Dear Insane Children,
SPOILER and TRIGGER Warnings! In this post, we’ll discuss a topic that will both Spoil the opening of the game and potentially Trigger some of you… though I suspect if you’ve made it this far through the Alice games, you’re less concerned about the latter.
Here Be Spoilers
A few weeks ago I proposed a major adjustment to the opening setup for Alice: Asylum. I mentioned at the time that this was largely instigated by the work I was doing on a narrative outline for presentation to potential TV series producers – HBO, Netflix, Hulu, etc. (We posted a PDF of the outline presentation HERE if you’re interested in reading it). And the instigating question – one that is front-and-center when talking to Hollywood-type storytellers is, “What are the stakes?”
I found myself struggling to answer this question in a simple fashion. Our story (Young Alice trapped inside Adult Alice) was like “Groundhog Day” – with Young Alice living the same Denial Reality over and over. She could “die” or “escape” but she’d just find herself returned to The Circus and starting everything over again.
For Adult Alice, trying to connect with her Inner Child… so what? So she goes through life unconnected to her Inner Child. Unable to give herself the sort of Self Love so critical to a balanced and healthy mental life. She’d suffer, sure. Then again, most people we encounter in the world are suffering in this way. Unless we’re doing a Dostoevsky-Esque illustration of life, evil, and meaning… Which we’re not… then we’re going to need more to pin this story on.
Here Be Triggers
So I suggested that at the start of Alice: Asylum, we’d see Alice commit “self-murder” and that this would set the stakes for Young Alice’s adventure. In my initial presentation of this idea I went heavily thematic and brutally visual – perhaps a bit too far – by suggesting that Adult Alice would commit this act with an analog for the Vorpal Blade. We’d see her using a knife/letter opener to slice her wrists and then transition to Wonderland as Alice succumbs to blood loss.
To be clear, my goal with this new opening scene is NOT to revel in gore or shock (well, not beyond the usual shock of seeing a beloved character do self-harm in this way). I wasn’t proposing the knife and blood because I wanted to splatter gore across the screen – only because the knife (Vorpal Blade) is symbolically important to Alice’s journey.
But many of you (rightly) protested the method and visuals contained in this proposal. To be fair, many of you protested the notion of Alice doing this in the first place. So, first…
Is This In Character?
Yes. I say this based on my understanding of Alice’s journey and my personal experiences with this topic. The Alice series is known to deal with topics that other games (or narratives in general) might shy away from. Combine that with the “why” of presenting those topics: Because I (as the creator of the Alice series) have personally dealt with these issues and the related emotional and psychological pains. (For the record: No, I’ve never pushed anyone under a train).
In AMA we saw Alice’s wrists either cut or bandaged (depending on the illustration). And mention was made in The Casebook of her attempting suicide not long after the fire destroyed her family. It would be difficult to argue against her “rationale” for that attempt. In the depths of Shock, literally anything (including death) seems preferable to the complete loss of one’s reality. So she’s gone to this place previously.
As for the Present Moment in which we find Adult Alice; pushing Bumby under a train did not magically evaporate all of Alice’s pain. Completely resolving PTSD by flipping a metaphorical or literal switch isn’t a thing. Instead, it’s a gradual process wherein, depending on the severity of the damage done, a person may never fully recover. People learn to cope; they develop strategies to simulate normality. But even in situations where victims are fortunate to find themselves in a safe environment surrounded by supportive caretakers, there are still triggers, pains, and moments of terrifying darkness.
So we find Adult Alice living in solitude, burdened by the loss of her family, and still suffering from severe PTSD. (Side note: I’m pretty sure we never witnessed her receiving any sort of meaningful care or training related to healing those wounds). Yes, she’s vanquished a Major Dragon (Bumby). But in some ways, this only makes things worse. Without a Mystery to solve, without a Goal to achieve, she finds her days revolving around her pain and loss; the Dark Hole blown in her soul only growing larger day by day…
Save Yourself, Alice
So she decides to end her life.
Look at this from the narrative structure perspective. It’s critically important that we start our heroes at the bottom. At the start of their story, they must experience an Extraordinary Death so that an upward journey towards Rebirth is possible. And we can’t get much lower than this. It gives us tremendous tension within the story and sets us up for a powerful resurrection and rebirth.
Alice will save herself.
Let’s discard the notion that we (Crowd Design team) are somehow killing Alice. We’re not. You’re in the kitchen as we’re Making The Sausage. You need to look beyond the elbows, eyeballs, and assholes being shoved into intestines… Yuck. That’s not what the finished product is about. And the story presented in the game won’t just suddenly end with this opening scene. (Even if it did, she never technically dies anyway). Nor will the game end without resolving the story in a satisfactory fashion for us, The Player, and Alice.
With this setup, Young Alice has something to fight for. She’s fighting to save herself by saving Adult Alice. We, The Players, have something to fight for. And we’ll make that clear early in the game. Yes, we’ll find a way to communicate to Young Alice the reality of her situation (even if it’s done through metaphor) such that she’s invested in the journey.
“Save yourself, Alice,” takes on a completely different meaning.
Fire has always been a literal and symbolic agent of change within the Alice series. It’s what was used to murder Alice’s family. It initiated the journey in the first game. And it powered the destruction (train) – and redemption (train) – in the second game. That it would be used a third time has a nice symmetry to it.
The proposal is that we see Alice use Fire (coal burning in her stove) to fill her room with smoke and (attempt to) extinguish her own life.
This starts the game and sends us Down the Rabbit Hole where we assume the role of Young Alice in her new adventure.
This works thematically because it connects to the fire that killed Alice’s family. It can also be neatly linked to the Chaos taking over Wonderland in Asylum (smoke slowly filling Alice’s room = Chaos taking over Wonderland). Stopping the Chaos is tantamount to stopping the smoke filling Alice’s room. And we can draw connections to this theme throughout the story.
The ultimate goal in all of this is to reconnect Adult Alice with her Child Self. It’s through this reunification that Adult Alice can complete a major step in her healing process. It’show she can begin to trust and to love again.
After the fire that killed her family, Alice rejected anyone who might remind her of what she lost. Scared to love again because love means being open to the pain of loss. She’s rejected her Inner Child because it’s just another reminder of her pain and another chance to be hurt. But being able to Trust Again is a critical and necessary step that Alice must take.
And our story creates the necessary sequence of events that lead to Alice being open to transformation. The fire once again acts as an agent of change.
In your comments on this concept, I read that several of you are concerned about how this might romanticize or otherwise promote the notion of suicide as a gateway to introspection and healing. This is a real concern. And I don’t yet know exactly how we deal with it. It is, as we are all aware, a sticky subject.
It’s a problem that exists in any story where suicide is a component. Does the reading of “Romeo and Juliet” result in suicides? If so, why do we not ban this story? If not, why not? What about Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day” repeatedly killing himself? Does viewing that movie result in more suicides?
Characters often do risky things, potentially sacrificing life, to achieve a goal… Doesn’t Captain America (Steve Rogers) decide to undergo a process that’s likely to kill him so that he can be transformed? Does this inspire people who watch that film to attempt similar acts of bravery which then leads to injury or death?
If we assume responsibility as writers to avoid certain topics because they may inspire copycat actions… then it seems we’re on a slippery slope where anything related to drug abuse, spouse abuse, the portrayal of violence, etc… can’t be expressed in our stories.
Have you read Titus Andronicus?! (TL;DR Summary TL;DR: Tamora plans false incrimination, rape, murder, and mutilation. Titus plans murder and cannibalism. This is not a happy play).
Does this make Alice into a Damsel in Distress? Not the way I see it. Mainly because she ends up saving herself… so that undoes that trope at its core. Is she in distress? Yes, but she takes action in response to that distress. We may not agree with that action – we don’t, because we care for Alice, which is a natural an expected reaction – but it’s an action nonetheless.
Ina wrote a comment in which she said, “When you, like Alice, have lived a life full of trauma and extreme conditions, that’s what you get used to and that’s what you’re good at. So when your final trauma is “overcome”, you now have to live a normal life, doing completely ordinary, everyday things, for which you are totally unprepared, you have little to no experience with this, and in Alices case, you have to do it completely on your own. Spending your whole life surviving, doesn’t dress you for just living, and in many cases it crushes your spirit. It’s natural that Alice would feel completely lost and at odds with this world, because it’s not the world she lived in for 20 years.”
And I would invite everyone to watch “Shawshank Redemption” and pay attention to the character of Brooks Hatlen for a clear representation of this character type.
Which brings me to…
How Do We Represent This?
I am still working on some ideas… but the general question for me is, “How to represent the gift Young Alice gives Adult Alice that gives her reason to live?” And it’s a question that is illustrated by a follow-up scene in “Shawshank Redemption” where Red ends up in the same room where Brooks committed suicide… and has his own moment contemplating the idea before he sets off to reunite with Andy.
The big difference between Red and Brooks is that Red has a dream (meeting with Andy in Zihuatanejo). He has a goal. And in my mind, Adult Alice is like Brooks where Child Alice is like Red. Child Alice has a dream. She’s like an untainted vessel containing Alice’s childhood fantasies, curiosity, trust, and love. And she can share that dream and those childlike energies with Adult Alice. But only if they are allowed to reconnect.
I don’t know if this is silly or not… it probably is…
But Omri suggested opening the game with “suicide by Drink Me” – in other words, Alice drinks a poison ala Romeo and Juliet, falls down the Rabbit Hole… and you know the rest.
My issue with “Drink Me” is that in Wonderland these things are restorative. You drink a potion and it changes you – it doesn’t kill you. It might make you bigger or smaller or… who knows? But it’s going to transform you (and not unto death).
So my silly thought was that we’d see Young Alice in Wonderland at the end of her adventure finally gain possession of a “Drink Me” bottle (we need to create a LOT of structure around this object) and have her drink it…
She’d then grow larger and larger, breaking out of the Snow Globe reality and literally (not literally!) filling the interior of Alice’s body… at which point we transition to Alice’s London room and see her start back to consciousness. She can break for the door and save herself, saved by her inner child.
Still Needs Work
All of this still needs work. And I’ve been thinking about the topic a lot. But I think we can make it work if we continue hammering on it together. In the meantime, it’s useful to have bits of this to present and discuss as we go into meetings with potential TV producer partners.
I’ve got a meeting next week with one of the largest game companies in the world to discuss film + game production for Alice. This meeting came about through a friend in China who has been a longtime supporter of Alice and has been on the lookout for ways to make a film version happen. This meeting feels like one of the better chances we’ve had in recent months… and the company we’re meeting with certainly has the muscle to make it happen so… Cross your fingers and toes and eyes!
I think a lot of what’s contained here has been said before. And if it seems I didn’t directly answer your comment or question, I apologize. I did actually read through all the comments you posted (thank you!). But I am still noodling around on this idea in my head… so let’s give it time to breathe and take shape. I’d love to hear if you’ve had any further thoughts. And we can then continue to sketch until we get something we’re all (mostly) happy with this.
From Shanghai with Love,