Slouching Towards Bedlam


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Rating: 4.7/5 (72 votes)
| Comments (49) | Views (337)

slouchingtowards.gifJohnBSlouching Towards Bedlam is a work of interactive fiction created by Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster. Set in the Bedlam Hospital insane asylum in a steampunk-style 1885 London, you begin in an office with a brass-laden phonograph playing a demented soliloquy: "I discredit my profession; examining madness as if the world were a fluent thing and sanity as malleable as the warm wax of a candle." It's a subtly disturbing game that draws you into a rich, elusive world of intrigue and allows you to react to the story however you see fit, carving out five unique endings based upon your interpretation of the plot.

Best of Casual Gameplay 2009Slouching Towards Bedlam plays out in three main phases that flow together quite nicely. Having no knowledge of your past, your first goal is to do some exploring, poking around an empty office and listening to a few phonographs to piece together a bit of background information. Afterwards, you set out to verify facts and clear as much of the fiction as you can. Finally, when you've explored and digested as much as you can, it's time to take action. Depending on what you do, Slouching Towards Bedlam rewards you with one of five endings. There is no "right" ending, per se, which may seem odd for a story-driven game, but it encourages you to experiment and interpret events, drawing you in the world even more.

Analysis: Slouching Towards Bedlam feels more like a piece of interactive fiction than a text-based adventure game, as its puzzles are lightweight and you are constantly encouraged to explore, read, assimilate, and find a pattern amongst all the information you collect. You won't fight any grues, you won't amass an inventory of junk pilfered from every room you visit, and best of all, you won't crawl through any mazes. That's not to knock any classic IF games, of course, only that Slouching Towards Bedlam is about the writing, not gaming.

One of the most fascinating characters in Slouching Towards Bedlam isn't a character at all. The Triage Personal Analytical Engine is a small robotic-like cube that follows you wherever you go. From time to time it spits out random, almost code-like messages that force you to slow down and decipher what it's trying to say, if you can decipher it at all. Even more interesting, though, is its ability to feed you more information about many of the in-game objects. Simply point to something and the Triage Personal Analytical Engine gives you a run-down.

Slouching Towards Bedlam does more than lace a few insane asylum stereotypes together to try and creep you out. In fact, the structure of the game is built to immerse you one level deeper. It isn't immediately noticeable, but the game carefully avoids using the word "you" to reference the player. Instead, many parser responses are written in a passive voice which, once that settles in, becomes all the more unsettling. And as the plot progresses (something I refuse to spoil in this review), you'll begin your own little descent into madness. Fun!

Slouching Towards Bedlam holds several distinctions in the IF community, including the Best Game, Best Story, Best NPC, and Best Setting awards from the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition, and one of the highest overall scores in IF Comp history. Once you start crawling through the game, you'll realize just how story-driven Slouching Towards Bedlam is, and the setting, character interactions and impeccable writing perfectly frame the experience.

Play Slouching Towards Bedlam

Cheers to Ctheiz for sending this one in!

The links above point to JIG's internally developed Flash-based Z-Machine interpreter (thanks asterick!), with the story files hosted here by kind permission of the game's author. That means you can play the game in your browser rather than having to download and run it using a standalone interpreter. If you would rather download the game, grab the file at the Interactive Fiction database followed by an interpreter for your OS: Gargoyle for Windows, Zoom for Macintosh and Unix.

49 Comments

I'm so glad this got reviewed. It's probably my favourite ever piece of IF, and it's wonderful to see the chronically under-appreciated genre of Interactive Fiction gaining so much recognition on a site like JiG. Thanks, guys!

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I'm sorry, as much as I love this game, I don't think it's appropriate for newcomers to IF in any way, shape, or form.

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Forsythe June 4, 2009 4:48 AM

Apologies, but as much as I love the drama in this game, and speaking as one who played Zork I when it 1st came out (no, for real, on an old-school PC floppy), I must agree with Hewitt that this is not a newbie's game. I'd suggest that it be appended with such.

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Interesting title! It instantly made me think of the W.B. Yeats poem, The Second Coming, the last line of which goes: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

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@ Jihiro - indeed, the title is a reference to this poem.

And I have to agree with the others too. This is a wonderful game, but some rather fiddly puzzles (especially near the start) make it hard to recommend to beginners.

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Awesome! This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest works of modern IF there is. Great that you finally reviewed it.

Hewitt and Forsythe:
Not that I think the game is well-suited for newbies, but you seem to be suggesting that it is actually particularly BAD for a newbie. Why is that?

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I played this game about a year ago. Simply brilliant, definitely worthy of Jay is Games' recognition.

I wish I had my own Personal Analytical Engine...

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I'm an interactive fiction newbie and I really enjoyed this game. What a perfect way to spend a late stormy night.

I felt such a chill early in the game when I had Triage analyze James, and then analyze myself and got two very different readings!

I did hit some roadblocks when it came to wording certain things, but the in-game hint system was extremely helpful. I don't think it's too bad for beginners. Definitely worth it if you have a thing for steampunk or Victoriana.

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drakono Author Profile Page June 4, 2009 11:50 AM

I couldn't open the puzzle box without resorting to a walkthrough. I still don't understand the reasoning for the solution. Is it related to the last becoming first, and the first last? I really don't see how you're supposed to make that leap in logic.

And the analytic engine seems to be useless throughout the whole game. Sure, it tells you that the puzzle box is related to the sephirot, but searching for the 10 words is enough to get that, too.

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To clarify, fnord (using tags just in case):

Much of the game's effect comes from subverting the conventions of IF: the nature of the parser, the use of tense, the metacommands (undo, restart, etc.), the very idea of playing IF. Fail-Safe, which also plays with the parser and narrative voice (but is not nearly so ambitious), gave a lot of people trouble when it was reviewed here.

I think such works ask for a certain level of familiarity with the expected, so that when it hits you where you *don't* expect, it works rather than confuses.

However, I don't believe this game is *bad* for beginners; I just feel it's better played after a few under your belt. Quite honestly, it's worth playing just for the writing alone.

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richmcd Author Profile Page June 4, 2009 12:31 PM

drakono:

I haven't played in ages but I'm fairly sure I used the analytic engine to get the exact solution to the puzzle box. Can't use you is to translate the writing on the cell wall? I think the solution might have been there.

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richmcd Author Profile Page June 4, 2009 12:32 PM

Hmm. I don't seem to be able to type. Obviously that should read "can't you use it to..."

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Really enjoying it so far...

Something made me smile -- it's possible to unlock and open your house door without leaving the cab, yet entering requires you to first leave the cab.

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drakono Author Profile Page June 4, 2009 1:33 PM

@richmcd:

You're right. The analytic engine decodes the writings, giving you the puzzle box solution with no effort. I guess I had forgotten about the writings, thinking I'd find a way to decode them later, and failed to use the analytic engine in the one place where it would have been useful. :P

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Gobsmacked June 4, 2009 1:36 PM

Okay, so where's this walkthough people keep mentioning?

A complete inability to get to the stupid "Du Monde" shop, despite tons of clues that say you ought to go there, is not enhancing my enjoyment of this game, to be sure.

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Anonymous June 4, 2009 2:10 PM

How do you load saved games? /blush

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seabass June 4, 2009 2:14 PM

I went out, killed James, got in the cab, killed Reggie, got an ending. Great success.

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ottoman Author Profile Page June 4, 2009 3:00 PM

Gobsmacked:
Here is the link to the walkthrough, available through the posted link to the downloadable game (as opposed to the web-based game): http://ifarchive.plover.net/if-archive/solutions/slouch.sol Your answer will be found there, too.

JIGuest: I typically don't use the web-based IF games but if you're doing the downloadable game you just type "Restore."

This game was absolutely incredible. Thanks so much for posting it!

[Edit: "restore" works in our Flash-based interpreter, as well. -Jay]

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ottoman Author Profile Page June 4, 2009 3:54 PM

Ah thanks for clearing that up Jay!

Also I forgot to mention that this game also hits close to home because I live in a town called Bethlehem ... and there is much bedlam, indeed ... !

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Anonymous June 4, 2009 3:58 PM

Okay, the walkthrough is so obtuse as to be practically useless, even in small terms (thanks for the link, though, Ottoman).

Specifically:

The reference to an Iron Key implies (via the directions he takes to get to the cab) that it is found in the Archives room, when there is no such thing there (or anywhere else that I can find).

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@ JIGuest

The Iron Key is, in fact, to be found within the Archives room, but you must do something else there first. You must read a file, I don't want to ruin it for you, let me know if you need more help

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@Gobsmacked
The line you need is:
tell driver to go du monde

You can more or less either:
ask about
or
tell to

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Anonymous June 4, 2009 4:47 PM

@Mitch:

Retrieved the file (which, in and of itself nearly impossible without psychic powers thanks to lack of description of another area even when you deliberately examine it -- good writing there, NOT)

... and read the file. Room is still empty. I even went back on your suggestion and went through the whole sequence again. As best as I can tell, that room contains the pyramid, dial, and, once retrieved, the folder, and absolutely nothing else.

What, everybody on earth is a psychically endowed guesser except me? How the hell does ANYONE get these things when they're this stupidly hard?

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Oh, and incidentally, I disagree that there isn't a "best ending" but then, I'm biased. :)

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Good writing. I actually got chills while reading Cleve's file.

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Wow. All I can say.

By far the best IF i've ever played.

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Anonymous June 4, 2009 11:41 PM

Other JIGuest guy,

It's a lot easier to remember the necessary information if you

press the triangle button on the panopticon to get a printout of the code for each room. If you take the ticker tape with you, you can view the information at any time. As for the key,

You should notice the key falling out of the file after reading it (I don't know if you have to read any specific part).

I would also recommend, just in general, keeping a Notepad file or something similar open to record information as you go through the game. It's quite helpful.

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drywater Author Profile Page June 5, 2009 12:15 AM

To anyone reading the reviews, with even a cursory interest in IF, play this game. I was, very, very confused in the beginning...but in the end, it's so worth it. Innovative, suspenseful, gut-wrenching...this game fits all these descriptions.

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So, I'm a noob at IF games, it's pretty clear. I can't seem to find a way out of the office...
"leave office" "open door" "x door" "x room" even...nothing works O.o clearly, I need practice.
That said, I agree with above statements: definitely not a game for those who don't know what they're doing.

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Leona:

Type the direction of wherever the office door is, like "go south" or just "south". If you can't remember what direction it was in you can type "hint" and then leave the hint screen and it will give you the description of the room again.

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I'll admit, I came to comment more on a negative note than positive, but after fully playing through the game, my outlook changed drastically.

The writing was outstanding. In a realm (read: internet games) where full sentences and correct spelling are as rare as locating the holy grail, it was much appreciated. Particularly one sentence even using the term "purchase" in regards to traction and footing. Applause, I say, applause! I can tell that Slouching Towards Bedlam deserves every award it received.

In addition to powerful use of language, the story itself was also intriguing. The themes and plot heavily reminded me of:

the movie Pi and Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

This is easily the best IF game I have ever played. And despite the constant annoyance of what is deemed correct input, along with confusing directions, I played through the lengthy venture through all applicable endings.

In fact, my main complaints with the game are more applicable to IF as a whole. Now, I've never made my own IF, so I can't attest to the difficulty of programming proper commands, but even this excellent example of IF falls prey to a confusing parser. I need to input full sentences to look at something (barring the "x" command), but can use only single letters to traverse my surroundings? Additionally, really obvious and simple commands stand to only confuse the system.
example:

me: Use March second with phonograph.
game: LOL wut?

Yes, I understand the term "play" makes more sense, but c'mon.

Also,
me: Use small key with door.
game: You're not making any darn sense.
me: *sigh* Cthulu... Garble.
game: The door is now unlocked!

I guess I'll just never understand why years of development for a relatively popular medium can never seem to cure the problem of common adventure sentences being recognized (see the recently reviewed Fail-Safe for a prime example of devastatingly poor recognition).

Aside from that flaw, which I can't really blame Slouching Toward Bedlam for, I can only lastly note that this is not a game for individuals new to IF.
Reasons:

1. The most confusing/puzzling part of the game is the beginning, which surely will put new folks off.

2. This is such a top-notch game that surely most other IF games will result only in disappointment.

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ottoman Author Profile Page June 5, 2009 9:40 AM

@Venom:
The verb "use" is typically not recognized in any IF game because players try to use it as a cop-out. Excluding "use" from the game's vocabulary forces the player to be more specific, although many games do add something like "How do you want to use it?" instead of simply not recognizing the word at all.

For example, you have a key and you type "use key." Use key to do what? Clean under your fingernails? ;) Instead type "unlock door with key." I know this is an extreme example but when you're solving a puzzle, vagueness is not your friend, but patience is always a virtue as you get used to each game's grammatical quirks.

Lastly I disagree with the notion that this superb game will spoil the IF genre for others - there are many other high quality pieces out there!

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Can someone tell me how to play? How do I even start? A story comes up and wants a reply, maybe I am just stupid, but I dont understand Pleas help

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Gobsmacked June 5, 2009 12:57 PM

Okay, so, the only place left to explore are the two extra doors near the shop.

The walkthrough explicitly states that the key to at least one of those doors is in a specific place, but it is not.

Anyone want to let me in on the big secret that apparently the WRITER doesn't think we need to know, since it's so bleedin obvious (why no, I'm not angry or bitter at being teased by this poorly-put-together piece of amazing writing, not at all...)

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I played this game being fairly new to IF, but still enjoyed it immensely.

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when I start there is something written and it says (more) at the end but when I try to click it nothing happens. Please help me!!!

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Has anyone else tried jumping out the window? I get some weird stuff when I do it.

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ottoman Author Profile Page June 5, 2009 7:43 PM

@Jay:

That's ending A, assuming you have not yet talked to any other people and are doing it from the first room. Endings A through E exist.

@ploplo
Press the space bar to continue. Also, I don't know about your browser, but unless I click within the flash window first, it will scroll the entire page down when I hit space. So make sure you've clicked within the game first.

@Kim
These kinds of games require interaction and exploration. What's in the room? Why don't you try examining something? "X" is short for "examine," so type "x black box." You can interact with just about anything. Type "hint" when you're stuck, it will help.

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Someone June 6, 2009 2:02 PM

To Leona, and anyone else who is struggling to find exits, or prefers to be able to "see" everything about a location whenver you look, you can type 'verbose' to ensure the full description is played out every time you visit a location...

Also, for those who don't know, s = south, n = north etc. And if you are repeatedly using something

you can type:

[verb] [object]

then the next turn can be:

[verb] "it"

to save having to write out the full word again.

[Edit: Please use angle brackets on spoiler tags and click the Preview button before posting to make sure your comments looks like you want it to. -Pam]

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Gobsmacked:

Are you looking for the key to the top door? Read the whole file (actually I'm not sure how much of it you need to read) and when you go back to the main game (by pressing "Q") you should hear a clang. Look (type "look" or "l") and you'll find the key on the floor. Though it's perhaps possible that there's a bug that means you can't get the key sometime.

For the bottom door, you can either

open the puzzle box

or

kill du monde and again when you "look" you can get the key.

I don't think you can open the door at ground level. Anyway, I'm pretty sure it would just take you into Du Monde's shop.

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Gobsmacked June 8, 2009 1:50 PM

What?! Is everybody completely mental around here? Why can't I get a straight answer about where the

iron key mentioned in the Walkthrough

is? Or is this some kind of life-imitates-art thing where everyone is trying to pretend to be INSANE like the fellow in the game?

Press "Q", Matt? Really? Is that some kind of prank on me, or what? That quits the game. How, exactly is that supposed to help me, and EVEN IF IT DID, how would I ever guess such a thing out of thin air?

YES, I'm mad, but this is getting ridiculous.

You know what, forget it. Consider this my ragequit. If the jerk who wrote this wanted us to experience it so damned bad, maybe he should have made it POSSIBLE TO FREAKIN FINISH! This isn't worth it.

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Fritware Author Profile Page June 8, 2009 4:03 PM

First comment here, inspired by what I thought was, in general, a very well thought out game. One quibble (not so much a complaint) having played through all five endings:

Am I completely mistaken that there's a hint in the direction of a solution that saves the world without requiring multiple murder and/or suicide? When the rod is first used in the Panopticon console room, the surveillance device automatically starts to link to room 6A -- but the Logos forces you to switch to room 6B. I only realized after waiting for an extended period in 6A that that's because there's a cricket trapped in the pipes, and the amplified sound of the cricket through the listening tubes was hurting the Logos. (Or am I totally off base?) I spent hours trying to find a way to get that darned cricket out of the pipe to use against the Logos (maybe with the magnetophone or something), until I finally cracked, checked the walkthrough, and discovered there was no solution in that direction at all. Hmpf. Missed opportunity there, in my opinion.

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Faenval June 10, 2009 4:18 PM

A delightfully disturbing, nightmarish game. Excellent prose and story. I remember playing this before, and my only criticism then was the pointlessness of the cricket. Otherwise... a very good piece of IF.

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chipmunk Author Profile Page June 16, 2009 3:28 PM

@gobsmacked:

In the event that you happen to come back even after your ragequit... :)

Matt told you to hit Q while reading the file to take you back to the main game.

The iron key mentioned in the walkthrough is hidden in one of the three files you can retrieve in the Archive room.

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Some Weird Girl November 4, 2009 12:20 AM

I tried to play this game by following the walkthrough, and yet I was just as frustrated as Gobsmacked. I have played several interactive fiction games before, but this was nothing like any of the others. When the walkthrough told me to examine something, I felt as if I was entering a random command, because it seemed impossible to ever discover that some stuff even existed without a walkthrough. The ridiculous amount of examining required to play this game frustrated me enough to make me rage quit. Not only was the gameplay ridiculous, but the I couldn't follow the storyline one bit; I think the storyline made no sense. This is the worst text based interactive fiction game I've ever played, and it almost makes me want to quit the genre. X(

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Anonymous October 9, 2010 9:19 PM

BLEEP! I KILLED JAMES XD

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Shadow284 Author Profile Page May 1, 2012 7:40 PM

I don't know why, but I can't seem to

unlock the door in the side alley on fleet street. I have the copy of the key from the puzzle box, but the game says that it doesn't fit the lock. I've even tried killing Du Monde and using the real key, but again no success, from either inside or outside the shop...

I figured it might be an error with the downloaded version of the game, so I tried it in the flash interpreter, still no luck. Help would be greatly appreciated!

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Shadow284 Author Profile Page May 3, 2012 1:31 AM

Nevermind, I just realized I had to go down the stairs... *facepalm*

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jayisgamed Author Profile Page November 22, 2014 3:35 PM

This game does not work anymore. You press "[MORE]" but nothing happens.

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