When I was but a wee baby child (and by that I mean 13-14 or something) I played Slouching Toward Bedlam. I think I found it on Jayisgames along with others like Suveh Nux and Violet. Unlike the others, though, Slouching Toward Bedlam is the one I was absolutely enamored with. Heavy symbolism, strange conspiracy, occult religion, clever metanarrative, and poetry, poetry by my favorite poet no less! The game made my head churn with new possibilities for what games could do, and made me interested in playing and even possibly making IF.
Also unlike the others, Slouching Toward Bedlam is the only game I hadn’t replayed in the many years since first playing it. I’ve played many IFs multiple times, especially those old first games I discovered, as they’ve all imprinted themselves on my psyche some way or another. But as my social and progressive awareness grew, I became more and more wary of touching this one again. I wanted it to sit, beautiful, awe-inspiring, pristine, in my memory; I didn’t want to replay the 2003 game about Bedlam Hospital and magical insanity since I suspected that with my awareness nowadays, I would see it as reprehensibly ableist.
But I recently bit the bullet and got myself to play it once more. Here are my thoughts.
My actual thoughts
content warnings: ableism obviously, suicide discussion
The good news is to me this game isn’t reprehensibly ableist, at least not more so than stories nowadays are (for ex: Cyberpunk 2077: Edgerunners and its depiction of ‘cyberpsychosis’) (if you argued that many stories nowadays are still reprehensibly ableist, I could see that argument though). Like, I deffo think it’s ableist, but it’s not ‘quit experiencing the story and scream into a pillow because of how insulting it is to me and people I know’ levels. I guess that’s a low bar! And maybe for other people it doesn’t actually pass that bar, but I’m definitely biased in its favor because of all that nostalgic shine.
Now, why do I think it’s ableist? To be clear, I don’t think that stories set in mental institutions, even Bedlam, are inherently going to be ableist. If you think critically about the stereotypes regarding people who get thrown in said institutions (such as schizophrenic people - a comparison explicitly drawn by the game) and eschew them in favor of depicting mental disabilities in a sympathetic and nuanced light; If you’re mindful of both your portrayals of disabilities and the people in your audience who might have those same disabilities; and If you’re drawing from a knowledge base of personal experience, a lot of research, and/or sensitivity editors to taste, a mental institution could be a great way for you to explore powerful themes about disability and how it’s treated.
Slouching Toward Bedlam…does not really do that. Sure, the PC don’t actually have schizophrenia, they just have a magical God-touched affliction that looks exactly like stereotypical schizophrenia. And they (and Cleve) have most of the same symptoms you can find in the DSM criteria for the disorder. And several endings require them to become an erratic and unpredictable murderer, one of the biggest, most harmful stereotypes about schizophrenic people out there. Hell, the murders are so erratic that often first-time players don’t realize that they’re killing some dude until the deed is done!
I do think that the PC and Cleve are depicted sympathetically. Their reasons for what happened are understandable, their vain attempts not to spread the Logos are admirable and for me at least, had me invested in their tragedy. But depicting a person sympathetically is different from depicting a person with a mental disability sympathetically. When the Logos overtakes them, they’re seen as horrifying, repulsive, not even human anymore. If you have the Logos, you’re supposed to either lock yourself away in an institution or kill yourself-- to save humanity, you know. Commit suicide, person-with-something-that-looks-identical-to-psychosis! For the greater good!
It still was replayable and enjoyable for me despite this egregious issue, but I don’t have schizophrenia, and I am sure if I did, I would think differently.
The Other ism
The uh, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life thing isn’t great? Then again, this is a story centered around a poem from Yeats, the guy who was part of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, so it is in flavor. Just wanted to note that.
The other problem with this game is that wow does it show its age with regards to design sensibilities. People have spoken on how unpolished and even unfinished it seems nowadays, with sort of tossed in puzzles, so I won’t belabor this point, but here’s some design issues I encountered on this replay:
- I think I figured it out the first time I played, but this time I couldn’t figure out in fiction what words I was supposed to say to the cabbie to get him to take me anywhere. The hint system lists two other locations, Newgate and Smithfield, so I used that metaknowledge, but I had no idea how I was supposed to find their names or that I should go to them out in game.
- There’s no impetus to go anywhere or do anything when you start up in the office. You’re just supposed to…explore? Because that’s what you do in parsers, I guess?
- James mentions that you put the Cleve file away yourself. Why do you spend a chunk of the game trying to solve a puzzle to retrieve it then? Shouldn’t you know how to do that? A lot of the game is learning things that the PC already knew, for some reason. You could say, ‘oh, well, maybe it’s not the PC anymore, it’s just The Logos and that’s why you’ve got no memories’, but in return I would say, that’s contradicted by some of the Appendixes and I would think that playing The Logos would result in a very different game. This felt like a big structural issue and bothered me a lot; it didn’t seem to be considering the fictional conceit in earnest.
And a few bugs:
- There’s nothing at all written for the brief mode for the Walkway or Circular Chamber in Bedlam so I spent like 2 hours thinking the game was broken for those rooms and trying to find a build that wasn’t messed up.
- The game crashed multiple times on attempting to type “x viewer” in the Circular Chamber.
- The game spells W.B. Yeats’ name as Yeates. Weird when that’s the guy who wrote the poem the game is named after!
- The PC gets in the cab automatically but not out of the cab automatically. That was annoying.
What I like about it, even now
I’ll admit, I still have a fondness for this game, if at least for the sake of 13ish y/o me, starry-eyed and full of wonder at what it showed me. I think that its world is evocative and haunting in its descriptions. The usage of The Second Coming for dramatic and aesthetic effect is *chef’s kiss* and as I said, I was moved by the PC’s and Cleve’s futile efforts to contain the Logos in both the gameplay and the Appendixes. The little human touches revealed only after your murders, like James’ letter opener being engraved with his name, hurt my heart. And the thing that really got my brain churning when I first replayed it, the usage of metafictional elements like
>restart as secretly part of the plot, I still find incredibly brilliant in both idea and execution.
After I replayed, I discussed with some people (who had more or less played it) and I couldn’t stop thinking about what a Slouching Toward Bedlam game would look like with modern design sensibilities and more polish. Would there be less random amnesia and more interesting choice regarding whether to use The Logos? What would more compelling goals be than “To get the best ending, kill yourself instantly”? How could those metafictional plot elements be pushed in an even more interesting way? Ultimately, obviously, it’s better to let sleeping sphinxes lie, but it feels poetic that the game that helped get me on this IFiction design path in the first place has inspired my design brain again (even idly).
Though I’m sad that it’s lost most of its lustre for me now, I ultimately think it was good to replay it. And I’m thankful for what it did for me, all those years ago.