I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Released in 1995, just as the adventure game genre was falling off a cliff, I Have No Mouth Et Cetera captures the industry in its final burn-it-to-the-ground moments, where everyone was flailing around and trying to find something that would attract their audience back from Myst. A lot of risky experiments date to this period, including this one, an adaptation of a Harlan Ellison short story.

The story is much the same. Fuelled by Cold War hysteria, the human race has engineered its own coffin. A godlike supercomputer called AM controls the earth, and for its amusement it keeps alive the last five humans for more than a century, torturing them in all sorts of physical and psychological ways. But at last it has grown bored, and will engage its captives in a final game: they must survive a scenario constructed from their own minds, and their own repressed traumas.

Gorrister, a suicidal loner who resents women. Ellen, who relives a violent rape whenever she sees the color yellow. Benny, a hapless pawn who has been altered to look like a gorilla. Ted, a paranoid lunatic who is “so twitchy he could make poison ivy nervous.” Nimdok, a Nazi scientist who assisted Dr Mengele in the Holocaust.

Using a point and click interface you explore each of these characters’ minds. Whether you can “win” is unclear, even at the end. AM has complete control over all of these characters, and there’s no reason for what it tells them about their backstories to be completely accurate.

At its best, IHNMAIMS is a fascinating and memorable experience, and it’s often at its best. It takes away most of the comical aspects of Ellison’s story (like the “AM gave us canned food but no can opener” gag), and adds a ton of psychological depth. The story was about five interchangable nobodies surviving a maniac computer. The game centers its focus on the characters, and explores their pain. Rather than a telescope looking outwards, it’s an MRI looking inwards.

Unfortunately, there’s a reason the adventure game genre died, and IHNMAIMS doesn’t break the trend too much.

It’s full of pixel hunts, full of “puzzles” that amount to blind guesses, and the lack of direction means that you cannot solve the game in any logical way. The game conjurs a dreamlike atmosphere, which helps the narrative but poisons the gameplay. A large part of IHNMAIMS consists of wandering around in a daze, clicking on stuff.

One particular point grates: you have to cross a bridge, but it requires a passcode that only Nimdok knows (meaning that there’s an 80% chance you’ll select a character that has no way of getting through that particular point). There’s no way to figure out the passcode, and no way to get past that point. You’ve either made the correct choice previously in the game, or you haven’t. Thanks, guys. Throw a shovelfull of rotting haddock on my desk while you’re at it, to really make my day.

The interface is unintuitive. There’s ample opportunities to “strand” yourself, with no way forward and no way back (and you won’t know this in advance, so your save is now probably useless), and the puzzles are usually completely unclear as to whether you’ve solved them or not. That’s my criticism of IHNMAIMS writ small: there’s never any goddamn feedback when you do something. Are you going the right way? The wrong way? Oh, questions, questions!

Grognards spit upon “The 7th Guest” as not being a true adventure game, but in a way, it got something right. The puzzles were self contained, and had rules that you could follow. You’d beat one, and move on to the next one. Sometimes those puzzles were hard, but you could always understand them. You weren’t wandering around trying to guess what the developers wanted you to do!

So you have a fascinating layer of content, but it’s stuck inside a frequently clunky and frustrating adventure game. Unfortunately, stories improve games far more than games improve stories, and IHNMAIMS is exhibit A in the prosecution’s case.

Leave a Reply