The Plays the Thing
I suggest to [our older, more print-oriented members] that while they may think the only good sf is that which comes writ in lines on paper, that to several succeeding generations, the visual interpretations of imaginative fiction are equally as potent.
- Harlan Ellison, "Defeating the Green Slime"
One of the principal challenges of adapting "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" to an interactive medium stemmed from the fact that the primary antagonist of the story is a computer, albeit a distant relation to the models being used to run the game program. Being challenged by AM continually makes the user aware of the computer interface. While the characters in the story must endure the horrors that AM inflicts, the game player can turn off the machine at any point. Therefore, to preserve the story's nightmarish mood, Ellison wanted to create a game that a player could not possibly win; instead, there are a number of ethical levels at which one may lose, everything from the heroic and sacrificial to the ignominious and selfish. Changing the nature of the goal - to lose the best way possible - I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream puts an intriguing twist on the typical "point-and-click" adventure scenarios as well as circumventing the more popular first-person maximum carnage games dominating the current market.
By definition, a game is generally defined as any form of play, usually involving physical or mental competition under specific rules; most of the elaborations typically invoke some type of connotation toward a win or victory. The computer game does follow a certain set of protocols, such as interaction with the virtual world only through the mouse, limiting the amount of actions a player can execute, and restricting the movement to a particular set of screens or scenarios. It also deviates from the standard definitions by forcing the player, in order to complete the game, to make a series of choices such that the loss - which is inevitable within the confines of the game - is the least detrimental of the possible outcomes. This rethinking of the entire strategy for the game not only altered the original storyline and generated new ones but also caused a fundamental shift in the construction of the narrative, moving it from a single center of creation to a multiple one.
While John Byrne had his own particular artistic vision when it came to visually adapting "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," his work received minimal additional attention by a very small group of individuals. On the other hand, creating an interactive electronic storyline involved a complex hierarchy of many people. The unifying thread of the design materialized when David Sears, a game designer employed by the Cyberdreams company, asked Ellison something he had never considered before: why does AM choose these particular five people? Although Ellison has previously said that he had no idea about the storys plot when he sat down and wrote it in one night, Sears question caused Ellison's imagination to stretch back over the years and develop the prequel stories for each of the humans, creating a 130 page draft (MGM, HTML). The suicidal tendencies of Gorrister, the deformities of Benny, the phobias of Ellen, the secrets of Nimdok, and the paranoias of Ted now exist within a more fully developed relational construct. The "quests" that await each character not only help to explain the motivations of each one but also present the information in such a fashion as to cause the game player to begin constructing a narrative from non-linear nodes of information; "it ends up being more a game of moral exploration than actual problem-solving" (Hachem, HTML). This narrative construction begins by presenting the player with a series of objects that must be used in a specific order. This order is not initially known, but rather is revealed as the player moves the character from one situation to another. Additionally, depending upon the situations chosen, more conventional plot points about the character are revealed, but once again these are presented in no particular order. It is up to the gamer to begin to piece a narrative together, and often two or more competing narratives can be generated and simultaneously considered thematically viable. Delany sees a proliferation of information arising from a production site involving any sort of game playing: "develop[ed] out of misread gestures, the bias that comes from a particular angle of observation, personality conflicts and personal goals as interpreted or misinterpreted within the game" (Delany, 45).
Producer David Mullich, having created a 1980 computer game based upon The Prisoner television series, replaced Sears and began annotating Ellisons draft for adaptation by the programmers and artists (over sixty people); Mullich added over 600 pages and 2000 additional lines of dialogue to Ellisons treatment (MGM, HTML).
even while making progress through the game's puzzles, the player feels an omnipresent umbrella of doom throughout the game, since a "happy" ending is difficult, if not impossible, to fathom [one] soon gets the sense that this is more a game of redemption than of victory, the goal being to see each character develop past their fatal flaw (Hachem, HTML)
One of the major changes in terms of storyline dealt with the ending of game. By definition, the game is goal-oriented and thus needed some sense of closure, yet Ellison wanted to deviate from the conventions of adventure games; "I did not want to build yet another stupid shoot-em-up arcade monstrosity to aid and abet the popular culture activity of keeping people stupid and distracted from important matters of life and thought" (Ellison, xiii). The god-like AMs personality is now a holy trinity of the original American, Russian, and Chinese computers, with the Russian and Chinese sub-systems trying to help the humans overthrow the totalitarian rule of AM; suddenly AM is not merely delusional and psychotic but afflicted with a multiple personality disorder as well.
Given the power of AMs mind coupled with its extensive database, the art team chose a variety of styles for each of the scripts, ranging from German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to pure visual fantasy (Odom, 191); this melange of artistic styles often borders on the surreal, invoking the sense of seething chaos which Ted seemed to experience at almost every turn within AMs cybernetic pathways. Ellison himself agreed to perform the voice of the demented computer AM, adopting the god-like role he had created, for as Ellison puts it, "in all the dialogue you will hear my smartmouth, and the cadences in which I speak, and the way my stories read" (MGM, HTML). More use of visual arts involved the packaging of the game, particularly as it included a mousepad imprinted with a 3-D image of Ellison's face entangled in a web of computer circuitry, created by Barclay Shaw for an Ellison anthology showcasing the original short story.
The various changes enacted in translating the story into an interactive CD-ROM ripple across many aspects of the text, from its content to its presentation. Changing certain conventions of the plot is linked to alternate ways to package the material; just as an author may choose to revise a story, provide some sort of annotation, or add a personal note, so too do stories receive new fonts and illustrations and books are reissued with new covers and different combinations of text. For some time, writers have been simultaneously bound by the social and economic conventions of publishing and liberated within these restrictions by playing with the possibilities that arise between form and content.
(A constructed Harlan Ellison from The Essential Ellison.)
"Just as a robot is bound by its programming, so a writer is bound by language, genre, and theme, limited by the program of a medium that is the cultures design, not his own" (Rose, 157). If a writer frees the text from the constraints of one particular genre and enters it into another, then a new cultural interpretation and a way of reading becomes possible. By entering the electronic medium, the thematic elements of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" are reconfigured enough to find a place within a computerized realm while exhibiting a textual lineage with its predecessors.
(A constructed Harlan Ellison from The Essential Ellison.)