Slouching 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.
Slouching 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.
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.