You wait forty years for a game about jumping between video games, and two come at once. A couple of weeks after we saw Davey Wreden’s experimental project The Beginner’s Guide, we now have Bedlam [official site]. (No, not that one. The other one.) Based on Christopher Brookmyr’s book of the same name, and written by the author, this is a tale of being trapped inside the history of first-person shooters. Here's wot I think:
You play Heather Quinn (gametag: Athena), a programmer who finds herself stuck inside a 90s shooter, Starfire. As you rush around its pleasingly slippy-slidey world, gliding rather than running, shooting at chunky-pixel enemies, Quinn sardonically narrates the peculiarity of the experience, reminisces about how this was the game that got her into gaming when she played it on her brother’s PC, and grumpily realises she’s trapped inside a brutal male avatar.
Other voices start talking to you, most notably a woman by the handle Buzzkill (when she’d appear on a server with a female voice, the men playing would say it was a buzzkill for her to be there), and a male voice called Bedlam. You’re not the only person trapped in here, it seems, and something deeply odd is going on with rifts appearing between games, letting characters move between them.
So it is that you soon find yourself in a Call Of Duty-like late-90s cover shooter, still equipped with your arsenal of alien laser weapons, and gathering Second World War guns to go with them. Now there’s sniping, exploring inside blocky buildings, and of course a tank to take down.
The further you get in the game, the more up-to-date the style of FPS and the graphics become, letting the Unity engine show off rather nicely, and in some ways providing a pleasant nostalgia trip through classic shooter gaming.
Which makes it such a disappointment that there were no efforts made to license use of other games. It’s impossible not to think of The Stanley Parable, and those wonderful cameos of Minecraft and Portal. If two indie chaps could do it, surely the long-established RedBedlam could too? And the silliest thing is, I’d probably not have given it so much thought if other characters in the game weren’t constantly referencing the real-world games they were stuck in. Half-Life, GTA IV, Halo... There are lots of in-jokes for long-time gamers, which is ace, but I couldn’t help thinking the other characters were having a way cooler experience than I was, trapped in rather weak knock-off FPSs that slightly resembled the more famous names.
Another rather hefty issue appears with the re-use of assets throughout the different levels. Medpacks are identical in every game, which not only feels like a needless cut corner, but also ignores a great opportunity for the game to have explored how health has been so differently handled over the last two decades. In fact, even in the most modern iterations of the genre, you’re still picking up the exact same medpacks.
And the same goes for movement. What I had celebrated as some really nicely realistic loose, floaty controls in the first game turn out to be all you get throughout. No notion of progress at all. The reverse is true for physics. Crates can be picked up, thrown around, balanced, and so on, from the start. There are some vague excuses in the narrative that you could apply to such things for yourself (as they’re not explicitly explained), but again, it works out as a big weakness in the game’s conceit.
The largest problem, however, is that none of the FPS games you play are particularly good. Again, that feels okay at the start – it feels like it’s meant to be a weak Doom rip-off, and so terrible level design feels appropriate. Sadly poor level design is the norm, with many sections stretched out so ridiculously thin that they start to feel like they’re looping. The WW2 level is essentially the same section repeated four times, for God knows what reason. By the final sequence, it repeats itself so damned often that I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong. I wasn’t. It was just crazy filler.
The game is glitchy throughout, too. And yet again, surely a feature, I thought at first. But when by the later stages enemies still get stuck in walls, or shoot you through rocks, or you get thrown madly into their air after clipping an object, you realise it’s just not that good. Those loose controls and glitchy bugs combined with floating platforms and the quicksave taken away from you ensure the final sequence is one of the most irritating I’ve played in a long time. (And when I finally finished it, my spoken aloud words at the reveal of the ‘ending’ were, “Oh fuck that.”)
Bedlam’s conceit is great, and the voice acting is really splendid. (I should note that only after finishing it did I see that our very own Rab Florence was one of the voices.) But its execution falls far short of the sort of greatness it needed to attempt in order to pay tribute to the genre (it’s notable that it doesn’t even try to do something like a sequence from Half-Life 2). A faux-multiplayer low-gravity Quake 3 arena level is pretty decent fun, but even that rather grimly demonstrates how poorly it understands what made a Quake 3 level good. A couple of tributes to arcade gaming are incongruous, but both are smart in their own way, and perhaps are the highlights of the game.
The whole thing can be polished off in a long day (that’s what I did), and in certain sections I was enjoying the old-school run-n-gunning. But just as often I was being frustrated by glitches, poor enemy AI (which is pretty unforgiveable after they mock it for being such in the early levels, and then never improves), or aching repetition.
I also feel like so many opportunities were missed. Of course a Doom-like, of course an early Call Of Duty. But why some claimed RPG section, played purely as an FPS? Or RTS played pure as an FPS? Or 2D arcade played purely as an FPS? Why not something like Serious Sam? Why not pay tribute to Dark Forces? Hell, any sci-fi? It’s all very well being arch about putting in a zombie sewer level, but what does that achieve other than having a bloody zombie sewer level? Perhaps it’s lack of ambition that’s the most frustrating aspect of Bedlam.
Bedlam is out now.