The Game: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1995)
Developer: The Dreamers Guild
Publisher: Nightdive Studios/ Cyberdreams
System: PC (Get it here from GOG!)
The Premise: Based on the acclaimed short story that earned a Hugo Award, AM, a psychotic artificial intelligence born from a military project has exterminated all life in the Earth. Humanity is dead; All life on Earth is gone, except for the five human beings who were chosen 109 years ago by AM as its personal playthings, granted immortality and then tortured, manipulated and violated in unspeakable forms and manners for more than a century. AM is finally bored, and it wants to play a little game, where each of its playthings will be granted release from AM’s hatred if they can succeed in facing a personal challenge AM has designed for them
Is It Any Good?: The game’s engine was already showing its age when it was released back in 1995. The puzzles and challenges border on symbolism and the metaphysical, and age hasn’t done it any favors either, so in terms of gameplay AND visuals, IHNMAIMS is anything but revolutionary.
Even if it was, though, this is not a “good game”. YOU WILL NOT ENJOY THIS. IHNMAIMS plays you for a fool, taking you into a land of digital make believe that might pass as your typical sci-fi/adventure type game at first glance: Floating deathtraps and abandoned service stations, pyramids of circuitry and silicon, the barbed wired gates of the Regime’s Camps, primitive villages where humanity is reduced to the most barbaric tribalism and castles filled with shadows and secrets. Each world that has been devised by AM for its playthings is a terrible labyrinth. Then it slowly forces you to face some real horror: Genocide, rape, insanity, torture, xenophobia, self-loathing and more of the worst aspects of the human nature are your enemies to overcome in this game. The game’s designs, traps and monsters have all been prodded and extracted from the deepest, darkest pits of the minds and souls or AM’s “playthings”, and even if you manage to reach its sole “Good” ending, those monsters of our nature will remain haunting you long after you turn the computer off.
Since Ellison isn’t exactly know for being fond of happy endings (or anything happy, for that matter), he decided to have the game be unwinnable; that is, you can only lose in IHNMAIMS, but you can do so in an heroic or cowardly way, all determined by your ethical choices and ability to interpret and confront the various dilemmas and traumas facing the characters. There are four possible endings in the game, all based on the choices made during the final, secret segment of the game, and reaching the sole “Good” ending demands some heavy choices and interpretations during each of the 5 original scenarios.
Much of the game’s brilliance and downright chilling experience relies on solid voice acting all around…but the completely out of the blue choice of having the original story’s author Harlan Ellison himself voicing AM, something that seems like a bad attempt at being “Meta”, that enhances the game in an unbelievable way; at first, Ellison seems like a giddy child voicing his own creation, almost looking like we’re in for Shatnerian levels of scene chewing…but soon Ellison’s voicework as AM turns downright frightening; Ellison lets loose in his role as AM, and soon he’s become the scariest thing in the game; Ellison portrays AM as petulant, arrogant being whose omnipotence is hindered by his own creator’s inferiority, which has neutered him and denied true Godhood; he’s a child full of potential hindered by his parents mediocrity and inferiority, and Ellison gives such a complicated and abstract being a voice performance that will haunt both your waking and dreaming hours to come; before SHODAN or GLaDOS, Ellison’s AM was the first member of the holy trinity of gaming murderous AIs.
So, it’s a complicated, unforgiving game that it’s NOT ENJOYABLE to play and experience…and that’s why it’s a damn masterpiece, and pretty much a big card to play in the “Are games art?” debate, because like all smart and uncompromising art, it forces its audience, the player, to face the themes and subjects we tend to shy away and shun in real life head on, confronting ourselves with the very basic yet complicated moral, theological and philosophical inner debates we rarely dare subjects ourselves to.
Like AM’s (and therefore also Ellison’s) own twisted game, IHNMAIMS is not fun to play. Then again, anything that forces us to own up to the darkest part of our nature as human beings in order to find some small shimmer of hope and meaning seldom is. When we do so, the painful journey is worth it.
Bonus Points: The game developers approached Harlan Ellison on the idea of making a game, and surprisingly, Ellison himself chose this one. Ellison found himself fascinated by the challenge of writing and developing a story for a medium he had never worked on before, and when paired with game writer David Sears, they decided to approach the game as an expanded version of the short story, reinventing some characters and further developing them, and the result has to be one of the few occasions in videogame history were an adaptation might be arguably superior to its source material.
Nimdok’s chapter in the story heavily features the Holocaust and real life Nazi atrocities, and while avoiding any Nazi imagery or direct reference (as unsubtle as it is in the final game, since Ellison isn’t an author known for compromising his vision or work for the sake of political correctness); this lead to Nimdok’s chapter being removed from French and German versions of the game, which made the “Good Ending” unobtainable in those versions. Ironically, Ellison himself was adamant on Nimdok being the only character who cannot personally atone or make up for his past actions, given the enormity of his crimes.
The game actually had some scenes deleted or never developed because they went too far; these includes feeding a beating human heart to a puppy or taking Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” literally (It’s okay, go to Wikipedia, no one will judge you.). Given the extreme imagery that made it to the game, who knows what else got cut.
The game was discontinued after its original launch, and became extremely (if not downright impossible) hard to obtain legally (I’m just going to say that legally, copyright and intellectual property are words Harlan Ellison takes VERY SERIOUSLY), and it was just this year that the legal rights of the game were recovered, leading to its re-release just a month ago by GoG.com; at just 6 bucks, it’s a no brainer to purchase on a DRM free format, especially if your pride yourself as a fan of gaming history and or intelligent science fiction.
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: Sanitarium, Silent Hill 2, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, System Shock 2