I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Review by Orb

I Left My Heart ... in the Stomach of a Jackal

I had heard that this was a very dark game. An apt description, in keeping with the fact that Harlan Ellison, the author whose 1966 Hugo award–winning short story the game is based on, is a very dark writer. Over the years, I have always found Ellison's essays regarding the foibles of society and men a little hair-raising—a perfect example of this is one treatise published in Heavy Metal magazine in 1980, sneeringly calling the readers "heavy metal babies" and stating society, not Chapman, killed John Lennon. This story is really in keeping with that thread of societal distaste that weaves its way through much of what Ellison has produced as a writer, and the game pays homage to this.

A much-ballyhooed title when released, the game itself is darker than Darkseed II, which it most closely resembles, having been published by the same company. It is a good, old-fashioned, solid, third-person title. It was pleasant change for me, as I have been wallowing in first person for far too many months with no respite. (Okay, I'll admit this is my own fault, being naturally drawn to it.)

This was obviously not a cutting-edge game for its time, but what was and is cutting-edge about it is the skilled way in which it uses the story of science fiction icon Ellison, never compromising in bringing forth his view of the twists of an aberrant world. "Humanity can be a sad and pathetic thing" seems to be Ellison's message.

The story is of the last five human beings left on earth, the rest destroyed by an insane, omnipotent computer named AM. The five humans, Garrister, Ellen, Ben, Nimdok, and Ted, have been trapped by the computer for over a hundred years, endlessly tortured. Each of the five characters has a horrible secret in a dark past. The game is episodic, allowing the player to choose which of the five story paths he/she wishes to travel in whatever order he or she likes. Throughout each episode, as the game progresses and goals are accomplished, the history of the character is uncovered and brought to light, and one begins to understand what brought each to this final destination. Ellison wanted a game "that you cannot possibly win," and this direction was certainly followed. The characters cannot win but instead must lose in the most ethical manner possible.

The graphics are properly dark—the player is treated to twisted trees and a gloomy Egyptian burial tomb, a dark abandoned spaceship, a concentration camp, and a dark castle. The game's design is similar to most third-person games from this period, reminiscent of the old LucasArts SCUMM interface, with commands to choose from to interact with the interface and an easily accessible inventory where items can be highlighted and then used with a click of a command verb.

The puzzles are inventory-based and quite fun (if you could call anything in this sick game fun; I almost hesitate to use the word). The problem with the puzzles is there is an incredible amount of pixel-hunting, which must be done correctly or each story grinds to a halt. This is not something Ellison obviously wrote into his story, but he probably would be perfectly happy with it, allowing for the torture of the player along with the five characters. There are also some that are pretty illogical, not something I mind as a player, but I know this is a concern of some. The game also will maddingly dead-end if a wrong, less "ethical" path is taken. This might have seemed clever at the time, but it causes the player to have to retrace steps, including relistening to conversations, which I dislike.

The endgame sequence is extremely thorough, which makes for a satisfying wrap-up to the gameplay. It can be finished with one or all five characters. The sequence itself, however, consists of an unbelievably obtuse and metaphorical ending, very allegorical psychobabble, and is nearly as dense and incomprehensible as the subject from which it is taken. Quite simply, like all psychobabble, it is rife with things contrary and confusing ... which I did not care for.

There are unnerving background noises. The music is General MIDI but well-written, and it serves the purpose of forwarding the ominous atmosphere. Some of the concentration camp theme was recently reused and adapted by its author to score the recent film "Apt Pupil," also about an ex-Nazi. Ellison thoughtfully plays the computer AM himself, spitting vitriol at the whole human race with vigor (actually it's hammy and over the top, but he sounds like he's having fun, and after all it is his party).

This is not a happy place. It does not have a happy ending. This is the sort of game it is good to play to scare oneself, in the same way one would watch a scary movie. It would also appeal to Harlan Ellison fans, as it does well in retaining his gloomy vision of society. The pixel-hunting will scare off a newbie for good. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: The Dreamer's Guild
Publisher: Cyberdreams
Release Date: December 1995

Available for: Macintosh Windows

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System Requirements

PC:
486/33
8 MB RAM
2X CD-ROM Drive
SVGA video
15 MB free hard drive space
DOS

Mac:
System 7.1
8 MB RAM
2X CD-ROM Drive
15 MB free hard drive space

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