Alice: Madness Returns is the sequel to American McGee’s Alice, released in 2011, continuing the story of Alice Liddell’s dark journey back down the rabbit hole and through a shattered looking glass. The game balances Alice venturing through the realms of Victorian London and Wonderland, uncovering a murder mystery and a much dark, grimmer reality behind the house fire that killed her family. The game has many themes related to Alice’s mindset, but also the world and culture around her during one of the most progressive but miserable of times for British citizens.
Please note this essay contains content of a graphic nature in relation to this video game’s plot. Reader discretion is advised.
The game takes place a year after the first. Alice Liddell lost her family to a housefire, and fell into a ten-year long catatonic state from the trauma. In Rutledge Asylum, Alice eventually stirred, going on a battle through her subconscious to liberate Wonderland from the Queen of Hearts’ corruption, overcoming her madness and guilt. Whilst the first game ended on a high note, it turns out Alice had a relapse. Now downtrodden and teetering on the edge of sanity, Alice stays in a London orphanage. She has daily sessions with Dr. Angus Bumby, a child therapist who uses hypnosis to help deal with traumatic memories.
Alice comes to the conclusion that the house fire wasn’t an accident, and may have been orchestrated to cover up another crime. Meanwhile, Wonderland faces existential destruction by the Infernal Train, a hellish locomotive built by the March Hare and the Dormouse. The train churns out the Ruin, monstrous, oily, doll-faced abominations, corrupting Wonderland.
Through fragmented memories and prodding from the characters in her mind, Alice realises Dr. Bumby is the mastermind behind the fire, in a long-winded crime spree of murder, rape, and child abuse. As a young man, Bumby was infatuated with Alice’s sister Lizzie, but wasn’t subtle in what he wanted. Bumby stalked Lizzie, and tried using his hypnotherapy sessions with her to get away with assaulting her. He was rejected, prompting Dr. Bumby to break into Alice’s house, rape Lizzie, lock her in her room using a key given to him by Alice’s father for his therapy sessions, and then burnt the house down to cover up his crimes. Alice survived, actually seeing Bumby in her house and then outside, but the memory was forgotten.
We later learn that Dr. Bumby began pimping orphaned children, erasing their memories, and turning them into prostitutes, claiming he is simply serving “all appetites” in the Industrial Era-London. Yeah, this is a pretty dark, disturbing video game. Alice sensed something was wrong, though she was too wrapped in her own trauma to notice. As such, the Infernal Train was created by weakened parts of her mind and set loose through Alice’s sessions with Dr. Bumby. It could be speculated that a part of Alice’s psyche wanted her traumatic memories to be removed, allowing Dr. Bumby to start erasing her mind. But, Alice eventually realises something is wrong and begins a journey through Wonderland and London to uncover the truth.
The game’s story begins with the rather nasty death of the White Rabbit, who warns Alice that something is amiss, specifically that she has dormant memories regarding the fire, but that she has noticed the prostitution of her fellow orphans. Alice wanders the streets of London, stalked by spectres of the Jabberwock, the personification of her guilt. She winds up back in Wonderland where her journey truly begins.
Her first stop is the Vale of Tears, a lingering, lush vestige of her old, innocent Wonderland, filled with giant toys, weird critters, and a giant crying statue of Alice – a subtle nod that her subconscious knows the truth and is sobbing over her own ignorance. The Cheshire Cat, Alice’s conscience, guides her to the Vorpal Blade, left in the bones of the dead Jabberwock, symbolising how Alice overcame her guilt.
This is where we meet both the Insane Children and the Ruin, two sides of the same coin. The Insane Children represent the orphans and how they are suffering at Dr. Bumby’s hands. The children are put through the Infernal Train, coming out as the Ruin. By-products of the train, the Ruin are oily, mechanical, doll-faced monsters, in constant pain, and stripped of their humanity, representing the pimped children. They are “fed” to London, the Infernal Train resembling a neverending, hellish convoy of gothic city buildings. The Insane Children hide away, leaving invisible messages for Alice to find.
There are ongoing themes of abuse throughout Wonderland that hint at what Dr. Bumby has been doing to the children; in the dodos in the Hatter’s Domain, plugged into machinery to never stop working, the paper ants in the Oriental Grove who are murdered by wasps, and the oysters/fish in the Deluded Depths, who are eaten by the Walrus.
Alice reaches the Mad Hatter’s domain, now ruled by the March Hare and Dormouse, who have turned the place into an industrial factory to build the Infernal Train. This whole levels represents the dark side of the Industrial Revolution, with an army of Dodos being used as a workmen without any care for their welfare. The March Hare and Dormouse represent the parts of Alice’s mind influenced by Dr. Bumby to erase her memories. The Mad Hatter, Alice’s self-preservation, has been taken apart and scattered around the factory to let Alice’s mind be infiltrated by Dr. Bumby’s influence. Alice repairs him to start taking back control of her subconscious. Though Alice beats the March Hare and Dormouse, the Infernal Train is let loose.
The next portion of Alice’s journey occurs in the frozen sea of Tundraland, created when Alice is knocked “out cold” by a pimp named Jack Splatter. Though beautiful, it is also cold and dangerous, with Splatter symbolising a frozen sun, a cold, unfeeling, influential presence. Alice finds the Mock Turtle, formerly in charge of the Looking Glass Railway, now captain of the HMS Gryphon. They flee underwater, but sharks wreck the ship. The Mock Turtle still represents Alice’s sorrow, but also her empathy, scolding Alice for ignoring the sufferings of others around her.
The Deluded Depths is an underwater community built by the Carpenter, but is truly a place of depravity and madness, literally symbolising Alice’s descent into madness. The Walrus and the Carpenter own a theatre and put on macabre shows, referencing freakshows and how the handicapped were treated in the Victoria era. The Walrus represents the brutality behind these shows, the voyeurism of Victorian-era society, and again, alluding to the cruelty of the prostitution going on behind Alice’s back.
The Carpenter is a theatrical, easily distracted fool with a flair for dramatics, but is shrewd and devious. He sends Alice on a wild goose chase to assemble the pieces for his upcoming play, though this is a distraction so he and the Walrus can gorge themselves silly on fish through gruesome means. Alice soon realises she has been tricked, learning the devious duo sank ships and killed sailors to build the Deluded Depths. The Carpenter symbolises Alice’s ignorance, more interested in his show and theatrics, using the illusion of the stage to distract Alice. However, when Alice confronts the Carpenter, she learns he is more of a well-intentioned figure.
He sends her on the wild goose chase, hoping to deter her curiosity but to also avoid drawing in the Infernal Train by murdering fish to go along with the destructive effects on Alice’s mind. He created the Deluded Depths to save a part of her mind, appeasing the Walrus’ gluttony and trying to look like he was involved in the destruction of Alice’s mind to evade the notice of the train. The Carpenter pushes Alice to safety when the train arrives, freeing her from her ignorance, opening her mind to the idea that she has been deceived and someone is trying to erase her memories.
Alice speaks with her family solicitor, Mr. Radcliffe, retrieving her toy rabbit. She returns to the Vale of Tears, now an apocalyptic wasteland destroyed by the train. She follows the voice of the Caterpillar, her personified logic, wisdom, and common sense. She follows it to a large insect mount, shrinking down to scale it to find the dormant Caterpillar. The Oriental Grove is based on Radcliffe’s taste for all things oriental, where the Caterpillar is worshipped as a god by the victimised ants.
Alice finds the Caterpillar in a cocoon. He advises her to find the Queen of Hearts, who hides the secret truth related to the fire. He then hatches out of the cocoon, now a butterfly. Butterflies are a recurring motif in the game, using in a specific gameplay move that lets Alice move around quickly, and she bursts into a flock of them when she dies in-game. Butterflies can signify transformation, change, life, and hope. The Caterpillar becoming a butterfly symbolises Alice changing herself, opening her eyes to the bigger world around her.
Our journey takes us to Queensland, the former seat of the Queen of Hearts, and the centre of Alice’s mind. Alice’s mind is crumbling and the Queen’s influence as the centre of the mind is dying. Alice is stalked by the Executioner, a scythe-wielding guard who is unstoppable and invulnerable to harm. He symbolises Alice’s rage and a desire for death, or to be punished. However, Alice finds an “Eat Me” cake and grows to the size of a giant, symbolising her newfound confidence and empowerment, and squishes the Executioner beneath her foot.
The Queen of Hearts hides at the “heart” of her crumbling empire, formerly the source of Alice’s madness and rage, but now serves another purpose, hiding her childhood memories of the fire. She is the dark side of Alice’s mind; the perfect place to hide subconscious knowledge. The Queen resembles either a young Alice, or her sister Lizzie, both being the first victims of Dr. Bumby. Lizzie was raped by Dr. Bumby and then locked in her room to die, though it is possible she was murdered beforehand. The Queen is locked away, angry that Alice allowed Dr. Bumby’s alter ego, the Dollmaker, to succeed her in the role of Alice’s mirror image.
When Alice expresses her relief of being rid of the Queen, the latter responds by devouring Alice, drawing her into what I assume is an illusionary scenario where Alice has had a relapse and returned to Rutledge Asylum, but is beyond help. Tweedledum and Tweedledee appear, performing medieval practices on Alice to try and cure her mind (i.e. using leeches, drilling into the brain, etc.) The likely symbolise Alice’s memories of her time in Rutledge, and her fear of being tormented again, but also of her own current torment at the hands of Dr. Bumby. She also meets visions of other characters, including Dr. Bumby, who pretty much states he has been manipulating Alice, opening the girl to realising what has happened.
Alice escapes her hallucination, eventually winding up in the Dollhouse, a place likely created by the Dollmaker, symbolising the true nature of his orphanage. It looks innocent enough, with giant dollhouses filled with toys, fences made of giant pencils, and huge dolls everywhere. However, it is actual quite dreadful. The houses contain furniture made from doll parts, and the giant dolls have entrances to other parts of the land through their mouths or where their private parts would be, revealing the horrific abuse behind the orphanage’s doors.
Within the depths of the Dollhouse, Alice finds the nightmarish workshop of the Dollmaker, who is how she personifies Dr. Bumby’s cruelty and true self – a manipulative, unfeeling, lecherous monster, with enormous grasping hands like those of a puppeteer, and bleeding oil from his eyes, representing the constant misery he consumes others in. We see the Dollmaker capturing the Insane Children, turning them into mindless dolls, and feeding them to the Infernal Train, which spits them out as the Ruin, symbolising the cycle of prostitution the children go through.
Alice now knows most of the secrets her Wonderland friends were trying to guide her too. The Dollmaker transforms Alice into a doll, but she is marked with the Greek symbol of Omega, which is associated with great power. This symbolises Alice’s true power over her own mind, allowing her to break free from her doll form.
In the real world, Alice confronts Dr. Bumby, who is waiting in a train station for his next patient. He proudly boasts of his crimes, keeping the key to Lizzie’s bedroom a momentum of his first victim. In Wonderland, Alice boards the Infernal Train, encountering her friends along the way, who scold her for her ignorance, but now personify different parts of her guilt.
The Mad Hatter blames Alice for not realising that Dr. Bumby was trying to erase her memories. This further points to the Hatter being Alice’s self-preservation, which, if not in pieces, would have known something was wrong (“I’d like to forget what you did. I’ve tried, but I can’t.”) The Caterpillar instils Alice’s guilt for not recognising the suffering of the orphans, and how bystanders, who do nothing to intervene in a crime, can be just as guilty as the culprits. Finally, the Queen of Hearts reveals to Alice that Lizzie was raped, which young Alice didn’t understand was going on at the time of the fire. Alice then confronts the Dollmaker in the train’s engine, and is able to destroy him. The engine also features the Omega symbol again, representing the battle for dominance within Alice’s mind.
In the real world, Dr. Bumby dismisses Alice as a madwoman with little evidence to vilify him. Alice goes to leave, but steals back her sister’s key. She then turns around, and from Dr. Bumby’s point of view, we see Alice has become her idealised Wonderland self. This could be interpreted as Dr. Bumby either going mad, or “seeing” Alice’s true self, overcoming his control to defy him. Alice then pushes Dr. Bumby onto the tracks and he is killed by a timely, karmic train.
In the closing scene, Alice steps out of the train station and finds herself in a strange fusion of London and Wonderland, referred to as “Londerland”. This implies her mind is, for now, at rest, and she can live both in reality and her dream world. The Cheshire Cat gives a closing speech, commenting that Alice has overcome her pain, learning to endure and face it, rather than conveniently forget it. As he puts it, “Wonderland is safe…for now.”
A third game called Alice: Otherlands was meant to be released, but was reworked into a couple of short animated films, where Alice crosses paths with famous 19th century historical figures. It is revealed that Londerland is a dreamscape that has granted Alice a superpower of some kind that lets her traverse the subconscious of other people…somehow. I suppose this is meant to show that Alice has overcome her trauma and madness, forming a type of lucidity.
Nowadays, American McGee is using Patreon to plan out a prequel called Alice Asylum, featuring a traumatised young Alice dealing with the fallout of her family’s death, getting to a point where her mind will be ready to confront her madness.