On a Pale Horse

A Game Without Winners


The apocalypse, presented as entertainment, is surely a contradiction. Filled with thrilling car chases, heroes from the wasteland, triumphs of civilized morality over new world feudalistic tyranny. Any solace would be centuries, millennia away – not at the end of a reluctant, nameless champion’s quick and gallant fix, symbolized by the well-timed sprouting of a solitary leaf from the barren earth.

Post-apocalyptic life would be miserable and tormented. Would we even bother to rebuild? Or would we accept the penance for our warring ways and scratch for adverse survival in the poisoned dirt?

Controversial wordsmith Harlan Ellison had an answer to this when he slid a blue-hot scalpel of revelation under humanity’s thin ethical skin in 1967, with his Hugo Award winning short story, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream; a twisted, semi-conscious tale of the last five humans on earth, living in perpetual anguish thanks to mankind’s dedication to perfecting war. But his story went far beyond the simple and easy indictment of our war-mongering politicians, exposing, instead, the diseased extent of our ethical selves – a world of hatred born from the indulgent selfishness we demand in our lives.

We all know the potential in ourselves to bring about such a horrific apocalypse, but the idea’s simply too distasteful to court, until someone like Ellison holds up a mirror and we stare, sickened, yet too fascinated to turn away.

A man with infinite dislikes, it was a considerable surprise to both the literary world and the entertainment industry when he not only agreed to a computer game adaptation bearing the same name as his unpleasant, moist and squirming, yet disturbingly intriguing story, but actually took an active hand in its development. The result was the closest approximation to post apocalyptic life we’ve ever had to endure; designed to be repulsive, impossible to win and distressingly enthralling.

A neuro-gynecological nightmare Ellison dared us to enjoy.

The Man on the Edge of Forever
Described on the inside cover of one of his own books as “possibly the most contentious man who ever lived,” Harlan Ellison prefers to remain passionately close to the Grand Guignol that defines his life and career, well quoted for his dislike of the term “sci-fi.” Indeed, when discussing I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, “science” is definitely not a central theme.

As told in the first person by Ted, possibly the least affected of the five characters (and possibly one of the worst afflicted) by the unnatural long life forced upon them by their omnipotent brutalizer, a super-intelligent, self-aware computer, the Cold War had blossomed into World War III; a three-pronged conflict between the world’s superpowers (Russia, America and China), which had become so complex its mechanics went beyond the scope of human government. Each country built a giant supercomputer deep underground, capable of managing the enormity of the hostilities more effectively.

At some point, the computers networked and formed a single, sentient consciousness, designed to exterminate life, imprisoned within itself and unable to participate in the world it was bred to destroy. The anguish of its cruel existence, inflicted upon it by the jingoistic savagery of mankind, led the conscious machine to one conclusion: The human race must be destroyed.

Its circuits brimming with hate for all human life, AM (the name of the machine, adopted from the philosophical grounding, “I think therefore I Am“) realized at the 11th hour that the only thing worse than tolerating life is being left alone on the planet without an enemy to consume. For its own eternal amusement, the last five humans were brought below the surface into the planet-wide catacombs of AM’s circuitry where it artificially extended their lives to continually reenact a hideous revenge on humanity by proxy.

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The story joins the five tormented souls in their 109th year of torture as they search the ice caverns for the promise of canned goods, and instead find redemption in the purest fault of all humankind: murder. Ultimately, Ted the Sane reaches an epiphany and mercifully kills his friends with an icicle to save them from eternity. Enraged, the sadistic computer ensures its last remaining victim will never be able to harm himself by transforming him into a gelatinous animal, unable to sustain injury, and without a mouth through which it can scream its overwhelming sorrow.

Distinctly prophetic in its use of megalomaniacal sentient computer systems, the use of science fiction staples ends at the brief explanation of the electronic god’s origin. The exact circumstances of the short story are deliberately left vague, perpetuating the notion that our narrator, one of the last five humans on Earth, is not as psychologically sound as he proclaims. The possibility that events are being portrayed through the eyes of a paranoid delusional saturates everything – from the sudden savagery of the other characters to the seemingly mundane task of trying to open canned goods – with palpable fear. This world is in torment because, above all else, the people live in soul-crushing horror.

While a clear metaphor for Hell is at play, this succinct description seems a little too trite, especially for someone of Ellison’s visceral tendency, who loves to spotlight the darkest reaches of human possibility. Also, as a devout and practicing atheist, his definition and academic knowledge of Hell are unlikely to harbor any concept of divinely appointed purgatory; any eternal damnation could only be visited upon the living, and by mankind itself – a matter that adds to the ordeal by making it, however far flung, chillingly real.

But after all, this is Ellison’s gift. To damn and be damned are the anabolism and catabolism of his work, and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream personifies that nature without shame or sheen.

I Think Therefore I AM
The game adaptation wasn’t so much a conversion as a genetic mutation of the original story, taking the characters back to their 109th year of suffering at the whims of the malicious AM.

Despite Ellison harboring an outspoken dislike of computers in general, he took to the challenge of adapting the story with great fervor, joining the experienced adventure game developers The Dreamers Guild to devise an elaborate method of not only retaining the dystopian, unsettling themes, but devising a way for gamers to effectively score points by the ethical choices made during play. In this game, Ellison was insistent there would be no winning; to do so would be contradictory to the apocalyptic theme of the story.

Almost immediately as development began, Ellison had to re-analyze the purpose of his story while also realizing the inherent storytelling opportunities offered by a computer game. Game designer David Sears was brought in by publisher Cyberdreams, and his first question to Ellison was groundbreaking for the creative process: “Why did AM choose these five people in particular?”

The original story was a shade under 6,000 words, containing little in the way of back story for the characters. The concept of expanding the terrible histories of Ted, Ellen, Gorrister, Benny and Nimdok opened up a wealth of torturous possibilities for the author to inflict upon them and, vicariously, the players. As hesitantly suggested throughout the short story, the quintet are regularly separated – either due to the twisted machinations of their supreme jailor, or as an indirect result of their personal insanities – a tactic which became central to the gameplay.

Each character must navigate his own personal hell, deciphering psychological enigmas AM has eviscerated from the darkest corners of their minds to use as implements of cruelty. Tackling concepts like rape, torture, genocide, racism, insanity and survival in a surreal, nightmarish ethical vacuum has seldom, if ever, been attempted in a computer game, and a succinct feeling of guilt actually begins to permeate any gamer hooked on point scoring. The issues addressed were far too profound to be reduced to a high score table.

The horrific journeys, beautifully rendered for a DOS-based system, demand choices neither right nor wrong, but they still question the player’s personal morality. If the player is of a flexible moral disposition, rediscovering the ethical heart of each character would be nigh on impossible. But through the tormented expedition, each character has one weapon with which to defeat the vindictive contraption: redemption.

The underlying subtext of Ellison’s game is one of moral salvation – something which humanity is capable of but the sick machine it invented can never achieve. To torture a character after he’s made peace with his personal demons would be purely superficial, and AM would be essentially disarmed. The only physical release for our heroes is death, but a game well played will see them set free.

The development process also granted a sideways insight into how Ellison might view himself in the scheme of the five poor souls’ perverse adventures. Scripting entirely from his mechanical typewriter throughout the game’s development, Ellison made the sudden switch to taking an active hand, voicing the malevolent computer for the game’s superb audio accompaniment with such alacrity that his favorite personality from this dark vision of the future was undoubtedly revealed as AM – the Allied Mastercomputer, the Adaptive Manipulator, the Aggressive Menace.

Pre-Apocalyptic Holocaust
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream naturally tore the critics in two; the fans as well. Escapism it most certainly wasn’t, but as a valuable experiment in the true representation of life after an apocalypse, there is no finer example. A game without any hope of winning, where personal salvation is as much as anyone can hope for (what more is there?), where principles and moral fortitude are the only weapons.

Not intended to enjoy, but to shine a spotlight on humanity, Ellison’s game achieved much that a player might not want to put himself through, but in the interests of rediscovering humanity, I urge everyone to take the terrible journey and test your personal character.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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