Pros: Compelling and detailed plot, really gets you thinking, genuinely scary, intriguing characters, challenging
Cons: Sometimes too difficult, voice-acting not always great
I Would Recommend If You Like: Sanatorium, Clocktower: The First Fear, Oddworld: Abe's Odyssey
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a unique and chilling video game based on Harlan Ellison's short story by the same name, written in 1969. The plot has had to undergo many changes to fit the video game format, but what resulted was just as good as the original - even better in some ways.
In I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, an evil computer called AM has turned on humanity and completely wiped it out of existence - save for five people. For over 100 years he has tortured these five people, tailoring each one's suffering so as to cause the most pain. In this game, you must play AM at his own game. The penalties for losing are dire - an eternity of endless agony and despair.
Now, many changes have had to be made to the original story. This is because the short story didn't fit the format of a video game at all; it would've been very difficult to fit a gameplay element into it. Instead, with the help of Ellison, the original author, the developers have preserved the concept and characters of the source material and written the rest completely anew. One of the most interesting changes to the story is how much Ellison and the developers decided to change the characters, perhaps to make the moral messages they carry more prominent - but more about that later.
This game is very dark, and pulls no punches. It deals with issues such as medical experimentation in Nazi concentration camps, rape and suicide. It doesn't sugar-coat anything, and if anything tries to really emphasise these elements to better create a hopeless and frightening world. There's not a single scene in this game that doesn't have a layer of horror laid upon it and everything is thrown as the player, creating a game which is difficult to play without becoming emotional over the things being seen or becoming embroiled with the moral questions it raises.
It is essential for players to catch on to and interpret the moral dilemmas presented in the game in order to find the best ending for the game. Ellison made the decision to make it impossible to actually 'win' the game - instead the player can only work to make a better ending, a bittersweet ending. This cannot be achieved without really giving thought to what it is that Ellison and the developers want you to do, how they want you to think and what they want you to feel while you play the game. It's a compelling experience which is almost unrivalled in video games - your decisions in-game really make a difference, and sometimes you must decide whether the benefits to be reaped are meant for you, or for the salvation of others.
Due to the complexity and depth of the subject matter here, I'd say it definitely needs a good few plays to fully comprehend it. It's almost necessary and it's unlikely that you'll be able to get the 'good' ending the first try. It's also worth exploring how events unfurl if you decide to go against the lessons the game's trying to teach - there's so many different paths to explore that it would really be a waste to only play it once.
The important thing about the plot is that it does try to get moral lessons across without being preachy. It's also not trying to convince the player that everything will turn out well if you just do the right thing, rather it teaches that there will always be consequences and things that are out of your power to control, you should always strive towards doing the right thing - even if it means you suffer for it. This is a more powerful message than simply telling people to do right because the world will become a good and just place; it teaches morality in the face of injustice, regardless of the repercussions for yourself.
The characters in this game hold the same level of depth and intricacy as the plot, and are indeed essential to the integrity of the story. I will first focus on the six main characters, as they are each worth analysis and then I will attend to the various other characters in the game which are more to do with symbolism than personality.
The five surviving humans - Gorrister, Ben, Ellen, Nimdok and Ted have, for reasons unknown, been the only humans selected to live and endure the relentless torments of AM. During the game the player is forced to derive their own conclusions on why these five people were selected - what makes them so special? Is it because they are evil? The player must decide for their self what it is that drives AM to persecute these particular people.
The first character, Gorrister, is a gaunt and grim man. He is responsible for the incarceration of his wife into a mental asylum and the guilt of his actions have caused him to become suicidal. AM constantly taunts him with the possibility of death, but forever holds it away from his reach. Gorrister must come to terms with what he has done and forgive himself - but does he really deserve to? The player in a way acts as judge, jury and, if they see fit, executioner. But before judging him the player must ask themselves if Gorrister does not have a larger part to play that is bigger than himself alone, and if he could not be forgiven if he could recompense. His character is almost completely altered from the source material, except perhaps for the base elements of his personality.
Ben is the most heavily altered character, although he does retain one or two of the characteristics of the original story - AM has mutilated his body so that he takes the shape almost of a chimpanzee, although he is somewhere between human and simian. Another aspect of him that has drawn heavily from the short story is his insatiable appetite - he is constantly starving for food, but cannot consume any food he finds. In the book this was not an appetite for food but sexual lust, which likes his quest for food, cannot be quenched. This change was probably made as a quest for food was easier to incorporate into gameplay. Much of his past has been changed to suit the video game though; in the original he was a brilliant scientist, but in the game he is instead an ex-military commander facing up to his guilt for causing the deaths of several men under his command. The concept of facing up to past mistakes is a common theme throughout the game.
Ellen is a slightly odd choice of prisoner for AM. Up until now it seems he has chosen people who have perhaps cause for imprisonment, but here Ellen is not someone who has hurt someone in her past, but instead is the victim. Ellen must face up to the fears that have plagued her since she was assaulted in an elevator so many years ago. She finds it almost impossible to escape her fears as reminders of her trauma are around her everywhere, and it seems to be a new lesson that the game is trying to teach her. In order to conquer AM Ellen must learn to fight her fears and although she can never forget them, learn to live life despite them. Her role her only vaguely resembles her part in the original story - she didn't seem to have specific obstacles to overcome or at least didn't feel the need to as she was able to sexually manipulate the other members of the group to look after her, or at least put up with her. This is clearly a problem in a game as she needed to have a challenge to overcome. Ellison and the developers chose to take a risky move with Ellen and the emotions and feel of the game are made all the more powerful for it.
Nimdok's character, although equally similar and different from his original character, seems to simply be an exaggerated version of the latter. In the audiobook read by Ellison he is given a German accent, intended to hint at a darker past for Nimdok. In the game this has been explored more fully - Nimdok is an ex-Nazi doctor whose job it is to conduct various medical experiments of the helpless victims of the concentration camp adjoined to the medical facility. You need to explore his environment carefully, as although he appears to initially be horrified at the idea of carrying out experiments on his vulnerable 'patients,' as the story progresses it may seem that his reaction is one of denial rather than sincerity. Instead of aiming to have Nimdok make peace with his past actions, his role in the game seems to focus more on his acceptance of his guilt. As such Nimdok is a much harder character to relate to, and the player will probably feel even stronger emotions concerning his story. This is a nice break in video games which usually portray the playable characters a 'good guys,' or at the very least, redeemable souls.
Finally, there is Ted, represented much as he is in the novel, albeit with one or two changes. I actually found Ted's character and his part in the game, the least interesting. Ted's obstacle to overcome is his severe paranoid - he must decide who to trust and who not to in order to save his dying love. I feel that Ted just doesn't make as much impact as the other characters, he seems a little dull and it's not clear whether his paranoid is embroiled in his past or whether it's just a natural reactions to the tormenting tricks of AM's device that have caused him to become wary of others. It does seem sensible really to tread carefully around people that you know are created by a being that lives only to torture you, so it's unclear what Ellison and the developers were really trying to say here.
AM himself is a very interesting case. He's the culmination of all the genius of the world, but without the power to act upon his intelligence. This has driven him to madness, his hatred of humanity causing him to completely destroy it. While normally a case would be made to pity a character like this, it's near-impossible to care for AM. He's simply caused too much damage, done too many terrible things. Despite knowing in the back of our minds that humanity was its own undoing for its own cruelty towards the machine, we simply cannot find it in ourselves to feel sorry for such an abominable creature. This goes directly in the face of the type of villains presented in media today, which people are encouraged to exercise forgiveness with - instead AM represents an unforgivable evil, a true evil that many people refuse to concede exists. Ellison himself did the voice for AM. His performance is a mixed bag for me, at times it's every bit as deranged and maniacal as it should be, but at other time it seems a bit over-the-top, potentially damaging to a character which needs to instil fear into the player's heart.
Of course there are many others characters in this game with which to interact with. The people in themselves are not important, what is important is what they represent. Several represent the many states of mind that one of the main character has, the many views they have on their actions and situation - it's as though they're arguing with themselves on a subject, but instead of the battle raging in their minds, it's made physical so the player can draw their own judgements upon it.
These characters may also represent the character's obstacle personified - in these cases it is vital that the player pays close attention to exactly how they interact with these characters; one wrong move could throw them on completely the wrong track. Character interactions are delicate balancing acts in which the player must think very carefully about their actions in a way not often seen in video games, the more common device being that players simply select all the options available, just to see what happens.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is an extremely difficult point & click adventure game. Every move you make in-game will affect not only the outcome of the level you are on but the way the entire game pans out. As such the player is urged to carefully contemplate their actions instead of just clicking on everything in the hopes of finding a solution. In fact doing such will negatively affect the level's outcome, so this game is much more about logical and intelligent thinking than reflexes or hand-eye coordination.
The gameplay mechanics themselves are simple. By hovering over objects in the action screen, objects that can be interacted with will appear in the sentence window below. The player selects a command which corresponds with the action they want to perform with the object and then clicking on the appropriate objects, creating a command sentence; e.g. 'Walk to' 'door.' So put simply, select a command and then click on what you want to interact with.
I've mentioned many times how difficult the game is and how carefully you have to think about what to do next. In order to give you some idea of how well you're doing, there is the 'spiritual barometer.' This is a picture of your character in the bottom of the corner in what is initially a red background. If you're doing well, the background will gradually change from red to green, and the character's expression will become less pained and more peaceful. If you're not doing well the background will become darker and darker and eventually black. Although it may be difficult to amend mistakes made in-game, this indicator will at least give the player a chance to do things differently the next time. Ideally you want to finish each level with a bright green background in order to get the best ending.
Your inventory appears at the bottom of the screen, with items represent by pictures of their likeness. When engaging in conversation with another character, a conversation window with options of what to discuss replace the command and inventory windows. Conversing can sometimes be very time consuming, and although a lot of the voice-acting is very well-performed there are one or two characters which are quite tedious to listen to, especially if they're rambling on for a while. The majority of the conversations are well-written and enjoyable though and are put across in such a way as to assist the atmosphere trying to be conveyed at any particular point in the game.
The end of the game will rely of your having made the correct decisions throughout all the levels. The better you have performed, the more likely you are to get a better ending. There's four different endings, although each of these have slight variations depending on how you use the characters in the final stage of the game. Although none are typical 'good' endings, some are certainly better than other - bittersweet would probably be the right word. You may want to explore the different endings you can achieve by playing the levels differently, just to see how things turn out.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream has a superb soundtrack which fully contributes to the dark, unnerving atmosphere of the game. The music in cutscenes is carefully choreographed to fit the dialogue and actions occurring, to fully capture the moment. It's depressing, it's frightening, it conveys all that the game is trying to throw at you and amplifies it ten-fold. Although the game really needs little help to be terrifying, the music does a good job of creating an eerie paranoia-inducing environment.
The sound quality in itself is very good, including the character's voices, certainly better than many point & click adventures of the time.
Graphics/The Look of the Game
The graphics, although pixelly, are beautifully presented. The environments that the developers have created to house the inner torments of the characters are every bit as cold, claustrophobic and intimidating as they should be. Each level is carefully constructed to reflect each person's personal challenge, with symbolism and hidden themes weaved carefully into the backbone of the environments.
Every aspect from use of colour to attention to detail has been carefully implemented to carry the full force of the helplessness and horrors of the pitiful character's situation. They know they're being tortured, they know there's little they can do to stop it, but they haven't stopped trying. Everything you see in the areas created for the characters are designed to represent AM's greatest attack on their sanity yet - it's designed to break what little is left of their spirits and their minds. All this is difficult to portray in a video game, but the developers have done an exceptionally good job on it, with an attention to detail that is not often seen in older games.
It is important for you as the player, to fully experience the game, to carefully observe everything which has been crafted into the level designs, as there are many clues and hints which offer a deeper understanding to the characters and the story than can be achieved without them. There are times when I didn't understand the meaning of some themes used though - for example an Egyptian theme on Ellen's level. Sometimes it seems as though the imagery used is just too abstract, especially for the casual player.
Who It's Suitable For
This game is certainly not intended for children - it deals with sexual themes, rape, torture, gory scenes, blood, suicide and numerous other issues. It may also be prudent to approach this with caution if you feel some of the themes involved may upset you or if you are of a sensitive nature. This game doesn't sugar coat anything, it tries to be as brutal as possible - as such it probably won't be to many people's tastes.
It's also not really appropriate for the casual player as it involves a lot of careful thinking and caution, and may seem a bit slow or laborious. If you like a game that really gets the ol' juices flowing, then this is perfect for you.
There's no multi-player or online mode on this game, it's strictly one-player. It has a lot of replay value as you can explore the different avenues available to your character and you can try to get as many different views on the game as possible.
This game is for the PC, but is fairly difficult to get a hold of. Your best bet would be to cross your fingers for a copy to crop up on Ebay or a similar site - chances are it won't be very cheap either. But this is a very good game and if you think it sounds like a thing for you, it's worth the cost.