SLOUCHING TOWARDS BEDLAM


I found this game a bit irritating the first time I played it, but otherwise so forgettable that whenever people cited it as an all-time classic, I never felt competent to disagree, much as I wanted to. A few days ago I was involved in an raif discussion in which someone praised Slouching to the heavens yet again, so I did something I'd been putting off for years: I played the game one more time. And this time, I have to say I liked it even less than in 2003. Here's why.

First, infodumps. Has there ever been a game with so much infodump? Slouching forces you to sit through reams of the stuff before you can get anywhere: phonograph recordings, diaries, books, letters, archives, manuals. A veneer of interactivity is provided by fiddly bits of machinery that stand in the way of the next wodge of text, as is usually the case with backstory games. The gizmos I have to manipulate here, unfortunately, are rather confusingly described, with key details buried in the prose. (I never had a good idea of what was going on with the panopticon; I had to hit the walkthrough to operate it.) Inevitably, no amount of fiddliness can hide the fact that the player spends most of the game doing nothing but absorbing backstory.

And a rather silly backstory it is. In a steampunk London of 1855, people are using IF meta-commands and infecting everyone they meet with a Snow Crash style verbal virus. Somehow, the Kabbalah, gnosticism and other bits of mumbo-jumbo are involved. I confess I began to skim through this stuff long before the end; I'm still not sure what it was all about, and nor do I care. I'm not entirely confident that it makes a lot of sense even within the game.

The meta-command stuff in particular made me wince. I like games that exploit the unique possibilities of parser IF, but referring directly to the extra-game features of the interface is a crude and somewhat ridiculous way to do it. Yay, the PC can do a >SAVE and >RESTORE. Why not also let him do an >ABOUT and apprehend the true mystery of his creation? Why not let him >HELP and have a vision of the complete walkthrough? Why all the fuss about trying to kill himself, when he could just >QUIT? I'd even claim that Slouching's treatment of meta-commands is an inherently silly idea, an unwittingly Pythonesque touch in a game that takes itself awfully seriously. If you want me to fear the Logos, it's probably best to lay off the cheesy self-reference.

I'm told that Slouching is all about acting on the things you learn, formulating a strategy, working out the consequences of your actions, and so on. But if the game is supposed to be about acting on what I learn, then it should consist mostly of acting, rather than learning. As it is, all the action is confined to a few moves after the big infodump has passed; by the time I have learned enough to have an idea what to do, I've already lost the will to play. I simply don't care enough about anything in the game to be bothered formulating a strategy. The NPCs are so thin and unconvincing that being forced to kill them has little emotional effect; the game world doesn't convince me in the slightest.

A lot of this has to do with the careless anachronisms in the writing. There is a clear effort to infuse the prose with a bit of Victorian fustiness, but the characters let slip frequent turns of phrase that just didn't exist in 1855. I'm talking about things like the figurative uses of "backlash" and "segue" (which worse still is used in the nonsensical construction "segue way"), phrases like "the public eye" and "make an issue of", "in the face of" in the sense of "confronted with", and those are just the ones that leapt out at me. Yes, I know that cutesy little computers on wheels didn't exist in 1855 either. But in a text-only medium, what supplies the steam in steampunk must be the writing. As far as I see it, the "cool" factor of steampunk is that we have a high-tech world which in every other respect is Victorian. And since the opening rooms of the game are full of improbable sci-fi architecture and technology, this means it's especially important to keep everything else as Victorian as possible, including the language. Otherwise, the setting loses its identity, not to mention its cool.

But it isn't just the anachronisms that bother me about the writing. There's an immediate tincture of purpure about the prose, with the phonograph offering us

"I discredit my profession; examining madness as if the world were a fluent thing and sanity as malleable as the warm wax of a candle."

which then quickly segues into (or, as the authors would have it, "segue ways into")

"The secret lays heavily on both my mind and heart."

Yes, it's our old friend the lays/lies error, which comes like an embarrassing pratfall after such an extravagant dance of diction. This isn't the worst IF writing ever, by any means, but I despair to see people describe Slouching as "the most literary game I've played" when in fact it's not even the most literate game I've played. Playing the game I am nagged by the feeling that its prose is constantly reaching beyond itself, trying and failing the spectacular in an effort to impress.

Slouching is by no means the worst IF game ever, either, or even close. It has some cool bits (e.g. Triage), and was probably even the best game of Comp03 (I can barely remember the others). But all-time great? If you ask me, it's one of the triumvirate of overrated games from the last few comps (along with Blue Chairs and Vespers) which are just too badly flawed to join the pantheon.


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