Back in February, 2013, Christopher Brookmyre’s book, Bedlam, hit the shelves. A story about a scientist sucked into virtual network of interconnected video games, Bedlam saw its characters jumping from Quake-like Starfire, through WW2 shooters, sandbox games akin to GTA, and even making a brief diversion into a god game.
18 months on, developer RedBedlam’s ready to show off the game of the book. Finally we’ll be able to see what happens when you take the weapons cache from a 90s sci-fi shooter and take it into a fantasy RPG.
Bedlam is a first-person shooter which sees you spend most your time in games that now seem archaic. You might be forgiven for thinking you’ve started the wrong game the first time you boot up Bedlam, for a game released in 2014 it looks more like 1995.
You play as Heather Quinn, a programmer at medical company Neurosphere, who’s testing a medical scanner one moment and the next finds herself in Starfire, a Quake-like shooter from the 90s which pits a human army against the overwhelming cyborg forces trying to wipe mankind from the galaxy. Worse even than that: she’s on the wrong side. Quinn is a grunt in the Strogg cyborg army.
Soon you find a glitch in the game that leads you to a backdoor into a World War 2 cover shooter. From there Bedlam sees you jumping between worlds to find out what happened to you and how you can get back to the real world.
While Bedlam the book came out early in 2013, production on the game started back in 2010. “It was a very symbiotic relationship between the game and the book,” Brookmyre recalled. “Initially RedBedlam’s Nick [Witcher]’s approach was seeing if I was interested in coming up with a concept and working with them. Valve had shown that if you work with a novelist it can help your story, Half life and Half Life 2 being the obvious examples. When I came up with the idea I realised the best way to do this wasn’t to write an outline document but to write a novel. I did write an outline document which they could go off and start working with but I used that as a roadmap. All the time I was writing the novel I was thinking about what could realistically be implemented in the game. I didn’t go off and do total flights of fancy.”
Much of Bedlam takes place in shooters, which is useful for keeping the scope of the game narrow. However, there are moments when this opens out. You will be able to take part in first-person RTS where you walk across islands, towering above medieval villages and castles, blasting the world with the panzerschreck you brought through from the previous game.
There are differences between the two projects, Brookmyre is the first to point them out. “What’s going to excite you in playing a game and what’s going to immerse you in a novel are different. One of the things we talked about from way back, conceptually, was that we didn’t want to have cutscenes, to hold the player up too often. We wanted it to be about you constantly exploring. You’ll have messages coming to you every so often, messages from other worlds, other games.
“There’s limited scope for how much you can discuss, too. Towards the end of the book, because it’s exploring worlds made by people in them, one of those worlds is a Daily Mail world; a world entirely created by Daily Mail readers. Obviously you couldn’t put that in a game, it’d be difficult to explain to someone who downloaded it in Iowa. It was fun for me because it let me explore what sort of worlds we’d create when we can create our own universe.”
Instead of being like a book and simply hitting you with a constant stream of story, Bedlam the game is a linear shooter that’s packed with things to be discovered. Remember the cubby holes in Portal? Those times where you’d find an area where the walls were scrawled with text and drawings, something previous test subjects had written down for those that followed, Bedlam will have something similar. The lore is there to be discovered and pieced together but it won’t be read to you.
With lore packed into the seams of the world you’re free to shoot cyborgs in the face with medieval crossbows and introduce Nazi Germany to plasma weapons.
However, this is where the game stumbles. You’re essentially playing a shooter from the 90s, both mechanically and graphically, but not one which is on a par with the games Bedlam’s paying homage to. The weapons have none of the punch of Quake’s shotgun or the BFG; more than once I ran into points in levels where I was lost and going round in circles, without knowing where to go; more frustrating was the character movement, it’s too slow, especially for a game that’s aping 90s shooters, games which allowed you sprint through levels, bouncing off the walls. It doesn’t match up to those ancient games.
I don’t think it’s enough to make a game that’s for all intents and purposes a decade old simply because it backs up the story, it needs to be fun to play in its own right and I’m not convinced Bedlam is.
Bedlam recently launched on Early Access and over the next four months the team are releasing new levels and weekly updates. There’s a lot of room to improve the balance and feel of the weapons, modify the level design to better direct the player, and to imbue some life into the way you move about its world.
The story promises to be something special and that alone could be enough for you to check it out. Otherwise it’s worth waiting till it’s out of Early Access before trying it out.