October Nightmares II #15: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1995) - Two Minute HATE


I’ve mentioned previously that there are two ways to do horror games well. The player is either entirely powerless against the dark forces hunting them down - the deer in the headlights approach. Or the game employs enough dirty tricks to turn the player’s mind against them, and being powerful comes to feel entirely useless - or gaslighting as Tumbr would call it. But there’s a third style of horror game, one which is found mostly in the point-and-click adventure genre. And that’s making the player an passive participant in the unfolding horror, like making your mate hold your beer and watch whilst you try to wrestle a bear.

Based upon the short story of the name (also by Harlan Ellison) I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream wins the awards for most convolutely titled game, as well as cruellest video game ever made. It’s almost laughable that Manhunt caused such controversy upon its release when a game like I Have No Mouth exists. Manhunt, with its over the top edgy violence, is the sort of game meant to be gormlessly consumed by teen-aged boys like Beavis and Butthead; the type who like heavy metal, sit around picking their arse, and think about getting laid 24/7. I Have No Mouth, on the other hand, deals with some extremely weighty themes; not least depictions of genocide, cannibalism, rape, abuse, and mental illness. It’s the thinking man’s horror experience; one which befits a point-and-click game, the perfect format for forcing the player mind set into a voyeuristic perspective.

Set 109 years after the destruction of the Earth by a super computer known as AM, I Have No Mouth follows the final five survivors of the human race as they're put through a psychological hell/virtual reality. When I read the original short story, I remember thinking that AM was one of the biggest cunts to ever appear in a book - and I've read The Joy of Sex. The AM in the original story was an absolute bastard, who existed only to inflict misery on the other characters - he was perfectly happy to let the characters walk thousands of miles to search for cans of food he knew full well they couldn't open. Here he's voiced by Ellison himself who, as well as hamming it up like the Gatekeeper from Atmosfear (it was the nineties after all), adds a psychotic edge to AM that's almost sympathetic. This is an artificial entity driven mad by its own cruel limitations. AM's had enough of torturing these fuckwits - there's only so much physical pain you can inflict on someone before you're in some kind of kinky relationship - and so decides to mindfuck them with their own personal metaphorical hells instead. So that's how I Have No Mouth plays out: five separate campaigns which feel like someone threw together all the ironic twist endings from The Twilight Zone.

I Have No Mouth plays like most point-and-click adventure games of its era, in that you occupy a mostly static screen and click on/interact with every possible object until you figure out how to progress. This style of gameplay was King Shit back in the nineties, but its popularity rapidly declined due to the puzzling elements becoming so obscure that to solve them you needed to either possess the occult knowledge of Aleister Crowley, or be MacGyver. For the most part I Have No Mouth avoids this pitfall, instead focusing on the challenge of how best to solve the puzzles in a way that's slightly more dignified and marginally less distressing than the other option. AM, you see, really gets under the skin with the challenges his presents for his subjects. Each character has a crippling fear which AM is all too ready to exploit, like bullies on the first day of school discovering your surname's Gaylord.

There's a reason AM keeps these characters around: they're perfectly messed up. Nimdok, the German doctor who AM really admires, has a past of performing experiments in Nazi concentration camps. Gorrister is forced to relieve the horror of having his wife committed, and the suicidal thoughts reliving this brings - though AM would never allow his subjects to die. Of all five campaigns, it's Ellen's which has the greatest impact. Finding out just why she, like Golden Age Green Lantern, is so terrified of the colour yellow made me feel more than a little sick - even if it does feel like the easy option. It tells you all you need to know about I Have No Mouth that the campaign set in a concentration camp is only the second most disturbing setting in the game. This game is a master class in how to combine grim realism with a cartoonish hand-drawn artstyle complete with talking Jackals and magic Nazi science.

The choice between retaining humanity and making selfless choices (even when you know you'll be made to suffer), and taking the selfish route to slightly lessen your suffering, highlights I Have No Mouth's relentlessness. I looked it up and there is a 'good' ending to this game; but I don't know anyone who unlocked it. You've got more chance of turning the tides than seeing that ending. The other three endings are as depressing as the writings of the Sylvia Plath-wannabe in a creative writing class. There is no optimism in the setting, only varying degrees of pain. It's like a game of Would You Rather? As in: would you rather be slowly beaten to death with a sack filled with all your embarrassing photos, or be forced listen to your parents shag for the rest of time?