I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM / Cyberdreams / PC
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, heretofore referred to as IHNM for brevity, is based on a short story of the same title written by an angry little man named Harlan Ellison, who has won numerous awards for writing Star Wars novels. I'm not a big Star Wars fan so I haven't read much of his work, but I read IHNM and a few of his other short stories in the course of doing research for this review, and IHNM seems pretty typical of his usual style - he's like a smarter, sharper Stephen King, more focused on sci-fi and technology, but also more misanthropic and sexually frustrated. I think Misanthrope Porn is basically a good term for the bulk of his work, really.
Anyway, the game basically takes the setting and characters of that short story, but rewrites and expands it greatly. The story now delves more into the lives of the individual characters, and why megalomaniacal supercomputer AM chose to spare them as his playthings while eradicating the rest of humanity. It also holds the possibility of at least a semi-happy, redemptive ending, giving it a much broader audience than Gothy types and depressed nerds who want to dwell on the morbid and flagellate themselves.
The game itself is a pretty standard point-n-click adventure, with no real innovations in the gameplay. You start each game out by choosing one of the five unfortunate torture toys of AM. AM has a new game for them, and each of them will visit a scenario based on trauma from their past. AM's intention is just to torture them as always, but apparently there's some rogue force that has managed to invade AM's world and is stealthily manipulating things to make it possible for the humans to come out ahead of AM ... if they play their cards right and confront their fears and failures.
The scenarios can be played in any order, and if you die or screw one up, you simply return to the Pillar of Hate and can either start over or choose another. The five main scenarios are actually fairly straightforward and not all that difficult, but the game ends with a very abstract "dream logic" sequence featuring all five characters that can be extremely frustrating. See, as you play the five initial scenarios, you have this thing called a "spiritual barometer" that goes up and down as you perform various actions - be nice to people and overcome your challenges and it goes up, be mean to people or get injured and fail and it goes down. It's apparently quite possible to "win" a scenario, yet not have the barometer high enough as needed to get an item you need to get the "good ending" in the final scenario. Yet, there's no indication in the game that this is something you need to do, and if you don't know about it ahead of time, you can wind up dumped in the final scenario completely lost (as it's already extremely abstract, tough enough without being there not having an item that you need but don't know exists) and unaware that there's even a "good ending" to be had. Even worse, I'm unsure if the game is glitched, as on my second playthrough I followed a reputable walkthrough to the letter, and yet I wound up in the final scenario seemingly without necessary items anyway!
Despite the kinks and possible glitchiness, IHNM does manage to succeed at one thing rare in the adventure game world - it's fairly replayable. While the moral choices are grossly simplified - it's usually obvious what the "right" choice is and you usually have to go out of your way to play as a jerk - there's lots of little bonus stuff that can be missed, and there's usually multiple possible ways to wrap up each scenario.
It's probably pretty clear I'm not a fan of Ellison in general, but I do appreciate that he actually got deeply involved with the creation of the game (unlike some other authors I could mention.) He even voices supercomputer AM, though his voice acting skills are considerably less sharp than his writing voice - he kind of sounds like a cross between William Shatner and the bad parts of James Woods' delivery (the trailing off into incoherent mumbling and seemingly random changes in pitch.) Voice work in general is kind of on the weak side here, though not horrid. To counterbalance, the MIDI soundtrack is really pretty good - brooding, atmospheric orchestration for the most part.
I think the story comes out fairly strong on the whole, and IHNM explores psychological territory that I wish more games had the courage to take on. As an adventure game, it's pretty solid, if not astounding. I think the greatest success (and point of interest) here is how it takes what was an overrated short story and uses the medium of gaming to expand it into something much more worthwhile and fascinating. For that reason alone, adventure game fans and those really interest in gaming as a medium of expression should definitely sit down with it.
* Apparently Harlan Ellison hates it when anyone accesses any of his work without paying for it
* Ellison interview about the making of the game (or at least starts out that way, then degenerates into lulzy ranting)
* Packed with lols
* ... and here's some more
* Hardcore Gaming 101's entry