It’d be impossible to truly appreciate and discuss this landmark horror title without first talking about the short story of the same name that it’s based off. The award-winning short story has no doubt helped inspire many other authors as well as infiltrating the nightmares of many but more importantly, it remains a thought provoking and essential piece of literature almost fifty years since it was originally published. The narrative of this story is an interesting one but what’s really captured the imagination of readers everywhere is how thought provoking this tale is and the struggles of its characters. The story itself isn’t that long, only consisting of about 6,000 words but one of the goals of author Harlan Ellison when development began was to delve deeper into the characters, their struggles, and to design a deeper experience than other video games being released. Video games may not have been the author’s preferred medium but Ellison helped propel the industry further in terms of being considered an art form by those outside the industry while also injecting some more mature themes into gaming for players to experience and process.
Harlan Ellison wanted to shift the focus and sharpen it more on the characters, their flaws, and really push the limits at the time for gauging morality and having the decision to make pure and evil choices. The game’s story does differ from the short story but it’s in this new experience that we’re able to explore the world and its characters more deeply. I think this was a great decision because it allowed the strengths of a video game format to be played up by emphasizing immersion, choices, and involving the player as an outside force. The context for the story is the same as the original short story so readers of the book will feel right at home. The story takes place in a world that has been all but destroyed by an evil supercomputer called AM. Everyone in the world has been killed except for the five lone survivors who AM has kept alive for the past 109 years to torture for his own amusement. They are tortured around the clock and it’s all they’ve experienced for the past 109 years due to AM’s extreme hatred of them and humanity. If AM let them die then it’d be a sweet release from the terrors of their reality and so they are forced to live out this painful existence where AM has even denied them the right to take their own lives. It’s in this unbearable hell where the game’s story begins with AM having constructed simulated adventures (if you can call it that) for the characters to explore with the promise of finally being allowed to be freed from their suffering.
These five locations will take the player across both strange and disgusting places where the morality of humanity is explored while forcing the player to make many different decisions along the way. The five locations that you visit as each character all explore the fatal flaw and fears of the characters you control and it’s done so well that you can feel the stress and pain just as the characters themselves would. I was most affected emotionally by the simulations that Gorrister and Nimdok are forced to endure but was invested in all of them. Each one of these stories places you within a world that somehow always feels just as dreadful as the actual hell the characters are all physically trapped in. Each world possesses its own story and characters that will remain with you even after you’ve moved onto the next character and simulation. They also reflect how evil and downright disturbing AM is as the antagonist of this carnival ride from hell that he takes the characters aboard. AM is sometimes within the simulations, either by disguise or in the open, and it’s just another reminder of how pointless the character’s journeys can be. Their ultimate prize from conquering the insurmountable odds is being freed from suffering and without going too far into spoiler territory, even that is taken from them.
Every point, click, and step of the way is filled with a sort of senseless dread and misery that’s only emphasized with the heavy emotional themes explored and the depressing music weaved throughout the game. This game may be a Point and Click adventure game but this couldn’t be more different from titles like The Secret of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. The gameplay consists of you controlling each of the five characters in the individual simulations and complete an objective while you’re there. They can vary but each one of them will require several tasks to be completed leading up to the main objective being completed. With this being a Point and Click game you will be problem solving and doing some light puzzle solving by going to different areas, collecting different items, bringing them to other areas, and by engaging in key conversations essential to each area’s plot. It is normally an enjoyable experience but I would recommend setting aside blocks of time to play this because this isn’t something you’ll be able to rush through and it will require your full attention, not only for completion’s sake but also for proper enjoyment. There were a few times where I could not figure out an area and would need to check a guide online but most of the time, with some time and patience, I was able to complete the majority of areas without too much outside assistance.
The weight of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is on your chest and pulling down your heart the entire time and it will remain in your mind long after the end credits. I was in awe of how high the immersion was in spite of this being a Point and Click game from the mid 90s and I’m still processing my thoughts on the experience. The graphics may be more on the rough side and the animations are of course on the simplistic side of things but the voice acting and presentation do wonders for the experience.
Graphically, there’s not too much to expect here with this being over twenty years old but it has a lot of charm and most of world is still very much discernible. Things may look rough but you can still tell what everything is supposed to be and you can still feel like you’re on an adventure, even if it is straight from hell’s imagination. The characters all look unique and different from each other and their facial expressions help reflect what they’re feeling very well. The environments are mostly static but there’s some ambient sound effects that help fill in the gaps missing from archaic graphics. There are some animations that add to the experience as well. I honestly think if you dim the lights and remove any distractions and just sit down with this game, it will pull you into its world.
Voice acting can almost break a game when done poorly and a lot of earlier games did not feature great voice acting. I’m looking at you, Resident Evil! But when done right, it just adds an extra layer of depth and allows the game to further pull the player into its world. The voice acting here is still good and that’s really saying something considering its age and the time period it hails from. The developer went above and beyond to secure top notch voice actors and it really shows. The only noticeable distraction it presents is the compression method used to actually put the voice acting in the game. The author himself does the voice acting for AM and I think it was a great decision because he really helps bring the evil and despair into AM’s tone like I’m sure no one else would have been able to do.
The music absolutely deserves some praise because it helps amplify the mood equally with the graphics and story components. John Ottoman created 25+ original pieces of MIDI music that I personally think are essential to the experience. When you experience this game I would insist on having the music turned up the entire time because it conveys so much of what is going on. John Ottoman would later go on to compose music for some big films, including Apt Pupil, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. He unfortunately didn’t compose music for any other games but I will say that this game reflects his film background in spite of the more limited technology.
I played this on PC but imagine it would control just fine on a smartphone if that is how you intend to play it. I do recommend removing all possible distractions though and allowing the immersive nature of the game to take over. There’s so much happening here that I am genuinely surprised that it released in 1995 because of how well it tackled the story elements and also the overall presentation.
Few experiences are without fault though but luckily the issues present are easily dealt with. For those unfamiliar with the Point and Click genre, a big issue a lot of them suffer from is the lack of intuitive design. Most of the time in many of these kinds of games it is not very clear on what the player is supposed to do. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream suffers a bit from this issue but not nearly as much as others from the genre. There were many times though where I had to glance at an online guide and it was only a few times where I felt I could have spent more time on it and came to a reasonable conclusion. Most of the time I was thinking, “Well, how would I have thought of that?” or, “Are you serious?” but with a more condensed world and objectives that are normally clear this shouldn’t ruin the experience. Even then you can just check a guide for a quick solution without the enjoyment being dissolved in the process because the best part about this game is going through the character’s struggles and going on the journey through hell with them. The finale of this title somehow manages to feel epic even in today’s gaming landscape filled with explosions and arguably more epic moments.
The subject matters addressed in I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream are very mature topics that likely won’t sit comfortably with many players. This is one of the things that makes this game feel so real though. The characters may not look real but being able to identify with their fears and flaws while you help prove that humanity can be redeemed makes up for many of the shortcomings brought on by time itself, so that this experience can still be enjoyed even twenty plus years later.
I had a great time with I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and would recommend this easily to many other gamers who are looking for a good story and a great experience. The best parts of this game have aged so well and it really ensures this game’s timelessness and eternal relevance. As long as you don’t mind aged graphics and a genre that once shined decades ago then this could be a great and immersive experience for you. I would however recommend buying this on GOG as it comes with the original short story too. While not required reading and despite the game going down its own route, it is absolutely a great story and worth your time!
If you’re interested in reading more about the game’s creation process and more behind the scene’s information from the author and the developer then I’d recommend reading this interesting feature article from Game Informer that explores more on the game’s development.
I really enjoyed I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and was still experiencing a sinking feeling in my stomach long after I completed the game. I’m very grateful for what Harlan Ellison brought to the video game by forcing video games to face more mature themes and storytelling. To see my live tweets from other games that I’m playing make sure to follow me on Twitter @Mrjoshnichols. I’m still playing through a few more horror themed games this month in celebration of October too! To see more great Retro Reviews, News, and more make sure to keep it right here at BagoGames!