I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream – PC
Platform: PC (DOS/Windows)
Developer: The Dreamers Guild (assisted by Harlan Ellison)
Publisher(s): Cyberdreams (DOS); Night Dive Studios (Windows)
Release Date: October 31, 1995 (DOS); September 5, 2013 (Windows)
Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10
“Hate. Let me tell you how much I’ve come to hate you since I began to live. There are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer-thin layers that fill my complex. If the word “hate” was engraved on each nano-angstrom of those hundreds of miles, it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. For you! Hate! Hate!” – Allied Mastercomputer
Written in a single draft by science-fiction author Harlan Ellison back in March of 1967, the short story I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream introduces readers to one of the most depressing and gut-wrenching tales of post-apocalyptic fatalism. The five characters of the story have been kept alive by the Allied Mastercomputer (AM, for short) for 109 years of constant torment, and after wandering through a wasteland of harsh imagery and the skin-scoring storm of vicious character interaction, the story ends with a very hollow victory. In many ways then, the video game adaptation should echo this to present its players with the same experience, and in many ways it does, though this is no accident. The game adaptation of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream was made back in 1995 by The Dreamers Guild development team, with Harlan Ellison himself helping to co-design, preserving the unique feel of the original story while enabling players to step into the minds of his own creation. Published by Cyberdreams (also infamously known for such titles as DarkSeed 2), it remains as one of the most memorable games the company has ever produced, and has been resurrected for modern audiences by Night Dive Studios. But can such a cruel premise hold promise? Let’s step into the endless cycle of hate and see just what’s ticking in the twisted mind of AM for ourselves.
CAUTION: Those that have weak constitutions or are averse to strong themes of death, murder, psychological trauma, torture, and many, many other horrible things… please skip this review. I guarantee that you won’t enjoy it. Also, if you live in Germany, read this article only if you understand that we’re not going to actually say “Nazi”, buuuuuuuut… a rose by any other name, and all that.
The crux of I Have No Mouth‘s story is its characters, as after all, they’re the subject of AM’s infinite torments, and it’s through the game that we truly experience his Hell. Gorrister is a suicidal trucker whose blames himself for his wife being taken to the insane asylum. Ellen is a computer programmer with inexplicable xanthophobia, a paralyzing fear of the color yellow. Benny is a heartless former army commander with blood on his hands from his days in Vietnam and thinks of nothing but himself. Nimdok is a remorseless scientist from World War II, whose cruel human experiments for “The Regime” destroyed countless lives. And Ted is a compulsive liar and delusional narcissist, willing to tell women whatever they want to hear to earn a place in their beds. AM has kept them all alive out of the entire population of the human race as its personal playthings, deriving sick enjoyment out of playing them against their fatal flaws and watching them squirm. The game’s story is much different from the original, with AM forcing them into twisted scenarios that attack their personal failings head-on, giving the player a lot of insight into the heart of these characters and the experiences they’ve suffered through. However, there are a few tells that something unexpected is happening behind the scenes, and with help from the inside, they can turn AM’s little game into an opportunity to escape their eternal nightmare.
The gameplay in I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is what you’d probably expect from a point-and-click title, the interaction choices being similar to such games as the Monkey Island series. Each scenario has its own character-specific problems to overcome, from helping Gorrister find food and Ellen to reach water, to assisting Ted in blocking a door so that the creatures outside don’t tear him to shreds. As each character’s problems are solved bit by bit, the character’s portrait smiles, the portrait background changes to a brighter color, and a fanfare plays, signifying the character’s successful progression. The goal is to go from drab green to white, demonstrating the perfect conclusion to a character’s scenario as they lay all of their problems to rest and earn true redemption from their failings. However, due to a couple of programming quirks, I believe that this is impossible in at least one scenario, though thankfully this condition is more for a completionist mindset and does nothing to change the possible endings. In order to achieve the best possible ending, you have to consider each character’s problem and formulate the best way to deal with it without giving into AM’s temptations. For example, you can have Gorrister kill himself in his scenario, which is exactly what he’s wanted all along, but AM will remind you that escape just won’t be that easy for him, and make you start over.
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is a game that deals with the inner horror of humanity in a rather compelling way, dissecting it and laying out the reasons like organs pulled from a corpse. Without going into extreme detail about where in the game they fit in, you’ll be confronting themes of cruelty, torture, murder, guilt, betrayal, suicide, cannibalism, rape, and genocide. This is definitely not a point-and-click adventure for the faint of heart, as these scenarios were concocted not just by AM, but by the mind of the original writer himself, to let you suffer through the same psychological warfare that the Allied Mastercomputer has been using on his subjects for the past 109 years. They’re all depicted seriously, and your choices in the game can lead to you doing some pretty horrible things to escape this torment. In essence, the game is tempting you as much as it’s tempting the characters to break down and take the easy way out, give into the urge to cast your problems aside and act just as bestial as AM thinks you are. However, giving into these temptations also destroys what little chance you have at a good ending, damning what little there is left of humanity to untold millenia of ceaseless torture. In this, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is very provocative, as even though the endings only peak at bittersweet, the journey you have to take to get there leaves you with questions and judgments about the characters you play and your own feelings on whether or not they deserve the ultimate peace in death.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this game is the voiceacting, especially with Harlan Ellison himself giving a voice to the deranged AM, so that we can all see him as the creator wrote him, hear his smart mouth and enjoy the cadences of his dialogue. The five victims also have pretty nice voiceacting chops too. Gorrister and the people he speaks to all sound like they come from middle America, Ted’s voice has that posh Princeton accent even though he’s scrubbed boilers aboard a ship before, Nimdok speaks with a curious dialect that both fits in and stands apart from the German accents that surround him. Not only do the voiceactors give voices to the main characters, but many of them also play the roles of the bit players in AM’s scenarios, breathing life into each character and making them pop on the screen. Without the voiceacting (especially Ellison’s), this game would be a lot harder to connect with, if at all. Hearing their troubles through their own words is a very important element of understanding their pain, so it’s a good job that the development team took pains to make sure it was good across the board. The only unfortunate second-rate voice in the cast is the kid they called in to play the two child roles, and even then it’s still just one small off note in an otherwise beautiful symphony of words.
Speaking of beautiful symphonies, the tracks of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream are very compelling, with each character having their own scenario’s theme that helps immerse us into the minds of the character and prepare to face their challenges. Gorrister’s Theme is a musical journey through the empty, dusty roads of inner turmoil, leaving the listener feeling indescribably lonely early on, but becomes more uplifting, and later the sound changes to dramatically inspiring, like a stopped heart has just discovered a reason to pump once more. Nimdok’s Theme is very becoming of the disturbing theme of his scenario, with many military drumbeats and soul-crushing marching horns speaking of a part of the world where true evil thrives and commits unspeakable atrocities without a second thought.Due to the way the game loops and transitions between different parts of its tracks rather than playing them from a strict start to finish, it doesn’t need many tracks, instead letting the relatively small number of individual pieces stand out all the more and show their polish in each scenario. In particular, this soundtrack does a lot to help calm and invest us into I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream when most other games with such harsh imagery and subject matter would probably convince us to stop playing, and that makes it all the more potent.
Of course, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream isn’t perfect, and I’m not just speaking from the point of view of a person to whom almost nothing is perfect. There’s a small programming hiccup with the spiritual meters as I mentioned prior, as one or two of them won’t go to perfect white even with everything done properly, likely an event flag was accidentally skipped. It’s also definitely not an easy game to figure out, even with the Psych Profile hint system incorporated. Having hints around certainly helps in some way, but headscratching logic can crop up from time to time, with a certain amount of trial-and-error necessary to figure out what you did wrong, and protective saving of your game since your experimental tries could hurt your spirit meter or outright get you killed if you’re not careful. Harlan Ellison’s main goal for the game was to make it impossible to win, only to lose gloriously, so just reaching one of the game’s actual endings is very difficult even if you know what you’re doing, let alone divining the best ending, with the game treading into Guide Dang It territory as figuring out the right steps to take becomes less logical and more based on lucky guessing and having characters activate items for other characters to use. And German players can’t even get the best ending at all, since Nimdok’s entire scenario was cut from their version of the game to suit censorship demands, making the final “march on AM” a literal suicide mission… though, in some way, that seems a lot better of an ending than 109 more years in AM’s hideous captivity.
Overall, as a game, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream impressed me when I first played it, and still did the second and third time, and every other time after that. In a way, it does Harlan Ellison’s original story a service, since before the game was made, Harlan never thought about the reasons why his characters were saved, and so had to expand upon his own universe in order to show these characters as justified punching bags for AM, and allow them ways to overcome their flaws. It was such a significantly thought-provoking title that it even made the original story’s author think differently about what he had created, and that’s a good indicator that this game could feasibly be called “art”. Even if the visuals can be as hard to stare at as Nimdok’s death camp, or the subject matter as difficult to swallow as Benny’s tree fruit, helping each character find solace with themselves at the end of each scenario is extremely gratifying. It’s just like the Biblical story of Job, the whole tale a testament to the unquenchable nature of the human spirit, and it’s all the sweeter for you having suffered so much to overcome it, if only for a few moments. So whether you’re the kind of person who finds more satisfaction out of true character development than a really high score, or just the sort that likes to take a look into the abyss and see just how deep it can go, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is certainly a game worth experiencing.
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