Released in 1995, just as the adventure game genre was falling off a cliff, I Have No Mouth Et Cetera captures the industry in its final nihilistic burn-it-to-the-ground moment, where game developers were flailing around and trying every crazy idea to win back their audience from Myst. A lot of fascinating experiments emerged from this period, including this adaptation of a Harlan Ellison short story.
The plot starts out similar: fuelled by Cold War hysteria, the human race engineered its own coffin. 109 years in the future, a godlike supercomputer called AM now controls the earth, having utterly destroyed the human superpowers that thought it would protect them.
AM has kept the last five humans alive for more than a century, torturing them in all sorts of physical and psychological ways. But at last it has grown bored, and has engaged the captive humans in one final game: they must survive a scenario constructed from their own minds, mortared by their own repressed traumas.
Gorrister is a suicidal loner who resents women. Ellen relives a violent rape whenever she sees the color yellow. Benny is a perennially hapless loser who has been altered to look like a gorilla. Ted is a paranoid lunatic who is “so twitchy he could make poison ivy nervous.” Nimdok is a Nazi scientist who assisted Dr Mengele in the Holocaust.
Using a point and click interface you explore each of these characters’ minds. Whether you can “win” is unclear, even at the end. AM has complete control over all of these characters, and there’s no reason that it should tell the characters the truth about their past lives or current predicament.
At its best, IHNMAIMS is a fascinating and memorable experience, and it’s often at its best. It removes most of the comical aspects of Ellison’s story (like the “we have canned food but no can opener” gag), and adds far more depth of character. The story was about five interchangable nobodies surviving a maniac computer. The game centers its focus on the characters, and explores their pain. Rather than a telescope looking outwards, it’s an MRI looking inwards.
Unfortunately, the adventure game genre died for good reasons, and IHNMAIMS showcases many of them.
Pixel hunts. “Puzzles” that amount to trying random combinations of items and actions. A lack of direction that means you cannot solve the game in any logical way. The game conjurs a dreamlike atmosphere, which helps the narrative but kills any sense of gameplay. Most of IHNMAIMS consists of wandering around in a daze, clicking on things.
Here’s a good example: you try to cross a bridge, but it requires a passcode. Only Nimdok knows the passcode, meaning there’s an 80% chance you’ll have selected a character that cannot get past that point. You’re stuck. There’s no way to figure out the passcode on your own. You either made the correct choice previously in the game (without knowing it), or you haven’t.
The interface is unintuitive. There’s ample opportunities to “strand” yourself, with no way forward and no way back (again, you won’t know this in advance, so your save is now probably useless), and the puzzles are usually completely unclear as to whether you’ve solved them or not. That’s my criticism of IHNMAIMS: there’s never any goddamn feedback when you do something. Are you going the right way? The wrong way?
Grognards spit upon The 7th Guest as not being a true adventure game, but in a way, it got something right. The puzzles were self contained, and had rules that you could follow. You’d beat one, and move on to the next one. Sometimes those puzzles were hard, but you could always understand them. You weren’t wandering around trying to guess what the developers wanted you to do.
So you have a fascinating layer of content, but it’s stuck inside a frequently clunky and frustrating adventure game. Unfortunately, stories improve games far more than games improve stories, and IHNMAIMS is exhibit A in the prosecution’s case.