31 Days of Gaming Terror – Day 12: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
Developer: The Dreamer’s Guild
Publisher: Cyberdreams, Acclaim
Written By: Harlan Ellison
Systems Released On: DOS
Release Date: 10/31/1995

Wow, someone is actually praising a game published by Acclaim. Good god almighty, if I hadn’t bothered to look at the box, I’d have laughed in your face had you suggested Acclaim was capable of publishing a title in the top five of ANY genre.

Before we go any farther, I am going to have to insist you go and read the short story that Harlan Ellison wrote back in 1967 upon which this game is not only based on, but which Harlan Ellison himself revised and rewrote for the video game version by the same name.

If you do not read it, you are doing yourself a massive disservice, and will most likely be missing about half of what I’m going to speak on over the next few pages. SO GO READ IT ALREADY. Hit back on your browser when you’re done and we’ll proceed from there.

I Have No Mouth, and I must Scream is one of the most important and influential stories ever written in the Sci-Fi genre. Ellison wrote the entire tale in a single night in a stream of consciousness style of writing, making no changes to the original draft for almost thirty years, when the video game version would come out. IHNM&IMS would be published in March of 1967 and go on to win a HUGO award in 1968. In its forty years of being published, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, has become one of the most reprinted short stories in the English language.

Again, go read the story before you proceed. It’s only sixteen pages long and there will be a lot of spoilers from here on.

When Cyberdreams approached Ellison to turn I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream into a video game, it had to have been amusing to the famous writer. After all, Ellison is a known technophobe, and he had, in the past, show disdain for the concept of video games, as well as making it publicly known he would not own a computer. However the concept of creating “interactive literature” was a challenge Ellison has never taken on before, and it appealed to him to tackle a new form of writing. Ellison would hammer out the entire script for the video game on an old fashioned typewriter.

Here is where the short story differentiates from the video game. After all, sixteen pages is about sixteen minutes of reading (at most), and I Have No Mouth, takes about a dozen hours to play. Ellison thus had to flesh out his characters and completely rewrite the story from thirty years before into something long enough to be a novella (130 pages). By the time the game was finished, the document would swell to EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES and would contain over two thousand lines of dialogue that would be voiced by actors, including one cast member whose participation would surprise everyone involved (See below).

Ellison also decided to eschew the typical video game fan. You know the type, the one that needs constant gore and mindless violence in the game. The people who think shooting a bunch of dinosaurs on a space station is somehow horrific. Instead, those who chose to take on I Have No Mouth would be forced to deal with truly horrifying situations such as playing as a Mengele type in a Concentration camp. That’s right boys and girls. In this game, you’re slaughtering emaciated, broken, and treated like cattle Jews. There’re also terrifying situations that are far more grounded in reality than the usual video game such as rape, cannibalism, and racism. I Have No Mouth forces each and every person that loads the game up to take a look at what is quite possibly the scariest thing of all: how mankind truly acts rather than how we all wish we would. This is a game about introspection and what makes humanity unique amongst all of life on this planet. This is a game about brain over brawn, morality over violence, and life over death.

For those of you who need something a little more fantastical thanks to your years of saving princesses from living mushrooms and flying turtles, we do have a post apocalyptic world where a computer controls reality for the handful of surviving humans who now exist solely for his own sadistic amusement. This too is a concept that, in the era of the Cold War, seemed all too possible. Ellison and Cyberdreams created an adventure/sci-fi/horror amalgamation that was far more grounded in reality that most other games. Even eleven years later, I Have No Mouth still manages to disturb new gamers by forcing us all to accept there is no monster Man’s imagination can create that can be a more loathsome creature than the one we look at in the mirror on a daily basis.

The biggest change plotwise was Ellison fleshing out his five protagonists. The video game version of I Have No Mouth reveals more about AM and also why these five humans were saved from worldwide genocide by it. By saved I of course mean, sentenced to over a century of constant torture and torment. In the beginning of the Short Story, AM mentions briefly that all five humans were different before AM came. Within the confines of the game, you learn that for a few that may be true, but for others they have earned this hell to which AM has placed them in.

Much like in the short story, the game is quite dark and brooding, with many ways for the five playable characters to screw up, fail, and lose horribly. There are also ways to lose yet succeed. Dying while being true to the greater tenements of morality and decency for example. Self-Sacrifice is another. This game is not meant to be happy. It is not meant to reward you for making choices you should be making every day without conscious thought. This game is simply a metaphor for, “We all fuck up. Sometimes it’s too late. Sometimes the only redemption for our acts comes in sacrifice.” There is one ending where the game has as close to a happy ending as possible, but much like with Clock Tower, this ending is to sate those have a hard time accepting that most of the time the dark side of humanity wins out. The “Good” ending is cheesy but is still melancholy. The one key thing to remember that for the rest of the game for this one deviation, even if you succeed in the tasks or puzzles put before you, this does not mean your particular character will have a happy ending. There are many ways in which this game can end, including re-enacting the end of the short story. It will take dozens of play sessions to discover all that you can do to bring these characters to their eventual ends.

The music and voice acting of I Have No Mouth is amazing. The music may
“only” be MIDI files, but they were all designed by John Ottoman who also wrote the music for The Usual Suspects and X-Men. The music is haunting and riveting, enhancing the most important piece of the game: the story. At no time is it distracting or annoying. It is simply there in the back of your mind, adding a level of drama and tension to the words floating across your screen or being spoken by a voice actor.

Quite possibly the most eyebrow raising aspect of the voice acting in I Have No Mouth is that Harlon Ellison himself voices the insane godlike supercomputer AM. I haven’t decided if it’s ironic or fitting that a man who eschews computers plays the voice of a sentient one whose sole reason for existence is to torture humanity. I should point out here that Ellison is not the only voice actor, and that forty other men and women were hired to breathe life into the characters in the game.

The graphics of I Have No Mouth are a bit difficult to explain seeing that they change throughout the story. What I mean by this is that all of reality for the protagonists is controlled by an insane computerized god who can change perception at its will. The graphics have a degree of homogony throughout the game, but each character’s level is strikingly different in terms of backgrounds and settings. Nimdok’s level is especially troubling for many who play the game (To the point where this level was removed from all German copies of the game) due to the detail and accuracy of the depiction of concentration camp life. Even though the game is over a decade old, some people still point out how unsettling the visuals can be, even though the game has little to no violence in it. Now that’s powerful.

The interface of I Have No Mouth is similar to adventure game engines. You’ll be using the mouth and a menu at the bottom of the screen to interact with your environment and use various items throughout the quests that AM forces your characters into. However, there are two very unique pieces of the game’s interface that subtly enhance your gaming experience. The first is what is referred to as a “Spiritual Barometer.” This aspect is noticeable in your character’s portrait at the bottom of the screen. Pay close attention to the background of it. As you do good deeds or morally correct choices, the background of the portrait will become green. The more evil acts that you do, the darker the background of the portrait will turn. This has an effect on what ending you receive in the game. The “Good” ending is achievable by all five characters having a high (green) barometer rating, which ultimately means playing at least one character very different from how you are meant to.

The other bit worth noticing is that each character can have a “psychiatric profile” and you. the player, have the opportunity to read them. The profile reveals more about the character’s background and what their next objective is in the game, but using it lowers your barometer.

When I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream was released back in late 1995, it received a great deal of critical acclaim and praise, and is still consistently ranked as one of the top 100 video games ever made, often placing in the top 15 depending on the media source and criteria. For myself, it is still one of the most profound experiences I have ever had while playing a video game and can’t recommend it enough. Very few other games force the gamer to examine their own concepts of morality and take a long hard introspective look at who they really are. Video games are almost exclusively a form of escapism. They are something to do so one doesn’t have to look at where they are in their lives. A form on entertainment that allows them to escape into a fantasy world. I Have No Mouth instead forces the player to look at reality harder then they most likely ever have before and shows them that escapism is a far worse alternative that being active in the real world and trying to make it a better place.

A game that tries to make the player a better human being and examines the many fatal flaws we all try to hide from others and ultimately ourselves. Truly, what is more frightening to most people than to examine their own lives and the mess they have made of them? If you are looking for the most sublime example of computerized horror/terror, then look no further than I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.

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