be deformed, but the citizens of London in the real world are also exaggerated in ways that emphasize their grotesqueness: long, thin noses, beady eyes, sunken, boney faces, hunched backs, and gangly limbs, and everyone’s appearance matches their inner character. Their ugliness stems from who they are—an ugly world is a cruel world—so it makes sense that no one but Alice seems to care about the mysterious fire that killed her family. She’s the only one who cares about the truth, and her righteousness is represented by her beautiful hair.
It’s also a symbol of her strength. It’s her cape.
There are moments in the game when you can stand at the edge of a cliff with a strong wind blowing in towards land. If you attack the air (thus, equipping her big butcher knife for a short while), you get a scene out of any superhero story. Spin the camera around to look at Alice’s face, you’ll see her hair pushed back and flowing like a cape, her dress is fluttering quickly, and her narrow eyes portray a girl determined, willing, and more than capable of taking on the nightmares of Wonderland. She looks legitimately badass. But only in Wonderland.
In the real world her hair is cut short to the point where it’s not affected by physics in the same way. As a result, she feels slower, like she’s less sure of herself in this place, and with no “cape” and no knife, she’s nowhere near as badass. This lack of power is played up in the story. Even though she’s still the confident, mentally strong girl that she is in Wonderland, she’s not a physical fighter. In the real world, she gets knocked out by a pimp in a single punch without even putting up a fight, whereas in Wonderland she can take on towering monsters with a pepper grinder and toy horse. She’s weaker in the real world, and her hair reflects this change.
This idea is taken even further when she’s put back in the asylum. The revelation that she’s back in the asylum occurs slowly. After beating a level in Wonderland, the camera zooms out of Alice’s head. First we see her eyes, then her face, then we see her head, shaved bald, and finally her body curled up in a corner and restrained by a straightjacket. We soon see a memory of her strapped to a chair while orderlies get ready to drill into her head to “fix” her mental problems. This procedure couldn’t be done if she had hair, it was a literal shield preventing the unreliable adults from messing with her brain. Shaving her hair is the ultimate symbol of subjugation as Alice is now susceptible to any of their torturous medical procedures. But this degradation also reinforces her strength of character since she continues to search for answers, both in the asylum and in Wonderland, even in her beaten down state. Hair or no hair.
When she visits Wonderland again, it’s a refreshing change from the asylum. Despite the dark and twisted world that her mind has become, she’s in control here. It makes Wonderland that much more appealing, even on a mechanical level. It’s a place where the player can play rather than a place where we suffer and that makes me want to save it—not just as a means of solving the central mystery—but because I like it better in Wonderland. In fact, for as much as I want Alice to solve the mystery in the real world, I also want her to stay in Wonderland where she’s in charge. Answers aren’t worth the self-sacrifice that she’s clearly willing to make. I want her to keep her hair.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.