Replayed Slouching Toward Bedlam after a decade+ and. Uh. Hm. (Long Critique + Spoilers)

Unnecessary Backstory

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 Gameplay

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 >undo and >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.


I replayed this game today as part of a program of replaying all the games that have 99 or more ratings on IFDB.

For the bug aspects, I think you might be playing the 10th anniversary edition. As far as I can tell, that edition is much buggier than the original; it crashes when you look at the viewer and has no message for putting a cylinder in the phonograph. My guess is that it just didn’t receive as much testing as the original version did.

It’s interesting with the treatment of schizophrenia. I thought a lot about what you said while I played. I think the game’s treatment of schizophrenia and kabbalism can be divided into two categories: how the people in the game view them, and how the game ‘itself’/authorial voice views them.

It seems the people in the game definitely have a very negative view on mental illness. The hospital itself is rotting apart and decaying, pipes bursting and floors crumbling. The hospital is used by the unethical to kill of political opponents, and one of the endings talks about a move for reform.

Similarly, the secret society seem to view kabbalism as kind of intriguing mystical system divorced from those who created it, a definite appropriation.

Looking at the authorial side, things are different, but I can see where your concerns come in. The kabbalistic side looks better here: the secret society that are obsessed with it are seen as pretentious, ineffectual, and focused on the wrong things. This colors it a bit differently but it seems like a grey area; I’ve heard Battlestar Galactica did a similar thing with my religions lesser-known beliefs and sometimes I think that’s cool and sometimes it’s weird (I guess I should watch it).

The schizophrenic side is a bit different; definitely the way schizophrenic (or schizophrenic-seeming) people are treated in-game absolutely seems to be portrayed as bad by the authorial voice. It doesn’t seem to be advocating for them to be locked up and such.

But I agree that the possible endings are heavily focused on violence. Part of that can be genre conventions; as a horror type of game (or dark steampunk), the emphasis on brutality as a solution adds extra emotional impact. But it does give the impression like you said that when confronted with this type of problem, confinement or murder are the only options. It’s especially interesting because an alternative and equally horrifying but less violent option is mentioned in the appendices (ripping out the tongue which is not available to the player in-game. There are also no positive (from my point of view) endings that engage with the logos itself, which could be an interesting way to resolve things in a way distinct from the schizophrenia aspect.

I agree with a lot of your positive points. Slouching Towards Bedlam isn’t my favorite game, but I think it’s the game that best embodies what parser fiction is capable of and can be, through its use of text-only effects (like the lack of first person pronouns) and its recognition of and winks towards the meta commands.

A weird thing about replaying it is realizing how small it is. It’s 30K words and can be finished in a hundred moves or less. It just gives the impression of size; the hospital seems immense but is only 5 or 6 rooms, plus the one hallway. It gives us things like a ‘floor 6 key’ implying the existence of many more but we never see them; all of London at our command but only a few locations. I think it’s really good at giving the impression of size without actually having to implement it.


I think I almost agree with the Kabbalism point if it not were the fact that the Kabbalistic-style worship/veneration is what brings the Logos into the world (at least if I understood correctly). While they are definitely portrayed by the authorial voice as pretentious and focused on weird esoteric things, one of those esoteric things turns out to be demonstrably real–and highly dangerous to humanity as a whole.

As well, with the schizophrenia treatment, it seems to say “this is bad, don’t treat schizophrenic (-seeming) people this way, don’t condemn them or treat them unsympathetically!” but also condemns the schizophrenic (-seeming) protagonist and the other people who have the same behaviors to violent ends that are seen as good and necessary for the survival of humanity. As another example from what I described in my OP: when you realize that the PC has gotten “infected” with schizophrenia the Logos, it feels like it was meant to be an “oh no, they’re doomed” gut-drop. That feels pretty unfortunate toward people who actually have schizophrenia.

This is actually sort of the crux of the issue with the Kabbalism and schizophrenia portrayals in the game. The authorial voice seems to intend to criticize the treatment of Kabbala and schizophrenic people in the in-universe world and, obliquely, their treatment in the real world setting that was Bedlam Hospital (ex: your mentioned condemnatory descriptions of the hospital’s treatment of patients and mentions of potential reform; the narrative’s painting of how pompous the secret society was).

However, in actual execution:

  • A member of what the narrative insists is a pompous, ridiculous, appropriative secret society did successfully summon the apocalyptic, religion-tied Logos, the main problem you deal with throughout the game.
  • While playing one of several people with schizophrenic-seeming behaviors who the narrative insists don’t deserve cruel or dehumanizing treatment, you need to kill, mutilate, or lock yourself up in that rotting hospital to get a good ending.

I guess this may be what “ludonarrative dissonance” is meant to describe, right? The right hand and the left hand are not in sync.