Bedlam The Game is a peculiar title, one where its missteps as a game are more forgivable because many of them are intentional, and one where the overall story is more important than the minute to minute experience. As such it’s a difficult game to recommend to the majority but a superb representation of the book it’s based on, whether it’s the kind of experience for you or not depends entirely on what you want from playing a game, which is a fascinating question in its own right.
Indeed Bedlam: The Game is based on Bedlam the book, written by Christopher Brookmyre, a novel full of razor-sharp commentary on videogame culture and design wrapped in a fascinating story about AI and player immersion. As a companion to the book it’s brilliant, capturing the same dark, humorous tone and immersing you in a believable facsimile of retro games experienced through the mechanics of a first-person shooter.
Playing as experienced gamer and programmer, Heather Quinn, you initially find yourself in a 90s shooter reminiscent of Quake II. Before long you’re hopping between game-worlds and experiencing parodies of Medal of Honor, Pac-Man, Halo and generic RPGs, all through the perspective and gameplay of a first-person shooter, as you try to find out why you’re stuck in this digital world and how you can escape. It’s a terrific tale told wonderfully through excellent voice acting and a thematically accurate script, but the mechanics themselves are dire.
Weapons are inaccurate and lack impact, the AI is aggressive but utterly stupid, the textures are muddy and lack detail, music and sound effects are indelicately implemented, checkpoints are infrequent and the frame rate regularly chugs when the enemy count increases. It’s a poor offering of game mechanics and production quality that reeks of amateurish and lazy design. But indeed that’s the point. Bedlam: The Game means to torture you with poor checkpoints, ugly aesthetics and predictable AI; what you’re experiencing isn’t the game itself but more the game within the game.
It’s the moments between each game-world where you’re playing the real game, the rest is a purposely built arena for you to experience the retro design elements of the very game it’s parodying. Between the game-worlds are fractured platforming sections with images and email messages you can find that help fill in more of the story, meanwhile other characters contact you via audio chat to explain and drive the narrative forwards. The true object of the game is for you to exploit each game-world with the first-person mechanics you’re stuck with, bringing weapons from other game-worlds with you to carve out slight advantages and making liberal use of the save function in the menu screen to brute-force your way through the increasingly challenging enemy encounters.
Unfortunately this is not immediately evident, partly because the story would otherwise be ruined if all its tricks were revealed at once, so the experience can feel more torturous than is should for large parts of the game. This is less of a problem within the initial game-world; the fictional game of Starfire plays precisely how you remember the likes of Quake II playing, with a highly familiar sci-fi setting and the traditional slow projectiles, but once you jump over to the Medal of Honor parody, Death or Glory, the challenge jumps significantly and the nostalgic fun you were having is quickly replaced by frustration. This is intentional, of course, but you don’t really find that out until later, leaving the driving force that keeps you playing up to the narrative.
Fortunately it’s a great story that’s excellently paced, and as frustrating as Bedlam: The Game can get it’s all part of the experience it means to immerse you in. That is accepted for the framerate issues, which can cause some unfair deaths, especially near the end of the game. There’s also a lack of a quick save button, which proves to be a crucial tool. It’s still a fairly quick process to jump into the pause menu and save but this reveals a PC bias that never translated to console.
Bedlam: The Game is a terrific story wrapped in an intentionally bad game, and as such it proves to be an absolutely brilliant companion to the book it’s based on. In fact, thanks to the perspective of a different character in the game it helps compliment the book superbly, but this does mean it’s not the most enjoyable game to play. The nostalgic moments in the odd game-world will strike a nice chord with fans of the original titles they’re based on, and the Pac-Man inspired level is very clever, but you’re unlikely to find much fun here. But perhaps we can play a game in order to experience emotions and situations that are something other than fun. Through play and interaction we can experience these things in a more personal way, and for that Bedlam: The Game should be applauded, and if you’re open to that idea then should absolutely try this title out.
Thanks to Xbox and RedBedlam for their support
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