Bedlam The Game interviewPlatforms: PC
Ok, so this may come out sounding just a little bizarre. Hold onto your seats. Bedlam is a book by Chris Brookmyre, which was originally written as a concept for a game. Ten months after the book’s release, small Brighton-based studio RedBedlam (the name’s not a coincidence as it turns out) are announcing this game, based on the book as was originally planned. That’s not too complicated, yet as we begin to delve into the plot and world of Bedlam, the book, which revolves around a character being transported into the realm of video games, it all becomes a little bit messier.
The concept of Bedlam, the game, is to play a character that transgresses the boundaries of any single game, told through the narrative and perspective of a first-person shooter. Essentially it’s an interactive museum of gaming, abound with familiar idioms and tropes... with guns. Or, as Chris Brookmyre simply sums it up as: ‘it’s a Wreck-It-Ralph for the over thirties.’ One moment you may be blasting pixelated cyborgs in Starfire (Bedlam’s equivalent to a classic Nineties shooter such as Doom or Quake) the next you’re sniping at Nazis from a bell tower in a Medal Of Honour-esque manner. Or, diving back further into gaming’s past, you may find yourself dodging the laser beams of descending Space Invaders or perhaps popping power pills and gunning down ghosts while running through a Pacman-like maze.
What makes the idea so interesting is that as well as continuing through these retro games from a decidedly different first-person perspective, you will also hold on to your inventory and weapons as you jump from world to world. Which means you could be sending a shot from a rail gun through a Nazi’s skull or vaporise an incoming giant Swiss Army knife from Spectrum classic Odd-Job Eddie with the game’s equivalent of a BFG.
I’m sitting there trying to get a grip on how playing a 2D game as an FPS will work, how does a man turn or strafe with the z dimension missing. Steve Finn, Head of Production at RedBedlam chimes in trying to explain. ‘They are not long parts, maybe 5 minutes, they're just little sections where you are trying to get from one side to the other. Whether it's a maze, the road [from Pacman or Frogger] or in Space Invaders the aliens are there above you, raining fire. You can shoot them and it will rain pixels down on you.’ It is certainly a strange concept, and one that we need to get our hands on to be sure whether it can be successful.
The game is not simply a reminiscing nostalgia trip however, being a strange museum of gaming it will evolve into adaptations of more recent titles such as the beautiful picturesque scenery of Calastria (an interpretation of RPGs such as Skyrim) or even surreal size-mismatched versions of Age of Empires or the Total War series, where your avatar is ten times larger than the troops charging towards (or more likely fleeing from) you. And you’re still armed with a plasma rifle that melts them in seconds.
Each game world will be authentic to the period, which actually posed a difficult problem for the team who wanted to ensure that very little obvious crossover would occur in the assets. How does an art team produce completely independent work for different worlds? The solution was surprisingly simple as Steve points out: ‘We leveraged the Unity asset store... there is such good work out made by people in their bedrooms or some little teams. With a game like this if we had all the money and time in the world we'd still use these assets. It enables us to really emphasise that they look like they were built by different artists and they totally should, that's the point… as a bonus it gives us more time to make the levels interesting and add these little Easter eggs and touches.’
Similarly with the audio the team have really gone to town to try and make the games really feel authentic. Steve points out ‘it will be literally circumbashing (sic) the old hardware… if you hear an Atari 2600 explosion it sounds like just that and not just from an audio file’s perspective, it will hit those notes in people's head. Our audio team are going to the nth degree.’’
Strangely, and I find myself constantly using that word in the interview, you’re not necessarily a hero in Bedlam, as Chris puts it ‘instead of the usual situation where its all about you and you’ve come to save the world according to the prophesy, what if you’re one of the bad guys or even worse you’re one of the cannon fodder, the grunts, who gets blown away in the training parts of level one...’
If you’ve read the book then most of this may sound familiar. Here, the main character Ross ‘Bedlam’ Baker finds himself trapped in this digital world after undergoing a experimental brainscan, and after that point it becomes a whirlwind of geek gaming nostalgia as he wanders confused between various gaming worlds. But the studio and Chris wanted to shy away from simply retelling the same story. ‘People who have read the book wouldn't necessarily want to have the same experience, they want to see the same stuff... so we decided you would play not Ross, but he's in the game. A good comparison is when you play the Half-Life add on packs, Blue Shift or Opposing Force… we’re selling the same concept, the same gameverse but not the same story’.
Hopefully with the very personal involvement of Chris Brookmyre the narrative will be more diverse and witty than a standard FPS, and I’m personally looking forward to seeing how they manage to portray this ‘gameverse’ and the underlying narrative without restricting the first-person shooting elements.
‘We're putting a lot of effort into how we are going to convey the story. We will constantly be giving them hints or distractions, such as the fact that you’re seeing creatures from completely different genres of games appearing...why is that? You're going to think that it is slightly disturbing and there must be an explanation for it… Piece by piece it will start to come together until that big floor being pulled from under you moment.’ Nick Witcher, marketing director of RedBedlam points out just how much work they and Chris have put into this. ‘We talked about this a while back, asking for a one page outline. A couple of months later we asked him for that one page, but it was nine pages long...’
It will certainly be one of those games that one has to try before they can really make any judgement. Questions I’m asking myself are whether the game will manage to remain entertaining, and fun, while diving between all these different worlds? Will the disparity between these worlds in this ‘gameverse’ cause problems? Steve stresses that first and foremost ‘at its very core it must be a very good shooter’ and this for me will be the key. If the team succeed in this then the rest of the game should fall into place. But as we have seen with many retro FPS remakes recently such as Painkiller and Rise Of The Triad, it is not as simple as it sounds.
Bedlam, the game, will be launched in mid 2014 as a PC-only game, which makes sense given the PC nostalgia target audience and Nick is keen to point out they have already got the word it will make it to Steam on release. There is talk of console releases but it seems like that will come at a later date, if at all. There are also plans in the works to make it a trilogy, cooperative and multiplayer elements coming in future releases, with release dates hoping to match the trilogy of the novels. Personally I’m really looking forward to seeing just how mad the whole enterprise will end up and how the team will manage to draw all these ideas and concepts together. Only time, as always, will tell.