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Slouching Towards Bedlam

From the Database of Home of the Underdogs

GAME DESIGNER:Star Foster & Daniel Ravipinto



Copyright 2003, Star Foster & Daniel Ravipinto

Well-deserved first place winner of the ninth Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, Slouching Towards Bedlam is a modern-day classic from Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster. Mike Russo’s review as posted on the newsgroup says it all about this amazing game.

“[The game] involves eschatology, a British insane asylum, a player character whose mental state is very much in doubt, gnosticism, a memetic word-virus, steampunk, the “Second Coming” of W.B. Yeats, the Kabbalah, and a Benthamite panopticon of the type deconstructed by Michel Foucault in his seminal work Discipline and Punish (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors had also read Madness and Civilization). Let me say right out that the only way the authors could have possibly done a better job of pandering to me would have been to include some Buddhism.

Slouching Towards Bedlam opens inside the eponymous asylum, where the player character is listening to his own voice describing the slow realization that he is going mad. His explorations are periodically interrupted by a (mental?) burst of strange words; at first the tendency is to tune them out, but soon they begin to take on a terrifying significance. As he attempts to understand what has happened to him, he finds his course unerringly transformed into the reverse of the path a particular inmate took to Bedlam; this perverse recapitulation is retrograde in more ways than one, for his investigation is also the vector for an agent of infection. Soon, the player finds himself caught in a crux: to play midwife to a new paradigm of humanity or to safeguard the status quo, if such a thing is even possible.

The above summary doesn’t do the game justice. At all. Each elements works in concert to create a thrilling sense of momentum and discovery. There are distinct phases, through which the player passes effortlessly. The mystery surrounding Cleve’s disposal in Bedlam segues into an investigation of the society whose secrets he uncovered, and once the whole is apprehended, the player gets to make a choice of monumental import. Throughout, the razor-sharp prose keeps the player tense and engaged. The alternate London the authors have conjured is a brittle place, where violence, communication and becoming lurk under the surface of an ordinary street market: “its presence . threatens to overwhelm the senses – the smell of an abattoir, the din of a thousand voices shouting, the sight of masses of humanity talking, shopping, selling.” Or this, the first chilling line of the response to “KILL DRIVER”: “A false destination. It is as easy as that.” The Logos’ interjections could have easily been ridiculous, but they are in fact alien and obscure, as they should be.

The allusive brew of the game is thick and heady, but while some knowledge of gnosticism and Jewish mysticism will deepen one’s enjoyment, everything one needs to fully appreciate the game is right there on the screen – an impressive feat considering that this involves communicating certain nonstandard ideas about the Christian Logos and the relationship between Kabbalistic sefirot!

Remarkably, all this thematic activity doesn’t occur in a puzzleless environment. There are real obstacles to progress, and while the difficulty level is generally low enough to allow the story to drive forward, thought is definitely required. The tasks facing the main character range from the mundane (fixing a radio) to the complex (operating the Panopticon and the Bedlam archives) to the recondite (feeding a dying madman’s ravings into a mobile steampunk computer), and each manages to be well-clued and flawlessly integrated into the whole.

The endgame is perhaps the most impressive of Slouching Towards Bedlam‘s many achievements. Once the mystery is solved, the player must make a difficult choice. While some answers are easier than others, there is no facile “right” solution; ambiguity is inevitable. Even acting on one’s choice can be quite difficult; the Logos is a powerful entity, and arresting its growth requires sacrifices far more terrible than merely the player character’s life: to be humanity’s savior is to be a monster. While I do have a few minor complaints – I thought the TRIAGE computer was underutilized, and some NPC interactions were a bit lightweight – I feel like an ingrate for even mentioning them. My favorite game of the comp, hands down.” Must-have for anyone with the slightest interest in interactive fiction, and a definite inductee into our Hall of Belated Fame.

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