I recently played Alice: Madness Returns for what I think was the third time, as I was taking a break from reading Deleuze’s and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus. I’ve since finished reading that book, along with a bunch of supplemental material for the sake of understanding that book, but it was while I was still playing Alice 2 that I realized it was showing me D&G’s schizoanalysis in action.
I first played American McGee’s Alice in 2004, and that is the game I have replayed more than any other. The soundtrack is one of my all-time most listened albums, and the Victorian surreal horror aesthetic is something I’ve deeply internalized. The soundtrack to the sequel is much weaker, the combat is much more satisfying, I wish there was more than ONE boss fight, the mini-games and paper-cutout cut scenes were jarring and silly, and otherwise the aesthetic was still strong, even improved in places with the newer graphics. I also love Lewis Carroll’s source material, and found that American McGee’s team took no unnecessary liberties with it. The aesthetics of this series of Wonderland adventures can stand on their own, and that’s what sucked me in, but I’m an enthusiastic fan that thinks there’s still room for a philosophical interpretation.
Of course philosophers will have much to say about mental illness, the relationship between psychic stuff and material reality, and the treatment of the mentally ill by the healthcare industry, but I doubt there’s much to analyze in the first game beyond the reasons why we find surreal horror fascinating, which isn’t specific to the game. There’s a vein of survivor’s guilt, but this is basically remedied by deciding to (continue to) be a badass and killing giant fantasy monsters. Madness Returns has a real-world villain and real-world ethical problems, and its realms follow a Deleuzian theme. I’d like to think this wasn’t by accident, but I can find no proof, so let’s assume this is just my own interpretation.
The Vale of Tears: The Vale of Tears is supposed to represent Alice’s equilibrium. It is a still, tranquil forest full of life. Her trauma lives there, but the forest is growing nevertheless. The repeated scenes of the Vale of Tears becoming the Vale of Doom, with the plants dying, all becoming charred, the ground getting torn up and suspended in the air, is the progress of Alice’s sense of wonder being corrupted by repression. Her therapist is intentionally training her to repress her own memories, but the simple visual contrast between the Vale of Tears and the Vale of Doom is unmistakably a contrast between wonder/curiosity/creativity and oppression/paranoia/neuroticism. The Vale of Tears/Vale of Doom is always returned to as an in-between place, the liminal nowhere space between other realms, and though Alice is still recovering from trauma, which makes it difficult for people to navigate liminality with any sense of creativity or confidence, it is the corruption of a new force that makes her experience of the in-between painful and horrifying. The train that drives the progress of repression through the Vale easily represents the progress of industrialism, which grew alongside the popularity of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory in the global West and became ideologically bound to it. The romantic thinkers said that industrialism itself repressed human wonder and creativity, but where industrial capitalism crushed it in us violently, Freud taught us to quietly extinguish it on our own.
Hatter’s Domain: This place is a factory of uninterrupted, eternal production. According to D&G, this would be the foundation of Alice’s self, the true unconscious. They referred to the unconscious not as a place of dreams, fantasies, and secrets, but as a factory for the production of desire. In this way it is related to Freud’s id, but where Freud thought the id needed to be controlled (so is a subordinate part of the self), D&G argued that consciousness works best when it serves the unconscious, not the other way around (the id obeying the ego and superego). The de-motivational recordings are jabs at oppressive factory bosses, but the factory can clearly run on its own, and the bosses (the March Hare and the Dormouse) are portrayed as invaders. To me, it just sounds like D&G’s “inner fascist”, the corrupted “preconscious” or superego, hijacking and interrupting the production of desire. The Mad Hatter, the overthrown figurehead of the factory, wants to help Alice (the consciousness), but desires tea and companionship more. Here you have a cyborg, a character obsessed with building bigger and better machines, augmenting himself to become more, and yet still appreciates pleasure and social living. Why not a representative of properly functioning “desiring machines”, the building blocks of human motivation? Are we not living for joy, love, and becoming?
The Deluded Depths: Ah, the unconscious as an ocean, constantly changing, flowing in all directions. D&G talk about flows a lot, in simple terms such as how electricity and hormones and blood and food all flow through channels in the body, but also in terms that take a bit longer to grasp. Agency and motivation are at their base mechanical, and the basic electro-chemical processes that lead to our emotions and impulses must also be some form of motivation, and you could say that when something flows more readily in one direction instead of another, that it prefers that direction, or desires it. The idea isn’t that when you plug enough neurons together and hit them with transmitters desire is suddenly created, as the sum of parts. The idea is that as your focus shifts from micro-level to macro-level the intensity of desire increases, and becomes a form of desire we commonly recognize. The unconscious is a factory full of millions of pounding machines, but the machines collaborate in a beautiful chaos of changing flows, much like an ocean with track-able but nevertheless fluid and changing tides. And it’s deep, and it’s dark, and you might never find the bottom. The flowing ocean is juxtaposed with the Tundraful area, an environment of solid ice, which you’d only traverse over an ocean to call attention to how the flows can be stopped up, frozen solid. D&G talk about the fluidity of meaning, as meaning ought to serve the fluidity of desire, but strict culture solidifies meaning, forming rigid codes out of the freedom of creativity. Progressing through this area could have started in the depths, allowing Alice to climb out on to the ice to be free of the ocean, but instead she abandons the structures of ice and dives in.
And down there she finds the Dreary Lane Theatre (which honestly had some of the most boring mini-games and annoying dialog, as you recruit characters to put on the play). In earlier play-throughs of this game I found it really confusing that the Walrus and the Carpenter would enlist Alice’s help and then suddenly betray her for no reason, but now I get it. Where D&G referred to the unconscious as a factory, Freud referred to the subconscious (a purposefully hierarchical and moralizing term) as a theater, a place of representations, expressions, and metaphors. Freud believed dreams were presented on the stage of the subconscious, and were some sort of art to be deciphered. D&G said that the dominance of the belief in unconscious-mind-as-theater betrayed our relationship with our unconscious selves, which necessarily includes our bodies. According to them,
The great discovery of psychoanalysis was that of the production of desire, of the productions of the unconscious. But once Oedipus entered the picture, this discovery was soon buried beneath a new brand of idealism: a classical theater was substituted for the unconscious as a factory; representation was substituted for the units of production of the unconscious; and an unconscious that was capable of nothing but expressing itself–in myth, tragedy, dreams–was substituted for the productive unconscious.
In a word, when the theoretician reduces desiring-production to a production of fantasy, he is content to exploit to the fullest the idealist principle that defines desire as a lack, rather than a process of production, of “industrial” production. Clement Rosset puts it very well: every time the emphasis is put on a lack that desire supposedly suffers from as a way of defining its object, “the world acquires as its double some other sort of world, in accordance with the following line of argument: there is an object that desire feels the lack of; hence the world does not contain each and every object that exists; there is at least one object missing, the one that desire feels the lack of; hence there exists some other place that contains the key to desire (missing in the world).”
In other words, focusing on lack is binding desire to representationalism, suggesting desire is delusional. Plot-wise, it doesn’t make sense for the Walrus and the Carpenter to suddenly turn on Alice, but thematically they were only coaxing her in to believing a false narrative from the start.
The Oriental Grove: Alice has no sense of culture. One can say that an early 1900s British adolescent, surrounded by racism, would easily conflate all Eastern culture and just be too naive to humanize any of it, but since we’re already primed for schizoanalysis, why not go a step further? To a traditional psychoanalyst, a person’s life revolves around the immediate family, with the cause and solution to the Oedipal complex (which they’ve propped up as the entirety of the human condition) residing there. With that in mind, it’s not that Alice finds Asian people scary so imagines them as murderous wasp people (there are also paper insect people that she helps and cooperates with). Instead, foreign aesthetics are combined with inhuman characters to show how Alice finds all the world beyond her immediate environment alien and unrelatable.
Regardless, the central conflict she imagines for this alien outside world is genocide, and she imagines herself as fighting the oppressors, so that’s cool.
Queensland: So I’m tellin’ ya, the Red Queen is the head of Alice’s corrupted preconscious or superego. The Red Queen is Alice’s true inner fascist. The kingdom of flesh and stone is the half-built, half-grown monster of tyranny. But the Red Queen was a less sophisticated superego, one of old-fashioned guilt and punishment, so feels threatened by the Dollmaker’s greater repression (in Baudrillard’s terms, the Red Queen represents dominance while the Dollmaker instills hegemony, or tyranny via self-repression). The Red Queen appears as a child in this game, perhaps to show that she’s an immature version of a superego. In any case, the Red Queen sides with Alice against the new adversary, and Alice remains untrusting of the Queen, as the superego must submit to desire for tranquility to return.
The Dollhouse: This realm is bright and pastel above ground, with a perfectly normal sky–the innocent veneer of the new superego. Down below is a new factory, a factory of repression, taking the producers of Wonderland and turning them in to dolls (puppets). The Dollmaker is recoding all of Wonderland, transforming whatever meaning Alice had in to the meta-narrative of the psychoanalyst repressor. What’s more–
Right. The Dollmaker (puppet master) is a symbol of repressive power with a real-life analog, showing how we actually internalize our oppression. Different people can feel, deep down in their viscera, that contradictory perspectives are true because broad culture and specific ideas can literally recode how our bodies respond to stimuli. And the lie doesn’t even have to be beautiful. Alice can see the shadows and the sludge and the enslavement beneath the Dollhouse, but if every desire to create is interrupted, only the desires to destroy are left. When we no longer want to explore our freedom, we only want to become our own destruction. Some become bitter and cold and call it ‘strength’. Others worship their masters. Still others aren’t fond of games and complete the destruction through suicide. Alice’s only option is to destroy, but she chooses to be patient, to endure her pain, and fights until she can destroy the oppression, and then the oppressor.
The Red Queen, Alice’s resenting preconscious/superego, is defeated, but still has a voice, and must be kept in check, or reprogrammed. The Jabberwock, the symbol of Alice’s guilt, is dead. She has triumphed over the villains she has created, but the psychoanalysts of the world, the agents of ‘civility’ and obedience, only want to fill up the space with their own monsters. Doctor Angus Bumby, Alice’s therapist, attempts to induce memory repression in order to control children. An aspect of old-school psychoanalysis was to recover repressed memories, yet it was a tool of repressing desire via reframing childhoods as a dialectic of punishment and lack. Bumby turns Alice’s life in to a tragedy of the nuclear family, making it about sex (molesting her sister) and death (killing her family). Like the early tradition of psychoanalysis did to all of the West, Bumby destroyed Alice’s relationship with her family, but did so by just plain killing them (which still caused her to develop an unhealthy fixation on them). It’s not Oedipal in a straightforward sense, but illustrates the flexibility of the framework, which over time became all-encompassing.
So, can this game teach you process philosophy, or schizoanalysis, or unlock your communion with the plane of immanence? Absolutely not. But it sure is fun to look at after you have some grasp of those things!
In closing, the two places where Anti-Oedipus refers to Lewis Carroll:
‘From the depths of [Antonin Artuad’s] suffering and his glory, he has the right to denounce what society makes of the psychotic in the process of decoding the flows of desire (Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society), but also what it makes of literature when it opposes literature to psychosis in the name of a neurotic or perverse recoding (Lewis Carroll, or the coward of belles-lettres).’
‘A time will come when the creditor has not yet lent while the debtor never quits repaying, for repaying is a duty but lending is an option—as in Lewis Carroll’s song, the long song about the infinite debt:
A man may surely claim his dues: But,
when there’s money to be lent, A man
must be allowed to choose Such times
as are convenient.’