Purgatory Blues: I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream as a game of moral decision-making

Thinking about games that portray the complexity of human emotion and ethical and moral choices, we often find out that these issues come as little surprises hidden beneath the surface. No matter if they are included to enhance the narrative, immersion, the player’s experience or because the creators just felt like doing it, the games usually do not wear it on their sleeve. This was the case with Ultima IV and is the case with Bioshock. And even though Planescape: Torment offered a wonderfully crafted personal narrative of exploration of one’s soul, it was still marketed as a D&D fantasy adventure. This might also be the best way to introduce these topics, as the players do not feel like the matters of “great importance” are forced upon them. But there has been a commercial game that had moral and ethical choices as its very driving concept. It was the 1995 PC CD-ROM graphic adventure I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, based on Harlan Ellison‘s story of the same (brilliant) name, produced as a joint venture between the production companies Cyberdreams and Dreamer’s Guild. Since its release, the medium of videogame has come a long way, and this is a good moment to reassess Ellison’s ambitions.

Prior to the release, Harlan Ellison, who took active part in creating the game, even voice acting the main villain, explicitly stated that he wanted to create a game in which the player had to make ethical and moral choices. Judging from the fact that both of these companies were not heard from since shortly after the release of the game, one might suggest that it was a failed experiment. It was, in some respects, but in revealed a whole range of expressive possibilities of the videogame medium, although it wasn’t really able to utilize them.
The story is built around five characters tormented post-apocalypse by a military supercomputer named AM, who hates all humanity. These five people are the last bastion of humanity. Or are they? All of them have to revisit their fears and guilt-stricken memories. Originally conceived by AM as another form of torture, these journeys can be used against him in an attempt to defeat him by restoring the characters’ humanity and thus finding weaknesses in AM’s program.
Using a traditional SCUMM-styled point-and-click interface, the player navigates the characters in environments supposedly generated by AM. Most of the content is delivered via voice-acted dialogues. After going through the story of each of the five characters, the player might use the temporary loss of stability in AM’s systems to overpower him. But Harlan Ellison is fast to warn that the game cannot be won. To cite the sadly unreferenced Wikipedia article on the game, “to preserve the story’s nightmarish mood, Ellison wanted to create a game that players could not possibly win. Instead, there would be a variety of ethical ways in which way they could lose. There are ways to lose heroically, gloriously and at the peak of one’s humanity — if players do well. Otherwise, there are ways to lose ignominiously, in a selfish, cowardly, frightened manner. Dying alone, and in terror. Or being tortured eternally.”
At our “morality in games” sessions, we have often discussed the difficulty of making moral choices in games matter and the assertion was made that the relationship between the “moral” choice in the fictional world of the game is often tied to the desire to win the game, which usually leads to making the obviously “right” choices without really thinking about them. No winning option is an interesting design concept, altough its implementation in this game didn’t make it justice.
The game features a soldier led to regret the harsh treatment of his subordinates, a strong woman who nevertheless cannot overcome the terrible experience of being raped, a man who sent his wife to a mental hospital instead of taking care of her, a fake and selfish hypocrite, and a former Nazi doctor, a disciple of Mengele, the angel of death.
The micro-narratives bring up two metaphors used to convey morality issues – that of purgatory (reliving one’s sins in isolation from the rest of the world) and moral rediscovery. The rediscovery concept was used to great effect in Planescape: Torment. In both games, player characters are bound to face their forgotten past after a state of amnesia, often making a horrible discovery. This is potentially a very powerful ludic device of conveying the feelings of guilt or misery.
Although most of the game is subtler, I will try to demonstrate the game’s pros and cons on the story of Nimdok, the Nazi doctor. He revisits the site of his crimes against humanity, having lost most of his memories and only slowly realizing what he did in the past. These screenshots show him puzzled after his arrival at the concentration camp:

He is bound to confront his former self and the player chooses whether he will stay on the track of a cruel and brutal scientist or whether he will take a different path and save the “Lost tribe”, which is obviously a metaphor of Jews. The choices the player makes in Nimdok’s case are rather obvious. He or she can have him perform a useless and ruthless operation on a young kid, or not (the interesting thing is that if he choses not to, doctor Mengele will do it instead, which emphasizes the hopelesness even more). Once he activates the Golem, he can either have him destroy the Lost Tribe or turn him over to the Tribe. All in all, every micro-narrative can be finished in several ways and all paths to lead to some kind of overall conclusion. The way the characters have dealt with their respective stories has an effect on the final stage, in which they confront AM.
The game’s greatest achievement is that it meant (or could have meant) a major breakthrough in terms of what content may be tackled in a commercial videogame. A game explicitly addressing ethical issues is extremely rare, and this one even offered to play as both a criminal and a victim, in case of Ellen, the only female character. No matter whether the game mechanics actually capture – or induce – the mental processes of empathy, morality and guilt, it at least makes you see the points in one’s life where these choices can be made and make you think about them. The game’s surreal visuals, abstraction-heavy dialogues, deeply disturbing topics (cannibalism, rape, total war and more) and all-around weirdness nevertheless turned out to become a rare exception rather than a new standard.
There were at least two clever design choices: The fact that stories were set in a fantastic enviroment enabled metaphorical puzzles and events, such as one of the characters literally taking his heart and feeding it to a jackal. The inability to reach a “real” winning situation might have brought in some moral ambiguity which is a prerequisite of moral reasoning.
And this is where the shortcomings begin: The players are pretty much bound to Harlan Ellison’s take on morality, as the game interface signals whether you have made a “good” or a “bad” choice (in a later attempt at a morality game, Bullfrog’s Fable, the main character’s avatar changed accordingly). This “spiritual barometer” more or less leads to the reduction of a moral choice to a gameplay choice. And although you cannot win, there is still a most desirable outcome that might not be winning in terms of the narrative, but still is in terms of the rule system and “getting the most out of the game”. Another difficulty stems from the fact that the players don’t have any opportunity to emphatize with the characters before they find out about their past. This bogs down the immersion factor. While playing Nimdok’s story, I often found myself stuck between two choices: either role-playing him and staying true to his former self, or betraying his character and making him “good”. The narrative of the game doesn’t do a good job portraying his change from a brutal monster to a potentially repenting man.
Other drawbacks include technical issues (laggy, unresponsive interface), aesthetic choices (out-of-place cartoony animation) and gameplay elements (puzzles bordering between unconventional and silly). The graphics are, of course, outdated, and the third-person perspective is probably not the best choice for a soul-searching narrative. The whole idea of building a highly original and meditative game on an engine used to play story- and inventory-based adventures is questionable, although adventure games seem to be (or rather have been, as they are extinct as a commercially viable genre) most open to left-field content. But even though flawed, it is still an enjoyable game that screams “These ideas shouldn’t go unnoticed” on every corner. Too bad it did not have a proper mouth.

Written up Jaroslav Švelch, based on the presentation and discussion at the Valuable Games meeting