Slouching Towards Bedlam kicked off a 6-year trend of IFCOMP games winning Best Game in the XYZZY awards. This game is iconic, one of the most played and rated on ifdb and one which should be in any avid IF fan’s play list.
It is a mid-sized game that has the illusion of being much larger. It has been criticized for being unfinished feeling in places, but it may be due to the 2 hour limit. Let’s talk about what it does right.
==Phenomenal world building==
Bedlam has some of the best world building I have ever seen. The setting is the London area in a sort of steam punk alternate history. The main NPC is your companion, triage, a clockwork robot that analyzes anything you point to. It communicates with you in a grid of alphanumeric characters, which is given a beautiful visual representation in the game.
You are the director of a an asylum run by clockwork and crystal, and which is also abandoned and rotting. The enemies and dangers in the game are hugely inventive, where the authors avoided using stereotypical Great Old Ones or supernatural creatures like ghosts or vampires. What happens is instead very creative.
This world building is primarily established through books and phonograph records, combined with setting.
==Manipulation of the parser itself==
This game, and Vespers and Deadline Enchanter, directly comment on and use the parser format.Every parser response is carefully crafted to avoid using the words you, your, I, me, my, etc. To indicate the player’s unusual nature. The meta commands are given an in-game explanation that becomes a major plot element. And a text game is a perfect setting for an enemy based on words. Thus, it uses its format to great effect.
==Strong moral choices and player influence on plot==
Bedlam is known for its innovative plot structure, where as you progress through the game, you realize that you can take wildly different approaches to the information you’ve received, and take action accordingly. Even more, upon replay, you can take yet more branches that you wouldn’t have thought of the first time.
In Bedlam, it requires careful thought and planning from the start of the game to the end to get some of the endings. This is in stark contrast to most branching, which generally happens near the end in parser games, or at the very beginning.
==Illusion of size==
Bedlam feels much bigger than it is. There are numerous locations that are huge: corridors with six rooms, a control room with 6 levels, a massive filing system. But the game carefully disguises the emptiness of most of the levels by restricting movement through plot development or through in-world explanations.
Slouching Towards Bedlam uses strong world-building, innovations with the parser itself, moral choices and the illusion of freedom to give the player an epic feel. Many people have commented that they disliked the puzzles, or the sort of peetering out at the end of the implementation. But this game won ifcomp and xyzzy in competition with polished, long puzzle games like Risorgimento Represso, showing that story, setting, PC and creativity are vital for xyzzy awards, more so than puzzles or length. However, it also competed against Emily Short’s City of Secrets, which has many of its same strengths. Perhaps Bedlam won due to being better advertised via ifcomp, or maybe there is just a random unexplainable element to when two equally good games are in the running.