Help me unpack/understand "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," the story, the game, and Harlan Ellison


#1

CW in this topic for torture and sexual assault which are themes of the game and book.


I heard about Harlan Ellison’s passing while watching the “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” stream on Giant Bomb.

The game seemed pretty off putting, especially in its treatment of women. The four men have committed varying crimes (being a literal Nazi doctor, incarcerating one’s wife, being a manipulative con artist, committing war crimes) while Ellen’s “guilt” comes from… being raped? Not to mention her being a POC written by white men in such a way that made the GB people shut the stream off on the spot.

I understand that immediately after a beloved author passes is not the correct time to be unduly critical, but I’ve only seen glowing retrospectives of the game and Ellison himself, who seemed to be heavily involved in the game.

(Recently mentioned in this Kotaku story: https://kotaku.com/how-harlan-ellison-s-most-famous-short-story-became-an-1827327887)

So I’m curious, does anyone have fond memories of the game? I’m interested in hearing how you balance appreciation for Ellison with the issues in the game (or in the story, which I also read). I don’t think we need to put ourselves in “Ellison fans vs Ellison haters” either, I’m just curious how we unpack and understand his life and work.


#2

AM doesn’t care about punishing them for their crimes - its interest is in exploiting their guilt. Gorrister didn’t “incarcerate” his wife, he had her committed to a mental institution because she was sick and needed help. And despite ostensibly being the right thing to do in that situation, he was still guilty about it.

By the same token, Ellen does feel guilty about her rape, as happens to many people in that situation who start thinking they should’ve done something differently, or fought back, etc. It’s an irrational guilt, but it still happens.


#3

the original short story has some wildly iffy parts, but most of them at least work in the context of certain readings of the story. the unreliable narrator of Ted and the nature of AM’s goals are both areas where the story’s more problematic content can be read as more appropriate. “maybe the robot is bigoted because it learned from humans, who are ourselves bigoted!” or something to that effect. even if i didn’t personally like that reading or think it excuses the content, it was at least possible within the text.

however, once i watched the game… good god that shit is a disaster. i don’t know how much of it was written by ellison himself but given his involvement as a whole, my willingness to read the original work in any amount of good faith completely disappeared by the time that stream had ended


#4

I think that’s a fair reading, and one that lines up with Ellison’s own intention of AM acting as a God that is arbitrary and cruel in the way the universe could be.

However, most of the positive reception I’ve seen discusses the game as having “redemption” arcs for “fatal flaws” including the Kotaku retrospective above. That lead me to read it in the more moralizing way and worry that may have been a pervasive reading. Also, even if we did read it your way, it feels uncomfortable to me and is an old trope that the males’ struggles are about redemption over their guilt, whereas Ellen’s is more about victimhood.


#5

Seems like splitting hairs, to be honest - her guilt may be rooted in victimhood, but her arc is functionally the same as the others: she has to confront and overcome that guilt, and she succeeds at that task with no tools beyond her own resourcefulness and determination.


#6

I’m interested in hearing whether or not the people kinda defending the game saw the GB stream or not. Based on what they ended up doing (and seemingly more importantly, not doing), it felt really hard to find an interpretation that excused these sorts of critiques regarding its treatment of gender, race, etc. It’s likely important to note that this was my first exposure to the game, and I’ve never read the book.

That said, I appreciate and even understand (at least a little bit) people’s more charitable perspectives on it, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to based on what I saw earlier. I’m interested in seeing some deeper playt hroughs to see where they go.


#7

Is the GB stream archived? Does anyone have a link?


#8

it’s archived for premium, here’s a link


#9

Hopefully it’s not inappropriate to post this here since it’s from a premium video (if it is feel free to delete it!) but for some context on how this video ends and the dialog they’re reacting to I figured this was worth posting:

Summary


#10

I like the short story, but the game caused me the typical pain I get watching edgy adventure games from that time period. It seems like such a fall from the quality of the short story and its knowledge of when to stop describing things. It doesn’t feel like Ellison was as involved, I dunno. It was just trashy.


#11

GB’s take isn’t gospel, though. Quite frankly, between Abby assuming that diegetic character flaws express a writer’s character flaws (i.e. Ted’s misogyny means Harlan Ellison is a misogynist, even though the story is actively punishing Ted for his past behavior with women), their refusal to actually finish Ellen’s storyline and see its conclusions for themselves, and Alex’s dependence on a walkthrough to shape his progress through the game, I would go so far as to say their interpretations come with some pretty big caveats.


#12

I personally played through the game without a walk-through for most of it, save Ted and the ending, and finished all of the storylines, as well as having read the short story. While I didn’t personally get that feeling when originally playing it myself, I really can’t blame Abby for such a take, since even though Ted’s misogyny would be a character-trait of himself, the misogyny present in Ellen’s characterization both in the short story and in the game doesn’t really do any wonders for disproving such a take.

Still, it’s debatable if a storyline or writing in a piece of media says anything larger about the writer itself, even if the writing seems to consistently present such questionable things at face value, with rare critical examination. That said, I don’t see why them refusing to finish Ellen’s storyline is a point against them and their opinions on the game. They’re under no obligation to stick it out if they already think it’s in a bad place, and I don’t see a point in expecting them to expect it to get better, when in my opinion it honestly didn’t.

As well, criticizing them for using a walkthrough for it is rather silly, as the game’s writing doesn’t really change whether you use a guide or not, and the game in question is pretty well-known for being pretty rough to beat period without a guide, let alone getting “the best ending”.

Ultimately, while you can make the case that the things he writes don’t inherently say something about Ellison, he has a habit of making Ellen’s character revolve almost entirely around her past/present life with sex, and little to no else, and does no examination of it in the one story he did have full control over. Furthermore, them experiencing the game in the way that they did is still a perfectly reasonable way to experience the game. The writing of the game didn’t improve or worsen because of it, and a bad plotline doesn’t get an excuse just because it eventually gets mildly better (and in my opinion, none of the storylines in IHNMaiMS did).


#13

Based on where that goes and what the ‘yellow’ is referring to, I am very glad they ended the stream and did not continue to the elevator.


#14

On the game side of things, I’m not surprised it’s so difficult to find actual critique on the vibrantly gross and trope-ridden portrayal of a black woman & SA victim in I Have No Mouth. Disappointed yes, but not surprised.

There’s a common cycle of mythmaking applied to old Smart™ games where they’re only really remembered for their cult reputation and maybe their first couple acts, closing act, quippable quotes, production gimmicks, etc. Above all else, though, they were “like nothing else we’d seen at the time”, so any slights are excused or glorified under that umbrella. Simply trying to write a certain way was typically enough to establish a fanatical reverence, especially on the PC gaming end of things.

If something postured just the right ways at that time, its reputation would inevitably be well-established over decades and that’s that, even for a lot of critics that should technically know better, or simply unbeknownst to some like GB East before they saw the reality of the game. See Amr Al-Aaser’s very good video on the cultural doctrine of the “classic” moniker for a further sense of how this tends to manifest and self-perpetuate.

On top of all that, common perception of old Smart games is defined by white dudes even more than most video game stuff, and mix that with a corner of science fiction that has also been defined predominantly by posturing white dudes and you got yourself a recipe for Overlooking Some Heinous Shit, Always.

At the end of the day, I put Ellison’s writing in the same camp as Black Isle games, Blade Runner, and Deep Space Nine’s writing. They may have all pushed important boundaries of their genres and mediums (keywords: may have) in their day, but what they did should be seen as competency rather than brilliance in our day, a competency in structure that much better writers who maybe aren’t straight white Nietzsche-lovin’ dudes can take and use to deliver actually good stories and ideas.

Should the strongest foundations remain in hell, they’ll only ever hold the devil’s shelter.

Side note so I don’t end on pretentious posturing myself: Good on the GB East team for shutting that shit down the moment they saw it (and yeah thank god it was before the even worse garbage). Bummer their audience is still filled with a contingent of shitbags that want to blame & harass any minority in their employ when something like this happens, good luck to Abby for weathering that storm.


#15

I think its availability plays a part too in the lack of coverage. For a long time if you weren’t actively attempting to seek the game out, pirate it, and actually manage to get it running there’s almost no way you’d ever even be exposed to it and of course we didn’t have expansive video playthroughs of every game ever on YouTube until relatively recently. And so until recently a lot of PC games from the 90s exist in folks’ minds only by reputation and one or two things the game did exceptionally well, so I think it was going to get that mythical-this-game-must-be-awesome-sheen no matter how badly parts of the story are executed.

I do have to say, though, that I played through I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream when it was new. I was like fourteen at the time and it really did stick with me as an extremely intense and good game.

I don’t have links handy but Ellison was heavily involved in fleshing out the characters’ backstories for the game, but much of the in-game writing was done by David Sears. IIRC he’s been very frank about how challenging it was to take the short story and present it as a video game, and that at the time they mutually decided to split it into multiple narratives and make it character focused but that there was also a lot he missed out on and wished they had either done differently to better explore the characters compared to the very binary spiritual meter in the game and the way it was marketed as each character overcoming their fatal flaw.

I revisited the game a few years ago and wow, he wasn’t kidding. Even playing it as an adult, I have to agree with shawne’s take on it earlier in the thread, but the journey to get there as written is pretty rough.

Still, having revisited many of the darker graphic adventure games from my youth, and especially ones released in that 1994-1996 time period, it’s easy to see why I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream stood out in the first place. It’s orders of magnitude better than its immediate contemporaries like Waxworks, Dark Seed II, Bloodnet, Harvester, both Phantasmagorias, or (barf) Noctropolis on pretty much every level, and confidently sells setting itself in a genuinely apocalyptic place in ways that were pretty uncommon for its genre in 1995. A lot of that does feel like Ellison’s touch effecting the game for the better too like the bits with how AM’s past tortures are described as characters’ chapters begin.

Most critical evaluation of it comes down to just genre level stuff like some of the puzzles are a pain so it would be nice to see someone actually tackle it. While considered good, it’s hardly seen as a sacred cow beyond reproach by even some of the most passionate adventure game aficionados I’ve met, so I actually have been surprised that it’s never really been revisited in-depth.


#16

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a game I came to extremely late, I think I played it for the first time maybe two years ago. I knew next to nothing about it other than Ellison’s involvement, its supposed difficulty, and the hushed tones it was spoken in like some sort of myth. I had a pretty good idea when I started what I was in for in terms of interface and adventure game logic, I had played enough Sierra and Lucasarts games to be prepared for that, but the rest of it was all going to be new.

Revisiting things long after their prime and relevance is always hard, especially in a medium that evolves as much as games, but I was thoroughly unimpressed by the whole thing. The art was interesting and varied and the voice acting for some characters was good, but that’s where the positives end. Call me jaded, but the moment the game starts and I’m introduced to a hyper intelligent computer being whose name is a lame pun, you’ve already started off on the wrong foot.

I get at some point you just sort of have to accept a piece of fiction on its own terms, but I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream makes that practically impossible. The world has effectively ended, all of humanity is dead, the remaining survivors have been tortured endlessly for over a century, yet they all walk around and talk as if AM is an annoying boss they have to put up with. Benny calls the mother and her starving child welfare moochers. A man who has been physically mutilated and psychologically tormented for longer than a human lifetime is still, somehow, finding it in himself to complain about a prejudice he held for people involved in a system that no longer exists. Other characters make little quips and jokes. None of it is in character for what they are going through.

The game handles its more graphic storylines extremely poorly. Ellen’s rape is just tossed out there, and she resolves the entirety of her past trauma with a single “fight back” prompt like it’s nothing. The concentration camp scenes are… best left unremarked on. I think it’s a game that gets a lot of credit for tackling “mature” topics in a time where games were just taking its first steps into that kind of storytelling. It didn’t handle any of them particularly well, but much like today anything that even has a whiff of the artistic, it gets propped up problems and all as an example of what games can accomplish.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a product of its era. A lot of pretty glaring flaws get swept under the rug in a combination of nostalgia and aspiration for the genre. It’s no different than any other problematic faves of the era held up by an audience of mostly young white men who either don’t see or don’t care about those issues.

As an aside, I don’t see how anyone can fault them for playing with a guide. That game, even by adventure game standards, is an absolute nightmare. If there’s an actual logic behind things like how many balloons you have to slice and things of that nature, it is totally beyond me.


#17

It’d be pretty stupid to play any game in this genre made between 1993 and, say maybe 2002-ish or so WITHOUT a guide.


#18

I used to wonder if as I got older a certain amount of creative problem solving in my brain atrophied over the years. When I was a kid and playing these games without the help of guides or the internet, I still managed to find my way to the credits all the same. Playing these games now, even games I once beat, is the mental equivalent of trying to inhale a Winnebago. At some point though I just realized it was more a matter of time than anything else. Having to wring every drop of enjoyment out of a game because a new one wasn’t coming any time soon meant I had all the motivation in the world to blindly click on everything and combine it until I brute forced my way forward. As a seven year old kid, I had no idea what throwing down a gauntlet meant, I just figured out that I needed to do that in front of death by chance.


#19

This adaptation baffled me, not just because it takes place in a hellscape populated by four characters and a sociopathic AI. Like, it’s barely even a story, why on earth you would try to flesh-out enough to sell a story anchored around an unreliable narrator is just mind-boggling. It’s like adapting “baby shoes, never worn” into a video game–the original is evocative, but there’s no there there.


#20

Some folks just get it in their head that their favorite thing has to be a game and/or will be an instantly beloved huge hit with everyone no matter its current cultural cachet. See other games like Fester’s Quest, Marc Eckō’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, Fight Club, etc.