Review: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

I recently completed the creation of a flash-based game for a university project and during the design process took the opportunity to play a lot of games I had never played before. One of my favorite stories ever is a short one written by sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison called “I Have No Mouth, and I must Scream,” which you can read here, and during my game research I stumbled across a 1995 PC game based on the story.

If you can’t be bothered to read the story, it is about a supercomputer that has evolved and gained sentience in the wake of a global war and sets about destroying mankind: so far, so Hollywood. However, in this tale the computer (named AM) succeeds in laying waste to the entire planet and every living human, save for five sorry individuals. With its highly advanced intelligence and seemingly limitless hatred for mankind, AM manages to keep them perpetually alive despite the endless torture he performs upon them. The story takes place 109 years into the torture.

The game mechanic itself is anything but revolutionary, with the gameplay roughly mirroring what you would expect to find in a Myst game, but as with the book, the game totally blew me away.

I Must Scream is a game that truly deserves the mature label, for once not just simply for excessive violence and dark themes, although the game certainly delves into such realms. Indeed, the game was heavily censored in Germany and France and the game carried an 18 certificate elsewhere. The game features Nazi child experiments, rape, cannibalism, mutation, domestic violence, starvation and many other taboo subjects and is (for me) an in-depth investigation into purgatory and self-examination.

You can select any of the five characters to control and each involves the player guiding them through a metaphorical adventure through their own flawed personalities, ultimately confronting these guilt-formed faults. The narratives also show previously unseen indicators of AM’s own personality and are as non-linear as they are morally ambiguous. The grueling adventures are a brief respite for the characters after more than a century of physical and mental abuse and expose the first signs of fragility in AM. The dark themes and moral decisions are carefully placed, and in one case presents an extreme option of ends/means justification with access to a valuable key only available via the slaughter of dozens of animals.

As a work of interactive fiction, I Must Scream predates the morality meters of Fable and the interactive narrative of KOTOR by almost a decade and is among the select few videogames that actually build and improve upon their non-interactive inspiration.

Another interesting facet of the game is its stubbornness to allow you to win and its wide selection of different endings. There is satisfaction to be gained even from the endings that would traditionally be viewed as utter failure and death can be rewarding. I never managed to “win” the game, but enjoyed managing to kill myself in order to ruin AM’s pleasure of torturing me. Indeed, you can’t properly win at all; you can simply survive the hellish nightmare with your spirit intact, or better still avoid the fate consigned to Ted in the book: having no mouth (or limbs or sensory outputs at all) and needing to scream.

The game illustrates much of what videogames can offer in terms of artistic and literary content and is a shocking but thought-provoking exploration of guilt and mortality. The game shows that success isn’t solely about good triumphing over evil, as is the case with so many of today’s dull JRPG and FPS releases and shows that games do not just exist in order to be beaten. I implore you to play this game and I urge developers to look to yesteryear for inspiration and dare I say it, innovation.