Monday, October 7, 2013

Nightmare II: McGee's Hatter

For our second Stranger Nightmare, it's time to celebrate Mad Hatter Day (one day late -- because, you know, time can be funny in dreams) with a character spotlight on one of my personal favorite (creepy) incarnations of He Who Wears Big Hats. Without further adieu, I present to you the maniacal mechanical wonder, the Mad Hatter from the American McGee's Alice and Alice: Madness Returns games.

(Once again, beware the spoilers -- although really, if you haven't played the Alice games yet, you probably don't deserve a disclaimer.)

One of the most intriguing characters in McGee's twisted Wonderland, this Hatter (voiced by the deliciously demented-sounding Andrew Chaikin) is far from the travel-sized, gnome-like little man found in the John Tenniel illustrations that first accompanied the original novel by Lewis Carroll. According to a quote from an interview with Jay Brushwood, who worked as a 3D modeler/animator on the first game, research for the character design began with reading the books and browsing through Tenniel's works as well as other works based on the books and ended up somewhere between Tim Burton, Salvador Dali, and Spawn.

The result was a lanky green half-man, half-machine mongrel sporting spats and a stovepipe hat. The amount of detail that went into the design alone is -- teehee -- to die for; everything from the teacup-tipped cane, to the checkerboard pattern on the hat, to the clockwork gear sticking out of his back, is a wonderfully nightmarish twist on everything that was once familiar about the classic version of the character.

His role in the series is equally fascinating. In the first game, he is largely portrayed (pun intended) as one of the villains of the story, a murderous madman grown to enormous proportions who, in his first (rather shocking) appearance in the game, ruthlessly squishes the White Rabbit beneath one of his oversized soles. He is eventually defeated by Alice in order to free the Dormouse and March Hare from his torturous experiments and to protect the rest of Wonderland from meeting similar fates.

However, it is also true that the Hatter is one of the characters responsible for saving Alice from the fire which took her family. During the "Smoke and Fire" sequence, he and the White Rabbit are the first characters to notice the danger; panicking, the White Rabbit cries out, "We must save Alice!" and the Hatter's screams of "Wake up, Alice! Wake up!" are in fact what finally rouse her in time to escape and survive.

When he returns in the sequel, his role changes yet again. Apparently back to his old self, he appears as a victim of the Dormouse's and Hare's cruel revenge. This time, he is rescued by Alice and proceeds to act as a strange sort of guide for a time, even scolding Alice in an oddly mentor-ish fashion for allowing Wonderland to get so out of control.

Victim or villain, friend or foe, this Hatter is as much a fantastic reinvention of an iconic character as he is a new, original being, and his presence alone could have made the series worth playing. (Luckily, the rest of the games are just as darkly, delightfully surreal.) Hats off to American McGee and Rogue Entertainment for giving gamers one of the best horror game characters ever to play with.

"Everything's a nail, is it, Miss Hammerhead? First it was your search, freighted with fear and fragmented memories. Now it's the train! Never time for tea. While your brains on holiday, we're ruined! Now we're all mad here and that's a good excuse for going to hell in a teapot, but not for forgetting what your senses saw. Forgetting is just forgetting, except when it's not. Then they call it something else. I'd like to forget what you did. I tried, but I can't." - the Mad Hatter, American McGee's Alice

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