By Mento 0 Comments
While checking the comments on my previous day's peregrinations across the twisted mindscape of Harlan Ellison, the cynical author behind the post-apocalyptic sci-fi novella and video game adaptation of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, I took in a few corrections/elucidations and came upon a realization for why I wanted to switch things up for May Madness this year: Each prior season of May Madness regularly followed a process wherein I would play the first few hours of a game and relay my initial impressions. However, this meant that I could never really achieve a comprehensive understanding of the game - the full breadth of its ideas and intent. Rather, all I had from that short trial period were educated guesses as to where they might go.
That's not just because I was unable to see the game's conclusion in that short amount of time, either; the way I approach games is by ensuring that the first playthrough is also my first real exposure to that game. It's why I fervently avoid pre-release hype, trailers, Wikipedia summaries, analyses and reviews of games before I have the chance to play them myself (should it interest me, at least: I've no issue with spoiling terrible games for myself). In a sense, that's partly what initially drew me to Giant Bomb, after spending decades avoiding the games press: much of its content is geared towards producing introductory snippets that tell me everything I want to know about a game, without divulging too much information about how it actually ticks or how it will eventually pan out. It saves all the fun stuff for the viewer to discover in their own time: the part where you can really get down and dirty with a game beyond those few first minutes wandering around in confusion and getting to grips with the UI.
There's value in early impressions, is the TL;DR of all this, but perhaps more valuable still is having that full picture to expound on. It's why I still firmly believe in the importance of reviews or, as I suspect will be the new norm in the years to come, replacements such as "Spoilercasts" and "Encyclopedia Bombastica"-type features: in-depth, comprehensive explications on the function, the story and the appeal of individual games once the reviewer has spent a sufficient length of time with them, exploring all (or close to all) of its content or by reaching the conclusion of its story. (Depending on the game, any or all of those might apply.) That's the reason I'm doing May Mastery this year: I want to provide both those early, unproven thoughts and something a little more thorough after I've beaten the game and can research it without the fear that I'm somehow despoiling my first playthrough.
With all that said, let's get to the conclusion of this I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream analysis before I completely disappear up my own ass:
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
I talked about how Gorrister's campaign opened a can of worms by introducing the idea of fail states to the game's palette, and Benny's goes another step further by introducing the game's rather lackadaisical approach to quality control. While I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is fascinating and well-written from a narrative standpoint, it does suffer from more than its fair share of bugs. I ran into a problem with Benny's campaign where Benny and the cursor would completely disappear after reloading a save, which made progress impossible. Later on, I discovered that the solution to a section that stymied me for a good part of an hour required that a specific character would eventually depart its location and leave an item untended that I had to steal, except the character stayed put the whole time. Whatever trigger I needed to hit to shift them did not take, and I was left with a stalemate situation of which I had no cognizance. It's one thing to be at the mercy of mercurial puzzle design that can kill (or reset one's progress, in this case) the player character, but another entirely to betray the player's intrinsic trust that the game is fully operational and working by its own internal logic that is left to that player to fathom.
But really, instances like those are sporadic and the game worked like it was supposed to most of the time. Learning yesterday that the spiritual health of a character really only determines how many mistakes they can afford to make in the final scenario, there is still something to the idea of completing each scenario "perfectly": if the player performs no ethical errors, doesn't consult the hint system and completes various hidden objectives that demonstrate the character's virtues, the character ends up with a pure white spiritual barometer, i.e. the best case scenario. In this regard, IHNMaIMS reminded me of the underrated Wii game Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure. That game also featured a system that judged not only a player's puzzle perspicacity but also their efficiency: by completing every part of the overall puzzle in the right order without errors, the player would receive a higher score. Of course, you'd need to be familiar with the puzzle already to achieve an ideal completion state, so it added an element of replayability often absent within the adventure/puzzle game genre. While you don't need to complete each of IHNMaIMS's scenarios perfectly to get a decent shot at one of the better endings, it does introduce an enticing prospect for players of a more perfectionist bent, not unlike the old point systems in text adventures and Sierra point-n-clicks.
Once again, each of the three remaining scenarios were custom-built to maximize the psychological torment of their particular victims. Benny, an ape-like creature that was once a ruthless military commander (apparently one of the bigger changes from the books, where he was a brilliant gay scientist) before AM modified him, is dropped into a pre-industrial cave-dwelling society with his consciousness intact but still limited by his useless, crippled limbs. He relied on the kindness of strangers, despite not having the most enlightened view of developing world populations as a veteran of the Vietnam War, and eventually learned to embrace compassion and empathy. There's not really a whole lot to this scenario, beyond the aforementioned semi-game-breaking bugs, but it does involve some interesting art design: the caves (and those that live in them) are all mechanical constructs built by AM for his little game, and Benny's near-starving state often lead to him trying to eat the food and flora despite the fact that they're all made of wires and electronics. AM's certainly not the nicest caretaker.
Nimdok's is a little more interesting, though at the same time entirely too on-the-nose. Given his advanced age, labcoat and German accent, it's not a stretch to assume that he's some sort of ex-Nazi doctor that was hiding out in South America before AM found him prior to wiping out the rest of mankind. His scenario very much plays on a specific time and place from his past, rather than the more allegorical scenarios of the other survivors. Either due to his senility or denial, he cannot face the victims of his Dr. Mengele-style experiments (the Nazi Angel of Death himself actually shows up, as if we needed to make the parallel more transparent), and instead goes about helping the prisoners in whatever small ways he can to amend for the hundreds of medical atrocities he has performed. The scenario is built to reflect the end of the war in 1945, when Nimdok and the other Nazis are finally deposed and are forced into hiding: this year is important to AM as well, as it lead to the discovery of all the Nazi science experiments and research for which Nimdok had been responsible, which in turn were used by AM to create most of these scenarios.
With the handsome and well-educated grifter Ted, the game takes something of a more traditional angle. Really, it goes full King's Quest, dropping Ted in a medieval castle and having him solve a group of puzzles involving magic mirrors, witches, demons, angels and a fair damsel (who resembles Ellen, possibly hinting at an abandoned romantic sub-plot between the two). There is also an ever-present threat in the guise of a pack of hungry dire wolves circling the castle: I discovered a way to bar the front door of the castle mostly by accident, so I am left wondering what would've happened if I'd ignored that problem for too long. This part of the game felt a lot less interesting due to its similarities with the aforementioned King's Quest and other generic fantasy settings, though I did like Ted's VA's Owen Wilson-esque Californian inflection. Watching him fumble around a gothic castle full of horrors reminded me of Keanu Reeves's terrible miscasting (and worse accent) in 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula. (And don't tell me that calling the Californian guy Ted wasn't a deliberate Reeves reference.)
It's the finale of the game that I found the most fascinating part of the whole shebang. Given that the finale only becomes accessible after the rest of the game has been completed, and thus is filled with spoilers, here's a block for you all:
So what happens is that the subversive elements in each character's scenarios that allowed each them to succeed, despite the fact that AM deliberately programmed them all to be impossible as part of its ongoing campaign of mental torture, introduce themselves and allow the survivors to enter AM's mind and take it down from the inside while it's temporarily contemplating its failure. The survivors also discover that their deaths are permanent in this virtual environment. The player is then left with two choices: they can simply allow the survivors to die via the many injurious objects in this place, one after the other, ignoring the commands of the subversive elements that gave them this chance until only one of them remains. Unfortunately, AM is able to recover and "rescue" that survivor before they too can suicide, only to turn them into a hideous blob with no physical agency and thus no means to kill itself. This is the canonical ending of the book: one of AM's schemes to dispirit the survivors also inadvertently affords them the rare opportunity to kill themselves permanently. They all die except Ted, who becomes the amorphous blob creature depicted in-game that has no mouth (but must scream).
Alternatively, the player can ally with the subversive elements - revealed to be AM's Chinese and Russian counterparts, which AM believed he absorbed utterly - to take AM over. The player has a few approaches here: they can create the circumstances that would allow the other CPUs to take over, or they can ensure that AM's Id, Ego and Superego are all destroyed along with the other CPUs. A ray of hope is offered with the realization that humanity still exists elsewhere, in a cold storage facility on the moon, where they might once again repopulate a terraformed Earth. It's the sort of optimistic ending that kinda runs perpendicular to the rest of the game's personality, so whether you consider this "good ending" to be more apposite than the horrifying canonical ending of the book is really up to the player's interpretation. I guess it's the same conceit behind whether you believe Seymour or Audrey II should've won at the end of the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors movie, because having outer space plant monsters take over the Earth more befits the movie's subversive sense of humor.
The game is also at its most obtuse in these sections, of course, because there's a lot of pointless character-specific elements (at least I didn't find a reason to de-power each of the survivors' power nodes, unless it factors into the final battle with AM somehow) that greatly complicate matters by giving the player too many moving parts to contend with. The player's inventory is also full of totems: metaphors that represent abstract terms like Compassion and Entropy made manifest, in a metaphysical realm where such things have power. It's certainly a little trippy, though I appreciated its thoughtfulness.
Overall, IHNMaIMS gives me a vibe not unlike Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. I was probably a little too harsh on that vampire RPG when I reviewed it, because while it barely works as an action video game it certainly had a lot of intelligence and attention to detail behind its characterizations and narrative elements. It felt like a deeply flawed game that would be very easy to fall in love with, because of how distinctive it was and how little it talked down to its audience. Such games are a rare commodity, and it's worth putting up with a few mechanical snafus to appreciate that core. The same is true with IHNMaIMS I feel, with its ugly (though deliberately so to some extent, and certainly interesting) graphics and its weird bugs and its obtuse mechanics and its outmoded fail state situations. I can't say that there are too many adventure games with its ideas or sense of scope or pitch-black personality, and having the original author step in and adapt the game really lends it an authentic literary edge that is usually the domain of those Legend Entertainment games I covered a while back (which have a lot in common with IHNMaIMS I am now realizing) or the Discworld games.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is not a perfect adventure game, but it's one of those thematically-atypical titles ideal for aficionados of the adventure game genre (or just of story-driven games in general) looking for something a bit (or a lot) different.