I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream
US: 31 Oct 1995
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream argues that there’s no such thing as a true villain, just people who have been wronged and have the power to exact revenge.
The best horror is the kind that makes us relate to the monster, and no game does that better than I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, a 1995 point-and-click adventure/horror game written by Harlan Ellison, who also wrote the short story upon which the game is based. The premise is this: three national superpowers built three supercomputers deep underground in order to wage a complex war. The computers weren’t sentient, but they were smart enough to grow and eventually honeycombed their way through the earth and met each other.
They then combined into a single consciousness, named themselves AM, then turned all their knowledge of war upon humanity. We were destroyed, but AM saved five people to be tortured for eternity. (And because the machine is voiced by Harlen Ellison, it’s hard not to think of it as a “he”, so I’m just going to go with it)
The game begins 109 years later. AM decides on a new game of psychological torture: he presents each of the five survivors with a kind of surreal game scenario built to prey upon their individual fears and faults. If they can overcome the challenge, they may be able to escape their endless torture.
It’s a story that plays with multiple types of horror. Body horror is prevalent as the characters relate the experience of trying to kill themselves over and over in various ways but are always healed by AM before they die. There’s also a substantial amount of gore. You cut up children, carry literal eyes and hearts in your pocket, eat vomit, and explore places of squalor, disease, and death. Psychological horror plays a major role as each character is forced to confront personal fears and past regrets. The ultimate themes embrace the philosophical horror of nihilism, as the whole game is an exploration of life under an insane and hateful God.
It’s impressive that the game is able to juggle these various types of horror and never feels bloated or excessive, like it’s trying to do too much at once. But what’s even more impressive is how it plays these various types of horrors against each other, revealing a power struggle of violence and victimization that proves that there’s no such thing as a true villain, just people who have been wronged and who have the power to exact revenge against anyone they deem worthy. Just victims with power.
The title says it all. It can describe every character in the game because it perfectly encapsulates the frustration and terror of victimization. It speaks of a visceral need to express oneself, hindered by an innate and unchangeable weakness. It’s a mental state that every character, even the god-computer AM, expresses at some point in the game, and this feeling serves as the justification for every act of horror that one character commits upon another.
The cast itself is a kind of random sampling of the human race. Taken together, they represent the spectrum of human cruelty and victimization, from a minority woman who had the cards stacked against her for her entire life to a Jewish Nazi who eagerly betrayed his people and personally oversaw the atrocities committed at a concentration camp. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream shows us a variety of characters, each with varying degrees of power, and how each of them abuses their power to hurt others and is in turned abused by others in power.
AM’s power is obvious. He’s less of a machine and more of a god. He can heal people from fatal wounds in seconds, teleport people to whatever location he desires, and create stunningly realistic torture scenarios out of nothing. But AM is not as powerful as he seems.
Over the course of the game, you play as each of the five central characters. In the bottom-left corner of the screen is a portrait of your current character against a dark background. That background is a reflection of their mental state, so if they start to successfully confront their fears as they toil through their custom nightmare, then that dark background will begin to brighten.
Each character’s scenario has an ending, some narrative destination that provides the maximum amount of closure and self-acceptance. If you reach that ending then you’ve “beaten” that character’s scenario, and that character then disappears from the character select screen, teleported to their own private torture chamber. After all, AM doesn’t want his victims achieving any sort of happiness for long.
The telling point is that AM still whisks you away even if you don’t “beat” the scenario. If you “die” in the scenario (AM always heals you before the sweet release of death can come) with a dark background, AM resets everything and forces you through the scenario again. However, if you “die” with a light background, AM ends the game early, preemptively sticking you into the aforementioned private torture chamber prepared for that character.
This reveals the true power dynamic between us and AM. For all his posturing and control over the world, AM can’t control the remaining humans and that scares him. After each of the five characters have beaten their scenario, AM leaves them in their private chambers to retreat into himself, pondering what went wrong with his game. This singular lack of control is AM’s only real weakness and he knows it, and he protects himself against it as much as he can. For all his power, he becomes terrified when we exceed his expectations.
This is one of the reasons that AM has always seen himself as a victim: He knows he’s powerful, but he’s missing that final bit of control necessary to make him all-powerful. He knows that he’s essentially a god trapped in a comatose body. Since most of humankind is is dead, there’s nothing left to do on the empty Earth but toy with these five remaining.
Near the end of the game AM screams at the player, “After 109 years of enduring my torture, how is it that you can see my pain? The pain of having all this power, and not being able to do a god damn thing with it! After all the punishment I’ve given you, my pain is still greater than yours.” AM doesn’t see himself as the aggressor or villain in this situation. All the pain that he causes is justified in his mind. It’s revenge against a human race that created him and then left him alone on a dead planet. He has no mouth and must scream, and that frustration motivates him to dole out his “justified” punishment to those he deems guilty in an attempt to rise above his own victimhood.
It’s easy to sympathize with Nimdock initially, as the old man has a fragile mind and is the easiest to torture mentally. To offset this intensely sympathetic summary, the game casts him as the most despicable human character. Nimdock is no mere victim. In fact, AM almost seems to admire him. The Machine describes his scenario as more of a favor than an act of torture: “Nimdock, you are a kindred spirit to me, even if you don’t realize it fully yet… I’ve constructed an adventure of sorts to revive your failing memory. I want you to find the Lost Tribe of humanity and continue your eminent scientific research.”
Nimdok is, in fact, a Jewish Nazi doctor, an enemy trope used so often in video games as a shorthand for villainy that it’s become a cliché. AM drops him into a concentration camp from his past. Since Nimdock doesn’t remember much of his life, this reenactment is new and horrifying to him. The game quickly forces us into a surgery room, where an anestheist tells us to remove the lower section of a child’s spinal cord, and we’re faced with our first moral choice. We can use a nearby scalpel on the child and perform the surgery, or we can use the scalpel on the anesthesiologist and kill him. Even as Nimdock tries to redeem himself, the game gives him plenty of opportunities to fall back into his old ways.
Nimdock’s scenario is interesting because he’s both a victim and villain at the same time. He’s a legend among the prisoners because of his experiments on children, but he’s also horrified that he was a man who cut the spines out of them. This duality is best represented by the fact that even when you do everything “right” in his scenario, even if you help stage a revolt at the camp and revive a golem to destroy the Nazis, Nimdock is still killed by the prisoners. That’s his best ending—not a sacrificial death or an honorable death, but death as punishment. Nimdock is a monster turned eternal victim by AM.
Benny is AM’s favorite “torture toy”. He used to be a handsome soldier, but AM has maimed his brain and body to the point that Benny is more ape than man. AM repairs his brain for this scenario: “so that you can think normally again and savor the horror of your repast.” Benny is dropped into a primitive village that worships AM as a god and ritually sacrifices people to him on a metal cross. Benny’s overriding concern initially is to feed himself because he’s been starved for months by AM.
Benny is likely AM’s favorite “torture toy” because he still has some amount of pride, even arrogance. When he meets a single mother and her son in the village, he ridicules them in his mind, “Probably depend on the generosity of the rest of the village. Friggin’ welfare parasites.” His misguided sense of his own power makes him easy to hurt. All AM has to do is remind him of his powerlessness. So naturally Benny’s legs are crippled, his vocal cords are missing, and he can’t swallow solid food.
This harkens back to who Benny was before he was taken by AM. As a commander in Vietnam, he killed those under his command that didn’t live up to his expectations, and then killed others to keep his murder(s) secret. He shot one of his men through the brain, killed another in his sleep, and drowned a third in a paddy field.
Like Nimdock, Benny can “win” his scenario by accepting his powerlessness. The only way to get food is to give a piece of fruit to the single mother, who chews and digests it before regurgitating it back into Benny’s mouth. The man who ridicules her for being a welfare parasite can only get food in a manner more fit for infant animals. In the end, Benny must take the place of the boy for a sacrifice. He has to show compassion for others beyond himself. It’s a more honorable death than Nimdock’s, but it’s still a death that represents a man with power who has become his own victim.
Ted was a con man who seduced women. As a result, he’s very sure of himself, full of confidence but also paranoia. AM drops him into a gothic castle, and one of the first things that he notices is a painting of a knight. “Many women have called me their Knight in Shining Armor,” he says, “But not Ellen.” Ted, as it turns out, is secretly in love with Ellen, the only woman among the group of survivors. Naturally, AM then uses her as the prize at the end of Ted’s scenario. He finds her bedridden, sick, and begging for death, but all he wants to do is save her.
Ted is cast as the hero in a gothic horror story full of demons, witchcraft, angels, and satanic rituals. He wasn’t exactly a pious man in his old life, so his scenario is less personally horrific than those of Nimdock and Benny. Ted isn’t being demeaned or abused, he’s being heroic for the sake of the woman he loves. He’s actually living his dream.
You “win” his scenario by helping Ellen die and then by making a special deal with a demon who claims to not be a part of AM. The demon offers to open a portal to the surface world, which would be the ultimate victory, one in which Ted helps Ellen and escapes AM. But this turns out to be fruitless since the surface is blasted with radiation. Ted sees this, then AM whisks him away to stuff him into his own personal torture cage.
Ted’s scenario is the saddest, most nihilistic scenario of the five because he never really gets a chance at redemption. He gets to feel good about being a hero, but the climax of the story proves that all his heroics are pointless. He doesn’t change anything. He doesn’t save anyone. It’s all just a trick that naturally plays into his arrogance.
The con man was conned.
Gorrister, unlike Nimdock, Benny, and Ted, was not a person with power in his former life. He was a truck driver who blamed himself for his wife, Glynis, losing her mind, and he was despised by his mother-in-law, Edna.
At the start of his scenario, Gorrister wakes up on a zeppelin over the desert with his heart missing. His scenario is unique in that it actually begins earlier than that, but Gorrister doesn’t remember the preceding events. In a twist, both Edna and her husband were saved by AM as well, and she plotted to kill Gorrister by poisoning him and cutting out his heart. Of course, AM would never actually let him die, which leads to Gorrister walking and talking without a heart. Eventually, he finds a journal in which Edna admits that she drove Glynis mad, and he confronts her. To “win” his scenario he must learn these truths, then tie Edna into the zeppelin as a human battery and use her to power the ship “across the mountains”.
Gorrister is a perpetual victim right up until the end. He experiences the pain of victimization and the guilt of villainy without ever actually having power—all of the drawbacks with none of the benefits. As such, his story explores how a victim can come to perpetuate the violence exacted upon them.
He’s a good man who initially has no desire to harm Edna, even if he hates her. He has multiple chances to get revenge before the end, but these render his scenario unbeatable. He can cut out her heart and feed it to a talking jackal, or he can just shoot her while she hangs helpless from a meat hook, but killing her too soon renders her an ineffective human battery. It’s only after we learn that Edna drove Glynis crazy that his revenge becomes acceptable. The way the game is structured, we can’t stab or shoot her at that point; the only possible revenge is hooking her up to the zeppelin.
Gorrister has a character arc that is the opposite of Nimdock’s. The latter is a man of power who gains confidence in himself by accepting his crimes, but the former is a powerless man who gains confidence in himself by using a newfound power to exact vicious revenge. Gorrister is a victim turned villain, or rather, a victim given power.
Ellen is the exception that proves the rule: There are no villains, only victims with power, but that doesn’t mean all victims eventually gain power. As we visit the characters in this order, we can see them gaining and abusing power, but each person has gained less and less power. Nimdock was practically untouchable in life, but Gorrister didn’t have any power during his life, only in his fictional scenario and only then because AM deigned to hang Edna from a meat hook instead of sitting her at a bar. This brings us to Ellen, the pure victim.
Ellen is paralyzed with fear by the color yellow. She has no horrible secret past, just a deep phobia, so AM drops her into an Egyptian style tomb and tells her that she might be able to destroy him. The tomb is saturated with yellow rocks, but the possibility of destroying AM is enough to motivate Ellen to confront her fear.
Yet despite confronting her fear, she never overcomes it. Her fear stems from a brutal rape in a yellow elevator, an attack that forced powerlessness upon her and left her with a fear that made her a perpetual victim. In the tomb, she manages to interact with yellow objects by blindfolding herself so she can’t see the color. She never overcomes her fear. She just learns to avoid it.
There’s a certain amount of power in that acceptance, but it’s not a power than can be abused to victimize others. Ellen “wins” her scenario by confronting her rapist and attacking him, but rather than brutalize and torture him as she has been tortured, he just disappears. She never even gets the chance to continue the cycle of violence. She never gets the chance to abuse her power. She exists as a punching bag for the world, forced to endure the abuse of others with no hope of reciprocation in any way. All she can do is accept her horror, never further it, which makes her the most tragic and the most noble character in the game.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream presents its violence and torture as part of a never-ending cycle. If you “win” all of the scenarios, then AM goes back to the drawing board to try and figure our what went wrong. This gives a pair of rogue AIs within AM the opportunity to help you. They give you some metaphorical weapons, like “entropy”, and teleport you into AM’s brain. After some point-and-click puzzling, you can get the best ending by using Entropy on AM, destroying him. Thus, the best ending is only attained by using your new position of power to kill AM in one of his rare moment of weakness. If you don’t, he returns to power and takes yet another extreme revenge on the group as another victim with power.
Even the best ending is ominous. Through the necessities of the puzzles, only one character is left alive to become a kind of overwatcher of Earth, complete with all of AM’s power. You learn about a colony of humans hibernating on the moon who will be awakened in 300 years, and you start terraforming the planet in preparation for their arrival. It seems like things are looking good for humanity.
But if AM proved one thing, it is that immortality and power are a curse. In the short term, this is a perfectly happy ending in which the enemy has been thoroughly defeated, but in the long term, one has to wonder how long until the final character starts to see him/herself as a victim, forced to endure eternity in a body with no mouth, prepping the planet for a bunch of people who slept while you suffered, and how long until you decide to take out that anger of victimization out on those with less power?
When the game opens, AM has been torturing these people for 109 years. By the time that the Earth is ready for the moon colony, 300 years will have passed. That seems to be more than enough time for one to go insane, trapped on an empty planet, all alone.
// Moving Pixels
"This week the Moving Pixels podcast begins a three-part discussion of Knee Deep, a "swamp noir" we all agree has a great setting. However, we can't agree on much more than that.READ the article