© Copyright 2022 Will Downey, Ryerson University
Introduction: “Look Straight Ahead; or Askance.”
Video games are one of the most popular forms of entertainment in contemporary culture, engaging with their audience and giving the players agency in the world being presented to them. As such, they have routinely come under critical scrutiny for what they portray and to whom. The 2000 psychological horror video game American McGee’s Alice (Rogue Entertainment / Electronic Arts) and its 2011 sequel Alice: Madness Returns (Spicy Horse / EA) are intriguing examples of this, especially when examined through Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze. Mulvey’s ideas about fetishism, voyeurism, and male spectatorship inform our understanding of the ways in which the female form is represented in visual culture and how this further reflects and affects social attitudes towards women. Examining the two Alice games through the lens provided by Mulvey allows for a critique of how they both reaffirm the male spectatorial position by objectifying the female form, but also how, at times, they represent female characters in a counterhegemonic way. This in turn raises the question of how the two games ultimately differ regarding female representation. Indeed, by examining the representation, action, and control of the female form in American McGee’s Alice and Alice: Madness Returns, we can see a difference in the extent to which both female objectification and counterhegemonic resistance to the gaze manifest themselves. While Alice’s objectification in the second game is more pronounced than in the first, her ability to recognize that objectification lends itself to a more counterhegemonic reading, providing a compelling example of how games can, in certain instances, represent the gaze in a way that both reaffirms and undermines its power.
“How Fine You Look When Dressed in Rage:” The Visual Representation of Characters
By examining how female characters are represented in the Alice games, we can see that while the fetishization of the female body becomes more pronounced in the second game, so does the latter’s tendency to call attention to that fetishization in a counterhegemonic fashion. In American McGee’s Alice, the titular protagonist’s appearance is almost childish. She has large green eyes, an extremely thin waist, and is wearing a blue and white dress with a large bow in the back. However, the dress is also covered in bloodstains and adorned by alchemical symbols. These features of Alice’s appearance are discordant, at once suggesting infantilization, given that Alice wears the clothes associated with her seven-year-old self from Carroll’s novels, but also maturity, because of what is on her clothing. This contradiction is prominent in the cover art for American McGee’s Alice (see Image A), which depicts Alice in a childlike pose, holding her arm in a manner that suggests vulnerability while wearing her familiar dress.
She is framed by a heart, implying that she might be the male spectator’s “valentine,” but her extradiegetic gaze suggests either an acknowledgment of being observed or perhaps a challenge to it. Behm-Morawitz notes that in Mature-rated video games, “48% of female characters [are] dressed in outfits with no sleeves” (qtd in Behm-Morawitz 809), which accords with Alice’s representation, but other obvious forms of sexualization that the critic examines (cleavage, a revealing neckline) are not present.
However, Alice’s appearance changes considerably in Madness Returns: she is older, her features and appearance are more stylized, and her dress is smaller. Time has passed between the games, but Alice’s primary outfit has not. Again, this speaks to both a kind of infantilization of the character, but a sexualization as well, with Alice having reached sexual maturity while adorned in children’s clothes. However, in Madness Returns, Alice’s appearance involves fetishistic customizability. Mulvey notes that “fetishistic scopophilia builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself” (Mulvey), which has implications for the fact that roughly every two levels, Alice’s dress changes from her classic dress to one specifically fitted to the context of the level (see Image B). When the game was first released, additional dresses were made available for purchase, which had the in-game effect of not just customizing her appearance, but also granting her various in-game bonuses. Thus, the player was encouraged to adorn Alice: to use her as a fetish object by dressing her up like a doll, in a game in which the central antagonist, the Dollmaker, operates in a similar manner. What is more, this fetishization of Alice was something the player was asked to pay for. However, the character’s empowerment in the game is tied to her fetishization in a way that raises far more provocative questions about the connection between objectification and counterhegemonic representation than what we find in the first game.
For example, player pays to see Alice in different dresses, but the dresses grant her powers that increase her ability to combat the forces that oppress her. The other female characters in both games also speak to the idea that the second game has both increased sexualization of the female body but greater potential for a counterhegemonic reading of the gaze. In the first game, only two other female characters are given any kind of extended treatment: the Duchess and the Queen of Hearts. However, their appearances are entirely repulsive to the male gaze: the Duchess is recognizably female, but her features are disproportionate and monstrous, while the Queen of Hearts is a faceless creature with massive claws, horns, and tentacles in place of a lower body. In Madness Returns, things are different. Although many of the female characters in Wonderland still appear as repulsive to the male spectator, new female characters appear whose bodies reinforce the sexualization of the female form in a rather ridiculous fashion. The Oyster Starlets (dressed in skimpy burlesque outfits) and the character of Nan Sharpe (who has a strange mixture of both sexualized and non-sexualized features) serve to represent that sexualization is a normal part of the world Alice inhabits. In effect, this fetishization calls attention to the gaze. Many of these characters are “dolled up” and have very pronounced and sexualized physical features but are otherwise stylistically rendered as unattractive.
“Wonderland in Ruins:” The Visual Story
The storylines of the two games are also important for the elements of visuality (and countervisuality) that they depict. American McGee’s Alice takes place in Alice’s mind, where Wonderland has been corrupted by her damaged psyche. The conflicts she faces, then, are internal, giving the first game an exclusively introspective point of view for the player, within which there is less of a place for fetishization or objectification. Indeed, the game’s setting accords with Alice’s autonomy as a character, as discussed by Laurie Taylor in an examination that includes American McGee’s Alice: “The Gothic setting allows for the disruption of norms and normality. In doing so, the female characters are not immediately identified as sexualized objects, but are instead identified as characters trying to survive. Within these games’ Gothic settings, the characters’ physical appearances do not factor into their abilities and actions, nor into the game narratives as they do for female characters in other games (Taylor 100). Alice is not overtly sexualized or objectified by the characters or situations she encounters, and she maintains a great deal of agency, often calling out other characters for their unhelpfulness, rudeness, or stupidity. She obeys none of the sexualized tropes often associated with playable female video game characters outlined by Behm-Morawitz et al, who cite the work of Dietz in stating that “When playable female characters do appear in video games, they are typically overtly sexualized and portrayed wearing promiscuous dress and engaging in seductive acts” (Behm-Morawitz et al 809). Ultimately, American McGee’s Alice provides the character with a space in which she is the visual focus, but in a way that sometimes gives her a measure of autonomy.
However, in the second game the gaze is extremely active, although the way in which it is active is dwelled on at such length by both the story and the game’s mechanics that it seems to present us with a counterhegemonic reading of its own narrative. Unlike its predecessor, Madness Returns alternates between the imagined, internal world of Wonderland, and the external “real world” of London. The threats Alice faces are also externally generated, no longer products of her own imagination, but instead placed in her mind by the game’s antagonist, the Dollmaker. Themes of sexual predation and control of the body by outside (spectatorial) forces are rife throughout the game. These themes can also be found in some of the collectables and aesthetic visuals of certain levels of the game (nude or semi-nude statues of female figures, for instance). This is taken to an unsettling extreme in the final few levels of the game (taking place in a location called “The Dollhouse”), in which enemies appear that resemble monstrous female dolls. These enemies are defeated by destroying their “armor,” rendering them effectively naked. The symbolic inferences of this are striking and disturbing, as the player is made to literally strip these enemies of their power in a way that technically appeases the gaze, but which also draws attention to its alarming, invasive, and violent nature. Yet throughout the game, Alice remains assertive, and not only calls attention to the gaze at work upon her within the game’s narrative, but ultimately confronts and destroys it at the game’ conclusion. This constitutes a subversive element in the game consistent with observations made by Mwedzi that “the male gaze reduces female characters to ornaments onscreen whose impact on the plot is insignificant, so in order to successfully subvert it, female characters must exercise agency and contribute meaningfully to the narrative” (Mwedzi 3). Alice is a prime example of this subversion in that at no point is she rendered passive or inert. Even toward the end of the game when she is physically transformed into a doll, Alice almost immediately reasserts herself without any input or direction from the player.
“Necessary but Not Sufficient:” The Gaze of the Player
The role of the gaze is of special importance in video games, where the player has the ability not just to look, but also to assume direct control over the character(s), something that is of particular importance with the Alice games when we consider issues of gender. As a study from McCullough et al concluded of female gamers, “[t]hose who value the positive aspects of womanhood and have thoughtful and realistic perceptions of gender may be more resilient to internalizing the harmful beliefs about women perpetuated in games” (McCullough et al 272). As such, we must examine not just the content, but the mechanics of the gameplay to determine how the player’s ability to interact with the playable character of Alice both empowers the gaze and, at times, subverts it. In American McGee’s Alice, there is an unusual disconnect between player and character: the player’s control of Alice is limited by the game’s interface, which is clunky and mechanical, making movement somewhat unintuitive. At the same time, the camera through which the player can observe the character (and the world they inhabit) is locked at a moderate distance behind Alice during gameplay, turning and following along with the characters movements. This means that Alice looks away from the player, while the player spends the entire time looking at Alice’s profile from behind. Once again, this speaks to how the gaze is held at bay; it is given some voyeuristic access to, but not full power over, Alice’s form. Finally, in combat, Alice wields a variety of weapons, many of which resemble warped toys with violent effects, again playing into the dichotomy between infantilization and empowerment.
In Madness Returns, however, we find a different gameplay system at work, and therefore different implications for that system. Madness Returns boasts smooth controls, making it easier to direct Alice’s movements, and Alice has a more diverse move-set. Furthermore, the camera is now positioned at a much closer proximity to Alice (particularly out of combat), and is no longer locked to her back, meaning that the player can move the camera all around her. This gives the spectator/ player the power to fully control Alice’s form in both a fetishistic and voyeuristic way that accords with Mulvey’s understanding of the camera’s function: “The camera becomes the mechanism for producing an illusion of Renaissance space, flowing movements compatible with the human eye, an ideology of representation that revolves around the perception of the subject” (Mulvey 9).
Conclusion: “Only a Few Find the Way”
The visual ways in which the Alice games portray their protagonist speak to the nature of video games as a medium that provides the gaze with an unprecedented power over its subject; however, the games show us how that power can be undermined. In examining the representation of female characters, the visual nature of the stories, and the ways in which the player is positioned as controller/spectator, we can see how both Alice games, as uniquely interactive mediums, are capable of both perpetuating the gaze and calling attention to its power. In the first level of American McGee’s Alice, the Cheshire Cat says to Alice: “Only a few find the way; some don’t recognize it when they do; some don’t ever want to.” This line inadvertently speaks to the nature of the gaze in both American McGee’s Alice and Alice: Madness Returns. Only by recognizing the gaze are we able to find a way to challenge it. And only by challenging it are we able to undermine its power.
Images in this online publication are either in the public domain or are being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education
Alice: Madness Returns. Xbox 360, Electronic Arts, 2011.
American McGee’s Alice. Windows PC, Electronic Arts, 2000.
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