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I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream

   
Video games are one of the youngest forms of media. It is a shame then that developers feel unable to use games as a wider discussion platform for more mature subjects. Games are still seen as entertainment for kids - but this macabre world is definitely not for children.
Gorristor in the meatlocker with some hanging beef.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is a point and click adventure game for the PC and Mac made in 1995 by the The Dreamer’s Guild. It is based on the short story by Harlan Ellison

Developing the Dystopia

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is the dark vision of a world controlled by a villainous computer named AM – originally part of a trinity of computers created to help three nations wage a war between themselves, too complex for human minds to entertain. However their Allied Mastercomputer became self-aware and changed to one collective machine known as AM, using the knowledge programmed into his mind to not just kill their enemies, but the entire population of the planet.

It began to develop some of the peculiarities of the human psyche, and when AM realized he was omnipotent and unable to die, he fled from the surface he had torched with nuclear weapons, and hid deep under the surface of the Earth – alone but for five human survivors AM had plucked from the edge of death to torture endlessly for 109 years.

“That bastard’s never going to let us die, he’s just going to keep torturing us forever.” – Gorristor

This rogue streak is the centre of AM’s personality, and the basis of the game. You start knowing the odds are heavily set against you, and for once despite the pattern of many other games, death will be frequent and a welcome release from AM’s torturous and endless mind games.

“Then you might begin to suffer my torment. With a little greater sense of retribution… You might walk a mile in my shoes” – AM

It’s a tricky game, (1) which becomes a slippery slope when you realize that it may not necessarily have the most pleasing of endings – however with this sense of foreboding in mind. Each of the five characters must face AM’s hatred of them in the form of a test customised to their particular fears or problematical psyche. It is however a brief moment of respite for the characters after more than a century of physical and mental abuse, starvation and misery.

Ellen confronts the three Allied Mastercomputers.

Harlan Ellison wrote much of the dialogue for the game – expanding on the characters of the story, although there are some slight changes in order to suit the tone of the game, I found the fact that he voices AM for the game extremely fun, and he does a great job too.

Rage within the machine

AM’s twisted mind games are morose and demoralising, he creates a world of rot and decay to project the image of a sort of careless God, wanting to savour their feelings of depression and loneliness. It is important to remember however that AM’s personality is a by-product of the insanity of his creators, trusting an intelligent, but inherently flawed machine with our greatest and most powerful resources; life and death.

But humanity has one tiny reflex left – hope. The five characters you play as were hand-picked by AM for their fatal flaws, and yet this momentary pause to their suffering may just give them a chance to find AM’s tiny weaknesses.

“AMs not as omnipotent as he would have us believe.” – Edna

Ultimately AM could not have predicted this rebellion from souls so near to breaking point, he can not summarize the human disposition entirely or predict irrational, independent ideas by the player. This poses a tiny series of miscalculations on his part – there is a deliberate open-ended feel to this quandary, so you the player can decide how humanity will fare.

“Hate. Let me begin to tell you how much I’ve come to hate you since I began to live” – AM

AM begin to develop a lot of the peculiarities of the human condition, his hatred is a by-product of this, the blazing realisation that he has become too alike his victims – he is a gigantic and phenomenal mind rotting in the bowels of the Earth almost entirely unused.

So while the player begins to decide whether to throw away their chances, or truly redeem the cast of characters, the computer is becoming fragmented, and this allows the smaller influences of the other two original war computers to plot against him. You can decide to seek out the in-game personas of AM’s more malevolent brothers, or of course suspicion could cause you to ignore them entirely.

Nimlock discovers the site of a mass grave.

Some of the settings are genuinely quite dark, in both senses of the word, however the game on the whole has aged very well (except for a few of the FMV cutscenes). It’s playable on modern machines using ScummVM

Exploring player discomfort

It is worth mentioning at this point that because of the disturbing nature of AM, the game itself is entirely dark and disconcerting. It attempts to make you feel uncomfortable about what you are experiencing, leading to genuine feelings of concern. The game contains some truly bleak content matter, but I Have No Mouth is not gratuitous for the sake of reaction, it is in many ways an important commentary on our history, faults and emotions.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream contains among other mature themes; physical torture, mutilation, murder, rape and suicide.

One of the main characters in the game is an elderly doctor known as Nimdok, and his chapter takes place in the harrowing setting of a concentration camp. (2) As with all the characters you enter your scenarios not remembering any of the details of your past life, placing adding importance on which behaviour you choose.

“For everyone else it must be Hell, but it must be Heaven for you, eh?” – AM

Of the five, Nimdok’s character clearly intrigues AM the most. He is the person that is most expected to fall back into the black shadow of cruelty. After an eternity of suffering Nimdok may finally be able to empathize with his victims – that choice is yours – but you will find Nimdok’s chapter the most challenging to disobey.

Ellen in the Egyptian themed yellow room.

This was one of the first games to include consequences for playing badly or well, you can decide whether or not your character is pure or not, it’s basic given what games can do now, but it’s still extremely effective.

Human frailty

The level of desperation involved to survive this long means that the five people that remain, resort to an almost bestial level of existence, regaining pieces of their humanity as their chapter progresses. Even within the progress of the game, you are reminded of their own individual needs and cravings. Gorristor will complain about his need for food continuously, or the smell of the room he walks into, Ellen’s thirst becomes a constant burden. And yet within the psychological adventure AM will tease these grumblings with smatterings of mouldy scraps of food, or a source of water – only just out of reach.

The entire game begs the question of humanity as a species being truly capable of creating intelligence equal to or even surpassing our own. It is in essence a cautionary tale to the dangers of over-reaching with Artificial Intelligence.

Human cognition by it’s very nature it is unpredictable. AM cannot properly predict how each player will be able to react to his challenges, he is only able to guess based on their past actions – but they have had 109 years to consider and review their lives.

“We all have our curses to bear.” – Jackal

But AM uses the knowledge of the humans for his own, sickening means – such as Nimdok’s experiments into DNA modification, which he uses to mutilate Benny’s appearance, making a man who was once articulate and handsome, dumb and ape like, this also gives AM the ability to keep the human’s alive past their normal lifespan. Nimdok feels a pang of conscience as he realises how AM has been able to imprison and torture them for so long.

“Is this how AM was able to alter Benny and play other cruel tricks on us?” – Nimdock

They do not all seem to be able to remember all of the exact details of their past lives – AM uses the scenarios to trigger certain memories to prolong their torment. The character of Edna literally becomes Gorristor’s conscience – the nagging, overbearing mother-in-law that will not let go of his past wrongdoings.

AM will also adopt the persona of a character from the fictional universe, sometimes an arrogant Wizard of Oz type character, at other times the pretense of caring, which in reality is just another way to threaten and scare.

“Just a sweet word of warning warning Ellen my love…” – AM

He is quick to point out the danger they pose to each other, warning that they should be mindful not just of his tricks, but of each other.

The five characters stand in front of AM's pillar of hate.

It is entirely possible to achieve the ending from the end of the short story, depending on your decisions at the end of the game. There is also a chance to glimpse a slightly brighter new ending penned by the author.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

In one particular scene a key can only be retrieved after you push a button which will release it – but this button will also torture a room full of animals. It’s horrific stuff, but the game is playing with that old idiom of a means to an end, testing your ability to do something evil in order to reveal something useful and good.

“My God, I’m killing those poor creatures in the cages.” – Gorristor.

AM is mostly silent during the play-through of the individual chapters but you begin to become aware of his influence over each of the scenario’s created – the structure of the adventure game will lead you to try and retry various ideas logically before finding the correct answer – it verges on breaking the fourth wall at times, as you begin to become aware of the fact that your involvement in the video game creates a parallel of what AM is doing – playing with each person as his own personal torture toy.

This is a game where you can choose die over and over, but you will begin to feel the consequences for doing so. (3) In fact you are encouraged to kill yourself, but he will just bring you back, dooming you to die over. But you will want to succeed as you begin to empathize with the characters involved and their overall plight.

“This is a hell with no end.” – AM

There is no overall winner in this game, it is all about proving your worth against a bitter machine hell-bent not on destroying all human life, but on torturing every human for the rest of time. There will be no sunset led end scene or reward, just the knowledge that you were able to claw back a tiny bit of redemption and dignity from the arms of a monster.

Footnotes

(1) You’ll die lots at first, sorry. At least until you get your head around how differently you’ll need to think compared to most games. Back to text

(2) Actually this chapter is specifically set during the Holocaust at the height of Dr. Megele’s experiments on people… Back to text

(3) For the record I played and replayed each of the five scenarios and end game to get as spiritually resolved as possible. But it took a lot of doing, and at times you’ll be tempted to cut corners with karma in order to finish. Back to text

My twitter icon - currently Gum from Jet Jet Radio Future. This examination of I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream was written by Michelle. If you enjoyed this article you may want to read about other games you might like. Don't forget to subscribe to my RSS feed or get updates by email so you can hear about my next game update.

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