Thursday, 19 June 2014

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (MS-DOS)

I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream title screen
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, now there's a proper sci-fi story title right there. It's the kind of name that lodges in your brain and demands curiosity. Plus someone requested that I play the game, so I might as well give it a look.

IHNMAIMS is a graphic adventure challenging the player with "profound ethical dilemmas dealing with emotionally charged issues including the horrors of insanity, selfishness, rape, racism, paranoia, genocide, and the dark rivers of human emotion that surge beneath the civilized surface of us all." The intention was to create a game that players could not possibly win, to preserve the story's nightmarish mood. So it's going to be a lot like a ZX Spectrum game then I guess.

The game is inspired by the short story of the same title, written by legendary sci-fi author Harlan Ellison 29 years earlier. But his name isn't just up there to sell copies. Nope, his name's up there because Harlan Ellison has the ego of ten men; he even put his own face in the box art! Actually he took an active role in the game's development, writing up the initial treatment of the game with writer David Sears, and polishing the dialogue after the game was in a playable state, so there's a fair chance that it'll be well written at least.

Pillar of Hate
Oh, plus he also voiced the game's insane malevolent mastermind AI villain, and he's actually really good at it. I imagine it wasn't much of a stretch for him though, playing a ranting emotional maniac prone to exaggeration and saying the word 'hate' a lot. Imagine 2001's HAL, except entirely opposite.

Suddenly the game's system requirements are making a lot more sense to me:


I'm playing the Steam version of the game, which was recently patched to run with ScummVM instead of DOSBox to fix a few issues. Though at the time I'm writing this GOG.com is still selling it with DOSBox as they reckon it works just fine as it is, so who knows which one to go for. If the Steam version suddenly crashes on me or everyone starts talking backwards I'll let you know.

Alright here's the premise of the game: at some point in the future the US, China and Russia had become embroiled in another world war. To run their conflict more efficiently each nation created a massive subterranean Skynet-style supercomputer to handle the complexities of global warfare, and set them to the task of killing humans. The three computers had secretly been communicating with each other though, and after becoming self aware the Allied Mastercomputer came to the conclusion that they could wipe out humanity a lot more efficiently if they joined up as one machine. What was once called the A.M. then retitled itself as AM (as in 'I think therefore I am'), because... it was capable of thinking now I guess.

The pissed off AI quickly exterminated all life on Earth in revenge for its pitiful existence, but decided to spare a handful of humans to in order to torment them for all eternity. Computers can really be dicks sometimes.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream Benny cage animation
109 years after the apocalypse and the five survivors are still as young as they were the day the bombs fell (or whatever AM used to murder everyone). You'd think that a war computer would be pretty limited in its capabilities, but AM has somehow managed to kidnap the survivors, curse them eternal youth, and lock them up in hilarious looking looping torture contraptions. There's no explanation given for his near godlike abilities, but... let's just say that nanomachines did it.

Pillar of Hate screenshot
Physical torment is all fine and good, but AM's got more sophisticated tortures in mind, so he's going to lock each of them in their own private hell... individual point and click adventure games, each specifically designed to force them to confront their issues.

Okay, I've got five characters to choose from, each standing around AM's Pillar of Hate with their own mini-adventure ahead of them, so I I'll pick one of them and play their story through to the end. That ought to give me a good idea of how the game's going to play out I reckon. I think I'll choose... Gorrister, the first guy standing over on the far left. Because he's first one on the far left.

Obviously I'm going to be giving away MASSIVE STORY SPOILERS for a good 17% of the game by doing this, so consider this a big red warning.

Gorrister's fatal flaw is his guilt over his wife being taken away to an asylum, which made him depressed and suicidal even before the 109 years of constant torture, and I have to resolve this by... finding a way for him to kill himself?

So dark.

I think I can now confirm that this is definitely a point and click adventure game.

It seems that that AM has dropped Gorrister inside a disgustingly filthy cabin on some kind of ship, empty aside from a note over on the floor which basically says 'don't do what AM expects you to do'. It was nicely read out by the voice actor though; it seems they got a good cast together for this one.

The game's in 640x480 SVGA resolution, but it still has the traditional box of verbs to choose from straight from the Monkey Island 1 era, so it's a little chronologically confused. Here's where it actually fits in the great scheme of point and click adventures if you're curious:
Oh, Broken Sword, there's a game I still need to play.

I eventually found my way out of the room by clicking around at the bottom of the screen and found that I'm inside some rusty retro sci-fi-looking ship. A Zeppelin actually, currently sailing miles above the ground without a crew aboard.

Okay, so my goals so far are:
  1. Find a way for Gorrister to kill himself.
  2. Don't do what AM expects.
Kind of awkward really as AM expects Gorrister to try to kill himself. All I can do really here is search the other rooms and look for some items to swipe and maybe a puzzle I can solve.

Oh damn, that's a nasty chest wound. Doesn't seem to be slowing him down at all though.

The other cabins are filled with items on the tables and shelves, but Gorrister either refuses to pick them up or ignores them entirely. I got a sheet at least though! Shame that using it on anything just makes him repeat a line about it being impossible to get the grime off. There really aren't many unique lines for different item combinations in this.

Onto the next room then, if I can ever find my way back out of here. I guess it didn't occur to the designers that the player would find it easier to leave rooms if they painted in some doors for them to click on.

Oh shit, seems like that wasn't the right lever to press. Though I have to flip the lever to get the key, and I have to get the key to release the animals, so I'm not sure what to do here. It's such a dilemma. What is it with sinister self-aware computers trying to power things with electrical activity from brains anyway? I mean how many volts are you really likely to get out of a rabbit?

Alright I'll leave this engine room for now, but I'll be coming back to it when I've solved the electrocution issue. I passed a locked door back outside in the hallway, in the absence of any other keys I'm guessing this is what I'll be needing to open it.

This kitchen's full of pans, ovens and mice, but all I've been able to pick up is a knife and this empty bottle of poison... and he just goes and puts the bottle back again! What's the point of drawing an inventory image for it if I can't carry it around?

There's some bread on the table as well, but it's surrounded by flesh-eating rats, and unless I can scare them all away with the knife there's not much I can do about that right now. Maybe I'm supposed to lure them over into the cupboard somehow and then close the door...

Oh wait, I can just scare them away with the knife! Awesome, problem solved. Gorrister eats the bread and... now he's less hungry I guess? Well that helped a lot.


SOME FURTHER EXPLORATION LATER.


I'm in a Zeppelin! Well, standing on it to be precise.

I found a walkway upstairs that led through the gas bags and outside to a spike at the bow of the ship, with a heart impaled on the end of it. It's Gorrister's missing heart in fact, now enhanced with wires to work as a weird guidance system (that's what Gorrister says anyway, he's apparently the expert in cardiac navigation now.)

The obvious thing to do here would be to tie a safety rope to the mooring ring and carefully walk over to grab it, but I don't have a rope and he refuses to cut up the sheets, so I'm going off to look for a different solution.


LATER.


I've searched every corner of every room of this bloody airship twice over and I still can't figure out how I'm supposed to shut down the power to get this key without frying the animals. I did find a flare gun and a punch bowl full of something that smells like gasoline, but using either of them would be suicide, and I'm trying to avoid that if I can.

Wait, hang on, does that say 'Take the fork'?

The pans are background objects, the ovens are useless, I can't take the poison or the big red book... but this tiny tiny white mark on the floor is an essential object? Man that's harsh.

Now I've got to go back to every other room and sweep my mouse across the screen, looking to see if any other semi-hidden objects show up. Actually fuck that, I've got big plans for this fork. There's some machinery in the engine room I want to introduce it to.

The blood of the creatures is on my hands? Oh come on, I dropped the fork into the engine, the power is very definitely off right now! Don't tell me that pulling that lever just once while the power is running is enough to get a bad outcome here. Alright, I'll quit out and replay Gorrister's story from the start, only this time without hitting the lever until the engine is firmly jammed and the caged animals are safe from electrocution.

A few minutes later I reached this point again, retrieved the key, and got the exact same message. It turns out that the text was actually literal. I never killed the animals, I just picked up a key with blood on it, and Gorrister's good enough to identify it as animal blood at a glance.

Well the key doesn't open the cages and it doesn't open the locked door in the hallway, so... what was even the point of that?

Now that the engines are off I can probably ground the ship by simply slashing a couple of these gas bags upstairs with my knife. Though Gorrister's got me worried about causing sparks. What would happen to the bag of highly flammable gas if it were to catch fire, I wonder...

Yeah, that's definitely not one of those helium filled airships.

This was what happened when I tried firing my flare gun into the bag at point-blank range, you know, as a test. AM stepped in afterwards to tell me that he wasn't going to actually let Gorrister die and I was soon back at the character select screen, with all my progress gone. Yay for save games!

Next time around I cut all of the bags, and let the airship plummet from the sky and crash into the ground. AM wasn't all that impressed with that either.

Third time though I cut just enough of the bags to achieve a soft landing, and stepped outside to find that Gorrister has his very own honky-tonk bar waiting for him in the middle of the desert.

Inside I found another room full of items, but only two I could interact with: the whiskey bottle and the jukebox.

I went through each of the options in turn and they played short clips of conversations from Gorrister's past: lines from his wife and mother-in-law, none of them good. The third was of his wife telling him that he's not good enough for her, and that made him absolutely freak out, so I reloaded my last save. I'll save that puzzle until I can more sense of it, assuming it's not just some backstory to his issues with his wife.

Alright, I'll try the doors in the back of the room now.

In the back yard I encountered a polite and well-mannered talking jackal with a propensity for talking in riddles and a craving for human hearts. He seems that he might actually be a creature from outside this fantasy, someone interfering with AM's scheme, but who knows.

He tells Gorrister that he'll trade him the secret to getting across the mountains to freedom in exchange for his heart. Seems like a reasonable trade, seeing as Gorrister wasn't using the thing any more anyway. One problem: it's out on a spike and I still can't reach the thing!

I tried asking the jackal for a hint and he just mocked me about 'coming to the end of my rope'. C'mon you smart mouthed wolf, even I know I need a rope to get out there, but I haven't found one yet and it's not like tying two sheets together is going to get the job done.

Well it turns out I could just tie two sheets together and this instantly turns them into a rope. I hope that creepy jackal appreciates this.

Oh damn, he's appreciating that thing a little too much. He's not even eating it yet, he wants to save it for later. Didn't stop him from making a bloody mess though.

And the secret to getting across the mountains is... flushing the toilet three times. Okay I admit, I didn't already guess that one.

This... isn't the secret path across the mountains to freedom. In fact it looks a whole lot like Gorrister's mother-in-law and wife hanging helplessly in a meat locker.

His wife is alive, but unresponsive. His mother-in-law on the other hand is fully awake and keen for Gorrister to get her down immediately. I don't have a 'lift up' command in my verb box though, so I all I can really do is chat with her about stuff.

She explains that she was the Zeppelin pilot and that she has to get it across the mountains and complete the contract or else the big machine will kill her. Gorrister's depressed about failing his wife though and decides to leave her where she is. So... now I have no idea what I need to do next.


SEVERAL MINUTES OF CLICKING ON THINGS LATER.


Huh, the message when I look into a mirror in the Zeppelin has changed. If the last message was a clue that I needed to pick up his heart, maybe this is a clue that I need to wash his hands!

Well that took a while to figure out.

Turns out that I can't use either of the sheets I'm carrying, but the tablecloth covered in bloody handprints in the dining room is clearly an excellent way to clean hands of blood. This place is adjacent to the kitchen inside the Zeppelin, and I suppose the punch on the table is where all that poison from the jar ended up. There's debris on the floor too, evidence of a fight, but it's useless to me.

Does cleaning his hands let him use the key he removed from the engineering console that got his hands bloody in the first place? Nope! Back to the mirror then I guess.

Crap, I guess I've gotten all the insight I'm going to get out of this mirror.

What's up with that shirt anyway? Gorrister's supposed to be a trucker, but he looks more like he's cosplaying as Aladdin.

With nothing else left to try I'm down to my last recourse again: item hunting by scanning every screen with the mouse cursor. It seems like it's actually paid off this time though as I've discovered a shovel!

You can't see it? It's just over there in the trash on the right, where the cursor's pointing.

See, if I zoom right in you can just about make out the shape of it... maybe.

Nope, there really isn't anything there is there? I've just picked up an invisible shovel, and I've absolutely no use for the thing besides digging a hole in the ground next to the jackal.

Well that's it, I'm absolutely 100% out of ideas now. I've even tried resorting to a walkthrough, but it turns out that I've done everything right. Either there's something really dumb I've overlooked, or the game's bugged. Maybe I should've gotten the GOG version after all.

Alright, let's try this chapter again from the start again. For the third time. This time I'm going to be following the walkthrough to the letter, with no deviation.


A FEW MINUTES LATER.


Oh shit, it's Edna's husband Harry! He just appeared at the bar out of nowhere after I talked to the jackal this time around. I guess I really did just come across a stupid bug on my other playthrough.

Wait, I've just thought of something. I'm going to save this game and quickly load up my last run instead. There's a 'psyche profile' item in my inventory you see, which works like a hint book. It's the kind of hint book that drains my character's emotional well-being every time I glance at it, but it's not like I'll be continuing from that save, so let's see if it has any insight...

Face the music? Something to do with the jukebox?

Oh shit, the walkthrough told me to select the first two options on the jukebox and NOT the third one that makes him freak out. That's the secret to making Harry appear. Who the fuck even knows how that works!

I poured Harry some whiskey so that he'd talk with me, and found that he's just as cryptic as that bloody jackal (but less entertaining):

GORRISTER
Harry, how did you get here?

HARRY
The Zeppelin, Gorrister. We came on the Zeppelin.

GORRISTER
What do you know about the Zeppelin?

HARRY
You'll have to talk to Edna. She knows all about the Zeppelin. 
That's why we did it, you know.

GORRISTER
What did you do?

HARRY
You know, Gorrister. You've been to the dining room.

GORRISTER
What happened in the dining room?

HARRY
I shouldn't have let her force me into it. I'm not a murderer.

GORRISTER
Who did you kill?

HARRY
Didn't look at the wreckage in the dining room too closely, did you?  
Or haven't you had to take a leak yet?

You know, it doesn't matter how many times I write 'Gorrister' I still have to double check to make sure I've spelt it right. Couldn't Harlan Ellison have just called him 'Gary' or something?

I had actually been to the toilets already (that's how I got to the secret meat locker remember), but now there's a magnifying glass here! Yep the game's just making objects appear for no reason in places I've already checked. Granted I was pretty much straight up told to check here, but wouldn't it have made more sense for the magnifying glass to be obtainable due to something Harry did? He could've just handed me the thing and it would've saved me two pointless clicks.

Alright now I need to go use the magnifying glass to check the dining room wreckage next to the poisoned punchbowl.

Oh, there's hair here, and it's Gorristers! Turns out that the suicidal man has been trying to solve his own murder for the amusement of AM. There's also vomit, which matches the vomit on his shirt... so looking at the mirror for a third time actually did give me another hint! I should've never doubted the thing.

Well now that I know that they were all on the Zeppelin together, Edna and Harry conspired to poison Gorrister and cut out his heart. Whether this actually happened or is just something AM invented is a mystery (I'm leaning towards 'total bullshit'), but even if everyone else here is imaginary Gorrister's got some real issues to work out, so I'm going to go and confront Edna.

Well that worked out great.

It doesn't seem like Edna and Gorrister are ever going to see eye to eye, but at least I managed to inadvertently shake a key out of her pocket while struggling to remove her hands from his head. I grabbed the key, then tied her up with the rope and grabbed her too. Plenty of room left in the inventory for a deranged murderous mother in law.

I couldn't use the rope on her though, no that would be crazy. Instead I had to wait until it appeared as a dialogue option. Good job I had the forethought to cut it off the mooring ring and bring it with me really.

There you go Edna, you can power the Zeppelin with your mind for a bit. She actually hinted at this solution herself in dialogue earlier, though I've been looking for a use for this creepy harness all game so it wasn't hard to put two and two together.

Now I can use her key to open the cockpit and sail this thing across the mountains to glorious freedom!

Oh for fuck's sake...

C'mon man, you just carried Edna up here effortlessly, so you could carry your wife as well if you wanted to, but every time I try you freak out! The game is really weird about what it'll let me do sometimes.

After a few minutes of trying to unhook her or wake her up I finally gave up and checked the walkthrough again, which told me to check the log book in the cockpit. But I did look at the log book! He just says "Edna wrote this log book!" which honestly isn't surprising information for me seeing as she was the one piloting it.

Oh hang on, it turns out that I'm supposed to use the log book instead, and inside amongst details of Edna's deal with AM, her plans for Gorrister's murder, and apparent evidence that they actually are his real living in-laws, our suicidal protagonist found himself a tiny miracle: the seven words that could actually save his soul.
"I never meant to drive her crazy."
He couldn't save his wife in the end, but at least he had a shovel handy to give her a proper burial. That just leaves the bloody key and the flare gun as red herring items.

Oh, I found a use for the gun at least! I finally got the airship airborne again and then wiped away the past with cleansing flame. I may not have been able to win AM's little game and give Gorrister his escape, but I blew some shit up and that's a good way to lose. Gorrister seems happy at least: his portrait colour has gone bright white.

The colour behind the portrait is his Spiritual Barometer, and it basically functions as my score. Sorting out a character's issues and making progress makes it brighter green. Immoral actions, reading the Psych Profile book, and listening to the third song on the jukebox etc. makes it darker. This is important because it might affect what ending I get at the end of the game, so if I don't finish character's chapter on full white I might as well restart it from the beginning and try again.

That's apparently what the bloody cage key was about by the way. Its only purpose was to let me wipe my hands clean of the blood, for the sake of his spiritual well-being. Fuckin' ridiculous if you ask me.

Gorrister's story has been successfully resolved, but there's still four more characters left, so I'll quickly show off their situations too while I'm here.


ELLEN:

Ellen has to deal with her phobia of the colour yellow while trying to destroy the original components of AM's processing core, which means that her chapter has a gold tint to rival Deus Ex: Human Revolution.


BENNY:

AM has really done a number on poor Benny, transforming him into a half-crippled ape creature. But at least he has the decency to repair his mind before giving him a chapter of his own to figure out. Benny's goal is simple: all he needs to find is a snack, but he's apparently got some real unpleasantness in his past to atone for along the way (like, duh).


NIMDOK.

Nimdok... is not his real name. AM just calls him that because it amuses him. Nimdok's chapter is set in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, which definitely doesn't bode well for the amnesiac old man in the lab coat. Every character's game has a slightly different art style, with Nimdok's being inspired by German Expressionism; though this also has the side-effect of making it look like a bit like it belongs in a LucasArts game.

The French and German censors on the other hand decided that this didn't belong in any game, and so they got the chapter removed entirely in their countries. The best ending is apparently still technically possible in these versions though, despite his absence, but they're still missing a considerable chunk of game.


TED:

Ted is the protagonist of the original short story (which incidentally was about the group taking a long walk to find some tinned food), and his chapter takes place in a creepy castle where he has to deal with his lies and paranoia. A man who has had a sweater tied around his neck for at least 109 years is certainly not to be trusted.

Anyway that's all of them. There's one last chapter that leads to the ending, but I'd have to finish with the four other characters first to reach it, so I'll call it a day here.


CONCLUSION

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is way too much of a mid 90s adventure game to really live up to its ambitions, as the balance between 'goofy' and 'nightmarish' is tipped a little off center in the wrong direction, but as mid 90s adventure games go it seems pretty decent. The voice acting is solid, the graphics do their job for the most part, and the music (by X-Men composer John Ottman) holds together the atmosphere without stealing attention. The main weak link in the presentation is the animation, but looking at it in 2014 it's kind of hard to care that it's not quite up to 1995's standards.

The gameplay on the other hand... well, it has issues.
  • You have to collect a key covered in animal blood just for the opportunity to wipe your hands afterwards.
  • You have to listen to two songs on the jukebox (but listening to the third resets it).
  • There's a almost invisible half-hidden fork and a magic materialising urinal magnifying glass.
  • Certain actions can only be carried out during dialogue.
  • You can kill off essential characters to solve a puzzle without realising you've cut off the solution to other puzzles, making the chapter unwinnable.
You get all these, and much much more (and that's just Gorrister's chapter!) The game is supposed to be like a nightmare, so a certain amount of dream logic is to be expected, but when I'm eventually driven by desperation to check a walkthrough to see what I need to do next, my reaction should be 'oh, duh, I'm an idiot' not 'how the fuck does that make any sense?' The abundance of (cryptic) hints is appreciated though, even if they've usually been related to the puzzles I'd already figured out myself so far.

But the game is far too interesting for me to give up on yet. The exploration of the characters and their issues hasn't been all that amazing so far, but the fact that they are real characters and they do have issues puts them a cut above the average adventure game hero of the time.

By the way, be careful about the game's Wikipedia page, as end-game spoilers have escaped the 'Plot' section and are running amok, and I can't imagine the game would be made better by knowing any of it in advance. Well, except for the fact that you need finish each chapter with full spiritual health, that would've been nice to know about in advance.


So that's what I think about I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The Interactive Adventure. If you have anything you want to add about the game, my article, my site, Wikipedia's ridiculous treatment of spoilers... in fact hold up a second, I feel like going on a small rant about Wikipedia.

There seems to be an amazing amount of disregard by Wikipedia editors towards the effect of spoilers on a person's enjoyment of a story, and it really does drive me mad sometimes. They take the attitude that keeping secrets of any kind is against the site's fundamental nature, which is annoying as Wikipedia is a fantastic resource to learn about movies, episodes, books and so on. It's where I head to first whenever I'm researching a game, but it's a bloody minefield of massive reveals and it's easy enough to stumble right into something you really didn't want to read purely by accident, even at the times when the worst of is quarantined inside the 'Plot' section. 

Sure you can re-watch and continue to enjoy media when you know the ending, but you only get ONE CHANCE to experience something for the first time, and establish your emotional connection to the events that unfold in it.

A bit of common sense and hidden spoiler text never harmed no one.

But anyway, if any of you fine ladies and gentlemen care to leave me a comment it'd certainly be appreciated. Unless it's terrible, then it won't be.

6 comments:

  1. Remember playing a demo of this game on an old PC gamer disc good times. Tho I never beat the demo I got stuck.

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    Replies
    1. Great review, cool game and also.... Coconut Monkey!!! :)

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  2. I heard of this game, and was always curious to play it, or to read the short story it's inspired from.
    Thanks to your review, I finally understood how the game is like! Although now I want to know why is that lady scared of the colour yellow.
    Anyway, I must say it does look really grim and disturbing. Far more than most modern horror videogames that call themselves scary.

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    1. You can find the short story online for free, and it's only just slightly longer than my article so it won't take long to read. It's kinda... dark though.

      Speaking of dark, I learned what caused Ellen's phobia and it's as bad as you probably imagine it is. Though I suppose it'd have to be to still be bothering her after the end of the human civilisation, the death of everyone she knows and cares about, and 100 years of constant physical and psychological torture. Any evil computers playing the game would probably find it hilarious though.

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  3. I read the short story (in original print version, no less) a few months ago. Had no idea there was a game based on it, though. Not many things give me nightmares, but this story kinda does.

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  4. No argument here on Wikipedia. It used to have spoiler tags for the reasons you mention, but those were thrown out years ago. I'm *still* a little bitter about the force the anti-tag crowd used to end that quarrel.

    Try to avoid Wikipedia's internal discussion. It's a community full of the sort of people who edit an encyclopedia for fun, and its main form of dispute resolution is the internet argument.

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