This is going to be quite the different experience for me since unlike any other games I have talked about this far, I experienced this title first through its original short story. Harlan Ellison is one of my favourite authors ever, as he made some of the most disturbing tales I have ever witnessed. If you at any point come across his collection of short stories, do yourself a favour and pick it up. While Ellison was not into video games, owned a personal computer in 1995 or was even a fan of this short story of his, he co-authored an expanded storyline when it was going to be adapted to a point-and-click. His involvement went so far that he voiced “AM” and let the developers use artwork created by him for a mousepad included with the game.
David Sears co-wrote the story with Ellison to make this adaptation work, and was a fan of his writing. However, he had as much experience with making a computer game as Ellison did. Luckily, David Mullich (who made the Apple 2 title The Prisioner and would go on to develop Heroes of Might and Magic 3) had just joined Cyberdreams during the production of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. The timing could not have been better, as he quickly decided to work on Ellison’s title due to his familiarity with surreal environments and metaphorical story elements. Thus, he turned the writers’ draft on 130 pages into a full fledged game. In fact, Mullich went so far to produce an 800-page game design document, containing more than 2000 lines of extra dialogue. This project was clearly made with passion, but what was the final result of this?
Multiple short character studies
In a fictional future, the cold war has transitioned into an all out war between the superpowers; Sovjet Union, China and USA. To take care of this battle, each superpower has gone so far using technology to fight on their behalf, that they ended up creating one supercomputer each known as Allied Mastercomputer or AM for short. One of these supercomputers became self-aware and absorbed the other two computers, before causing genocide and leaving the world into dust. That is, except for five humans who AM spared in order to torture in delight. This has now gone on for 109 years.
From this point on, the game’s plot takes a different approach compared to the short story. While the original tale is more focused on AM as a creation and the survivors’ struggles against his terror, the computer game focuses instead on the characters’ backgrounds and explores why AM decided to spare them specifically. This was a decision made by Sears and Ellison in order to give more meat to his 27-page short story, and was made possible by AM giving each a quest that is related to their pasts or personal struggles in some way. For his own amusement, of course. Through this, we are presented with five short stories revolving around studying these five characters.
As you might be able to tell, this story is more of a psychological horror, due to it exploring dark faults of humanity. However, it is not about presenting any concept of morality necessary, despite that it too can play a part. The characters struggle with guilt from regrettable choices, decisions on whether the goal is greater than the means, and fear of hysteria taking control, just to name a few examples. Because of their personal demons that either paint them as evil or weak, it is easy for AM to destroy them mentally for his own enjoyment, which I find severely interesting. The game’s story is about exploring human weaknesses, not about right or wrong.
Philosophical ideas also play a part, to the point where AM quotes René Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” and the game subtly referencing Alice in Wonderland. It all makes the game into an interesting study of every character and what their pasts and personalities result them to become, all explored upon through their own journeys. We even get some interesting lore that are sprinkled throughout, such as what the world was like before their torment and important questions revolving around AM. Each story comes with a form of theming as well, making the stories feel focused on what they wish to explore. It is nice to not be fed too many varied theories or ideals at once, and rather make each story well paced. Of course, all is done with a severely dark undertone.
There are talks about fraud, domestic violence, unethical experiments, rape, and more that adds to the uncomfortable tone Ellison is known for. The star of this, is of course AM with his bitter hatred for humanity and their faults, strengthened even further by writing that is realistic, grotesque and mature at once, making the horror hit hard at home and uncomfortably so. Having Ellison give AM the perfect voice and dialogues to work with, makes the characters’ quests even more immersive and terrifying, as you will quickly learn that AM shows no mercy.
Going by the tradition of having witty comments about the areas and items in a point-and-click, all characters in I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream come with their own takes on dark humour in order to try lighting up the mood, despite accepting their grim reality. One personal favourite of mine, is when a character is reminiscing to when AM got them on a long and dangerous quest for a pile of canned food, only to realise that they had no way to open them. This form of depressive humour is constant throughout the game, giving it a wonderful tone that makes the worlds you visit intriguing, further enhanced by the characters’ reactions to them that showcases what kind of people they were.
The story ends with one of multiple endings that I am very intrigued by, with only the single good ending being hard to come by. However, while I am all for exploring these characters, how much insight we get to each varies in amount, with some stories being over rather quickly. I would not call anyone outright uninteresting or similar, but there are some that get more backstory than others, which is a shame as it would be interesting to explore more of everyone’s worlds and history.
There are also some characters that are easier to see what they struggled with compared to others. The symbolisms are always strong and well made, but not always structurally paced to provide subtle breadcrumbs to see what secrets they hold. Thankfully, the dark comments on the environment and the people reflecting on their thoughts, give them personalities that are still memorable and intriguing. I just wish that all got equal amounts of stories to tell.
With dark imagery, touching upon taboo topics, and implementation of clever symbolism, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a delightfully uncomfortable horror-title that shows why you can do this so beautifully without jumpscares. This adaptation is certainly different, but in a good way that actually complements the book. I was always interested in the characters and their quests, with AM’s despicable taunting being intriguing. This was a great and mature psychological horror, that I simply wish was longer.
Story Score: 8/10
The Key Finder
As mentioned, AM wants to play a game and gives each character their own stories to play through. From there, you can choose which character you want to play as first, before moving onto the next one. This is a nice way to play at any pace you want, but there are certainly stories that are longer and more challenging than the others, so the difficulty curve is all over the place depending on what order you play the stories in. While it is hard to call this a major issue for now, it is a confusing design-choice.
When you decide whom to play as, you will be transferred to their unique world and see that this game is a rather old version of the point-and-click genre, due to the 8 actions on the bottom screen for ways to interact with the environments, people and objects you come across. All actions are self-explanatory, though it understandably sounds like a lot of busy work to just choose the right command for moving the game forward. Luckily, the right mouse button will usually do a preferred option, like looking at items, while the left mouse button will have your character walk towards where you clicked. This cuts down on some of the tedium, but not completely as some solutions to puzzles can be padded out with multiple steps.
One odd issue is simply about opening doors, as you must each time use the correct key or push them before you can walk through. This is just an unnecessary step to what could have been easily simplified, especially when this does not require any form of brainpower. Thankfully, the puzzles themselves are always logical, with only some being a stretch due to their difficulties. They will require the characters to know what he or she should do at some point, which can be annoying and clear pace breakers. At the very least, figuring out what needs to be done or how to make them aware of it, is rarely a long process.
However, there are two terrible issues that are not just minor. The first is actually about the lack of a good difficulty curve again, as even each story has puzzles that can vary in challenge. Some can be severely easy as finding the right key, while others will have you tinkering longer on what to do. Since areas are small and memorable, exploring is never a problem and it is easy to figure out what problem is. Unfortunately, because of the lack of good difficulty curve and tedious steps to the puzzles, they do not get a good flow and can feel tiresome.
The other issue is one that I dread: pixel-hunting. This idea of randomly finding items hidden in the scenery is annoying enough, but this is strangely an inconsistent issue in this title. Sometimes there are clearly nothing there that seems interactable, while other times even the characters will comment that something is off in an area. It makes it hard to know whether the game wants to give you a hand or slap yours when you need one. This blind hunt for the right items can also go for the exits even, as some can be hard to see because of how poorly visualised they are or simply hard to click on.
It is a shame that all of these tedious and inconsistent problems occur, because I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream has some good puzzles and clever ideas. Many of the puzzles will demand creative thinking and talking with NPCs in order to figure out how to get further, such as making a depressed man answering your questions. However, one interesting feature with I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, is how it handles deaths. Yes, your characters can “die”, but unlike Sierra’s happy killing spree and destructible save design, I actually am completely for it being here for two reasons.
One is that deaths are never random and are clearly your doing. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream presents a hostile world and you are not supposed to feel safe, which is really why you can save at any time. Second, dying sends you back to the characters’ select screen with the remaining characters to play as, since AM is not going to let you die. You cannot torture a dead man, you know. Due to that the game is about six hours long and much less when you know what to do, each chapter can be beaten quickly as well. This makes death punishing, but never unfair or annoying.
This game comes down to problems of inconsistency and underdeveloped aspects. This is definitely a solid point-and-click that had me using my noggin, but there were times I got irritated or confused due to the game padding out steps needed for venturing further, uneven difficulty, or when I downright could not see what I should be interacting with. It has its ups and down, but never in one place, and it can sadly hurt the overall experience unless you have a big tolerance for poor pacing. Patience is a virtue, and definitely needed for this title.
Gameplay Score: 4/10
Like a metal album from the 90s
This is an interesting take on the dystopian world of the short story, but a welcoming one as this adaption allows for different settings to partake in. There will be a jungle of technology with a tribe in it, a dark castle containing forbidden magic, a rundown zeppelin where a fight broke loose and more, giving each world a unique and memorable style and setup, with each having multiple areas to explore. It is all complimented with architecture that feels familiar, yet unique due to AMs technological take on them, and I love the aspect of always knowing that this world is not real, but a fiction created by the supercomputer.
There are also multiple disturbing imagery and symbolic visuals, such as familiar faces on meat hooks, human sacrifices, and signs of unethical treatment. While I would not mind the game to go even further due to how grim this setting is, what is here is still uncomfortable and fascinating. Everything is done thanks Dreamers Guild doing the programming, artwork and sound effects through S.A.G.A. game engine, and the SVGA graphics providing high resolution. It is easy to see the creative freedom the team had with coming up imaginary set pieces and events, as they are diverse in both style and tone, to the point of mixing many 2D and 3D tools. There are even over 60 backgrounds rendered in this title, making this game a visual treat.
What is a blemish on this intriguing world, is the animations sadly. While they are smooth and impressive work by Jhoneil Centeno, they move too quickly to make the dire scenes feel impactful, which instead can make them become awkward. It is a shame, but pacing should have been better implemented and could have made scenes stronger in content, like seeing someone being harnessed in front of you. That being said, I do enjoy the characters’ models and I like how diverse they are in looks. However, some of the characters have clothes that are too well retained to be believed that they have been tortured for over 100 years. In the end though, this game provides a disturbing atmosphere that is unlike anything I have ever seen before.
This is further enhanced by John Ottman’s score, whom you might recognise from The Usual Suspects or Halloween H20 to name a few of his works. His composition here shines, as every song is used to complement each character’s world and theme. To give some examples; Gorrister’s theme is more industrial and sombre in order to reflect his simpler life and being held in a huge modern construction. Meanwhile, Benny’s theme focuses on tribal drums and pan flutes due to his neanderthal look and the world he is in, again with a depressive tone. All songs are fantastically utilised, with every composition being varied, long and easy to listen to thanks to the sheer amount of quality in composition and quantity in notes. John Ottman really deserves more credit for his work.
This is further enhanced by the voice acting, as everyone does a fantastic job showcasing the characters’ fear, hate, and preservation for the situations they are in, yet always through an original tone each. Ellen shows confidence in her voice until she goes into complete despair, while Nimdok trembles and always tries to act carefully due to his memory loss. It makes every character impactful and interesting, with Ellison as AM himself stealing the show. He shows such hatred over the humans to the point where you can hear him spit in disgust while monologuing, and I love how revolting he is by clearly taking pleasure in torturing his subjects. Only the child actors are doing an unconvincing job with no direction, but this is a minor issue as they are few and do not get much screen time.
Though for some reason, the sound editing has plenty of issues. The audio is poorly mixed at times, making it difficult to hear the actors, even if you tinker with the volume back and forth. There is also a constant problem of sound effects being outright missing, which can deplete the experience. These luckily do not hinder the atmosphere as the rest is fantastic. It is rather that these shortcomings neglect the presentation from being spectacular.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Will the suffering end?
One interesting element I have yet to mention in this review, is the characters’ spiritual meters (or their mentality meters as I would call them). The characters’ portraits will glow more and more green the more at ease they feel, with a white portrait securing the possibility for the best ending. Yes, this game has multiple endings depending on how you play the game and how the final is completed, making it interesting for revisits.
At first, I was not fond of the idea of a “best ending” due to how dark Ellison’s work is, and having a positive outcome felt anticlimactic and forced in this title. However, getting the best ending will require a lot of careful steps to take, making me realise whoever wanted the best ending, is the one who only cared for that. Because of this, the replay value is high as subtle different playthroughs can give you different outcomes or even make you discover new events. With this being a short game as well, going through the game multiple times is easy to do, and it can encourage exploration if you want to try to get the best ending, which adds to taking in more of the already beautiful atmosphere. A flawed, but fascinating design that actually works.
Extra Score: 8/10
While I admire this product as a point-and-click, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is clearly an example of style over substance. It is much more about the story and presentation, rather than the actual gameplay. For any fans of dark stories, interesting character studies, or magnificent visuals, this and the novel should be experienced. It is hard to recommend this title to those who just want a solid game, but you will get a great experience nonetheless.