This post contains spoilers for I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream has been re-released on Good Old Games and Steam, so go check it out if you haven’t already. The writer of the game and the original short story, Harlan Ellison, didn’t think much of video games, but regardless wanted to make a work in the only medium that he hadn’t yet tried his hand at. In doing so he wanted to explore mature, controversial themes like guilt, rape, and the Holocaust. Few games since have really dealt with these as themes as themes. They may be included in them as a historical detail or plot point, but with most games, the focus is never directly on these concerns.
That alone sets I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream apart from everything else. The game also brings another issue to the forefront of my mind. We toss around the term “horror game” rather liberally as a genre, but we don’t often stop and consider what we mean by the “horror” in “horror game.” As a genre we attribute the title to anything we might find that attempts to be scary, but that isn’t what horror means. Often what we mean in context is “terror”—a strong feeling of fear, a cause of anxiety. Whereas ‘horror’ is an intense dislike, an abhorrence or painful feeling of repugnance. We mean the term as a description of how the work makes us feel, yet we use a word that describes the work itself.