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Slouching Towards Bedlam by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto [Comp03]

IFDB page: Slouching Towards Bedlam
Final placement: 1st place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: Because STB is one of those games whose entire point is to figure out what’s going on, some parts of this review could be considered spoilers.

For me, Comp03 has been Homecoming Year. First Mikko Vuorinen, then Stefan Blixt, and now, of all people, Dan Ravipinto, whose great, ambitious game Tapestry made a huge splash in 1996 by using the IF medium to explore ethical choices, allowing multiple paths through the game without attempting to privilege any one path as the “proper” one. Ravipinto then proceeded to utterly disappear from the face of IF, seemingly never to return. All is not as it seems, however, for here he is again, having enlisted the aid of a friend to produce another game of multiple paths, this time set in a steampunk universe with Lovecraftian overtones.

All is not as it seems in STB either, which makes reviewing it rather difficult. As I say above, the point is to figure out what’s going on (and what you’d like to do about it), and what’s going on is really quite complicated, but at least part of it involves the IF interface itself. Integrating interface and story has long been an interest of mine, which played itself out somewhat in LASH‘s “remote robot” conceit; STB takes a rather different tack, finding a completely dissimilar and ingenious explanation within the plot for the PC’s inevitable amnesiac and kleptomaniac traits, as well as the ability to jump about in time via RESTART, RESTORE, UNDO, and the like. Even stranger, you encounter tales of others in the story who have those same unusual powers.

I only figured all this out gradually, and some of it I didn’t figure out at all, having turned to the hints in order to see the end of the game. Or rather, an end to the game. Like Tapestry, STB offers an array of choices while attempting not to prefer any of them over the others, and these choices lead not only to a variety of endings, but to significant differences in the entire third act of the game. Now, I suspect that most of us, having been raised with pulp narratives about saving a threatened humanity, will find ourselves striving towards a particular ending as the “right” one, but STB rather slyly requires some extremely distasteful acts to progress on that particular path, which balances things out somewhat.

In the end, I felt that there really were no good choices, and the idea of doing the least harm to the least number still depended distinctly on who was doing the counting. Still, ultimately most of us are likely to be loyal to our own species, and so just as with Tapestry, even though multiple paths were available, there was still one that felt much more right to me than the others. That’s the brilliance of these games, though. If The Erudition Chamber is like a “What Kind Of IF Player Are You?” quiz, then Slouching Towards Bedlam is more like a “What Kind Of Person Are You?” quiz.

I guess I’ve written a lot about this game, but not much yet about what I thought of it. Well, I liked it very much. The story really drew me in, and I love the way the plot flowed smoothly from puzzle to puzzle. Even though there was quite a bit of inevitable infodumping, the wonderfully intense atmosphere of the hospital and other parts of London kept my unflagging interest. In fact, there are some parts of the game — the opening scene, the first major signs of strangeness, and the case file, for example — that I found purely spellbinding. The writing, too, was strong, keeping a Victorian mood without descending much into caricature.

There was one problem with the prose, though — for its own reasons, the game chooses to express player action predominantly in the passive voice, avoiding the word “you” as much as it can. It transfers agency to outside objects wherever possible, but sometimes it must describe the PC doing something, and here it occasionally trips, with descriptions like this (very minor puzzle spoiler ahead):

>look under blotter
Beneath the blotter is a small key, easily taken. It carries a small
tag labeled '2D'.

“Easily taken” doesn’t tell me that the PC has picked up the key, just that it would be easy for the PC to do so. Nevertheless, a subsequent inventory check reveals that the PC has indeed taken the key. From time to time, STB‘s passive voice emphasis afflicts it with this sort of muddiness.

That quibble aside, the writing worked really well, and the coding was similarly solid — I found no bugs at all. In fact, between the game’s puzzlebox premise and its lack of flaws, I’ve found this review rather hard to write, so I’ll just close by saying this: play Slouching Towards Bedlam. Your time will be well-spent, and you may find that it remains with you in entirely unexpected ways.

Rating: 9.6

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