Welcome to the second (and final) part of my look at I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream the PC game! For further insight on the author of the source material, or in case you missed it, please check out Part 1!
The second to last game for Cyberdreams and one of the last titles for The Dreamer’s Guild, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream opens up with Ellison giving a remarkable performance as AM (the evil Godlike supercomputer), reciting a famous bit of text from the novella. AM doesn't actually talk very much in the source material, and in some audio book readings, Ellison initially gave him a monotone robot voice, but in the game, he goes full-on Ellison The Character. He is clearly relishing the opportunity to play the character he created decades prior. After over a century of nearly non-stop torture, AM tells our 5 lead characters that he is going to send them each on a personal quest and if they pass their trial, he'll free them. It's not gonna be easy, though. AM is a mischief maker and is constantly setting our heroes up to fail Beyond that, every quest is meant to be appropriately ironic in some way and play into each character's deepest fear or fatal flaw.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (the game) shares the premise, setting, and characters of the original novella, but Ellison and Sears make a new storyline that greatly elaborates on everything. The main 5 characters all have backstories that flesh out and all of them have deep, dark fears which AM forces them to face. Nimdock is revealed to be a former Nazi scientist with a heart full of regret. Ellen is revealed to be a rape victim. Benny is revealed to be a warmongering military man. Gorrister must relive the death of his wife. Establishing Ted as a con artist, we now have further clues as to why he's so erratic and paranoid in the source.
Beyond that, further light is shed on AM's powers. In the short story, AM can do all kinds of things because the plot dictates it; it shows off his might. None of his being able to create horrible monsters, probing people's minds or matter teleportation is truly explained. Ellison needed those things to happen, and they do! In the game, AM's abilities are said to be manipulations of "morphogenic fields" which is silly technobabble that sounds like it could be straight out of an episode of Star Trek but gives AM's special skills a context more rooted in science fiction than science fantasy.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream's script challenged the video game medium of the time by presenting Ellison's classic bleak scenario and also by telling a terrifying tale the deals with mature themes (rape, genocide, the Holocaust, World War III, the final destruction of humanity) in a respectful way. In fact, I don’t know how in the hell it got by without an “M” rating. Actually, it looks like somehow the game made it to store shelves unrated: there doesn't seem to be any ESRB data on the game. The Steam release is unrated. This game proved that you can use interactive media to touch upon difficult subjects and do so in an artistic way.
The game was mildly controversial. Ellison was accused of being insensitive for making references to Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
Ellison had this to say during promotional videos that were recording during the pre-release hype:
"I put things in everything I do, that are intended to rattle the cage, to stir the soup. People say 'well you only right to shock.' Duuh! Yeah, okay! That is a noble endeavor! To shock! "
"I use the trope of the Holocaust frequently in my work and when someone says 'well, it's gonna trivialize the Holocaust because it's in a game'... NOTHING. Nothing will trivialize the Holocaust. I don't care if it's in comic books, or computer games or if people write it in graffiti on the wall. Never forget. Never forget! And this game is intended to offend people, to annoy people to shock and upset people. "
The game was censored in both France and Germany, removing Nimdok's quest and censoring references to Nazis and the Holocaust. This unfortunately made these versions of the game unbeatable, as Nimdok's presence and items are needed to complete the final section and the game code was not modified to accommodate this.
Not being a gamer, Ellison would describe I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (the game) as a "strategy game". I think he referred to it as such because he would call other games like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Wolfenstein 3D "combat video games", but a more apt terminology would be "graphic adventure game" (Like Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, race Memory, Hotel Dusk and Phoenix Wright). That being said, getting the best ending does require a certain degree of strategy. As in common in the genre, the game requires a lot of trial and error, at least before you resort to being a cheapass and cheating with an online walkthrough. There are a few bugs and over linear sequences that can have you guessing "what the hell do I do next" and not in a good way unless you know what you're getting into.
Going back to I Have No Mouth after having played other adventure games, I find myself struggling with the interface a bit. I find that sometimes it’s a bit unclear what you can and should click on.
Bigger still, a gameplay mechanic that I don't particularly care for is the game's morality system. At least, I don’t care for the way they went about it. You see, the good or bad choices you make affect the game’s finale outcome. Ellison intentionally designed the game to be tedious “to play nobly”, which results in the best outcome, although given the context of the story, it’s truly the “least worst” outcome.
Essentially, when you make moral decisions, the game keeps an invisible tally on them. You have to have a pen and paper or a word processor open or have good memory if you’re trying to get a specific character ending. You realize how much BioWare games spoiled us with their morality meters in the game HUD.
Ellison is the stand out voice actor. Not to knock on the rest of the cast, but most of the other performances are either adequate or functional. No one's voice or performance particularly wowed me save for Ellison. Actually, now that I think of it, I have a certain fondness for Gorrister's voice. The graphics have a hideous quality to them of the intentional variety.
I like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, but I don't think the game holds up 100%. The big issues being that interface and the overly linear nature of the progression needed to get the best ending, and the outdatedness and overall arcane nature of the morality system. I give them game a lot of credit for it’s script, storyline and overall atmosphere. This is one for readers of literature and science fiction fans, but I don't think the appeal for your casual gamer is there.
You can download I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream on Steam.