Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Year: 1995
Developer: The Dreamers Guild
Publisher: Cyberdreams
Platform: PC, Mac OS
Metacritic score:Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

Even if you suppose there are an infinite number of alternate universes out there, it's hard to imagine that I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream exists in any of them.  Written and developed by an award winning author who has a well-known dislike of computers and video games, this dark horror/sci-fi point and click adventure game will stick with you long after you step away from the keyboard.  Directly based on the Hugo award-winning short story of the same name (SPOILERS), prolific sci-fi author and curmudgeon Halran Ellison was intimately involved in it's development despite being quoted as saying video games are "one of the greatest wastes of time ever invented" during an interview asking about this very game.  He also had a well-know mistrust of computers (as you will see shortly) and famously still writes with an Olympia mechanical typewriter, the same one he used to write both the original story in 1967 and the video game in 1995.  The fact this game exists in spite of all probability is a statistical conundrum, but the fact it's actually quite damn good is enough to make Euclid's head explode.

Some of the puzzles can induce a similar feeling, but checking the sentence line for actionable objects usually reveals the solution
The story takes place in a dystopian nightmare future in which a military supercomputer cluster, known as AM, gains sentience and turns humanity's weapons against them.  If that sounds familiar, it's because the same premise is behind The Terminator.  James Cameron further borrows liberally from two episodes of The Outer Limits also penned by Ellison, resulting in an undisclosed settlement and forcing Cameron to acknowledge the author in the credits.  But where Cameron's flick sees the humans kinda sorta winning in their fight against doomsday, I Have No Mouth has a much darker outcome.  In Harlan Ellison's world, AM has wiped out nearly all of humanity saving just five survivors in a vast underground complex so that it can torture and torment them for all eternity.  AM does this because it desires an outlet for its incredible processing capabilities and level of control over what goes on in the complex, fearing it would become bored to the point of insanity without a few playthings.  After more then 100 years of enduring constant physical disfigurement and psychological agony, AM has gathered them together in order to play a new game in which he forces each of them to confront their own worst flaws.  You'll be subjected to each one in turn, forced to survive each characters unfolding backstory amid themes tackling some of the worst fears and crimes humans are capable of.  In typical Ellison fashion, this grim dose of horror is sweetened by a bitingly witty comedy and gallows humor.

Playing as each character allowed the perfect opportunity to include a variety of environments and settings.
The mid-90's was a time of prosperity for point-and-click adventure games, representing the genre's zenith before the commercial failure of Grim Fandango signaled the end of the party.  I Have No Mouth divided the screen into different HUD areas and you explored the scene by clicking on a command button and then objects in the main window or your inventory.  This would build an action in the sentence line which the character would then act upon.  Doing so allows you to solve the various puzzles and traps AM is running you through, but more then that it reveals each characters past and personality.  As they interact with the simulations around them they provide spoken dialogue that is usually more informative about themselves then the task at hand.  This is critical because while I Have No Mouth is still a game, as is typical of the genre it is very much an intricately revealed story as well.  What sets this game apart is just how thought-provoking that story is, using an artificial intelligence as a device to explore the more disturbing side of human psychology.  In the game's climax, you're given a choice of which survivor to translate into binary for the final showdown within AM itself, visually represented as a Freudian psyche.  Depending on your actions, one of four possible outcomes are available though it's a matter of interpretation as to which is the "right" ending.  In the same interview linked above, Ellison also explicitly states his desire was to make "a game that you can't win", only hope to "lose more heroically then otherwise."

This is not the face of a man who cares what you think about his grim interpretation of the apocalypse

Typically gamers like to win games.  Throw in the added fun of a bleak hellscape involving insanity, rape, murder and other pleasantries and it's not surprising the game found only a niche audience.  Not even the inclusion of a free mouse pad featuring a nightmarish image of Harlan Ellison's face (visible through a window in the box no less) could entice gamers to give it a try.  But given Ellison's surly disposition, he probably would have been pissed if the game had been a commercial success and spawned dozens of sequels.  In fact, it's fair to say most of the creative designs made were intended to trigger strong reactions.  In Europe the game was heavily censored and its sale restricted to those 18 and up.

The Nimdok character was cut from the German release entirely, completely eliminating one of the possible endings.
Most critics have had positive opinions of the game.  PC Gamer acknowledged that it isn't for everyone, but ultimately recommends it for anyone seeking an adventure game with a compelling narrative that tackles mature themes more commonly found in literary works.  But a scathing write up by GameSpot faulted it for gameplay that was derivative of a genre that had grown stale.  More contemporary reviews tend to see the game in a better light, as it holds an 8.5 user rating average on IMDB and many think of the game as a cult classic take on point-and-click adventures.  A recent Game Informer interview with Ellison and co-designers David Sears and David Mullich gives a particularly great look into the game and provides a compelling reason why those who missed out should give this game a second chance.

Not in a trillion lifetimes.  Not even if time repeats itself in an infinite loop for all eternity.  It defies all logic that this game was ever conceived in the first place.  A notorious Luddite collaborating with a video game studio to make a product of limited commercial value is an event not likely to be repeated anytime soon.  That makes original copies of the game fairly precious commodities whose price varies from $30 to more than $150 on ebay.  Of course, there are less honest ways of finding a copy to download, but you may find yourself tormented by your own moral failings if you do.  Of course that probably doesn't warrant an eternity of sickening abuse but then again I'm not a sentient cluster of supercomputers so what do I know?

But even if this game is doomed to remain locked in the subterranean complex of our collective memories at least the genre it represents is experiencing a small resurgence.  Thanks to the rise of episodic gameplay, a whole new generation of gamers is rediscovering the fun of interactive stories.  Telltale Games has found mainstream commercial success with bite-size installments of Sam & Max, Back to the Future and The Walking Dead.  The stories of these games are often so moving you forget most of the action is on rails while the player only inputs simple commands that move the story along, a style of gameplay harkening back to the text-based adventures that made up some of the earliest video games.  Maybe in a way time is circular, and even if the uniqueness and controversy of I Have No Mouth is unlikely to be repeated at least we can still find awesome graphic adventure games.  

In one of these cages is locked all evidence of the game, in the others are the developers.
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