I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a computer adventure game based upon Harlan Ellison’s short story of the same name. It is about an evil computer named AM that has destroyed all of humanity except for five people he has been keeping alive and torturing for the past 109 years. Each survivor has a fatal flaw in his or her character, and in an attempt to crush their spirits, AM has constructed a metaphorical adventure for each that preys upon their weaknesses. To succeed in the game, the player must make ethical choices to prove to the evil computer that humans are better than machines, because they have the ability to redeem themselves.
Co-designed by Ellison and published by Cyberdreams in 1995, the game was a work of interactive fiction with psychological and ethical themes. Woven into the fabric of the story were ethical dilemmas dealing with issues including the horrors of insanity, selfishness, rape, racism, paranoia, and genocide.
After 109 years of torture and humiliation, the five victims stand before a pillar etched with a burning message of hate. AM tells them that he now has a new game for them to play. AM has devised a quest for each of the five, an adventure of "speared eyeballs and dripping guts and the smell of rotting gardenias."
After all five humans have overcome their fatal flaws, they meet again in their respective torture cells while AM retreats within himself, pondering what went wrong. The captives discover that each has met other beings in their adventure. Some of these were clearly AM in disguise, some were AM’s submerged personalities, others seem very much like people from the captives’ past. Scenes included gutted, sparking machinery in an Egyptian pyramid and helpless animals serving as energy sources for iron zeppelins. AM’s definitely been getting weirder, and the fantasy worlds he has constructed have never been so elaborate and symbolic. The captives have been given a lot of insight into what is truly going on in AM’s mind, but they really don’t know what to believe. That is understandable, since AM is crazy. At the very least, there is a struggle going on beyond the human versus machines conflict, something that AM has only subtly admitted to.
One of the five humans (who the player selects) is then translated into binary and face an as yet an unexperienced cyberspace template, the world of AM’s mind. The psychodrama unfolds in a metaphorical brain that looks like the surface of the cerebrum, with glass structures that jut crazily from the bleeding brain tissue. AM’s mind is represented according to the Freudian trinity of the Id, Ego and Superego, which appear as three floating bodiless heads on three cracked glass structures on the brainscape. If the human intruder disables all three brain components, and then invokes the Totem of Entropy at the Flame, which is the nexus of AM’s thought patterns, all three super-computers will be destroyed. Cataclysmic explosions destroy all the caverns constituting AM’s computer complex, including the cavern holding the human hostages. However, the human retains his digital form, forever patrolling AM’s circuits should the computers ever regain consciousness. Should the human intruder fail to disable AM properly before facing him, however, AM will punish him or her by transforming him into a "great, soft jelly thing" that can not harm itself nor others, and must spend eternity with AM in this newly acquired form, as in the original short story.
The Action Window is the largest part of the screen and is where the player directed the main characters through their adventures. It showed the full-figure of the main character being played as well as that character’s immediate environment. To locate objects of interest, the player moved the cross-hairs through the Action Window. The name of any object that the player could interact with would appear in the Sentence Line.
The Sentence Line is directly beneath the Action Window. The player uses this line to construct sentences telling the characters what to do. To direct a main character to perform an action, the player constructs a sentence in the Sentence Line by selecting one of the eight commands from the Command Buttons and then clicks on one or two objects from either the Action Window or the Inventory List. Examples of sentences the player might construct would be "Walk to the dark hallway," "Talk to Harry," or "Use the skeleton key on the door." Commands and objects may consist of one or more words (for example, "the dark hallway"), and the Sentence Line will automatically add connecting words like "on" and "to."
The Spiritual Barometer is on the lower left side of the screen. This is a close-up view of the main character currently being played. Since good behavior is meaningless without also having the temptation to do evil, each character is free to do good or evil acts, at the player’s option. However, good acts are rewarded by increases in the character’s Spiritual Barometer, which affect the chances of the player destroying AM in the final adventure. Conversely, evil acts are punished by lowering the character’s spiritual barometer. To have a reasonable chance of winning the game, all characters need to earn relatively high spiritual barometer ratings.
The Command Buttons, located to the right of the Spiritual Barometer, are the eight commands used to direct the character’s actions: Walk To, Look At, Take, Use, Talk To, Swallow, Give and Push. The button of the currently active command is highlighted, while the name of a suggested command appears in red lettering.
The Inventory List on the lower right side of the screen shows pictures of the items the main character is carrying, up to eight at a time. Each main character starts his or her adventure with only the Psych Profile in the Inventory List. When a main character takes or is given an object, a picture of the object appears in the Inventory List.
When the main character talks to another character or operates an intelligent machine, a Conversation Window replaces the Command Buttons and Inventory List. This window usually presents a list of possible things to say but also included things to do. Action choices are listed within brackets to distinguish them from dialogue choices (for example, "[Shoot the gun]").
When Cyberdreams approached Ellison about creating a work of interactive literature, he was intrigued by the challenge of taking on one of the few mediums for which he had never before written. No fan of conventional computer games, Ellison wanted to create an adventure that would enrich players even as they are challenged by the storyline and fantastic concepts that move the characters, coming away as sharper-edged human beings than when they began. The author, who apart from the story sequence featuring Blood and Vic, never did sequels, recommended his classic short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream as the perfect storyline on which to base an interactive adventure. Ellison's desire was to create a game in which the player had to make ethical and moral choices. In contrast to many of the action games on the market, this game would reward the player for choosing to do good.
Among the challenges of adapting I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream to an interactive medium was that the five protagonists were completely at the mercy of an insane, virtually omnipotent computer. The characters can do no more than endure the horrors that AM visits on them, until the very end, when one of the characters brings the story to a chilling conclusion. To preserve the story's nightmarish mood, Ellison wanted to create a game that players could not possibly win. Instead, there would be a variety of ethical ways in which way they could lose. There are ways to lose heroically, gloriously and at the peak of one's humanity -- if players do well. Otherwise, there are ways to lose ignominiously, in a selfish, cowardly, frightened manner. Dying alone, and in terror. Or being tortured eternally.
To fulfill Ellison’s goal, Cyberdreams brought in game designer David Sears, who asked Ellison something the author had never considered before: why does AM choose these particular five people to torture? The question fired Ellison's imagination, and the two spent several intense weeks together exploring the backstory of the captives -- where they come from, who they are, what they fear, what they hope for as a salvation to their terrible situation. Ellison and Sears crafted five fiendish quests that prey upon the fatal flaws of these damned souls, weaving the scenarios into an epic adventure that demands players make ethical choices instead of catering to an appetite for arcade violence.
Producer David Mullich joined Cyberdreams shortly after Ellison and Sears drafted their treatment and Sears had gone on to a position at another software company. One of the first steps in making the project a reality was to expand the 130 page draft document into a comprehensive game design complete with all the interactions, logic and details necessary for the programmers and artists to begin their tasks. Mullich decided to complete the design himself, having created a 1980 computer game based upon The Prisoner television series which, like this adventure, involved a surreal environment, metaphorical story elements, and rewards for ethical behavior. After several months, he produced an 800 page game design document containing more than 2000 lines of additional dialogue.
Mullich contracted the Dreamers Guild to do the programming, artwork and sound effects. Its SAGA game engine was seen as an ideal user interface for the player to interact with the environment and to converse with the characters in AM’s world. It was decided early on that high-resolution graphics were necessary to capture the nuances and mood of Ellison’s vivid imagination, and so Technical Director John Bolton adapted the engine to utilize SVGA graphics and included the Fastgraph graphics library.
Mullich and Cyberdreams art director Peter Delgado had frequent meetings with Dreamers Guild art director Brad Schenck to devise art direction complementing the surreal nature of the story. Since the story takes place in the mind of a mad god who can make anything happen, the team chose a variety of art styles for each of the scenarios, ranging from the unsettling perspectives used in German Expressionist films to pure fantasy to stark reality. Visually, the adventure's art keeps players at a tilt from start to finish.
Assistant Art Director Glenn Price and his team rendered more than sixty backgrounds utilizing a number of 2-D and 3-D tools, including Deluxe Paint and LightWave. Hundreds of animations were drawn by Assistant Art Director Jhoneil Centeno and his team of animators. In addition, the art staff created a generous number of cinematic sequences instrumental in conveying the adventure’s mood of unrelenting angst.
As the game approached a playable "alpha" state, Ellison and Mullich spent many hours together fine-tuning the scenarios and polishing the dialogue. Ellison would place his manual typewriter alongside Mullich’s computer on the author’s kitchen table, and as Mullich play-tested the adventure, Ellison typed story enhancements at his usual 120 words a minute.
Mullich commissioned film composer John Ottman (who would later work with director Bryan Singer in the The Usual Suspects and X-Men) to write more than 25 pieces of original MIDI music for the adventure.
With more than forty speaking parts in the adventure, Mullich hired Virtual Casting to cast and direct some of the finest voice-over actors performing in interactive entertainment. Ellison himself agreed to perform the voice of the demented computer AM, for as Ellison put it, "[I]n all the dialogue you will hear my smart mouth, and the cadences in which I speak, and the way my stories read."
Ellison’s goal was to create a work of interactive literature with complex characters, moral dilemmas, and positive messages. Judging by magazine reviews, he succeeded. The gaming press praised the game’s content and its mature presentation of ethical issues.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream won several major awards. Digital Hollywood called it the "Best Dark Game of 1996", and the Computer Game Developers Conference awarded it the "Best Game Adapted from Linear Media". Computer Gaming World named it the "Best Adventure Game" of the year, and in their 15th anniversary issue, listed it among the "150 Games of All Time", "Best 15 Sleepers of All Time" and "Best 15 Endings of All Time".
Benny was a brilliant and handsome homosexual who the AM mutilated into an ugly, childlike, heterosexual savage, with large sexual organs. Gorrister and Ellen both suffering from an assortment of serious psychological problems. Ted is a bigoted con man who lies his way into upper class social circles and is in love with Ellen, who only has sex with Benny. Nimdok is a Second World War German Nazi who participated in the Holocaust.
The French and German releases were partly censored. The game was forbidden to players under 18 years of age. Furthermore, the Nimdok chapter was also entirely removed. This results in the German game being impossible to solve. It is speculated that the Nazi subject was too sensitive for these two countries, especially for Germany due to previous reactions of the BPjM to national socialist topics.