Christopher Brookmyre’s Bedlam is perhaps as much a love letter to videogames as it is an actual videogame. That love may come with a veritable ton of sarcasm and coarse, colourful language – all delivered with tongue firmly in cheek – but you hardly need to read between the caustic author’s inimitable lines to feel the warmth in the room.
Loosely based on Brookmyre’s book of the same name, Bedlam finds protagonist Heather Quinn transported inside Starfire, a half-remembered videogame from her misspent youth. There’s little fanfare leading up to your strange situation, with players more or less dropped into a blocky, somewhat clunky first-person shooter. Think of genre-defining nineties titles such as Wolfenstein 3D or Doom and you’ll have a fairly good handle on the take developers Red Bedlam have gone with for Starfire itself.
The touchstones don’t stop there though – far from it. Over its duration, and thanks to some in-game glitches that ping-pong Quinn around Brookmyre’s bat-shit world, players find themselves in an early war shooter a la Call of Duty, some vintage gaming action along the lines of Pac-Man and Space Invaders as well as a futuristic FPS that could possibly see Master Chief giving his lawyer a quick buzz.
For game enthusiasts of a certain age, Bedlam is something of a delight to experience. The initial throwback to older gaming conventions may need some time to adjust to but Brookmyre’s prose go some way to smoothing the transition. In fact, Bedlam could be an argument for putting the story ahead of the game, at least to some degree. Thankfully, Red Bedlam’s efforts are up to the task of bringing the world to life; true to the foibles of their inspiration but also clearly providing more technical nous than a first impression might give.
There are some nice get-out clauses though. The initial wave of enemies are snorted at by Quinn as ‘canon fodder’, a nice commentary on the evolution of AI in games for sure, but the girl isn’t wrong. Thankfully it isn’t long before things get a mite more challenging but it matters not – the context of the setting itself ensures Red Bedlam can get away with such, presumably intentional, conceits.
As things progress, the drama and difficulty ramps up accordingly and the various tonal shifts also keep things interesting. There’s perhaps a feeling that the initial gimmick of a game within a game is played out one time too many but on the other side of the coin, Bedlam certainly gives its money’s worth and, at times, belies its relatively modest funding and development.
However, Bedlam is evidence of making a solid idea overcome any technical shortcomings. On its own it would be a curious oddity with negligible staying power save for a bout of nostalgic wallowing. Combined with Brookmyre’s world building though, Bedlam's inner thread is enough to pull your interest along to the end.
Like its protagonist, Bedlam is a kick for those who grew up in the eighties and nineties experiencing the games it apes. Brookmyre’s writing may alienate the odd curious onlooker but for those who fondly remember 10p games of Operation Wolf, dial-up Internet sessions of Quake II and goggle-eyed, marathon bouts of GoldenEye, Bedlam is well worth a futuristic-style download.