Most horror games work based on the premise of the protagonist being helpless. We aren't the victim in this scenario. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream instead puts the player in a position of power as the perpetrator of horrific events.
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.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream isn't a scary game in the traditional, emotional sense. There are no jump scares. There is no real, immediate danger to the characters that would transfer to the player. We are playing an adventure game and as such are playing puppet master, viewing the character's fate from a distant outside perspective. The game isn't meant to terrify you through bodily threat or atmospheric oppression. Instead it is a philosophical game holding a mirror up to our humanity. There are no single instances of fear, but the work as a whole is suppose to frighten its players as it unravels any facade of goodness, righteousness, or fairness in its world. It wont let you win. The best that you can hope to do is to win nobly. You can do everything right, redeem everyone, and forgive and show compassion to your tormentor. You can achieve clarity and transcend your baser functions, but ultimately you will still lose.
This sense of horror is no better on display than in its use of real world horrors, Nimdok's concentration camp section in particular. Though banned in Germany, this section really highlights the concept of horror as the pain of repulsion. Here you are playing as a Nazi scientist experimenting on the Jews. Nimdok has betrayed and sold out his people and ended up as Josef Mengele's right hand man, meaning that in game you are trudging around Auschwitz. That fact alone is enough to unnerve a player. Though all the Nazi regalia has been removed in favor of the maniacal supercomputer's own symbol and everyone's speech is couched in euphemism -- the regime, the leader, the lost tribe -- we know what they mean and the attempt to hide it, like Nimdok hides the truth in his own senility, revolts us even further.
The player is asked to participate in an unnecessary and debilitating surgery of a young boy in order to progress. We witness the suffering caused by such experimentation in the recovery room. And finally we continue through to the furnace room, where presumably the bodies end up when they're finished with them. It is called a "hospital" by the game, but that too is a euphemism for something else, a term meant to make that which is going on easier to talk about by perverting the language.
It doesn't matter if the real events looked anything like the sets in the game. In fact, the setting emphasizes the art style of German Expressionism. Windows are twisted at odd angles, lines are stretched and made uneven, and relative size and perspective is played with. So, in all likelihood, no, this isn't what it really looked like. The purpose of the graphics in this section isn't to achieve verisimilitude but to create a emotional resonance through an environment whose very design is meant to be uneasy and set the audience on edge. Everything pushes us away as violently as a created work can, while also making sure we are kept close to keep playing.
But the game goes beyond simple depictions of events and on to their philosophical implications. In the second half of the section, we have to activate a golem, the monster from Jewish folklore, for the Nazi cause. The regime spent resources to create the beast through scientific means, not primarily as a new weapon, but as a final cruelty upon the lost tribe. The hate felt so strongly by the regime -- as a mirror to AM's own hate -- was to strip away everything from the tribe. It wasn't just about extermination. It was about the justifying vile actions though the utter dehumanization of the victims of those actions. The golem is created to remove the last thing that the Jewish people had, their mythology, and by extension their last shred of hope and identity.
It isn't scary, but it is horrifying. Most horror games work based on the premise of the protagonist being helpless. We aren't the victim in this scenario. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream instead puts the player in a position of power. It doesn't want to scare the player (via frightening them as a consequence of their position), but it wants to repulse them, force them to stare into the abyss and create a sense of true horror from their position. One of the items in the laboratory at the end of the section is a mirror that when looked into will force the viewer to see themselves with utter objectivity. Ignoring certain implications and unimportant functional details, it is a synecdoche for this section of the game. Nimdok's memory eventually returns to him, but as a man that is in reality now separated from these events, he finds himself aghast at what is being done here and cannot comprehend how he could have been apart of this. At his memory's return, he does not revert to his former self, unrepentant even decades later in Brazil, but changed and with a moral clarity. One of the more satisfying moments of the game is forcing Mengele to look into the mirror, The force of his own realization of himself makes him go catatonic and his eyes to bleed.
No such item has such power. Even art can only reach people open to it and capable of receiving it. The Holocaust did happen and nothing can ever wrestle with the full scope of it. We are left with looking at slices and slivers of reality, mere reflections that try to convey the horror of that reality. Even Nimdok is left with only a single night of all those years to wrestle with. The other sections of the game consist of fantasy constructions that highlight the characters' inherent flaws. Nimdok's inherent flaw is the reality of what he's done -- not metaphoric representation, not a constructed situation that will expose it, but real world actions. The metaphor and stylization of the representation of the real situation is for the benefit of the audience, to deliver the correct feeling of such a thing in such short order. Everything is wrong, but we know that everything was once real.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is more macabre than it is terrifying. It challenges the notion of what a horror game is by going against type, against the standard order of execution, and instead tries to focus on causing pain to our own sense of moral being. It doesn't want provoke the player's adrenal glands and spur a facsimile of a fight-or-flight mode. Harlan Ellison wanted to tackle tough subjects and force the player to think about them. The Holocaust isn't set dressing. It s a reflection of both the fiction and a reflection back on us as the ultimate capability of human nature. This is who we are and what we are capable of.
All of the protagonists are capable of being redeemed by displaying the virtues of humankind despite themselves. Though it is repeated that Nimdok can change as a person, he cannot be redeemed. He had gone too far and nothing could ever make up for it. It's fitting that it is not possible to win in the end. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream shows that humanity's capacity for moral and virtuous behavior is limited, whereas its capability for depravity and evil is seemingly boundless. It's a notion that we immediately want to reject but have difficulty doing so as the evidence is right in front of us. In the end, we are left afraid not due to simple emotional response but because of the game's implications. Adrenaline wears off. Ideas attach themselves to our mind and stay with us. That may be a more truthful execution of horror.