I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream strikes a hard contrast with modern horror titles. These days, it’s rare to come across a spook-fest that isn’t set in first-person. Ever since the untimely passing of Silent Hills, it feels like developers have been scrambling to propose their own successors. Mind you, this isn’t an entirely bad thing as attempts to fill the void have produced notable works like the recent Resident Evil 7. Many of these imitators look and feel fantastic, but there’s a point where persistent trends in game design can make releases feel manufactured. That is, even cheesecake stops tasting good when you have it at every meal. What’s a cynical gamer to do? My advice: go back to your roots. Instead of letting trends decide what you play, cleanse your palette with a clumsy game from a less civilised age.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – The Basics
Originally released in 1995 for MS-DOS and MAC OS, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a point-and-click adventure game based off a short story written by Harlan Ellison. The story is set in an apocalyptic world where a supercomputer named AM has caused the near-extinction of humanity, sparing only five individuals for the sole purpose of torturing them for eternity. The game’s bulk lies in five ‘campaigns’ whereby the player assumes control of a survivor and is tasked with navigating personalised hell-scenarios designed by AM to reflect the given character’s greatest fears, traumas, and sins. While some hellscapes may start off only conventionally disturbing, others lead into the abyss of human depravity with topics of murder, infidelity, sexual assault, war, and even mass genocide. Where games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill often end with the protagonist escaping the horror as a reward for overcoming all obstacles, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream leaves a lasting impression of dread like no jump-scare or disturbing image can.
Adaptive video games carry an inherent risk of straying from the spirit of the source material, but Ellison worked closely with the title’s developer, The Dreamers Guild, to ensure the game retained its parent essence. Despite having never owned a computer—ironic given the narrative’s antagonist is a hate-filled sentient supercomputer—Ellison provided new writing to expand the story to suit the game’s needs. This would be the equivalent of J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien writing chapters worth of new content to strengthen games adapted from their properties.
Ellison’s close involvement with programmers during I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’s development resulted in a weaving of narrative and mechanics into a remarkable tapestry of ludo-narrative resonance; it plays how it reads. The way the story depresses players to the point of inspiring powerlessness is entirely intentional. In an interview with The Guardian, Ellison stated, “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.”
This is evident from its aversion to redemption or other remedies. There is no release. There is no escape. There is no peace, rest, or hope. This is a world of suffering and the only freedom allowed to you is a deeper insight into why you were denied the mercy of death.
This design choice might make it sound like the game has no point because it lacks a conventional win-state, but that’s not the case. Point-and-click adventures are just that: adventures. The operative method is exploration (talking to NPC’s, solving puzzles) and the goal is discovery (reaching new areas). What sets I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream apart from many games is that your ‘rewards,’ proof that goals have been reached, don’t come in pleasing units like the stars in Mario or experience points in RPGs. Instead, you get anti-rewards: depictions of the flawed nature of humanity and the consequences which can result.
Less is More
It’s this subversion of game design that cements the title’s horror credentials. By denying a traditional win-state, the player is stripped of their agency and taken out of their comfort zone.
I realise it might sound strange to praise this aspect given most successful games are received well specifically because of the opposite. Super Metroid allows players to fight bosses and clear areas in whatever sequence they want. Super Mario 64 revolutionised platforming with an array of movement options that can make some speed runs look like performance art. Open world games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas are applauded for allowing players to roam freely and affect the world in meaningful ways. So then, how is it possible that limiting the player’s ability to perform meaningful actions enriches the experience of playing I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream?
Simple. Horror games play by a different set of rules.
There is a pattern of powerlessness in the mechanics of successful horror games. Granting players full control of their avatar allows them to get comfortable with the in-game surroundings, and, in a horror game, the last thing you want the player to feel is comfortable. The tank-movement present in classic Resident Evil titles, as well as the awkward combat of the Silent Hill series are perfect examples of this. Even first-person horror has its own take as a limited field-of-vision leaves players anxious of anything beyond their peripheral.
Anxiety and unfamiliarity are the perfect catalysts for fear. Maybe not the monster-under-your-bed type of fear, but more so the hopeless despair that I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream exudes. It’s the kind of oppressive terror that shares similarities with cosmic horror: powerlessness in the presence of an insurmountable evil. Even the precious few choices you have are likely just to send you down a different flavoured hell-hole.
There is a segment where you must lower a blimp you’re travelling on to land. If you overdo it, the blimp will crash and you’ll have to start over. Like this, many options which can result in an instant game-over speckle the game’s dialogue. This design aspect begs the question, why do these choices exist if they don’t advance the story? It’s the gameplay equivalent of navigating a minefield.
The answer might be that Ellison was just a dick and he forced the programmers to include the scenarios, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.
Instead of calling him a dick and being done with it, let’s analyse what effect these choices have on I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’s design. While some game-over options like the blimp crash are inconspicuous, others are laid out in the open. At one point, you’re given the option to drink poisoned punch with full knowledge that it’s been poisoned. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “well that seems like a no brainer, just don’t drink it.” I know that’s what you thought because I have the mistaken impression that I’m clever and that, somehow, the solution to the riddle was to do the opposite of what made sense because why would they just let you drink poison and kill yourself for a game-over?
Like you wouldn’t have tried it.
The answer is that Ellison IS a dick, but the inclusion of both conspicuous and inconspicuous game-over options give player decision more importance. Factoring in limited agency, these combined aspects force the player to carefully consider their actions. You might start save-scumming to compensate, but even then, your resulting caution is consistent of someone trapped in a hellish maze created by a human-hating god-machine.
No One’s Perfect
Still, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream has blemishes I can’t attempt to pass off as beauty marks.
For those unfamiliar with point-and-click adventure games, there might be an impenetrable barrier of entry. To them, I would suggest there’s a reason this genre existed alongside Wolfenstein and Doom, namely because the writing and dialogue are worth it. Normally, there’s a rift wide enough between gameplay and narrative to judge each independently of the other, but this is a rare case where the two are so carefully weaved together that discussing one is synonymous with discussing the other. As a gamer, it’s my greatest wish that I could say this about more works.
The visuals haven’t aged well. Neither has the audio. None of this is a surprise, but I’d argue they only enrich I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’s aesthetic. Granted, I’d probably lose that argument because I suspect I’m in the minority who find low-res 90’s PC graphics charming. Dithering and choppy animation abound. You’re probably not going to find a way to set the game to full-screen. Even if you did I wouldn’t recommend it, much in the same way I wouldn’t recommend looking too closely at the blackheads on your SO’s nose. Honestly, I wonder if the best presentation route isn’t to dig out that tube-screen monitor from your attic for a maximum, retro experience.
The Best Kind of Hot Mess
In summary, I have a soft spot for old PC games because they remind me of a time when the rules weren’t defined and developers could afford to take more risks. Sure, the technical capabilities of new games put most classics to shame, but it’s rare to come across a title that has a certifiable soul. By this, I mean design that reflects a group of designers that set out to try something new but demonstrated the discipline to follow through. It’s more common to come across projects that fail because their creators’ ambition is greater than their talent, or work that is technically sound despite being derivative. For all its aging signs and clumsy design choices, I’d recommend I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream if for no other reason than through playing it, I remembered why I fell in love with gaming in the first place.