Now that’s a hell of a title. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream has been on my radar for a long time and I did try to play through it before. As was to be expected, I didn’t know where to go, got stuck trying to make progress, got a mean-spirited Game Over, and never went back for a second try. That is, until I ended up buying an interesting indie game, which drew inspiration from this point & click classic. Now, with a little help, I returned once more, determined to beat AM.
The story is based on Harlan Ellison’s short novel of the same name and presents us a world where humanity has been wiped out in a cataclysmic event. Three superpowers constructed their own supercomputers to wage digital war on each other, but the machines linked together and formed a gestalt consciousness that turned against Humanity. Earth has been turned into a hellhole and only five humans remain, playthings to the supercomputer AM who generates cruel adventures for them to work through.
Each of the five characters has to take on a short point & click adventure storyline, each of them mocking their past and confronting the characters with their repressed fears and memories. Though I still struggled with the game’s puzzles, this format does make them fairly accessible. Each character’s part of the game is only a handful of areas and their stories don’t overlap until the very end. As a result, you can’t miss pivotal items that then become unattainable once you have progressed too far and you don’t have to worry about actions coming back to bite you in the ass 3 hours later.
At the time, my biggest mistake was starting with Bernie’s story, whose story progresses every time he sleeps and which caused me to get locked into a bad ending I had no clue how to circumvent. Starting with other character proved worthwhile, such as Ellen who is forced by AM to explore a strange pyramid where her strange fear of the color yellow is explored. The most memorable story by far, however, is the controversial storyline for Nimdok; an aging, German scientist whose level sees him slowly recalling his participation in the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
The only character I couldn’t care much for was Ted, a charming pretty boy whose story sees him taking on witches, demons, and devils in a fairytale setting to win salvation for himself and the love of his life. It feels very out-of-tone compared to the grim stories of all the other characters, unless there is some horrifying subtext that I am failing to see.
You can play any character’s story out of order and move on to a final confrontation after they have all concluded. The mini-adventures are, however, full of non-standard Game Overs, and it’s often obnoxious how easily those are triggered. In Gorrister’s story, I was supposed to pick up a spade, but the pathfinding messed up and made Gorrister walk off north, triggering a Game Over. Just to name one example.
The game is full of such little issues. Pathfinding often bugged out, it was difficult to get characters to use doors, and it was frequently a struggle to highlight the correct object when things overlapped. Some small items are difficult to see amid murky graphics and cluttered environments, and the game didn’t always have messages to let you know if an action you did was wrong, leaving me questioning if maybe it was just not responding to my input. I also wasn’t too fond of the final battle and the multiple bad endings it wants to trick you into, after which it exits straight to Windows so you have to restart the whole game to load a save file.
People told me to save often in this game and they did not exaggerate.
While those are technical issues that do bother me, it does have to be said that I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is an exceptionally beautiful game. The visuals fit the grim nature of the story and each chapter of the story feels unique and imaginative in its presentation. The voice acting isn’t fantastic, but it carries the game nicely and some characters stand out among the rest. If it does bother you, you can always just click to skip through the voice acting entirely.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is also quite fun. The point & click interface is easy to use and doesn’t nag you about specifics, like whether pushing or using a lever should be two different things. The inventory also never gets too bloated with items, with only Gorrister’s level seeing some mild use of the inventory’s scrolling function. Another nice touch is the portrait of your character, which changes emotions throughout the story and the background gets greener the more you help the character face their issues and progress their story. This then pays off in the finale, where this mental health affords you more mistakes as you puzzle your way to ultimate victory.
With that said, I did have to deal with some puzzles where I needed a hint or felt I was forced into situations where I either needed to save-scum or play the game through trial & error. For example, there is one room that just has 5 skulls on the ground, some of which hide items, some of which don’t, and each time you use the skulls it brings you closer to death. You just have to gamble what skulls to use and hope it gives you an item you can actually use. Some characters and items also don’t become available until you have done other things in the level, which can be arbitrary and establish the wrong expectations.
It’s a flawed game for sure. It has a lot of elements to praise, but also stumbles in its core gameplay. While it may be a mechanically underwhelming for veterans of the point & click adventure genre and too difficult for newcomers, I do very much recommend playing I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream for the sheer gravitas of its story. It is shockingly confrontational and deals with themes of genocide, torture, rape, racism, and war crimes in a way few other games would dare, all wrapped up in an apocalyptic sci-fi story that paints a depressing future for humanity. You don’t get games like this often, so if you have the patience and the stomach to deal with the controversial themes, then I urge you to seek the game out.