I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and the Decline of Adult Gaming

Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -

So for those who have never heard of it, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a point-and-click adventure game that came out in 1995 and is based on a short story by Harlan Ellison.  
 
The premise is apocalyptic and brutal: humanity has been destroyed by nuclear warfare instigated by the sentient AIs of the Americans, Russians, and Chinese. Everyone is dead except for 5 individuals who have been kept alive for 109 years so that the Allied Mastercomputer, due to insanity and boredom, can torture them. He doesn't stop at physical torment, but also preys on their psychological weaknesses. However, the computer offers them a chance at redemption and potentially freedom if they play a "little game" he has devised for them. The setting/puzzles of the game reflect the psychological traumas of each character: Gorrister feels guilty for his wife having been institutionalised, Benny fought in Vietnam and was responsible for the deaths of some of the soldiers serving under him, Ellen is a traumatised rape victim, Nimdok is a Nazi doctor and also a Jew, and Ted is just paranoid and sleazy. In addition, the game has an interesting mechanic called the 'Spiritual Barometer' - similarly to the pthnisychological meter in Indigo Prophecy, if it drops too low it could potentially end in game over, but its increase represents the character having resolved the issues of his/her past.
 
Due to the way it skillfully uses dialogue, characterisation, mechanics, and the graphics/music to create a thematic whole, this is amongst the best if not the best adventure game I've ever played. Perhaps because it is an adaptation, the characters struggles feel more believable and their emotions less artificial. As one might guess from the summary of each character above, the game pushes into uncomfortable and dark territory that games barely if ever come close to broaching in present times.  For example, Heavy Rain squanders some of its emotional impact with questionable thematic elements (the incorporation of SF was a bad idea) and an awful twist, even though I appreciated many aspects of it. I would consider the Silent Hill series one of the few exceptions to the rule in uncompromisingly dealing with difficult subject matter, but other than that I cannot think of many other contemporary examples-increased swearing, sexual content, and gore is baditude rather than something that genuinely challenges us.
 
Not that all games need to be dark and difficult, but it seems that this kind of quirky, challenging game had its heyday in the 90s on the PC. My hypothesis would be it was easier to get away with these kinds of games before extreme regulation and scrutiny from cultural conservatives. Now we cannot even include the name 'Taliban' in a game for fear of someone being offended. Not to mention the Australian censorship of Left 4 Dead 2, which is a disgrace that weakens the game greatly. With these kinds of pressures, it's hard to imagine a game like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream being made in 2010. 

#1 Edited by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -

So for those who have never heard of it, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a point-and-click adventure game that came out in 1995 and is based on a short story by Harlan Ellison.  
 
The premise is apocalyptic and brutal: humanity has been destroyed by nuclear warfare instigated by the sentient AIs of the Americans, Russians, and Chinese. Everyone is dead except for 5 individuals who have been kept alive for 109 years so that the Allied Mastercomputer, due to insanity and boredom, can torture them. He doesn't stop at physical torment, but also preys on their psychological weaknesses. However, the computer offers them a chance at redemption and potentially freedom if they play a "little game" he has devised for them. The setting/puzzles of the game reflect the psychological traumas of each character: Gorrister feels guilty for his wife having been institutionalised, Benny fought in Vietnam and was responsible for the deaths of some of the soldiers serving under him, Ellen is a traumatised rape victim, Nimdok is a Nazi doctor and also a Jew, and Ted is just paranoid and sleazy. In addition, the game has an interesting mechanic called the 'Spiritual Barometer' - similarly to the pthnisychological meter in Indigo Prophecy, if it drops too low it could potentially end in game over, but its increase represents the character having resolved the issues of his/her past.
 
Due to the way it skillfully uses dialogue, characterisation, mechanics, and the graphics/music to create a thematic whole, this is amongst the best if not the best adventure game I've ever played. Perhaps because it is an adaptation, the characters struggles feel more believable and their emotions less artificial. As one might guess from the summary of each character above, the game pushes into uncomfortable and dark territory that games barely if ever come close to broaching in present times.  For example, Heavy Rain squanders some of its emotional impact with questionable thematic elements (the incorporation of SF was a bad idea) and an awful twist, even though I appreciated many aspects of it. I would consider the Silent Hill series one of the few exceptions to the rule in uncompromisingly dealing with difficult subject matter, but other than that I cannot think of many other contemporary examples-increased swearing, sexual content, and gore is baditude rather than something that genuinely challenges us.
 
Not that all games need to be dark and difficult, but it seems that this kind of quirky, challenging game had its heyday in the 90s on the PC. My hypothesis would be it was easier to get away with these kinds of games before extreme regulation and scrutiny from cultural conservatives. Now we cannot even include the name 'Taliban' in a game for fear of someone being offended. Not to mention the Australian censorship of Left 4 Dead 2, which is a disgrace that weakens the game greatly. With these kinds of pressures, it's hard to imagine a game like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream being made in 2010. 

#2 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4240 posts) -

I don't think I want to read this because I haven't played the game yet, but I desperately want to. It sounded like it approached adventure gaming from a unique angle, due in part to HE's influence no doubt.  You read any of HE's stuff?

#3 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@ahoodedfigure:  I haven't actually, but based on what I've seen from the game I would like to; his work is not as easy to find as some of the other classic sf authors though.  Anyway, you should check the game out, I'm sure you'd appreciate it.
#4 Posted by Gamer_152 (14072 posts) -

Censorship in specific regions like Australia is really a separate matter from overall censorship, just because a country like Australia or Germany may clamp down heavily on explicit content in games doesn't mean that certain games can't be made. That being said you've raised some interesting points and there probably are many barriers to games such as I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream being released today. It's not as if there weren't outcries over video game censorship in the mid-90s because there sure as hell were but it was a time when there would have been less pressure from publishers and investors on developers and as a non-mainstream game (as I understand it) I'm sure this title flew under the radar without a problem. These days making a game with a traumatised rape victim and a Jewish Nazi doctor in it? I can almost see the investors recoiling in horror at the thought of it.
 
Sure we can add buckets of blood and gore to today's games, have an 18+ slapped on it and in most cases little will be said about it but that's not to say that some violent video games still don't cause major controversy in certain situations and things are only the way they are to begin with because violence has become such a mainstay of video games. Video games needed violence to do what they did, one of the most easy and action-oriented ways to depict competition between two players in a virtual world is through physical combat and it's taken years of publishers putting out violent video games in the face of so much objection to get where we are today. However, while violence is an integral part of many game genres difficult topics like sex and terrorism aren't. If video games are to truly stand alongside all other art forms in terms of narrative then it's essential that we see these controversial topics being tackled but as has been said time and time again, investors don't like risk, investors like what they know already works.
 
Even to those who play video games regularly it may seem that video games receive little censorship from the people who make them, after all we've seen nudity, violence, racism and other such topics in video games but look at your mainstream games and look at everything they could do, then look at what they are doing. Remember the controversy not just from Fox but from the BBC over the shootout in the airport in Modern Warfare 2? Infinity Ward left the section in the game but it remains one of the most controversial video games scenes of the last decade and yet there are so many films out there where we could see far worse. I was also replying to another thread not too long ago which was discussing how after the Fox News backlash the nudity in Mass Effect 2 seemed a lot more toned down than in the original Mass Effect. If we're going to see people up in arms about 2 seconds of tasteful alien side boob what hope is there for controversial topics in modern mainstream games?
 
It's easy to understand why people are scared to put out games discussing the more difficult issues of life and history and part of the problem is also to do with the way mass media has depicted video games and the stigma attached with video games in the public eye in general. When too many still see video games (especially violent video games) as purely vulgar, mindless activities there are going to be misunderstandings when they try to tackle more serious issues. I believe we will see video games break through the opposition and depict the same things art, books and films can but I think it's going to take a long time to get there.

Moderator
#5 Edited by Diamond (8634 posts) -

To me these sort of decisions (like anything else) seem purely economical / business decisions.
 
It's the same reason we don't get another Tie Fighter and another Jumping Flash and another Under a Killing Moon and another Roadblasters.  Publishers and many developers feel they can get the most money doing what everyone else is doing, variety has decreased.  Playing it safe is the name of the game, but it certainly won't help the games industry in the long run.
 
I don't think the content has very much to do with it at all.  It's the gameplay / visual style / genres.

#6 Posted by Zajtalan (1163 posts) -

#7 Posted by HandsomeDead (11863 posts) -

When you see plenty of people agreeing that fun is what every game should be aiming for, it's no wonder that games like this don't exist anymore.

#8 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@Gamer_152: An excellent rejoinder, that's a very astute reading of the situation. I just wanted to give a few examples of structural problems that confront games developers - outcry from interest groups and censorship by government bodies, as I confront yearly living in Australia, etc. I should've mentioned publishers and investors, that was an oversight - it's largely up to them if or when they want to push the medium forward against the inevitable opposition from anti-gaming crusaders. Games have become a massive industry, so it is likely we will see diversification, but as you say this could take a long time.
 The problem when people talk about the issue of 'mature' or 'adult' games, which I sought to avoid, is the tendency to attribute it unfairly to games developers or just to assume that gaming has inevitably 'declined' from the 90s golden age. It's much more useful to see it in terms of the limits imposed by various institutions and groups that determine how games are made and received. As gamers, that's really what need to mobilise against.
I Have No Mouth is definitely one of those arty and obscure titles that would not have attracted much attention in those days of looser gaming regulations, although of course the Nazi doctor storyline was cut for the German release, making the game unwinnable.
#9 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@Diamond:  I'd agree that the content itself is not the reason games like No Mouth aren't made, but it also seems like the kind of economic decisions that are made by publishers (and supported by forms of game censorship) also strike against this kind of content being incorporated into games, ie. themes that are more cerebral or challenging and thus not immediately attracting the widest possible audience.
With books, you could publish a challenging novel in the hopes that it will become a classic and continue to accrue profits from a small initial outlay of capital. With games, that kind of strategy would be an absurdity.
#10 Posted by Goly (843 posts) -

This is a game that I just didn't want to play because it just feels too bleak for me. I loved HE's story though, mainly because it was short but if it would have been a long novel I wouldn't have been able to take the tone and its setting you know? This is my main problem with the game, I doubt I could play this twisted game for a long period of time and I guess in that aspect I'm sort of missing out. Also I have a huge problem with adventure games where you can die, specially in a game like this which seems that anything can kill you straight away so you have to save constantly before you try clicking on something. 
 
And a question about Heavy Rain:

#11 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@Goly:  The game itself isn't long and is actually not as harsh as the short story, from what I've heard. I don't think you'd find it too difficult to endure in regards to tone or themes. Also, the game gives you the option to make spiritually positive decisions that represent the overcoming of the character's psychological problem so it's really more a game about redemption, if played for the best possible ending, then dwelling in negativity. If you liked the short story, I'd advise you check the game out. My problem with the game mechanically is not so much that you can die but that in spots you can perform actions or dialogue choices that can make the game unwinnable from that point on. In some cases I had to consult a walkthrough because I couldn't figure out what I'd done irreversibly wrong.
 
RE: Heavy Rain
 
#12 Posted by Diamond (8634 posts) -
@owl_of_minerva said:
With books, you could publish a challenging novel in the hopes that it will become a classic and continue to accrue profits from a small initial outlay of capital. With games, that kind of strategy would be an absurdity.
That's exactly why I'm getting into writing and not games development.
#13 Posted by Gamer_152 (14072 posts) -
@owl_of_minerva said:
" @Gamer_152: An excellent rejoinder, that's a very astute reading of the situation. I just wanted to give a few examples of structural problems that confront games developers - outcry from interest groups and censorship by government bodies, as I confront yearly living in Australia, etc. I should've mentioned publishers and investors, that was an oversight - it's largely up to them if or when they want to push the medium forward against the inevitable opposition from anti-gaming crusaders. Games have become a massive industry, so it is likely we will see diversification, but as you say this could take a long time.
 The problem when people talk about the issue of 'mature' or 'adult' games, which I sought to avoid, is the tendency to attribute it unfairly to games developers or just to assume that gaming has inevitably 'declined' from the 90s golden age. It's much more useful to see it in terms of the limits imposed by various institutions and groups that determine how games are made and received. As gamers, that's really what need to mobilise against.
I Have No Mouth is definitely one of those arty and obscure titles that would not have attracted much attention in those days of looser gaming regulations, although of course the Nazi doctor storyline was cut for the German release, making the game unwinnable. "
I feel a little sorry for anyone living in Australia or Germany because the censorship of electronic entertainment is not only a lot stronger in countries like those but explicit content in video games is often censored by the government and not just interest groups and self-appointed video game experts. I don't think there's a perception that gaming has declined since the 90s though, every piece of evidence seems to provide people with the impression that video games are becoming more and more popular, something that is reflected by the capitalistic nature of investors and publishers censoring the creative works of the developers in the industry.
 
As was the case when I Have No Mouth was made, in the modern industry smaller and more obscure games run much less of a risk of receiving outcry from the general public than mainstream games but for true adult issues to become general subject matter in games we have to see mainstream games tackling these serious issues. As I aimed to show in my points earlier if mainstream video games make even the slightest venture into elicit content which goes beyond simple violence they seem to be met with very strong objection from some. I think to a large extent the problem is not just people actively opposing games but also people who aren't educated on the true nature of video games. 
 
Before we can even begin to see any real increase in the numbers of people opposing unjustified censorship of video games we're going to have to see a larger number of people aware of unjustified censorship of video games and that means more people must be educated about electronic entertainment. A lot of the time it seems to be the people who are the most ignorant about video games who get to have their say against them and even if their protests or court cases prove primarily unsuccessful the point is that the fact we even know such things happen means that they do have an influence on some level. Meanwhile the average person who knows little or nothing about video games either gets A. Incentivised to act against "the evil of video games" or B. Much more likely remains relatively neutral on the issue, meaning that there is often not enough people to properly reverse the tide of negative outcry against games. The problem is also exacerbated by the fact that "core gamers" are too often seen as socially inept, backwards, violence-loving individuals, not the kind of group that people would think could put across a justified and non-biased argument.
 
I feel that with mass media causing so many problems we could see a lot of good done if mainstream television started educating people on the true nature of games, imagine the impact even a single news channel speaking out against this kind of ignorance could have. Much like with the public in general the problem with television networks is that a few of them (although one of them in particular immediately springs to mind) will give negative commentary on video games and the rest will remain relatively neutral on the issue, not wanting to rock the boat. Again, this ironically comes back to that all too familiar concept for us video game enthusiasts, risk/reward. Just as the investor should not risk putting controversial content in their game if they want to make it likely they'll get a good profit from it, why should the television networks try to push radical, controversial opinions when they know they have a greater chance of getting a solid viewer count by shutting up and just letting everybody else say what they want to say? It's no easy issue.
Moderator
#14 Posted by benjaebe (2783 posts) -

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream was a fucked, fucked up game. And an even more fucked up story.
 
Good though.

#15 Posted by ch3burashka (5040 posts) -

I first heard of it on Talkradar and was fucking enthralled. I still haven't read it though, because it's not in my local libraries and I have a shit ton of reading to do anyways. Still, I would very much like to both read it and play it. 
 
I've seen a few Youtube videos of it, and it is fucked up.

#16 Posted by SBYM (1219 posts) -

IHNMAIMS is really not a good game, as far as the game part of it goes. It is, however, mad bleak, and I have sort of a begrudging respect for it.

#17 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@SBYM:  Is it any worse than other games of its type?
#18 Posted by SBYM (1219 posts) -
@owl_of_minerva: Not particularly. But that still doesn't make it any better as a game.
#19 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@SBYM:  Well, the quality of a point-and-click adventure game is based on the quality of its puzzles, the storyline/presentation, and the environments, all of which I find to be of high quality in I Have No Mouth. Categorical judgments about a genre aren't meaningful except as an expression of personal taste: one that will desensitise you to the very real differences between an excellent adventure game and a mediocre one. If you reject the genre entirely, that's a different argument, and one I'd rather not delve into.
#20 Posted by SBYM (1219 posts) -
@owl_of_minerva: Yep. I dislike most point and click adventure games that I've played. IHNMAIMS is no exception to that. Trial and error gameplay just isn't my thing. I finished the game, and on some level like it, but not the actual playing the game aspect of it.
#21 Posted by wrathofconn (1460 posts) -

I like your thoughts on this game even though I will likely never play it, and I just wanted to throw out Eternal Darkness as a game that is similarly messed up in subtle ways. Don't know if you've played it or have access to a GC/Wii, but it is an example of how to do this stuff in something other than the point and click format.

#22 Posted by Alex_Murphy (1184 posts) -
@owl_of_minerva said:

"RE: Heavy Rain
 

"
Re: Re:

#23 Posted by Fattony12000 (7298 posts) -

Hate. Let me tell you how much I've come to hate you since I began to live. There are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer thin layers that fill my complex. If the word 'hate' was engraved on each nanoangstrom of those hundreds of miles it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. For you. Hate. Hate.

- AM
 
Classic.

#24 Edited by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@wrathofconn:  I have both but I haven't had an opportunity to sit down and play through Eternal Darkness. Maybe I'll give it a shot over the holiday season, but agreed, it does seem like a very intelligently-made game from the small chunk I've experienced.  For those that don't like point-and-click I also think the following are great: Silent Hill, Penumbra, Amnesia.
@Fattony12000:  It cannot be overstated how good the introduction is, and people should youtube it if they want a sense of why this game is worth playing.
#25 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4240 posts) -
@owl_of_minerva:  I only own two Harlan Ellison books, Strange Wine and a huge tome called the Essential Ellison. I used to have the 35 year retrospective, then upgraded to the 50 year.  Since he mostly works in short stories it's a pretty good compilation, though not in any way complete.  I imagine you may be able to buy directly from his website, Ellison Webderland, if you were interested.
#26 Posted by Meowayne (6084 posts) -

 

but explicit content in video games is often censored by the government

Correction: The government doesn't censor in Germany or Australia. Publishers censor their games to achieve lower ratings.
#27 Posted by valentin_rad (85 posts) -
@owl_of_minerva: Didn't read through all the posts so someone may have brought this up already but there's a reason why you can't include a "Taliban" faction in a game. It's still a sensitive subject for many people and could even be seen as an offence because of the nature of that game. 
Your objective in  IHNMAIMS wasn't to go around and kill Jews( games that did that were outlawed) or nazies so comparing it to a modern day FPS isn't really fair. 
That being said, I think what you really meant is that modern-day games don't really have that human-drama element that older games had. You no longer can get mind-fucked by a game like you did back in the 90's. 
Unfortunately nowadays making a game requires millions of dollars and gargantuan dev teams. Games sell by the millions rather than by the thousands, so appealing to a vast majority is a must. 
I don't believe quality adult gaming is dead you just have to search harder for good titles, the indie scene is a great place to start.  Also, Sanitarium.
#28 Posted by Goly (843 posts) -
@owl_of_minerva:  I started watching a playthrough of it on youtube, I dunno I couldn't get into its style but maybe I'll give it a serious try and play it myself all the way through. 
 
Now about Heavy Rain (SPOILERS) 
#29 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@valentin_rad:  And COD: Black Ops could also have been an opportunity to challenge received opinion about the war by trying to present both sides in a more nuanced fashion. In art, it's not what is represented that should cause offense, but how it is represented. Since games are held to a different standard, unfortunately it is quite difficult - such an uproar is only likely to come from people that know nothing about games however.
I wouldn't say that adult gaming is dead either, but it's not exactly thriving. What indie titles would you name as examples? Also, Sanitarium came out in 1998, the same time-frame as IHNMAIMS.
#30 Posted by Icemael (6316 posts) -
@Meowayne said:
"  

but explicit content in video games is often censored by the government

Correction: The government doesn't censor in Germany or Australia. Publishers censor their games to achieve lower ratings. "
Because if they don't, video game retailers refuse to carry their games.

The publishers are just making sure they don't go bankrupt. You can hardly blame them.

As for "adult" gaming: it'll happen in time. Video games are still learning how to walk, so to speak. Once they've gotten the basics down (I'm talking about things like mechanics, controls, technology), then they can move on to storytelling -- and when they do, we'll get "adult" games.

If you try to rush the process, all you end up with is junk (see virtually every single video game people praise for its narrative).
#31 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@Icemael:  After having recently played some indie games I'm inclined to agree with you. That said, I think there are genuine examples of excellent interactive storytelling (although sometimes married to divisive games). However, I wouldn't want maturity simply to extend to narrative concerns but also to gameplay - more challenging scenarios such as the terrorist attack on the airport in Modern Warfare 2. I don't think that's a particularly great example even, but I hope the point is clear, something more challenging than playing the hero in black-and-white scenarios.
#32 Posted by KaosAngel (13765 posts) -

Too much fucking text, but I read the story when I was a kid and my dad got me the game.

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