Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Design Brilliance of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Halloween is approaching.  Everyone is getting out their costumes, setting up the spooky decorations and watching classic horror movies.  It’s also the time some gamers take to play their favorite scary games, as well as October-themed specials going on for games like Killing Floor and Team Fortress 2.

But for a lot of us, the scares are what we’re looking for.  Now’s the time to play the classics like Eternal Darkness, Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2, System Shock 2 or Amnesia.

This year I have a recommendation on another horror game.  I’ve already gone over how Clock Tower is the scariest game ever made, but this year I’m taking a moment to appreciate the aspects of a classic horror game that don’t contribute to the horror.

I’ve always held a soft spot for 90s adventure games.  I was quite a fan of King’s Quest 5 back in the day, and even now with all the advancements companies like Telltale Games have made to the genre, I can still play some of the adventure games from the days of lesser graphics and game design.  I still love The Curse of Monkey Island, the Phantasmagoria games, and The Neverhood as much as I ever have.  Sure they had annoying puzzles and huge leaps in logic when it came to progressing through them, but the stories were so well told and presented, I couldn’t help forgiving them.

That’s why when the opportunity came knocking, I bought the PC game adaptation of the short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison.  I had heard about the game being scary, unsettling and overall pretty good, so when it was on sale for Halloween on Steam earlier last year, I gave it a try myself.

Naturally, I enjoyed the traits many of the best 90s adventure games sported: detailed artwork, a good story, and (mostly) good voice acting to boot.  Unlike some of the other 90s adventure games though, I was also impressed with IHNMAIMS’s overall design as a game because it managed to largely avoid the pitfalls many other adventure games of the time are infamous for.

As I stated, many adventure games in the 90s had design quirks, for lack of a better term.  Anyone who has played them knows the complaints as well as the jokes made about them: an increasing load of inventory items, illogical solutions with only one way to do them you likely had to find out through guesswork and not to mention some (usually from Sierra) that killed you or rendered the game unwinnable without fair warning.

IHNMAIMS averts the overstocked inventory problem right off the bat through its premise.  The story is about the last 5 humans on earth being tortured by a human-hating godlike supercomputer named AM (Allied Mastercomputer), voiced by Ellison himself.  AM makes each human play a game of his own making, each one preying on their weaknesses.  That means every character, along with their scenario, has their own inventory and map.

Each scenario’s landscape is relatively small (about half the size of a suburban elementary school), making them easy to navigate and greatly reducing backtracking.  It’s much like Telltale Games’ episodic adventure games released today in how it takes the story one chapter at a time.  Not only does this mean you don’t have to go to hell and back if you forgot something, but because there’s less to cover, should you decide to take the desperate practice of trying to use everything you have on everything else to get something to happen, it’s a lot quicker.

But in my playthrough of the game, that didn’t happen.  With the exception of a few points of guesswork and vagueness, IHNMAIMS is relatively logical in its solutions, and when the rules of logic are bent in AM’s twisted game, clues are given.
Without spoiling the solution, I cite a point in Ellen’s scenario.  In it, she must grab a chalice from a room being guarded by a vicious sphinx that scares her away when she comes in.  However, if the player looks at the room through a security monitor in another room, it doesn’t show the sphinx.  Hmmmmmm…

She doesn't even touch the thing!
That sense of fairness is properly played in the ways you can lose too, as opposed to the aforementioned Sierra games where even somewhat sensible options will have you killed on a whim.  For one thing, dying in IHNMAIMS does not mean the end of the game until the finale.  If one of the characters dies in AM’s game, they’re transported out to start the scenario all over again, with the story justification being that AM wants to torture them as long as possible.  It can be annoying if you don’t save, but it’s better than allowing you to save yourself into an unwinnable scenario by mistake.

That, however, should not happen, and the game won’t kill you for one slip-up.  While it is possible to die, there are very few instances it can happen, giving the game the relaxed play of Monkey Island, but with some of the sense of peril of King’s Quest, where everything is trying to kill you.  In any situation in which you can die, you can see it coming and it’s avoidable.

For example, in Ted’s scenario, he can hear the sounds of wolves getting closer every time he enters the central room of the castle, and the front door is missing a hinge.  It gives you several chances to figure out a way to shut the door, so if they bust in and you die, it’s your own fault.

Other times the game doesn’t need to warn you and has you rely on your common sense.  If you cut the airbags in a blimp in order to lower it to the height it needs to be at, common sense tells you that you shouldn’t cut any more than that, or else…

In the same scenario, the designers anticipated a player’s thought process in a specific way.  Instead of cutting the air bags, you can instead try to shoot a hole in it with what is described as a bulky, single-shot handgun.  However, you’re supposed to realize that the reason it’s bulky and has one shot is because it’s a flare gun.

Fire does not go well with blimps.

Instead of simply giving a generic “I can’t use these two things together” line, the game knows what you were thinking, and you thought wrong.

In one last brilliant design decision, each scenario has multiple endings that give the game flexibility.  These endings are determined by the character’s moral actions through their chapter, long before games like Infamous and Mass Effect implemented their own morality measurements.  For example, having Ted be unfaithful lowers his morality, and having Nimdok use ether to ease the pain of someone suffering raises his.

There are different ways for the successful endings to play out as well; there isn’t only one proper set of solutions.  Although the alternate solutions never diverge far from what you’re supposed to do, they allow for some tangential thinking.

For example, in Ted’s scenario, you’re told that there’s a clue on the servant woman’s tapestry in her room.  There are two ways in: you can either sleep with her (lowering morality) or give the demon you summon that can open locks a bit of energy to have him open the simple lock on her door.  Alternate solutions like that also help give the game some incentive to play through it again.

Unfortunately, much of the good about the game I just went over sort of falls apart at the game’s finale, where the puzzles are abstract, you’ll almost certainly need a guide, and you die permanently, but the 80% of the game getting to that point is still a treat.

Before playing it, I thought I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream was a cult classic because of its well-told story, like most fondly-remembered adventure games, but having played it myself, I see there’s more to it than that.  While it shows its age in some areas, IHNMAIMS holds up pretty well, even by today’s standards.  If you’re looking for a creepy game to play this Halloween, or just a good adventure game in general, it’s a solid buy.

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