Reviews by Jim Kaplan
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Play it if: you want a competently written, not-too-challenging bit of bite-sized IF which dips a toe into steampunk and utopian tropes.
Don't play it if: you prefer your high-concept stories to have a sense of follow-through, your puzzles to feel varied and necessary to the story, or your IF to have broad scope in any meaning of the term.
Slouching Towards Bedlam is a well-written piece of IF, though I hesitate to call it "great". True, there is appropriate descriptive depth and a good feel for the atmosphere of the piece, and there is a good mix of ideas driving the setting and plot - Lovecraftian insanity, burgeoning conspiracies, steampunk technologies and Bentham-style social progressivism.
And yet something about it doesn't click for me. As an aspiring writer of IF I have to be appreciative of any work that does what it does this well. But holding this up next to Anchorhead, which I feel to be a fair comparative exercise as the two are broadly trying to hit the same notes, really just makes me feel that this is a four-star work at best.
Where Bedlam largely fails and Anchorhead largely succeeds is in the tying together of the story's disparate elements. The puzzles in Bedlam are largely superfluous to the story. The "challenges" are just ways of making information that should be fairly accessible a bit inconvenient to reach. For all the backstory about secrets and conspiracies, there is never any sense that someone is trying to prevent you from learning the things you need to learn. I could have just given the rod to James and asked him to go exploring and he'd have accomplished basically the same things.
Anchorhead approaches this in what I consider to be the more correct sense. There are similar puzzles or obstacles requiring simple research, but the difference is that you are meaningfully synthesizing that information into something higher. Going through the birth and death records is an exercise in deductive reasoning as well as information-gathering (whereas two or three documents in Bedlam will telegraph more or less everything important about the backstory). And the sense of fear and oppression is enhanced by the fact that there are people trying to protect the secrets of the town, whether they be the current inhabitants or long-dead members of the Verlac family. The slower pacing allows for a more genuine "putting-the-pieces-together" feel. I didn't care much for Triage, who switches between adding a bit of character to the descriptions and functioning as a magic-wand solution to a couple of the puzzles. It makes sense in a game of this length, but I'd have liked some way for the player to do the legwork by themselves.
The pacing is really the other major issue. Bedlam bumps up against some pretty high stakes and some very esoteric concepts, but it's content to resolve them (sort of) in the narrative equivalent of about a paragraph. I understand that the nature of the threat inherently limits the kind of scope the story can realistically take(Spoiler - click to show) - if the Logos is verbally transmitted, it's practically impossible to create a fair and winnable scenario in a London-based story that occurs over more than a very short period of time. Nevertheless, the climax of the story occurs much too soon for my tastes - and really, the best conspiracy fiction allows the reader to simmer on the edge of plausibility for a decent while before diving right into the weird stuff. The sense of choice in the endgame is not a bad touch, but it lacks meaning when you have little in the way of actual character or moral dimensions with which to grapple.
Ultimately, I think that I wanted out of Bedlam was a little more ambition and willingness to develop its ideas. It comes in a neat little package, but it never stops and takes the time to develop what it has. Big concepts worthy of games in and of themselves are made to play sidekick to a truncated and not outstandingly deep story - in a narrative or gameplay sense - and that disappoints me.
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