Slouching Toward Bedlam (2003), the multiple award-winning Interactive Fiction by Star Foster and David Ravipinto, is a fast-paced steampunk meditation on language, infection, and the inscrutable power of calling a thing by its proper name. Developed in Inform 6, it now depends on its fan base to secure working emulators (e.g., Gargoyle or Windows Frotz) for it to continue spreading its literary contagion.
Cleve Anderson is a catatonic patient who has recently been admitted to Bedlam. Although Cleve is the protagonist of Slouching, the reading player only meets him after he is already dead, through the discovery of file F6A142 in the hospital archives. It contains expositions of the encounters that the main playable character, Doctor Xavier, has with the enigmatic patient over the course of his one-week internment. Cleve’s subjectivity has been altered by an infection whose name he dares not utter and in his terror of indiscretion, he becomes a willing mute, declining all but written communication. Cleve’s death by misadventure – for which Doctor Xavier is crucially responsible – triggers the race to discover the name of the infection, and to nominate the entity which, slowly but surely, creeps into Xavier’s autodiegetic narration.
Slouching Towards Bedlam re-mythologizes the Babel parable by making the name of a thing – the infection – the reading player’s reward. But this knowledge is no sooner acquired than it triggers one of the IF’s many endings. An ending, Xavier narrates, is the result of “one choice out of a million possibilities” and yet, every one is a Hobson’s choice as the playable character either dies a lurid death, or lives to endure trial and internment in Bedlam itself. The repetitive endings exude the chill that permeates the last inquiring couplet of W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming (1919 ): “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” This refrain, supplying the game with its punning title, also heads each ending as if to suggest that the infection is the same “rough beast” whose cradle has been Bedlam all along.
Linked to a spectrum of commands that produce a particular ending are a set of five Appendices. Four are exercises in postmodern pastiche: A is an encyclopaedia entry expanding on the red herring motif of secret brotherhoods; C is the last phonograph recording of Xavier’s audio diary and the mirror image of the entry that sets the scene upon first entering the game; D is a report commissioned to account for the miserable conditions in the asylum; and E is an excerpt from a mental physician’s case notes about the now-infected Doctor Xavier, which serve as a poignant foil for those that have fleshed out Cleve’s backstory. Only B stands apart as an experimental text, demonstrating classic clustering of natural-language words into a lexical code falling somewhere between codework after Alan Sondheim, Talan Memmott and Mez Breeze on the one hand, and John Cayley’s “human markup language” on the other.
Inflected with new possibilities afforded by juxtaposition and ingenious play on typography and punctuation, these instances of quasi-codework depict the spread of the contagion. Sentences in bold black begin to interpose themselves between the layers of description and interior monologue following Cleve’s accident. They are initially contained by their cocoon of forward slashes and parentheses, but by the time the reading player reaches Appendix B, they overspill their boundaries to intertwine cumulatively and seamlessly with Xavier’s narration. So complete is this grafting of the infection onto Xavier’s subjectivity, as expressed through language, that he names the “something new” he has become, “wei”. Consequently, the simple dichotomy of holding apart then clashing layers of narration effectively represents the consciousness of a non-human infection at the level of narrative.
Throughout its highly narrativized trajectory, the gameplay thematizes language and its manipulation to produce a meditation on writing and meaning-making in electronic and digital media. Indeed, Slouching relies on writing to stage-manage and produce both plot and setting. To start with, writing constructs the game environment in the complete absence of graphics or animation. For the purposes of proceeding with the plot, the reading player relies on descriptions of rooms and objects rendered in various degrees of detail, depending on the type and timing of the commands that they enter. Among other cinematic functions, writing also serves to render impressions of voice, reaching its apotheosis in the endowment of the personified infection with a voice. This is not the game’s only investment in the word, either. Rather, the intertextual ties forged with Yeats’ Modernist poetry in the endings, the Postmodernist pastiche of generic styles in the Appendices, and the quasi-codework all reveal a prodigious experimental investment in both the letter and the word, while drawing upon iconic moments in the history of twentieth-century literature to produce an ironic commentary on them.
When the infection finally broadcasts its name, the reading player realizes it has been foregrounded all along. The source of contagion is the Logos – the primordial Word, no less – which has spread from Cleve to Xavier (to the whole of London in one of the endings), and then metaleptically levelled up to contaminate the narration, and thence the player who reads its name. All along, Slouching Towards Bedlam has been playing an important game with narratology, with form, with the literary, and stacking its odds ever against the reading player.
I would like to end on a disclaimer: this is an abridged version of an entry published in the Electronic Book Review, a re-entry in fact. The text in EBR is about the importance of naming for establishing both essence and worth. It is also a concerted argument towards the induction of Slouching Toward Bedlam into one of the many existing archives for exemplary pieces of electronic literature. Slouching is exemplary, I argue there, because it is demonstrably literary. The subsequent inclusion of this listing in one such archive, the Electronic Literature Directory, is simultaneously a mark of that entry’s success and an invitation to reconsider my conclusion there that “Slouching Towards Bedlam may need to become something less literary to be collected within the peripheries of electronic literature”. Given that electronic literature is a meta-genre and a designation that likes to be troubled by the works it gathers together, it could prove generative to meditate on how, if at all, the listing of Slouching in the ELD troubles the definition of electronic literature. No less productive would be to think about how its confirmation as a piece of literature worthy of archivization might impact its perception as a gamified (yet gamely) Interactive Fiction.