STORY GAMES: "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"
Imagine spending eternity as a hideous creature without a mouth, tortured by an evil God who hates you for reasons you are not allowed to understand.

Does that sound like a fun "adventure game" to you?


The "adventure game" is a genre that got labeled incorrectly from the start, probably in an emergency marketing meeting at Sierra in 1987.

The name is too vague; too general. Even Tetris has an "adventure." When I play Tetris, I like to imagine that I am Josef Stalin's personal mass gravedigger, and that I have to sort the bodies (and pieces of bodies) that have gone stiff from rigor mortis. I have to compose them into a structurally sound chunk so that the Man of Steel can build a new granary for the People on top.

(Dee doo doo doo, do DOOT doo doo doo....doo doo doo)

What I am saying is that "adventure games" should be called something else. They should be called "story games," because that's the whole point. Your objective as a fun-haver in a story game is to make the correct narrative decisions to advance the plot, and the best story games depend upon your ability to "read" the environment and anticipate the mind of the author in order to do the next correct thing.

It's hard to make these games. But done right, these games are like storytelling simulations, where you get to have all the fun of creating a story alongside some jackass writer in some imagined cartoon world.

Everybody hates it when writers get creative control of collaborative projects, so story games were probably doomed from the start. But they are the only video games I like to play these days, now that I am older and have put my gonads and strife behind me, and my reflexes now consistently fail when pitted against blinking lights.

Story games can be as innocent as the "King's Quest" series created by Roberta Williams, who also helped make the game "Softporn Adventure" --

(That's her on the right, thinking about putting another feather in King Graham's cap. I DO NOT LIE.)

-- or story games can be as deliciously perverse as Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."


So what's the deal with this game? I bought a copy when it first came out long ago, and played through it in happy shock and horror as a young man. I played it again recently while I had the flu, which is the perfect time to play this game.

It still holds up. It's got a lot of bugs, and if you are not playing it for the story, you probably won't have the patience. Maybe you will throw your controller aside in disgust and demand to be taken to the mall.

The game is based on Ellison's famous short story, but it actually goes deeper into the central idea, fleshing out his tale and actually making it better and more compelling.

If I were teaching the story to a class, for instance, I would also make them play the game. He wrote both of them, you see. Multimedia!

Here's the premise: 109 years ago, a sentient supercomputer named "AM" (Allied Mastercomputer) launched all the world's nuclear weapons and turned the world into a barren wasteland. Instead of killing EVERYONE, AM kept five human beings alive in the bowels of the Earth to torture them for eternity.

You pick each of the five characters in turn and go through the hell that the computer has constructed for them TODAY.

The point of the game is to somehow overcome the torment of your insane new God to reach for greater human values, such as courage, love, pride, mercy, and selflessness.

Is AM evil? Who knows? AM is Harlan Ellison. What does evil even mean?

Your progress through each of the torture scenarios is tracked by a "spiritual barometer" that changes color according to the relative morality of your choices.

You can't win. All you can do is get through the day's hell with your spirit intact.

The fun of the game comes from the sheer, shocking audacity of the scenarios and the way in which AM forces you to confront your sins. The game was banned all over Europe, and it can actually make a claim to the dubious distinction of being "art."

Here are the five scenarios that one must play through in order to "beat" the game.

1) You are a Nazi scientist named Nimdok who experimented on children and the handicapped for the sheer glee and science of it during WW2. But you have repressed all of your memories, and so you must remember and repent. You visit the ovens, sever some eyeballs from a dying man who begs to be killed, and then maybe you build a golem to help crush the Nazi opposition, or maybe you don't.

2) You are a computer programmer named Ellen who is deeply afraid of the color yellow. Why? You married a man who was your mental inferior, you broke his heart, and then you got raped in an elevator by a retarded janitor who wore a yellow jumpsuit. You must learn to deal with this!

3) You are a Vietnam vet named Bennie who killed the weak members of his platoon to stay alive. AM has turned you into an ape creature to make a mockery of your beloved physical prowess, and he never lets you eat. You must learn to find something more important than your own physical satisfactions.

4) You are a truck driver named Gorrister who had his wife committed to an insane asylum after beating her 'till she went crazy. She died there. AM has removed your heart from your body, and impaled it on the end of a Zeppelin's wing. You are deeply suicidal due to your guilt. You must not kill yourself.

5) You are a paranoid con man and sleaze named Ted. You must broker a deal between demons, the Devil, and an evil witch for the soul of the woman you love, all the while avoiding the wolves who are bearing down on the haunted castle where AM has "stuck you this time."

Ellison: "Are you sure you want me to write a computer game?"

A Person With Money: "Uh, YEAH."

Ellison: "Are you SURE?"

APWM: "Why not? You are a writer."

Ellison: "I am a writer."

APWM: "Awesome!"

Ellison: "I get final edit. I hate computers. I hate computer games. I hate people who play them."

APWM: "Fine."

Ellison: "Last chance to say no. I'm going to type all the dialog on my manual typewriter. Out of spite, the computer game will be about how much I hate computers."

APWM: "..."

Ellison: "Also, I get to be the voice of AM."

APWM: "Bitchin!"

You like games? You like stories? You got a high fever? Fire this baby up. You'll smile as you burn.


Posted by miracle on Fri, 18 Apr 2008 07:02:56 -0400 -- permanent link

The Gallery at LPR
158 Bleecker St., New York, NY
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

All content c. 2008-2009 by the respective authors.

Site design c. 2009 by sweet sweet design