Games time forgot: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

If you’ve never read the short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, do so. It’s one of the best short stories ever, and not in an O. Henry “oh life is kinda funny and wonderful but sad sometimes” kind of way. It’s about the last four people on the planet, trapped inside a massive, evil, omnipotent supercomputer who eternally tortures them.

It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect to make a videogame about, but damn if The Dreamers Guild and Ellison himself didn’t manage to do it.

It’s one of the most unfair, difficult, clever, meaningful, most awful, coolest adventure games you’ve probably never played.

Hit the jump to see what the big deal is.

Story:

The game narrative follows the short story pretty much exactly, save for the fact that each of the five characters are initially forced to escape their own personal hells, full of people and situations from their previous lives. In the story, the characters just sort of trekked through AM’s body and dealt with each other; in the game, they spend most of their time apart.

Not thatit matters, really. The game delves into pretty much the exact same thematic territory as the story — defining humanity in an inhumane world, religion, guilt, and existential crises. Everything from the story is in the game, just slightly shifted around to make for a more game-friendly experience.

Well, sort of.

Gameplay:

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is probably the hardest adventure game I’ve ever played, next to maybe Starship Titanic. It’s not pleasingly hard, either: it’s just plain goddamn abusive. The puzzle logic switches up every level or so, the character backstories have to be greatly inferred from their surroundings and asides, and you can’t solve their puzzles without deciphering their backstories because they’re all specifically about the character’s personal inner conflicts.

Furthermore, each character has a spiritual barometer which needs to be pretty high by the end of the game in order to achieve the happiest ending. Seemingly random or pointless things increase the spiritual barometer and it is, again, up to the player to decipher which choices the game considers “moral” or “immoral.” Picking up a bloody knife, for instance, lowers the player’s spiritual barometer for seemingly no reason. Wipe your hands on a very specific tablecloth in a very specific room, however, and the blood disappears and the spiritual barometer rises again.

Needless to say, I found it impossible to progress through this game without the aid of a pretty extensive walkthrough. Even ignoring the actual difficulty of the puzzles, I found it hard to concentrate on the story and characters while I was being bombarded with all the invisible moral choices and kinky puzzle logic.

Using a walkthrough, however, gave me the necessary comfort level to actually pay attention to the characters and thematic underpinnings.While playing an adventure game with a walkthrough is really only one step above sitting with your hands in your lap and watching a long, animated movie, to do so with I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream makes the experience a lot less stressful and way more enlightening.

Thematically, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is just as dense, if not more so, than the original story. Murder is not always immoral, caring for someone isn’t always a good thing, and sanity becomes pretty much relative once you’ve been wandering around AM’s bowels for a while. It’s a very dark, disturbing, and difficult game to play through, but it’s got a hell of a lot to say about humanity in general.

Why you’re probably not playing it:

It’s really goddamn hard, and it’s really goddamn intelligent. And it’s an adventure game that wasn’t made by LucasArts, nor does it have “Quest” in the title. Despite the numerous awards it won, phrases like “based on a short story” surprisingly don’t do all that well for a game’s sales, in roughly the same way that a non-comedic adventure game frightens and distances most gamers.

As it stands, though, the game is pretty easy to find, incredibly interesting (so long as you’ve got a walkthrough), and woefully underplayed. Check it out, if you’re at all interested in adventure games, games as art, or Harlan Ellison.

Anthony Burch