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I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Entry updated 20 December 2011. Tagged: Game.

Videogame (1995). The Dreamers' Guild. Designed by Harlan Ellison, David Mullich, David Sears. Platforms: DOS.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is a graphical Adventure based on Harlan Ellison's Hugo award-winning short story of the same name. The game, scripted and codesigned by Ellison, expands considerably on its original while altering many of the details. The central question of the Adventure is why the insane supercomputer AM would pick the game's five protagonists in particular to save when it destroys the world, only to condemn them to eternal torment in a literally subterranean Hell. The characters, who are not precisely the people they were in the short story, each have a hidden trauma and matching psychiatric condition, from paranoia to depression. The player adopts each of their personas in turn as AM sends them into virtual worlds which act as psychodramas designed to expose their deepest fears. Resolving these miniature adventures requires the solution of various puzzles, but true success depends on achieving a morally valid resolution of the character's past. The characters' individual dreamworlds are dark and often macabre, with disturbing visual designs reminiscent of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. There are several possible endings, including one which mirrors that of the original story in its depiction of a future of unending horror. If, however, the player has succeeded in helping the characters redeem themselves by confronting and overcoming their flaws, it is possible to use AM's own internal contradictions against it, and defeat it in a somewhat confusing final sequence set inside the computer's own mind. Even this ending offers no hope to the five protagonists, for whom I Have No Mouth is a game that can only be won by losing; four of them must die, while the last becomes AM's jailer, forever guarding the computer's hardware against a return of its eradicated software. Humanity itself, however, may be preserved by the characters' sacrifice; the destruction of AM allows a hidden group of survivors to be woken from Suspended Animation on the Moon to repopulate a newly Terraformed Earth.

Unfortunately, some of the puzzles in I Have No Mouth are laborious and lack any logical solution; it sometimes seems as if the game is treating its players much as AM treats their characters. This resonance does not, however, induce the perhaps intended feelings of shame and despair, but rather ones of annoyance and frustration. More fundamentally, while the messages of I Have No Mouth are presented with a great deal of angry passion, it offers the player no true moral choices. Progress in the game depends upon performing the actions which the designers consider virtuous, reducing the player to the status of an actor in someone else's play. Where other games may express an ethical stance by designing their synthetic world to reflect its premises, this one creates a reality in which only one morality is permissible. Arguably, I Have No Mouth is too much of a story and not enough of a game. [NT]

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