I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream was a game that absolutely floored me with how great it was. This game excels in just about every category of what a game should be. The writing and tone of this game is the kind that goes beyond what is typically expected of games and is probably one of the deepest and thought provoking stories written in recent memory, and the gameplay is designed well enough to support the overall package without falling into the typical traps of its genre. Considering that this was based on a short story, one could say that it does not count towards video games as a whole, but there are two factors that counter that argument. The first is that the story has several changes in the game that were different from the original book that were meant to add to the lore of the original story. The second of these being that Harlan Ellison himself co-designed the game and had involvement with it, meaning that it is not just someone else’s interpretation of the short story.
Even without those two things, it is still one of the best examples of the story telling prowess that games are capable of. When one considers just how different the two mediums are, it makes it even more impressive that something this good exists. It is also important to keep in mind that this game was released in 1995, which was two years before Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid became well known mainstream examples of games with great storytelling prowess, and it is also a game that is arguably better written than both of them. Even today it is rare to find a game as well written as I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream despite the progress that gaming has made, and it is possibly one of the most underrated games of all time.
The story of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream takes place in the distant future 109 years after humanity has been destroyed in nuclear war and an evil, sentient AI know as the artificial master computer, or AM, has enslaved the five remaining humans and has repeatedly subjected them to psychological and physical torture while keeping them alive, only to make them suffer more. The game starts out with an introduction to our five characters, each of which AM delivers a scathing speech to that illustrates their own flaws and explains why they are terrible people. Each character (with exception to Ellen) has a shady past and was chosen to be tortured by AM due to these events being ones that could make them more subject to torture.
AM’s five victims are Gorrister, Benny, Ted, Nimdok, and Ellen. Gorrister is a suicidal loner ever since his wife was put in a mental institution, and his suicidal tendencies have only gotten worse throughout the 109 years he was in captivity. Benny was a former military offer who killed his subordinates who have failed to meet his expectations. AM has altered his appearance from what was supposedly a handsome officer to that of a Neanderthal and has rendered his brain useless, but has restored it during the events of the game. Ted was the main character of the original novel and was a con artist who was with several women in order to get their money, but has an actual legitimate crush on Ellen. Nimdok was a physician who worked in a Nazi concentration camp and performed harsh medical procedures on subjects. Lastly, there is Ellen who was a strong and competent woman but has a crippling fear of the color yellow.
Each of these five characters were all chosen by AM because their past experiences would make them the easiest and most fun to torture, and each of them is put through a specific trial set up by AM as part of his “game.” Each one of these trials is based around the characters overcoming their own personal flaws, and their trials heavily involve elements of their past. All five trials are not only compelling and engaging, but also touch upon some very mature subjects such as guilt, rape, and genocide. Keep in mind that this was in a game released in 1995. The way that every character’s path is set up is that there is no good ending for any of them, just endings that are not as bad and allow the characters to overcome their flaws.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream very much feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode and is quite possibly one of the darkest and most depressing games ever made. There is a constant feeling of hopelessness and dread that fills this game, and things only continue to get worse as you go along. The main consolation is that the best possible ending for the final trial that features all five characters is a happier ending than what the ending of the original novel is. However, the bad ending is still the same as the short story’s ending, only every character has their own variation on the “and I must scream” speech.
One very notable aspect of the game is the character of AM himself. The idea of a malevolent AI is not something that is entirely original, but AM is so far the best execution of this archetype I have encountered. Normally the main defining trait of a malevolent AI is that they are made to be based only on logic and possess no human emotions. AM, however, is the exact opposite. AM is a supercomputer with not only the powers of a god but also an awareness of his own existence. This ends up giving his name a double meaning by having AM refer to the famous “I think therefore I am’ quote. In fact, it is quite clear from the beginning that AM is torturing the five main characters out of an emotional impulse. The very first line you hear from AM once you start is “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 nanoangstrom of those hundreds of millions of miles, it would not equal one billionth of the hate I feel at this micro-instant for you.”
The reasoning for AM’s constant anger and hatred is largely due to gaining his own emotions in addition to his fate of having the powers of a god but not being able to extend his reach beyond a dead planet or use them on anyone other than his five prisoners. Despite the constant misery and torment that our five protagonists are put through, it is ultimately implied that AM is suffering even more than they are. All I have to say is that it takes quite a bit of talent to make someone feel sorry for someone who psychologically and mentally tortures 5 people for 109 years while still making him a frightening and menacing antagonist.
Another aspect that really helps with the game is its artwork. There is not really much I can say about it in a technical sense by today’s standards, but artistically it is still as brilliant as ever. The animations are all very fluid and expressive and do an excellent job at portraying their intended effects. There is also very little gore and it remains scary through its storytelling and atmosphere alone. However, I must give credit to the fact that I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream has managed to invoke feelings of sadness through artwork alone. Seeing as how this involved the bad ending of the game, I cannot spoil it, but I will just say that the image alone on that final shot is enough to give off a feeling of sadness even if one were to see it out of context. I cannot think of any other work of fiction that has accomplished this as well as I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
The audio is incredibly effective as well. The music is incredibly ominous and the way it is used adds an even greater effect to the game’s tone. There may not be much that you would listen to outside of the game but it has an amazing atmospheric effect. The voice acting is one of the few games where I felt it really made the game and that it would not be as good without it. The only other game I have said this about was Corpse Party Blood Covered, and that game was released in 2012. This game was in 1995, at the time where voice acting in games was barely passable. The original Resident Evil was a game that was considered revolutionary despite having some of the worst voice acting in all of gaming. Yet here we have I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, with voice acting that is better than most modern day games, which was released a year earlier.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a point and click adventure game that manages to successfully avoid all the common faults of the genre, and provide engaging gameplay in addition to its masterfully written story. The interface is very easy to use and is not confusing in the slightest, and the puzzles are simple enough that you can get through them without a guide, but complex enough that you need to put some thought into them. There are a few occasional problems such as not being able to tell which part of the background to click on to leave to a different part of the screen, but most of the time these puzzles will be ones where you just happen to miss one aspect that looks obvious in hindsight. The only real exception is the final trial where the conditions to getting the best ending are not entirely clear, but considering that it is a bonus ending, it probably expects you to experiment a bit. There really is not much else to say about the gameplay. It is a well executed example of its genre and there are not many problems with it.
Even if one does not find point and click adventure games enjoyable, the story of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is captivating enough that it will keep the attention of anyone who plays it. The only reason I can think of not recommending this to someone is if you do not like depressing stories, because this game is massively depressing. It is also an incredibly deep and thought provoking game that is very well written and memorable. For anyone who values storytelling in games or in general, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a must play. For a long time, it was hard to find a copy of the game but thankfully this game has been released on Steam just last year for $6.00. Even if it was not released on Steam I still would have attempted to encourage you to track down a copy. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is not only a brilliant game, but it is simply a brilliant work of fiction as well. It has been ever since the original novel was released, it has been when the game was released, and it still is in 2014.
RIP Harlan Jay Ellison
May 27, 1934 – June 28, 2018
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on July 7th of 2014 and has since been re-edited with enhanced presentation.
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