(This review was originally posted on the IF newgroups immediately after the 2003 IF Comp).
Slouching Towards Bedlam 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 Focault. 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. So authors, if you want a 10 from me next year, that 's your blueprint right there.
But regardless of the personal affinity I have for the subject manner, the game is still easily one of the best in this year's comp. The authors tackle some dense, weighty problems, and manage to wrap theological speculation in a compelling mystery and pose an insoluble moral quandary to boot. While there are a very few missteps, they're easily swept away by the sheer power of the work.
Slouching Towards Bedlam opens inside the eponymous asylum, where the player character is listening to your own voice describing the slow realization that you're going mad. The player's 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 you attempt to understand what has happened to the player character, you find your 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 your investigation is also the vector for an agent of infection. Soon, the player is 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 resolutions are easier to achieve 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.
I could go on; one could fruitfully apply the techniques of structural analysis to examine the game's pervasive twinning of progress with regression (the player character's forward movement is often exactly the reverse of the path taken by the madman Cleve, for example), or chase down references to the authentic texts that lie behind the fiction, but I think I've said enough. 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 2003 comp, hands down.