Controversy is an essential part of horror movies, but how often does it happen that games use both disgusting imagery and poetic language to create something utterly unique and compelling, with the source material being the difficult-to-categorize short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by an even more difficult to characterize author like Harlan Ellison?
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (PC)
(USA 1995, developer: The Dreamer’s Guild (defunct), publisher: Cyberdreams (defunct), distributor: Night Dive Studios, platform: PC)
Five people are confronted with a game the supercomputer AM devised to finally end their hundred years of torture when it kept them alive for his pleasure.
Five lives and stories to tell
The game is divided into five parts telling the individual stories of Gorrister, a man who committed his wife to a mental institution and finds himself imprisoned aboard a futuristic zeppelin; Benny, a former military officer who was responsible for the death of his platoon and has to deal with his ape-like crippled form the supercomputer game him and also with a strange community of people who play a life-and-death lottery. Then there’s Ellen trapped in a pyramid and her own fear of the color yellow, and Nimdok, an ex-Nazi physician who has to conduct experimental surgery on prisoners in a concentration camp. Finally, one plays Ted, a former con-artist who has to deal with his dying love and a witch of a stepmother who also seems to be in league with the devil.
After having read the original short story by Ellison, the plot and character development is a much more satisfying experience here, as they’re more fleshed out, even though one does not spend so much time with each individual to learn everything about him or her. But that’s the interesting part: the player tries to piece together their former lives, leaving it open to interpretation how past events are connected and therefore getting a much more realistic characterization in the process.
The topics are quite heavy and controversial, and with Nimdok, the whole chapter was even cut out in the German version, making it impossible to get the best ending in the final chapter in which one can choose between the protagonists and how to end the game. The way how these themes are presented is interesting insofar that despite the sci-fi and horror influences, the player can feel with and for the characters whose actions in the past are often quite disturbing and questionable. Even though some parts are a bit forced and feel like exploitation with the depiction of violence, it’s still impressive for an adventure game in the early days to even touch on such themes and present flawed personalities which are refreshingly unlike so many adventure game heroes. This also has a lot to do with the author’s involvement in game development, because the language used is both poetic but never too artful (like in the recent Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. The overall story arc might not be that suspenseful, and each chapter has its narrative flaws, but it’s certainly more mature storytelling than other examples of the genre managed during that time or have since its release.
Light on the puzzles, heavy on the decisions
The gameplay is something of a mixed bag, as the puzzle design often suffers from some illogicalities and bugs, making it also difficult to exactly know where to go and what to do. The latter is obviously quite annoying, but the former strangely adds to the sense of playing through a nightmarish dream in which obscure actions fit the setting. Still, looking for clues and also trying to make out important items from the background can become quite difficult, even though the object-based combinations are relatively easy to accomplish due to an inventory which is seldom full.
Another interesting idea is the spiritual barometer which highlights the impact of certain decisions by the use of the colors red (for bad) and green (for good) . These also have a slight influence on the different endings, but what’s more interesting is that the player is given the chance to really think about the moral dilemmas the protagonists are in, something which has only recently been implemented in a more mature way by Telltale for its The Walking Dead series. The barometer itself might not be the best way for presentation and there is certainly a more linear approach to game design, especially with puzzle solving, than the developer might have wanted, but it’s still remarkable to see it in this form so early on in adventure gaming history.
Old technology partly successful
Graphics are obviously quite dated, while jerky animations of the character models were already ugly to look at when the game was released. Still, the backgrounds are nicely drawn, even if they’re not that memorable or an eye catcher, while music and sound effects are also nothing to write home about. Voice acting on the other hand is very good, and even if some lines feel a bit misplaced, the actors chosen for the roles fit perfectly. Overall, the presentation is functional without trying anything particularly exciting with its pixel art.
Another contender for the ‘games vs. art’ discussion
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is, like the short story, not for everyone due to its themes of depression, murder, rape, genocide and other unpleasant things one usually doesn’t like to talk about. But unlike a lot of horror stories in games or movies which simply use violence for controversy’s sake, the disturbing atmosphere is much more powerful because of some thought-provoking situations the characters find themselves in. Despite its sci-fi and fantasy elements, the protagonists feel real, something which videogames have struggled for a long time to achieve, so it’s even more remarkable to find such an early example of mature storytelling. The moral decision-making process might not be as elaborated, the puzzle design is pretty flawed, but this doesn’t distract from the fact that the title is an important piece of gaming history which showcases that storytelling in games can be just as profound as in books.
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