Digital worlds are enticing. When we play video games, we’re separated from the risk of death, able to perform mighty feats without ever moving an inch off the couch. But what if we could enter into these realities and claim them as our own?
This isn’t a new idea in science fiction. Media spanning from horror movies to anime series fantasize about what it would be like if video games suddenly crept out of our digital lives into reality. And while Bedlam doesn’t do anything particularly different to separate itself from this trope, it does use its characters to explore important social themes.
Bedlam prides itself on being a “genre-hopping FPS,” in which protagonist Heather Quinn begins moving between game worlds after mysteriously being transported into the digital realm. Throughout, Heather engages in many experiences, including fighting zombies, visiting a fantasy village, acting as a Pac-Man surrogate, and fighting alien invaders as a cyborg inside a sci-fi shooter.
It makes a point of aping iconic elements of modern game franchises. The sci-fi shooter Starfire features garish alien monsters and green-clad marines not unlike Doom, a Call of Duty-esque war-torn European town is littered with debris, war vehicles, barbed wire, and generic cannon fodder enemies, and bloody zombies stalk the filthy sewers beneath a city in a scene like Left 4 Dead.
The old idiom “Jack of all trades, master of none” applies here in its most glaring form. Because the game features multiple styles and game worlds, none of them have the same amount of attention put into them that a larger studio dedicated to one genre would have. This lack of complexity make each of the levels feel like a thinly-veiled representation, an elbow prod in the ribs begging for a grin from this much-less-substantial attempt to create something familiar. When combined with just barely responsive shooting even the highest setting of aim assist doesn’t quite make up for, it comes across as an earnest attempt at a shallow experience.
Bedlam’s most interesting moments are due to its female lead. A programmer, Heather is a refreshing bit of personality who quips with in-game characters and the other players who have been pulled into the realm along with her. Her sarcasm and wit make for genuinely clever moments. In one part of the sci-fi shooter, Heather is told everything is riding on her success. Bluntly, she responds to the speaker by saying “I’m in an FPS. Of course it’s all on me.”
She begs for the lights to come on in a survival horror game, accidentally cuts an officer’s head off when attempting to salute, and recounts her days of sneaking into her older teenaged brother’s room to play video games on PC. Very few of her lines fell flat, and I appreciated her no-nonsense personality.
She’s also not afraid to say bold things about being a woman who loves video games. While speaking to another female character, she admits to having to work a disproportionate amount more than others for half of the respect, takes offense to being assumed male by an NPC, and swaps stories with a female character named Buzzkill about how they adopted their screen names through microagressions and blatant discrimination.
Overall, I feel lukewarm about Bedlam. It’s not an intuitive shooter mechanically, nor is it particularly interesting to play. But the world in which Heather is absorbed and the strange things she encounters throughout make it intriguing enough to continue forward. Ultimately, it’s a mediocre game with sprinkles of brilliance thanks to its apparent respect for video games and a mouthy, bold female protagonist.