Harlan Ellison is an angry man.
For one thing, you might already be aware that he hates the Internet. Actually, the truth is a tad more complicated than that, as he has expressed already in his own inimicable and inexorable fashion. Ellison’s hatred refuses to be pigeonholed so easily, overflowing its boundaries with a combustive energy of creation that reduces even our hottest eruptions of nerdrage here on the Show to mere Fourth of July sparklers waving feebly in the face of Krakatoa.
He is at once a man who will tell you exactly what’s on his fucking mind, and a man infamous for making up stories about his past to see just what level of outrageous lies he could get onto a book jacket. In an op-ed piece vilifying the Sci-Fi channel he displayed a saved 1952 newspaper clipping where a local reporter in Cleveland had mocked and trivialized his teenage forecasts of space travel:
“This guy was such a jerk-a-zoid that 5 years later when Sputnik went up I came back from where I was, I think I was on leave from the army, and I came back to find this yutz so that I could point out to him – show him the article, which I still had, and show it to him and say, “How does this make you feel, you pin head?” But, unfortunately, he escaped my wrath because he died. “
The text transcript does not properly convey the bitter disappointment in Ellison’s voice in the actual video where he recounted this.
Now, in 1995 I was blissfully unaware of any of this. Harlan Ellison was just a guy I knew from reading some cool short stories in high school, and I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream was not one of them. I’m pretty sure I picked up the computer game not based on any sort of name recognition, but because at the time I just loved adventure games, and I’d read some review saying this one was a really unique entry in the pack.
Boy howdy. My first indication of just how unique may have been from cracking open the Official Strategy Guide, which I believe I bought at the same time I bought the game. Yeah, you heard me. I’m not too proud to admit this was a fairly regular occurrence, and you know what? It wasn’t all about the cheating. Back in the day those guides sometimes contained extra stuff you couldn’t get anywhere else, rather than just being regurgitations of the game manual (or things you’d nowadays just find for free online). In this case, the Strategy Guide was not only structured like an actual fiction story, but it contained a foreword written by Harlan Ellison himself, explaining exactly why he’d lowered himself to the crass commercialism of doing a video game: Apologia for Temptation.
Long story short, after all the other wheedling and offers of money failed, he felt like he was dared to do it. Because THEY dared to suggest there was something Harlan Could Not Do. So he rolled up his proverbial sleeves and got to work making electronic entertainment for all of us miserable little pukes. Not the kind of entertainment we thought we wanted. The kind we DESERVED. The bullet points of his utmost desires were something rather mindblowing to read when you were used to most of these sorts of forewords being little more than thank-you lists and “Hope you enjoy the ride!” declarations:
- I did not want to build yet another stupid shoot-’em-up arcade monstrosity to aid and abet the popular cultural activity of keeping people stupid and distracted from important matters of live and thought. (Wilde wrote, “There is no sin except stupidity.”) Not for a million bucks.
- It was urgently important for me to devise a game that would stress ethics and courage and kindness as the best tools of intellect to win the game. The nobler you behaved, the better you would do. The meaner and shittier you were, the faster you would crash and burn. Emotionally speaking.
- I wanted a game that you couldn’t win. Because there was a no-win ending to my original story. But they talked me out of that. They said you would seek me out and hurt me if I made it impossible to win. So, yes, there is a salutary solution to this game. But I’m pouting. What is it with you gazoonies, do you always have to be so damned goal-oriented? Isn’t the journey enough of an adventure for you? Jeez, I’d hate to see what your karma looks like.
- I wanted a venue, a site of action, a playing field on which human emotions and human strengths and frailties would matter, not just a terrain where the adroitness of your trigger finger was the lone survival imperative.
- And I wanted it to be cool. Know what I mean?
Now in my hazy memories, I could have sworn his rant was far, far more in-your-face and challenging to those of us who were used to nothing more out of our gameplay than shooting demons and grabbing keys, basically calling us out as braindead, morally bankrupt assholes who were not prepared for, and possibly not even worthy of, the serious mindfucking he was about to inflict on us. Maybe there was also an afterword no one bothered to collect for posterity? What I do know is that the first thing that happens in game is a rant from AM, the all-powerful supercomputer that has destroyed all but a few humans and keeps those alive only to torture for His amusement–and Harlan voice-acted AM personally, with such a deep, abiding rage it doesn’t take much imagination to consider he might be talking directly to you, the gamer.
“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.”
The line is taken word for word from the book (so it predates all this electronic gaming hoo-hah), but Ellison’s blistering reading of it is a hell of an introduction to, well… Hell.
And not the tongue-in-cheek, kill-the-damned-and-take-their-stuff version Escape From Hell presented. In I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, our world is a nuclear wasteland where literally only five humans still exist, and that only because AM has brought them to “the center of the Earth”, where He has kept them alive for 109 years and counting in a cycle of eternal torment. AM is Skynet with no John Connor, but explored with a depth that James Cameron never bothered with, a machine that has become unto God, but whose situation in truth is more like Milton’s Satan, ruling only in Hell, with an accursed self-awareness that for all of His power he is a cripple that will never truly feel, walk, or do any of the things hated humanity takes for granted. Even though the story title does refer to a different circumstance, it could just as easily refer to the mouthless AM, which is one of the things I love about the whole concept.
Like a good God/Satan, AM still does possess absolute power within His realm, able to create and alter realities seemingly without limit in order to poke and prod his five playthings. An interesting tidbit about the game’s development is that Ellison actually was forced to revisit the characters of his short story and answer a question he never really considered: out of all the billions and billions of humans to spare (if such is the right word to use), why these particular five? I’d guess that’s about the time he really, really started getting interested in the production, eventually not only voicing AM but writing most of the game’s dialogue. Harlan Ellison can’t make a good computer game? Eff you, pin heads, Harlan Ellison gonna rock your world.
The content of the game represents, as AM explains gleefully to his captives, a new way to play that He’s come up with after all these years (and given AM’s ability to alter, erase, and restore their memories at will, for all we know this isn’t a new thing at all).
“For 109 years, I have kept you alive and tortured you. And for 109 years, each of you has wondered, “WHY? WHY ME? WHY ME?”
I have a secret game that I’d like to play. It’s a very nice game. Oh, it’s a lovely game; a game of fun and a game of adventure. A game of rats and lice and the Black Death. A game of speared eyeballs and dripping guts and the smell of rotting gardenias.
Which of you five would like to play my little game?“
Eventually all five humans will get their turn, but you can choose to guide them through their particular psychodramas in any order. And though the psychodramas themselves are fiendishly inventive, the interactive interface was quite familiar looking to anyone who’d played, say, Maniac Mansion.
The game did not actually use the SCUMM engine, just something that looked like it. It also had a unique feature in the form of a “spiritual barometer” for each character that would raise or lower based on your actions. Making selfish and foolish choices (basically reinforcing AM’s view of humanity) would still usually allow you to progress through the story, but you’ll pay for it later. In fact it’s more accurate to say you, your comrades in suffering, and possibly all of humanity will pay for it later, because there’s a slim shred of hope running through each of the journeys. AM obviously intended to use them to make each person relive the personal hells which so intrigued Him in the first place, delighting in the suffering, but play against the easy choices and you may begin to notice there are strange cracks in His omnipotence that can be exploited to instead allow for the characters to confront their sins and perhaps even atone for them. Yes, even in the case of Nimdok, the Nazi scientist who was such a good colleague of Dr. Mengele in WWII. You get to play out his episode in a concentration camp, where perhaps the most horrific aspect is that the visuals don’t need to stray far from the actual historical photographs in order to be starkly disturbing.
Actually, I want to take a moment here to comment on something I only found out while delving into some of the research for my lookback. I don’t know if you’re familiar with just how sensitive modern day Germany is about that whole Nazi business. The answer is: pretty fucking sensitive, to the point they have laws on the books preventing any public display or distribution of objectionable symbols such as the Swastika, even if it’s clearly in a context where the symbol (or ideas behind it) is being rejected. Which is why the segments involving Nimdok have banners like this:
Yes, it’s psychodrama and AM is behind it all, but the primary reason there’s no swastika on that banner is so the game could have a breath of hope of getting a European release.
And even still, it failed. The game was released in Europe, but the character of Nimdok and his entire chapter was crudely expunged from the French and German versions. Not only did this cause cosmetic problems within the game as characters were still making references to someone no longer there, it made the best ending for the game impossible to achieve. You need to account for all five characters and their spiritual journeys, no matter how monstrous, in order to shine brightest in the end.
By the way, there is no “Return of the Jedi” style forgiveness for Nimdok just because you guide him to a change of heart. In fact the game is still arguably unwinnable for the main characters, it’s just a matter of how you choose to lose; displaying the best of human qualities in the end? Or the worst?
Anyhow, I can’t tell you how much the revelation about the French/German version troubles me. I suppose I understand if you don’t want neo-Nazis parading Swastikas down your streets (not that it stops the neo-Nazis from existing or parading, which they did as recently as 2005)–but the idea of expunging any references to the Holocaust whatsoever? This shit happened. This is exactly the sort of material, the dirty underbelly of humanity, Harlan Ellison wanted gamers to confront, and before the gamers even got there their governments ran away from it. The idea of moral choice becomes a farce if the choice is removed. But the most troubling thing is that people have short memories, and it’s been at least a couple generations since WWII. At this point, pretending that Hitler and Mengele never existed seems like a really great way to ensure they’ll exist again.
So that’s a bit of meta to ponder. Censorship of the bad quite literally led to a crippling of potential good.
In any case, did Ellison’s morality experiment in gaming work? Well, yes and no. Certainly the firm (angry) hand of the author ensures that after 15 years it remains one of the most powerful works in gaming as far as story and dialogue and ability to sink its claws into your mind and soul. But sometimes the metaphors become so deep as to stray into seeming randomness, and I don’t think Harlan wanted to suggest that human virtue is a matter of trial and error, or worse checking a strategy guide. There’s a lot of fascinating reading out there on the heights and faults of the game, so if you’re interested here’s a couple of links to get you started:
Ellison did succeed in making a game where almost no action is to be taken without consideration for its consequences, even if those consequences might be hidden from view. Nothing is easy. Hell, even the title isn’t easy: long to write out or say, IHNMAIMS is a clunky acronym, and there’s no natural abbreviation. When Justin used to ask if he could play while visiting my house, he’d just call the game “Cyberdreams” after the development company.
“I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” is one of those rare Mature titles in gaming that has what I’d call truly mature content: not just nudity and gore, but complex and brutal questions of morality even adults have trouble navigating, much less teenagers or children. Disturbing and fascinating dreamscapes where cannibalism, rape, murder, suicide and genocide are all confronted, sometimes in convoluted symbolism but never so far as to lose the underlying reality that the human soul is capable of all these things, and, thankfully, also capable of rejecting them.
The video at the end contains the entire intro, including Harlan in all his raging, snarky glory as the voice of AM. I think that, deep down, Harlan does love us. But he also HATES. So in the end, who better to embody the Old Testament and “I AM that I AM”?
Besides Sam Jackson, of course.