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Informing, Bedlam

The rotating tin cylinder within the phonograph vibrates slightly as a brass needle scrapes against it. The sound of a throat being cleared emerges from the machine's hornshell speaker, followed by a thin, haunting voice.

This has very little to do with the Grid and Scripting and So On, but I have recently been spending idle moments in a work of Interactive Fiction (some may know such things as "text adventures") entitled Slouching Towards Bedlam, which, stylistically I believe, may be of interest to Regular Readers - or those of you who are decidedly Irregular.

The rubber piping connected to the back of the machine convulses for a moment, a wisp of steam escaping from it. From within, comes a low whirring which slowly increases in pitch and volume. From out of the magnetophone's horn comes a soft echo of static...

Bedlam certainly describes itself as "steampunk", which is frequently in my experience a Bad Sign particularly where Literature is concerned - it is a crude and anachronistic word - but, with a sigh, I must admit that it is useful shorthand at times. (I can hardly disavow it when I am a High Officer of the group "The Steampunks" and use it frequently in my Commercial Announcements, simply so that those who are interested may find me. I would much rather use a more elegant term, "Counter-Historical Scientific Romantic" or similar, but hey ho, that takes up an awfully large number of precious Letters.) Certainly, by any reasonable standards, this piece would qualify, set in a London of 1885 with steam-powered hangmen, a full-size Panopticon and mechanist shops on Fleet Street owned by, erm, red-headed female technologists. The tone is dark and intense, almost Lovecraftian, the writing concise yet expressive. I have not yet finished it, but will be sad when I do - happily, I hear the promise that there are many alternative endings.

Bedlam was published in a format known as "Z-Code", to be run on a "Z-Machine". The history of this is too lengthy to go into here (if you are interested, dear reader, perhaps peruse the appropriate Wikipedia article) but suffice to say that it was originally developed by the masters of the art of Interactive Fiction, Infocom, in order that they might produce their products easily for all manner of different Engines, and is now available for general use via the reverse-engineered compiler known as Inform. For the Player or Creator this has two main results:

  1. One can run a Z-Code piece on practically any Engine, as there are interpreters now for almost anything imaginable - a list of them may be found here. I have even done so on my Portable Magnetophone, though it is not what one would call a comfortable experience. Conversely, the author must only provide one file for general use, rather than be forced to exclude certain folk.
  2. One can also write one's own Z-Code pieces with ease. The latest version of the Inform compiler is an absolutely astounding effort; fellow Scripters and Engine Instructors will be astounded to hear that it is a "natural language" language that actually works, as opposed to, say, the abomination known as Applescript. If you have the slightest interest in creating these things I would advise you to visit the Home of Inform and obtain their free software forthwith.

It will doubtless not come as a particular surprise to hear that I personally have spent some time attempting to write pieces in Inform, but whilst I find myself perfectly technically capable, I also find that I have no skill with either Plot or Puzzle. I dislike Puzzles in general unless they add to the overall experience of the Piece - Bedlam so far works well in this regard, with such "puzzles" as there are being related to the plot rather than being there to slow one down - but the main issue is that I simply do not think in terms of Narrative.

Within Second Life, narrative is something that other people provide for themselves, simultaneously a collective and an individual effort with everyone's experience being different, which is perhaps why I remain there; I can provide components, collaborate with other people's existences, and construct my own, but when it comes to creating an overall "plot" I am completely adrift. My efforts with Inform are (if I may say so) detailed and diverting vignettes, but they have no point to them. My efforts with more traditional prose are similar, for that matter.

Still, enough introspection: I would hope that some readers might be curious enough to obtain the appropriate code for Slouching Towards Bedlam, then one of the interpreters, and enjoy the experience. Perhaps some may even wish to delve further into Interactive Fiction; I would suggest Baf's Guide as a starting point for obtaining further pieces. A search for those given a Five Star Rating will provide many excellent examples.

headburro antfarm's picture
08 Aug200717:29
headburro antfarm (not verified)

Ahhh, the heady days of playing Cthulhu based z-code games on my old Psion 5 engine... lovely! That led me on to running a huge Play-by-Email Cthulhu game on Yahoo Groups, so I have a lot to thank Infocom for really :)

I had the other problem, plots were plentiful but the coding/scripting/whateveritiscalled was not my forte :)


Ace Albion's picture
08 Aug200719:02
Ace Albion (not verified)

I'm not sure you need a plot to have a fun text adventure.

One of my favourite old games was "Behind Closed Doors", which featured one location, could be completed in around 10 moves, but was full of interesting things and consequences.

Quine Mondrian's picture
11 Aug200701:03
Quine Mondrian (not verified)

Sadly, one of the authors of 'Slouching Towards Bedlam' passed away in December of last year at a very young age. My real-life avatar was very privileged to be friends with Ms. Star Christina Foster, a.k.a. 'Sarcasmo', and misses her terribly. I'm sure it would please her to know that her work continues to delight and intrigue an ever-expanding audience.

A silent auction was held at the party celebrating her life earlier this year, and among the items sold for charity was an enormous painting of the London imagined in STB. I'll try to find an image of it to pass along.

Ordinal Malaprop's picture
13 Aug200702:15
Ordinal Malaprop (not verified)

Oh lord, that's terrible. I'm so sorry. I would love to see the painting if you do find a picture.

Peccable's picture
14 Aug200702:45
Peccable (not verified)

Hi. I'm Dan R., Star's co-writer on Slouching. I'm glad you're enjoying the game so much.

As Quine noted, we lost Star late last year. It's been tough. I, too, think she'd be glad to know that people were still talking about her and her work.

The picture was done by a young woman who has a site called sandara. I was the one who actually ended up winning the auction. It's currently hanging over my desk at home and it's absolutely beautiful.

You can see an image of it here: http://www.sandara.net/2005/cg/bedlam1.jpg

Sandara did a whole series of paintings based on Bedlam. Both Star and I thought it was really incredible to have someone create something based on something you imagined.

Thanks again for your post. I'd love to hear what you think when you finish.


Ordinal Malaprop's picture
18 Aug200705:54
Ordinal Malaprop (not verified)

I'm sorry your comment took so long to appear; I am rather poor at checking the queue, and it can be a little over-keen when it comes to flagging things for moderation. I have in the meantime found a few endings... though I am currently searching for more! One of the things I enjoy about a well-crafted piece of interactive fiction is that it is still rewarding to go back and make alternative decisions, to see whether one might... well, I wouldn't wish to spoil it for any readers.

I did eventually find the picture concerned, but it is not directly linkable it seems due to restrictions. That and the second are quite excellent, though, and I will enquire as to whether I might have permission to post them myself.