I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (PC) review

A delightfully disturbing DOS classic. #Ihavenomouthandimustscream #review #adventuregame #psychologicalhorror

Harlan Ellison’s seminal “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is one of the greatest sci-fi/horror short stories of all time. The story tells about the five remaining humans who live in a vast underground complex 109 years after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out all life on earth. The survivors were granted a near immortal state and are endlessly tortured by the misanthropic AI called A.M (allied master computer). A video game adaptation was co-developed by the author and Cyberdreams back in 1995.

The game lets you experience this hellish story from five different perspectives. This allowed the designers to explore the darker sides of the human condition and implement symbolic elements to the storytelling. Each character has a dark past which is reflected in their levels, which are like tailormade nightmares made by AM. In order to beat the game, each character must seek redemption by facing their past, a premise quite reminiscent of the highly praised Silent Hill 2.

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Performing surgery on a child at a concentration camp

As a point & click adventure, the game is subpar. The puzzle design leaves a lot to be desired, as there are multiple examples of situations where you can get stuck if you don’t perform certain actions in the right order, even when there’s no logical connection between the two. Some of the invisible story triggers are poorly placed, which can lead to frustrating standstills. Part of this can be attributed to the moral system, as Ellison wanted the game to underline the good qualities of humans as much as it showcases the bad ones. The central theme of the game is struggling with your humanity in a hopeless situation, so dealing with moral dilemmas fits in well as a mechanic. The problem is, sometimes it’s possible to proceed only by choosing the right option, which defeats the purpose of making a moral choice. The abstraction of inventory puzzles is also occasionally at odds with the symbolic narrative.

The best part about the experience is the surreal and bleak atmosphere. As AM is omnipotent, but mad, it’s hard to tell whether some bizarre encounters are manifestations of its insanity, or hallucinations of the survivors. The game succeeds well as an adaptation for that reason, as it utilizes the medium to expand upon the original story. For example one scenario takes place in a jungle, and it demonstrates AM’s treachery audiovisually.

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The sky is gray, the trees’ roots seem like cables protruding from the soil and you can’t see animals anywhere, even though you can hear birds chirping and other jungle sounds in the distance. This area feels like a cold, metallic illusion of a jungle rather than an environment where organic life flourishes. This juxtaposition between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing is very clever, and a good example of how this game can do things the book couldn’t by letting players experience firsthand how deceptive and nightmarish these scenarios that AM creates truly are.

While the voice acting is atmospheric and the Giger-esque 2D graphics are as spellbinding as they are hostile, the music goes from forgettable but tolerable midi bloops to being downright anti-climactic in some scenes.

I have no Mouth and I must Scream isn’t mechanically a good video game, but it is a very unique experience amongst games, which is why it has attracted a cult following over the years. There’s nothing else quite like it, which is enough to make it stand the test of time while countless more polished and conventionally fun video games never made it to the annals of gaming.

Developer: The Dreamer’s guild
Publisher: Cyberdreams
Platforms: MS-DOS, MAC, PC, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android
Release date: 31.10.1995 (initial, WW)
PEGI rating: –