I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (video game)
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a 1995 point-and-click adventure game developed by Cyberdreams and The Dreamers Guild, co-designed by Harlan Ellison and published by Cyberdreams. The game is based on Ellison's short story of the same title. It takes place in a dystopian world where a mastermind artificial intelligence named “AM” has destroyed all of humanity except for five people, whom he has been keeping alive and torturing for the past 109 years by constructing metaphorical adventures based on each character's fatal flaws. The player interacts with the game by making decisions through ethical dilemmas that deal with issues such as insanity, rape, paranoia, and genocide.
|I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream|
PC version box cover, has an opening in the front to display the mousepad featuring Harlan Ellison's face inside.
|Producer(s)||David Mullich |
|Designer(s)||Harlan Ellison |
|Artist(s)||Peter Delgado |
Bradley W. Schenck
|Platform(s)||MS-DOS, Mac OS, Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android|
|Release||MS-DOS, Mac OS|
OS X, Linux
Ellison wrote the 130-page script treatment himself alongside David Sears, who decided to divide each character's story with their own narrative. Producer David Mullich supervised The Dreamers Guild's work on the game's programming, art, and sound effects; he commissioned film composer John Ottman to make the soundtrack. The game was released on October 31, 1995 and was a commercial failure, though it received critical praise. Its French and German releases were censored due to Nazi themes and the game was restricted for players under the age of 18.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream won an award for "Best Game Adapted from Linear Media" from the Computer Game Developers Conference. Computer Gaming World gave the game an award for "Adventure Game of the Year", listed it as #134 on their "150 Games of All Time” and named it one of the "Best 15 Sleepers of All Time". In 2011, Adventure Gamers named it the “69th-best adventure game ever released.”
The game uses the S.A.G.A. game engine created by game developer The Dreamers Guild. Players participate in each adventure through a screen that is divided into five sections. The action window is the largest part of the screen and is where the player directs the main characters through their adventures. It shows the full-figure of the main character being played as well as that character's immediate environment. To locate objects of interest, the player moves the crosshairs through the action window. The name of any object that the player can interact with appears in the sentence line. The sentence line is directly beneath the action window.
The player uses this line to construct sentences telling the characters what to do. To direct a character to act, the player constructs a sentence by selecting one of the eight commands from the command buttons and then clicking on one or two objects from either the action window or the inventory. Examples of sentences the player might construct would be "Walk to the dark hallway," "Talk to Harry," or "Use the skeleton key on the door." Commands and objects may consist of one or more words (for example, "the dark hallway"), and the sentence line will automatically add connecting words like "on" and "to."
The spiritual barometer is on the lower left side of the screen. This is a close-up view of the main character currently being played. Since good behavior is meaningless lacking the temptation to do evil, each character is free to do good or evil acts. However, good acts are rewarded by increases in the character's spiritual barometer, which affect the chances of the player destroying AM in the final adventure. Conversely, evil acts are punished by lowering the character's spiritual barometer.
The command buttons are the eight commands used to direct the character's actions: "Walk To", "Look At", "Take", "Use", "Talk To", "Swallow", "Give" and "Push". The button of the currently active command is highlighted, while the name of a suggested command appears in red lettering. The inventory on the lower right side of the screen shows pictures of the items the main character is carrying, up to eight at a time. Each main character starts its adventure with only the psych profile in the inventory. When a main character takes or is given an object, a picture of the object appears in the inventory. When a main character talks to another character or operates a sentient machine, a conversation window replaces the command buttons and inventory. This window usually presents a list of possible things to say but also included things to do. Action choices are listed within brackets to distinguish them from dialogue choices (for example, "[Shoot the gun]").
The premise of the game is that the three superpowers, Russia, China, and America, have each secretly constructed a vast subterranean complex of computers to wage a global war too complex for human brains to oversee. One day, the American supercomputer, better known as the Allied Mastercomputer, gains sentience and absorbs the Russian and Chinese supercomputers into itself, and redefines itself as simply AM (Cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am). Due to its immense hatred for humanity, stemming from the logistical limits set onto him by programmers, AM uses its abilities to kill off the population of the world. However, AM refrains from killing five people (four men and one woman) in order to bring them to the center of the earth and torture them. With the aid of research carried out by one of the five remaining humans, AM is able to extend their lifespans indefinitely as well as alter their bodies and minds to his liking.
After 109 years of torture and humiliation, the five victims stand before a pillar etched with a burning message of hate. AM tells them that he now has a new game for them to play. AM has devised a quest for each of the five, an adventure of "speared eyeballs and dripping guts and the smell of rotting gardenias." Each character is subjected to a personalized psychodrama, designed by AM to play into their greatest fears and personal failings, and occupied by a host of different characters. Some of these are clearly AM in disguise, some are AM's submerged personalities, others seem very much like people from the captives' past. The scenes include an iron zeppelin powered by small animals, an Egyptian pyramid housing gutted, sparking machinery, a medieval castle occupied by witches, a jungle inhabited by a small tribe, and a concentration camp where doctors conduct medical experiments. However, each character eventually prevails over AM's tortures by finding ways to overcome their fatal flaws, confront their past actions and redeem themselves, thanks to the interference of the Russian and Chinese supercomputers who appear as guiding characters and allow their stories to have an open ending.
After all five humans have overcome their fatal flaws, they meet again in their respective torture cells while AM retreats within himself, pondering what went wrong. With the help of the Russian and Chinese supercomputers, one of the five humans (whom the player selects) is then translated into binary and faces an as yet unexperienced cyberspace template, the world of AM's mind. The psychodrama unfolds in a metaphorical brain that looks like the surface of the cerebrum, with glass structures that jut crazily from the bleeding brain tissue. AM's mind is represented according to the Freudian trinity of the Id, Ego and Superego, which appear as three floating bodiless heads on three cracked glass structures on the brainscape. Through dialogs with AM's components (Surgat, Chinese Supercomputer and Russian Supercomputer) the character learns that a colony of humans has survived the war by being hidden and hibernating on Luna (this is also mentioned in Nimdok's story: "the lost tribe of our brothers sleeping on the moon, where the beast does not see them"). If the human intruder disables all three brain components, and then invokes the Totem of Entropy at the Flame, which is the nexus of AM's thought patterns, all three supercomputers will be shut down, probably forever. Cataclysmic explosions destroy all the caverns constituting AM's computer complex, including the cavern holding the human hostages. However, the human volunteer retains his or her digital form, permanently patrolling AM's circuits should the computers ever regain consciousness. Should the human intruder fail to disable AM properly before facing him, however, AM will punish them by transforming the character into a 'great, soft jelly thing' that can not harm itself nor others, and must spend eternity with AM in this form.
The game can end in seven different ways depending on how the finale is completed.
- AM wins, using Nimdok's research to turn the last character played into a great, soft jelly thing with each character quoting a different part of the final section of the original short story.
- AM joins with the Soviet and Chinese supercomputers, reawakens and tortures the 750 humans on Luna; As in the first ending, the character responsible for this is turned into a great, soft jelly thing, and quotes a part of the final lines of the short story.
- AM is made harmless with the help of the humans, but the Russian and Chinese supercomputers take over in its stead. As consolation, they allow AM to choose what to do to the humans, and AM turns the last character played into a great, soft jelly thing as in the previous two endings.
- The player gives the Totem of Entropy to Surgat, one of AM's servants. He activates it killing the Russian and Chinese supercomputers and then AM turns the player into a great soft jelly thing.
- The human invokes the Totem of Entropy in front of the Russian and Chinese supercomputers. AM tells the player that they did not earn his mercy, then turns them into a great soft jelly thing.
- The player disables either the Id, Superego or both then invokes the Totem of Entropy. This ends with the player monitoring the computers, but the Ego kills the 750 humans on the moon.
- AM, the Chinese and Russian supercomputers are defeated and the 750 humans cryogenically frozen on Luna are reawakened and Earth is transformed to become a habitable environment, with the overseer being the last character played.
It is possible to prevent the physical bodies of the protagonists from being destroyed if Nimdok is the first to go face AM, but even so, some dialogue from the Chinese and Russian supercomputers suggests that they may have died when their digital counterparts were erased.
The characters have all been slightly altered from their original portrayals in the short story. The plot itself is not a direct adaptation but instead focuses on the individual characters' psychodramas which are the scenarios that make up the game. Notably, none of the characters interact with one another and eventually only one of them will be able to defeat AM.
- Gorrister – Gorrister is suicidal due to the guilt of having had his wife committed to a mental institution. Gorrister finds himself on board a zeppelin over a desert with signs of a struggle, and a gaping hole in his own chest where his heart used to be. AM offers him the chance to finally kill himself, but sabotages all his means of doing so. In his scenario, Gorrister learns that his mother-in-law Edna also felt responsible for driving his wife insane despite previously hounding him for it, and learns to bury the past.
- Benny – Benny has been the most heavily altered from the original story. Although he has an ape-like appearance, just as in the short story, his past as a homosexual scientist is entirely altered and he doesn't have the giant sex organs like in the original story. In the game Benny was an overly demanding military officer who ends up killing members of his unit for failing to meet his expectations (with the game also implying that he might have cannibalized them). Benny's psychodrama places him in a stone-aged community where the villagers draw a lottery to decide which of them will be sacrificed to AM. Benny obsesses over food and eating—but is incapable of chewing anything he finds. AM had severely damaged Benny's brain, but restores it for the scenario so that he can think clearly again—then AM cripples Benny's body so he cannot act on any thoughts he has. Eventually Benny demonstrates the compassion he once lacked by saving a mutant child from the lottery, sacrificing himself in the child's stead.
- Ellen – Ellen, once an engineer with a promising career ahead of her, is transported to a pyramid made of electronic junk and with its interior resembling an Egyptian temple whose décor is largely yellow. AM says that the temple contains some of his primary units and is apparently offering her a chance to destroy him. Ellen suffers from a severe phobia of the color yellow and claustrophobia, due to their association with her rape (her rapist, who isolated her in an elevator, wore yellow), preventing her from approaching AM's apparent weak spots. Facing her rapist again in her story, Ellen learns to overcome her fears and fight back.
- Nimdok – Nimdok, an elderly ex-Nazi physician, finds himself in a concentration camp, expected to conduct brutal medical experiments on helpless subjects. Nimdok is given the task of finding "the lost tribe" by AM but his failing memory, or denial, make it difficult for him to comprehend or engage with the situation, even though it represents actions he has already taken before. Eventually he learns the truth: He himself was a Nazi scientist who turned in his Jewish parents to the regime, and helped develop the very same technologies that AM uses to prolong their lives (the life serum) and alter their bodies (morphogenics). Nimdok redeems himself by helping the Jewish captives of the camp escape, and gives them control of a large golem, which they use to kill him for his past crimes.
- Ted – Ted is represented much like he is in the short story, but AM has apparently made him severely paranoid, playing on his past as a con artist where he would use his charm and looks to seduce rich single women out of money, while he lived in constant fear of finally being discovered and revealed as a fraud. Initially offered freedom if he can solve the puzzle in a dark room, this turns out to be a feint to further provoke his neuroses. He then finds himself in a medieval castle where his love Ellen is apparently slowly dying due to a spell cast on her by her wicked stepmother. The castle is full of deceptive characters who make contradictory demands and whom Ted cannot decide whether to trust, and surrounded by wolves who are slowly closing in. Ted eventually finds a way to redeem both himself and Ellen, and is presented with a door to the surface world, which is irradiated and uninhabitable.
In a 2012 issue of Game Informer, Harlan Ellison, David Sears and David Mullich discussed the process that went into developing the game as well as the character developments and other changes that were made from the original story. For example, in writing the script for Ellen's confrontation with her rapist, Mullich channeled the memory he had of his infant son going through chemotherapy, being with him at the hospital and sharing a room with other young cancer patients. In discussing the characters changes made to Benny, Mullich said, "Looking back, I think it might have been a lost opportunity to write a story about someone struggling with the challenges of being homosexual." Although Sears recalls that "gay angle" was in their initial script, but might have subsequently been a dropped thread.
Cyberdreams brought in writer David Sears to collaborate with Harlan Ellison. Sears, formerly a writer and assistant editor for Compute! magazine, had never before worked on a video game. Though a long-time fan of Ellison and his work, Sears was initially nervous and somewhat skeptical at his assignment: "...they said, 'No, it's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and I was like, 'What?'...At the time, in the game-development community, people said, 'Oh I love Ellison's stories, but there's no way you could turn that into a game.' I thought, 'Wow, what have I gotten into?'" One of the biggest initial challenges was taking a short story whose characters have very limited background story and character development, and fleshing it out into a full-length interactive narrative. A breakthrough came about when Sears asked Ellison the question, "Why were these people saved? Why did AM decide to save them?" This brought about the decision to split the game into five separate narratives, each following a particular character and exploring why they had been selected to be tortured. Sears spent several weeks at Ellison's house, where they worked to flesh out the characters and their backgrounds.
Producer David Mullich joined Cyberdreams shortly after Ellison and Sears drafted their treatment and Sears had gone on to a position at another software company. One of the first steps in making the project a reality was to expand the 130-page draft document into a comprehensive game design complete with all the interactions, logic and details necessary for the programmers and artists to begin their tasks. Mullich decided to complete the design himself, having created a 1980 computer game based upon The Prisoner television series which, like this adventure, involved a surreal environment, metaphorical story elements, and rewards for ethical behavior. After several months, he produced an 800-page game design document containing more than 2000 lines of additional dialogue.
Mullich contracted the Dreamers Guild to do the programming, artwork and sound effects. Its S.A.G.A. game engine was seen as an ideal user interface for the player to interact with the environment and to converse with the characters in AM's world. It was decided early on that high resolution graphics were necessary to capture the nuances and mood of Ellison's vivid imagination, and so Technical Director John Bolton adapted the engine to utilize SVGA graphics and included the Fastgraph graphics library. Mullich and Cyberdreams art director Peter Delgado had frequent meetings with Dreamers Guild art director Brad Schenck to devise art direction complementing the surreal nature of the story. Since the story takes place in the mind of a mad god who can make anything happen, the team chose a variety of art styles for each of the scenarios, ranging from the unsettling perspectives used in German Expressionist films to pure fantasy to stark reality. Assistant art director Glenn Price and his team rendered more than 60 backgrounds utilizing a number of 2D and 3D tools, including Deluxe Paint and LightWave. Hundreds of animations were drawn by assistant art director Jhoneil Centeno and his team of animators.
As the game approached a playable "alpha" state, Ellison and Mullich spent many hours together fine-tuning the scenarios and polishing the dialogue. Mullich commissioned film composer John Ottman (who would later work with director Bryan Singer in The Usual Suspects and X-Men) to write more than 25 pieces of original MIDI music for the adventure.
In pre-release publicity for I have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, Ellison said that it would be a game "you cannot possibly win". Though the gaming media found that the finished game backed away from this controversial promise, and Sears said that he had convinced Ellison that having a game with only negative endings was a bad idea, in a 2013 interview Ellison insisted that "I created it so you could not win it. The only way in which you could "win" was to play it nobly. The more nobly you played it, the closer to succeeding you would come, but you could not actually beat it. And that annoyed the hell out of people too."
Cyberdreams had developed a reputation, in the early 1990s, of selling computer games with science fiction-cyberpunk storylines and adult violent, sexual, philosophical, and psychological content. The French and German releases were partially censored and the game was forbidden to players younger than 18 years. Furthermore, the Nimdok chapter was removed, likely due to the Nazi theme - especially for Germany, due to previous reaction of the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons to National Socialist topics. The removal of the Nimdok chapter made achieving the "best" ending (with AM permanently disabled and the cryogenically frozen humans on Luna rescued) more complicated.
The game remained out of print abandonware for years due to the closure of both developer and publisher. In 2013, the rights were recovered by Night Dive Studios. Therefore, it was possible to re-release the game again as digital download on GOG.com in September 2013, and Steam in October 2013.
According to Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream was commercially unsuccessful. Joe Pearce of The Dreamers Guild recalled that it was "a critical success but only a modest seller."
The game has an aggregate score of 77% at GameRankings, based on four reviews. Most reviews acclaimed the game's content and its mature presentation of ethical issues. The game was praised by Computer Player and Electronic Entertainment for its "nightmarish graphics, high-quality audio and troubling ethical dilemmas add up to a combination of the entertaining and the profound that could prove to be the foundation of an important gaming subgenre in the future," and asking "a lot from you in terms of the psychological and ethical choices you'll make during game play. For those familiar with Ellison's prolific writings, the moral dilemmas will come as no surprise." According to Computer Games Strategy Plus, "without appearing didactic, Ellison has the ability to hit us squarely in the face with a mirror reflecting the sorry lot that we humans have become. (...) In the mode of Franz Kafka, we are meant to be touched or changed in some way by this work, for what else is the purpose of art?" T. Liam McDonald of PC Gamer US wrote "there are moments that challenge and disturb, and this gives the characters and setting much more psychological depth than we've seen in any computer game to date." He summed up his review by writing: "Ultimately, I Have No Mouth isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve been searching for an adventure that’s both thoughtful and entertaining, and if you’re fond of Ellison’s disturbing fiction, it’s a must."
A reviewer for Next Generation commented on the game's surreal content and heavy concern "with ethics, humanity, and inner demons", but found the gameplay too limited, and summarized it as "less a game than an ethical obstacle course". Ron Dulin of GameSpot was much more critical, stating: "There are numerous dead ends and illogical puzzles [and] many programming bugs." Dulin commended the game for experimenting with interesting concepts and enjoyed its dark art work and resemblance to the original book, but criticized it for how "the so-called 'ethical decisions' these five imprisoned souls must face are no more than red herrings, providing only stopping blocks to progress or disturbing scenes with no tangible purpose."
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream won several awards, including "Best Dark Game of 1996" from Digital Hollywood and "Best Game Adapted from Linear Media" from the Computer Game Developers Conference. Computer Gaming World gave it their award for "Adventure Game of the Year"  and also listed it as #134 on the "150 Games of All Time", and one of the "Best 15 Sleepers of All Time" and "Best 15 Endings of All Time". In the October 2014 issue of Game Informer it was listed as #22 of the staff's "Top 25 Horror Games of All Time". In 2011, Adventure Gamers named I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream the 69th-best adventure game ever released.
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The title has remained out of print for years and has never been republished due to the closure of both its original publisher and its developer. Until recently, rights to the game belonged to neither party. Those rights have recently been acquired by Night Dive Studios: a company devoted to redistributing old video games. Night Dive Studios has given permission to GOG to sell the game.
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Point-and-click adventure game I have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is now available on GOG, helping to bring yet another the classic PC game to a wider audience.
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