I want to echo a phrase from one of my previous posts to begin this one: I was just thinking that this is just a great example of how video games can actually help to develop curiosity and how they can introduce kids to literature. Now, the game I discussed in that post was complicated and not suitable for a child (I was around ten when I played it) because of that complexity -heck, it is extremely difficult even now-, this next game I want to talk about was not “suitable” because it was disturbing. Thankfully, I had an awesome older brother who played it quite a bit so that whole concept of “suitability” was not really present, and thus I discovered I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Don’t know anything about it? Allow me to show you the introduction of the game before I go any further.
Originally released by Cryogenics, I must have been around ten when I first discovered this game -thanks to our 486 Intel computer-. The images creeped the hell out of me, but I remained glued to the screen and watched consistently as my brother tried and tried, over and over again to beat it. I don’t think he ever finished it -and if he did, I doubt he got the good ending- but, like with other games, after a while he got tired of it and moved on to something else. A lot of time has passed since the late nineties, but I still remember this game and, because I have it installed in an old computer, I decided to replay a couple of weeks ago after feeling a rush of nostalgia and boredom to see if it still holds up.
Ten-year-old-me may have been disturbed by the images but thirty-year-old-me is amazed. The characters, themes, story arcs and settings, everything about this game exudes quality. To explain why, I need to bring into the mix the short story that this game is based on and the man who wrote it, Harlan Ellison.
Harlan Ellison is an american writer with more than 1.800 short stories under his belt (and counting) and work on screenplays, teleplays and comic books. He has been involved with iconic shows such as the original run of The Outer Limits and Star Trek, and he was indirectly responsible for the inception of The Terminator, a movie that shamelessly ripped off one -some would say two- of his Outer Limits episodes without acknowledging where it took inspiration from. He was won both Hugo and Nebula awards -the Oscars of science-fiction-, and one of those Hugo’s was precisely for the short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.
First published in 1967, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a supercomputer created to handle the complexities of the Cold War – that later escalated to World War Three – becomes sentient and, after killing nearly all the human race, leaves only four men and a woman to torture for all eternity (the story is set in the hundred and ninth year of torture). The computer, as explained in the short story, is named AM “At first it meant Allied Mastercomputer, and then it meant Adaptive Manipulator, and later on it developed sentience and linked itself up and they called it an Aggressive Menace, but by then it was too late, and finally it called itself AM, emerging intelligence, and what it meant was I am cogito ergo sum I think, therefore I am” and the reason for the eternal torture of these five individuals is brilliant, and again allow me to quote from the short story “We had given AM sentience. Inadvertently, of course, but sentience nonetheless. But it had been trapped. AM wasn’t God, he was a machine. We had created him to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity. In rage, in frenzy, the machine had killed the human race, almost all of us, and still it was trapped. AM could not wander, AM could not wonder, AM could not belong. He could merely be. And so, with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them, he had sought revenge.And in his paranoia, he had decided to reprieve five of us, for a personal, everlasting punishment that would never serve to diminish his hatred that would merely keep him reminded, amused, proficient at hating man. Immortal, trapped, subject to any torment he could devise for us from the limitless miracles at his command.”
The reason why I’m quoting so much from I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is because this game works really well as a companion piece to the short story (there is even a clever easter egg where one of the characters, Benny, talks about the scenario described in it), and I think that it benefits from a side-by-side comparison. After all, there was just so much ground that could be covered in less than fifteen pages, and the personalities of the five characters required some fleshing out in order to give them the necessary backgrounds and story arcs for the game. To solve this issue, David Sears, the writer that worked with Harlan Ellison to shape the game’s script (there are more details about the creation of the game in this great article from gameinformer.com), asked him two questions: “Why were these people saved? Why did AM decide to save them?” and used those answers to start developing the characters:
Gorrister’s story: A man wakes up inside a zeppelin flying without a crew. His heart is literally missing from his chest. That alone has to pique your interest. In the original text Gorrister is just there and doesn’t do much, but in the game he has one of the strongest character arcs. All the stories are veiled with the notion of regret (and if you have a sadistic sentient machine that can replicate events of your past the possibilities of endless torture dealing with regret are infinite), but he also deals on a personal level with the idea of mental illness -he put his own wife in a mental house-, and the writing and visual metaphors work really well to illustrate that: giving his own heart to be eaten by a jackal, getting his wife off the hook -literally-, burying the past… I can see why David Sears felt this is one of the strongest characters.
Benny’s story: In my humble opinion the weakest story . Benny has suffered the most at the hands of AM. In the original text he was a “college professor, handsome and gay” tortured and mutilated to look like a man-ape. In the game he is still a man-ape, but his background is that of a man (married to a woman) with a military background that has to deal with the notion of selfishness and self-interest, and the reason why I didn’t like it is because the character’s dilemma seems awfully generic. If you have someone who has been mutilated why not explore that aspect in more detail? In a game that deals with the Holocaust and rape -more of that later- this just seems safe and bland. The fact that they omit any gay angle is very interesting and telling of what may have been acceptable in a video game in the nineties; and it really stood out for me because Harlan Ellison does not shy away from this sort of topics. His famous science fiction anthology “Dangerous Times”, published in the sixties dealt openly with sexuality and homosexuality in some of its stories, so it just seems off to erase this aspect for the game.
Ellen’s story: Her story deals with the idea of abuse, blocked memories and feeling powerless but unfortunately the execution is a bit poor. It starts great with her character appearing in front of a pyramid made of junk and her phobia of the colour yellow, but as the story unfolds and you find out that the cause of her fear is due to the fact that she was raped by a man wearing a yellow suit the story begins to crumble.
Speaking exclusively from a storytelling perspective, pulling off rape is extremely difficult because it will most likely read like you either don’t know what you are talking about, or that you are putting it for shock value. In the short story Ellen frequently has sex with the men of the group, and Ted (one of the two remaining characters) mentions how the “innocent” Ellen seems to particularly enjoy having sex with Benny because AM has given him “an organ fit for a horse” -this is mentioned in a fit of rage so it is up to the reader to determine if this is true or false-, but much like Benny’s stories I wished they had explored the character from the angle presented in the short story rather than what they went for. Random Question: Am I the only one that found her character’s attitude extremely sassy? I think somebody forgot to explain the voice actress her character’s background.
Nimdok’s story: This story also deals with the idea of regret, but whereas Gorrister’s story ends with him finding peace for what he did, Nimdok’s story is about facing the consequences. Set in the background of the Jewish Holocaust, Nimdok is a doctor that sold out his own people in the name of science. He operated and tortured men, women and children and this story deals directly with that.
I read that this character’s section was banned in France and Germany upon release due to how disturbing it was, and to be fair the game does not shy away from the horrific scenario: tortured children, prisoners caught on barbed wired, an eyeless man, a wall of howling dead faces. Nimdok’s story is one of the bests in the game along with Gorrister’s.
AM enjoys torturing people -and is in fact doing so with Nimdok- so the idea of the machine finding this human a “kindred spirit” works really well and creates a very twisted scenario with Nimdok’s being tortured by his own time torturing others. The fact that his character’s background in the short story goes as far as “Nimdock (which was the name the machine had forced him to use, because AM amused itself with strange sounds)” could be a reason why he and Gorrister came out strongest in the game.
Ted’s story: Ted is the tiebreaker and the last one in this list for a very specific reason. Ted is the narrator of the short story and should have, in theory, the strongest arc, because we get a bit more background and personality from him -turns out he is a bit crazy after all those years of torture-. I’ve mentioned before, that I had an issue with Ellen and Benny’s approach because they did not explore the angle of the short story, but video game Ted completely deviates from the short story and it works really well. He fears how the others may see him due to his lies, a subject matter less heavy than Ellen’s, but interesting enough so that it is not as generic as Benny’s, but what truly elevates Ted’s story is how they managed to fit and work in his narrative ideas from famous books such as Cervante’s Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Plato’s Symposium, Dante’s Divine Comedy and T.H White’s Sword in the Stone. This story borrow’s elements from all these works and uses them on characters, settings, themes and conversations, and it is a joy seeing how cleverly they’ve interwoven all of them.
Throughout the stories there are references to other literary works such as 1984, Macbeth and the stories of Sherlock Holmes. These are sprinkled, again very cleverly, in the “Psych profile” the equivalent of a hint section, but it is in the game’s climax where we get one final reference to the works of Freud by showing AM’s mind split into the Id, the Ego and the Superego; and only if you’ve finished each character’s story correctly you’ll be able to get the “good” ending.
The genius of this game resides on the creators trusting the player to either know, learn or interpret all these ideas and references. However, going back to the beginning of the post, I can’t ignore the fact that my fascination did not begin because of these ideas and references. It is clear that had my parents known more about this game they would’ve certainly stopped me from watching my brother play it, and yet I do feel that some context is needed after writing all this, because one could reach the very erroneous conclusion that I shouldn’t have been exposed to it at that age.
The thing is, when I was ten all the adult themes and ideas completely went over my head, and all that stuck were the images and, even though I admit they were disturbing, they were not as bad or traumatizing as say, Mufasa’s death in The Lion King -that is still difficult to watch-. Perhaps they were more explicit and graphic, but without context they were just images and I’m very glad that I was exposed to them because, as disturbing as they were, this is yet another example of how a child’s curiosity evolves, twenty years later, into the rediscovery of a great game with very ambitious ideas, complex themes, lots of book references, and most importantly I’ve learned about another writer that I’ll be looking into in more detail. So here you go parents: extremely disturbing video games can lead to literature! (Mental note: make sure you copyright this for future bumper stickers)
What better way to finish this post than with the short story narrated by none other than his creator? Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Random Trivia: If you’ve watched both videos you may have noticed that AM, the supercomputer, is voiced by Harlan Ellison in the video game. How cool is that?
BONUS ROUND: Full play-through!!