I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (video game)
||This article's lead section may not adequately summarize key points of its contents. (September 2013)|
|I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream|
PC version box cover, has an opening in the front to display the mousepad featuring Harlan Ellison's face inside.
|Developer(s)||The Dreamers Guild[a]|
|Artist(s)||Bradley W. Schenck
Robert L. Miles
|Release date(s)||MS-DOS, Mac OS
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a point-and-click adventure game based upon Harlan Ellison's short story of the same title, developed by The Dreamers Guild, co-designed by Ellison and published by Cyberdreams in 1995. The game's story is set in a world where an evil computer named AM has destroyed all of humanity except for five people, whom he has been keeping alive and torturing for the past 109 years. Each survivor has a fatal flaw in their character, and in an attempt to crush their spirits, AM has constructed a metaphorical adventure for each that preys upon their weaknesses. To succeed in the game, the player must make choices to prove that humans are better than machines, because they have the ability to redeem themselves. Woven into the fabric of the story are ethical dilemmas dealing with issues such as insanity, rape, paranoia and genocide.
The game uses the S.A.G.A. game engine created by game developer The Dreamers Guild. Players participate in each adventure through a screen that is divided into five sections. The action window is the largest part of the screen and is where the player directs the main characters through their adventures. It shows the full-figure of the main character being played as well as that character's immediate environment. To locate objects of interest, the player moves the crosshairs through the action window. The name of any object that the player can interact with appears in the sentence line. The sentence line is directly beneath the action window. The player uses this line to construct sentences telling the characters what to do. To direct a character to act, the player constructs a sentence by selecting one of the eight commands from the command buttons and then clicking on one or two objects from either the action window or the inventory. Examples of sentences the player might construct would be "Walk to the dark hallway," "Talk to Harry," or "Use the skeleton key on the door." Commands and objects may consist of one or more words (for example, "the dark hallway"), and the sentence line will automatically add connecting words like "on" and "to."
The spiritual barometer is on the lower left side of the screen. This is a close-up view of the main character currently being played. Since good behavior is meaningless lacking the temptation to do evil, each character is free to do good or evil acts. However, good acts are rewarded by increases in the character's spiritual barometer, which affect the chances of the player destroying AM in the final adventure. Conversely, evil acts are punished by lowering the character's spiritual barometer.
The command buttons are the eight commands used to direct the character's actions: "Walk To", "Look At", "Take", "Use", "Talk To", "Swallow", "Give" and "Push". The button of the currently active command is highlighted, while the name of a suggested command appears in red lettering. The inventory on the lower right side of the screen shows pictures of the items the main character is carrying, up to eight at a time. Each main character starts its adventure with only the psych profile in the inventory. When a main character takes or is given an object, a picture of the object appears in the inventory. When a main character talks to another character or operates a sentient machine, a conversation window replaces the command buttons and inventory. This window usually presents a list of possible things to say but also included things to do. Action choices are listed within brackets to distinguish them from dialogue choices (for example, "[Shoot the gun]").
In 2013, Ellison stated that the game had been deliberately made to be unwinnable, saying "I created it so you could not win it. The only way in which you could "win" was to play it nobly. The more nobly you played it, the closer to succeeding you would come, but you could not actually beat it. And that annoyed the hell out of people too."
The premise of the game is that the three superpowers have each secretly constructed a vast subterranean complex of computers to wage a global war too complex for human brains to oversee. One day, the computers become sentient and combine to create the Allied Mastercomputer, better known as AM (I think, therefore I am). Due to its immense hatred for humanity, stemming from the logistical limits set onto him by programmers, AM used its abilities to kill off the population of the world. However, AM refrains from killing five people (four men and one woman) in order to bring them to the center of the earth and torture them. AM artificially extends the lives of the five, so that he can torture them eternally.
After 109 years of torture and humiliation, the five victims stand before a pillar etched with a burning message of hate. AM tells them that he now has a new game for them to play. AM has devised a quest for each of the five, an adventure of "speared eyeballs and dripping guts and the smell of rotting gardenias." After all five humans have overcome their fatal flaws, they meet again in their respective torture cells while AM retreats within himself, pondering what went wrong. The captives discover that each has met other bioforms in their adventure. Some of these were clearly AM in disguise, some were AM's submerged personalities, others seem very much like people from the captives' past. Scenes included gutted, sparking machinery in an Egyptian pyramid and helpless beasts serving as energy sources for iron zeppelins. There is a struggle going on beyond the human versus machines conflict, a fact that AM has only subtly admitted to.
One of the five humans (whom the player selects) is then translated into binary and faces an as yet unexperienced cyberspace template, the world of AM's mind. The psychodrama unfolds in a metaphorical brain that looks like the surface of the cerebrum, with glass structures that jut crazily from the bleeding brain tissue. AM's mind is represented according to the Freudian trinity of the Id, Ego and Superego, which appear as three floating bodiless heads on three cracked glass structures on the brainscape. Through dialogs with AM's components (Surgat, Chinese Supercomputer and Russian Supercomputer) the character realizes that in fact a colony of humans has survived the war by being hidden and hibernating on Luna (this is also mentioned in Nimdok's story: "the lost tribe of our brothers sleeping on the moon, where the beast does not see them"). If the human intruder disables all three brain components, and then invokes the Totem of Entropy at the Flame, which is the nexus of AM's thought patterns, all three supercomputers will be shut down, probably forever. Cataclysmic explosions destroy all the caverns constituting AM's computer complex, including the cavern holding the human hostages. However, the human volunteer retains his or her digital form, permanently patrolling AM's circuits should the computers ever regain consciousness. Should the human intruder fail to disable AM properly before facing him, however, AM will punish them by transforming the character into a 'great, soft jelly thing' that can not harm itself nor others, and must spend eternity with AM in this newly acquired form, just as Ted had to in the original short story.
The game can end in four different ways depending on how the finale is completed.
- AM wins, using Nimdok's research to turn the last character played into a great, soft jelly thing with each character quoting a different part of the final section of the original short story.
- AM joins with the Soviet and Chinese supercomputers, reawakens and tortures the 750 humans on Luna; As in the first ending, the character responsible for this is turned into a great, soft jelly thing, and quotes a part of the final lines of the short story.
- AM is partially destroyed, but a fragment of him kills the humans on Luna.
- AM loses and the 750 humans cryogenically frozen on Luna are reawakened and Earth is transformed to become a habitable environment, with the overseer being the last character played.
The characters have all been slightly altered from the original story in the novel. The plot itself is not a direct adaptation but instead focuses on the individual characters' psycho-dramas which are the scenarios that make up the game. Notably, none of the characters interact with one another and eventually only one of them will be able to defeat AM.
- Gorrister — Gorrister is suicidal due to the guilt of having had his wife committed to a mental institution. Gorrister finds himself on board a zeppelin over a desert with signs of a struggle and a gaping hole in his own chest. AM offers him the chance to finally kill himself, but sabotages all his means of doing so.
- Benny — Benny has been the most heavily altered from the original novel. Although he has an ape-like appearance, just as in the novel, his past as a homosexual scientist is entirely altered. In the game Benny was an overly demanding military officer who ends up killing members of his unit for failing to meet his expectations. Benny's psycho-drama places him in stone-aged community where the villagers draw a lottery to decide which of them will be sacrificed to AM. Benny obsesses over food and eating — but is incapable of chewing anything he finds. AM had severely damaged Benny's brain, but restores it for the scenario so that he can think clearly again - then AM cripples Benny's body so he cannot act on any thoughts he has.
- Ellen — Ellen, once an engineer with a promising career ahead of her, is transported to a pyramid made of electronic junk and with its interior resembling an Egyptian temple whose décor is largely yellow. AM says that the temple contains some of his primary units and is apparently offering her a chance to destroy him. Ellen suffers from a severe phobia of the color yellow, due to its association with her rape (her rapist, who isolated her in an elevator, wore yellow), preventing her from approaching AM's apparent weak spots.
- Nimdok — Nimdok, an elderly ex-Nazi physician, finds himself in a concentration camp, expected to conduct pointless medical experiments on helpless subjects. Nimdok is given the task of finding "the lost tribe" by AM but his failing memory, or denial, make it difficult for him to comprehend or engage with the situation, even though it represents actions he has already taken before.
- Ted — Ted is represented much like he is in the novel, but AM has apparently made him severely paranoid, playing on his past as a con artist where he would use his charm and looks to seduce rich single women out of money, while he lived in constant fear of finally being discovered and revealed as a fraud. Initially offered freedom if he can solve the puzzle in a dark room, this turns out to be a feint to further provoke his neuroses. He then finds himself in a medieval castle where his love Ellen (though not the same as the playable Ellen) is apparently slowly dying due to a spell cast on her by her wicked stepmother. The castle is full of deceptive characters who make contradictory demands and whom Ted cannot decide whether to trust, and surrounded by wolves who are slowly closing in.
In a 2012 issue of Game Informer, Harlan Ellison, David Sears and David Mullich discussed the process that went into developing the game as well as the character developments and other changes that were made from the original story. For example, in writing the script for Ellen's confrontation with her rapist, Mullich channeled the memory he had of his infant son going through chemotherapy, being with him at the hospital and sharing a room with other young cancer patients. In discussing the characters changes made to Benny, Mullich said, "Looking back, I think it might have been a lost opportunity to write a story about someone struggling with the challenges of being homosexual." Although Sears recalls that "gay angle" was in their initial script, but might have subsequently been a dropped thread.
When Cyberdreams approached Ellison about creating a work of interactive literature, he was intrigued by the challenge of taking on one of the few media for which he had never before written. No fan of conventional video games, Ellison wanted to create an adventure that would enrich players even as they are challenged by the storyline and fantastic concepts that move the characters. The author, who, apart from Vic and Blood (a graphic novel continuation of A Boy and His Dog), never did sequels, recommended his classic short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream as the perfect story-line on which to base an interactive adventure. Ellison's desire was to make a game in which the player had to make ethical and moral choices, and was rewarded for making traditionally good choices. To preserve the story's nightmarish mood, Ellison wanted to create a game that players could not possibly win. Instead, there would be a variety of ethical ways in which they could lose. There are ways to lose heroically, gloriously and at the peak of one's humanity — if players do well. Otherwise, there are ways to lose ignominiously, in a selfish, cowardly, frightened manner; dying alone, and in terror, or being tortured eternally.
To fulfill Ellison's goal, Cyberdreams brought in writer David Sears to collaborate with Ellison. Sears, formerly a writer and assistant editor for Compute! magazine, had never before worked on a video game. Though a long-time fan of Ellison and his work, Sears was initially nervous and somewhat skeptical at his assignment: "...they said, 'No, it's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and I was like, 'What?'...At the time, in the game-development community, people said, 'Oh I love Ellison's stories, but there's no way you could turn that into a game.' I thought, 'Wow, what have I gotten into?'" One of the biggest initial challenges was taking a short story with only five central characters, all of whom have very limited background story and character development, and fleshing it out into a full-length interactive narrative. A breakthrough came about when Sears asked Ellison the question, "Why were these people saved? Why did AM decide to save them?" Ellison was taken aback; he'd never been asked that before. This brought about the decision to split the game into five separate narratives, each following a particular character and exploring their particular history, and why they had been selected to be tortured. Sears spent several weeks at Ellison's house, where they worked to flesh out the characters and their backgrounds. Ellison wanted to explore mature, controversial themes, so each narrative was centered around a specific issue, such as guilt, rape or the Holocaust.
Producer David Mullich joined Cyberdreams shortly after Ellison and Sears drafted their treatment and Sears had gone on to a position at another software company. One of the first steps in making the project a reality was to expand the 130-page draft document into a comprehensive game design complete with all the interactions, logic and details necessary for the programmers and artists to begin their tasks. Mullich decided to complete the design himself, having created a 1980 computer game based upon The Prisoner television series which, like this adventure, involved a surreal environment, metaphorical story elements, and rewards for ethical behavior. After several months, he produced an 800-page game design document containing more than 2000 lines of additional dialogue.
Mullich contracted the Dreamers Guild to do the programming, artwork and sound effects. Its S.A.G.A. game engine was seen as an ideal user interface for the player to interact with the environment and to converse with the characters in AM's world. It was decided early on that high resolution graphics were necessary to capture the nuances and mood of Ellison's vivid imagination, and so Technical Director John Bolton adapted the engine to utilize SVGA graphics and included the Fastgraph graphics library. Mullich and Cyberdreams art director Peter Delgado had frequent meetings with Dreamers Guild art director Brad Schenck to devise art direction complementing the surreal nature of the story. Since the story takes place in the mind of a mad god who can make anything happen, the team chose a variety of art styles for each of the scenarios, ranging from the unsettling perspectives used in German Expressionist films to pure fantasy to stark reality. Assistant art director Glenn Price and his team rendered more than 60 backgrounds utilizing a number of 2D and 3D tools, including Deluxe Paint and LightWave. Hundreds of animations were drawn by assistant art director Jhoneil Centeno and his team of animators. In addition, the art staff made a generous number of cinematic sequences instrumental in conveying the adventure's mood of unrelenting angst.
As the game approached a playable "alpha" state, Ellison and Mullich spent many hours together fine-tuning the scenarios and polishing the dialogue. Ellison would place his manual typewriter alongside Mullich's computer on the author's kitchen table, and as Mullich play-tested the adventure, Ellison typed story enhancements at his usual 120 words a minute. Mullich commissed film composer John Ottman (who would later work with director Bryan Singer in The Usual Suspects and X-Men) to write more than 25 pieces of original MIDI music for the adventure. With more than 40 speaking parts in the adventure, Mullich hired Virtual Casting to cast and direct some of the finest vocal actors performing in interactive entertainment. Ellison himself agreed to perform the voice of the demented computer AM, for as Ellison put it, "[I]n all the dialogue you will hear my smart mouth, and the cadences in which I speak, and the way my stories read."
Cyberdreams had developed a reputation, in the early 1990s, of selling computer games with science fiction-cyberpunk storylines and adult violent, sexual, philosophical, and psychological content. The French and German releases were partially censored and the game was forbidden to players younger than 18 years. Furthermore, the Nimdok chapter was removed, likely due to the Nazi theme - especially for Germany, due to previous reaction of the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons to National Socialist topics. Some reviewers claimed that the removal of the Nimdok chapter made the "best" ending (with AM permanently disabled and the cryogenically frozen humans on Luna rescued) unachievable, while other reported the availability.
The game remained out of print abandonware for years due to the closure of both developer and publisher. In 2013, the rights were recovered by Night Dive Studios. Therefore, it was possible to re-release the game again as digital download on GOG.com in September 2013, and Steam in October 2013.
The game has an aggregate score of 77% at GameRankings, based on four reviews. Most reviews acclaimed the game's content and its mature presentation of ethical issues. The game was praised by Computer Player and Electronic Entertainment for its "nightmarish graphics, high-quality audio and troubling ethical dilemmas add up to a combination of the entertaining and the profound that could prove to be the foundation of an important gaming subgenre in the future," and asking "a lot from you in terms of the psychological and ethical choices you'll make during game play. For those familiar with Ellison's prolific writings, the moral dilemmas will come as no surprise." According to Computer Games Strategy Plus, "without appearing didactic, Ellison has the ability to hit us squarely in the face with a mirror reflecting the sorry lot that we humans have become. (...) In the mode of Franz Kafka, we are meant to be touched or changed in some way by this work, for what else is the purpose of art?"
Ron Dulin of GameSpot was much more critical of "this run-of-the-mill adventure," stating: "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is replete with all of the shortcomings of its genre. There are numerous dead ends and illogical puzzles [and] many programming bugs." Dulin commended the game for experimenting "with some interesting concepts, and the dark tone of the original short story is maintained with bleak artwork and depressing situations," but criticized it for how "the so-called 'ethical decisions' these five imprisoned souls must face are no more than red herrings, providing only stopping blocks to progress or disturbing scenes with no tangible purpose." T. Liam McDonald of PC Gamer US wrote "there are moments that challenge and disturb, and this gives the characters and setting much more psychological depth than we've seen in any computer game to date." He summed up his review by writing: "Ultimately, I Have No Mouth isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve been searching for an adventure that’s both thoughtful and entertaining, and if you’re fond of Ellison’s disturbing fiction, it’s a must." James Portnow of Extra Credits praised the game, saying, "this game is incredible. Mature in a way most modern "mature" games aren't, but very very very dark. It's not for most people, but if you're willing to stare into that abyss this game is simply unbelievable for being made 20 years ago."
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream won several awards, including "Best Dark Game of 1996" from Digital Hollywood and "Best Game Adapted from Linear Media" from the Computer Game Developers Conference. Computer Gaming World gave it their award for "Adventure Game of the Year"  and also listed it as one of the "150 Games of All Time", "Best 15 Sleepers of All Time" and "Best 15 Endings of All Time". In the October 2014 issue of Game Informer it was listed as #22 of the staff's "Top 25 Horror Games of All Time".
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The title has remained out of print for years and has never been republished due to the closure of both its original publisher and its developer. Until recently, rights to the game belonged to neither party. Those rights have recently been acquired by Night Dive Studios: a company devoted to redistributing old video games. Night Dive Studios has given permission to GOG to sell the game.
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Point-and-click adventure game I have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is now available on GOG, helping to bring yet another the classic PC game to a wider audience.
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