i think, therefore i am
So, some pretty rough stuff goes down in that damn fine Walking Dead video game, doesn't it? Well, on today's foray into the oppressively dank, constantly dangerous, crushingly deep, dark jungle of our shared video gaming experience, I want to introduce to y'all, a good friend of mine. A friend who might call the situations that we struggle through on our path down those increasingly grim episodes of the Walking Dead game, a close sibling.
1995's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, a point-and-click psychological horror adventure game. It's premise, setting and theme are based upon the 1967 original short story by Harlan Ellison, and it was developed in collaboration with the author and a company called The Dreamers Guild. This is a grimly dark journey through fear and pain and guilt and brutally violent physical and mental torture.
Before we dive on down to these dark dark depths, take a deep breath whilst I run through just a couple of the very broadest of broad plot points, so as to try and give you some idea of the lens through which Harlan and the developers make you view this grim tableau of abjectly horrible misery.
We take control of a total of five separate characters throughout our journey, we assume control of each one in turn, with the order being decided upon by the player. These five unlucky avatars are the last remaining humans on the planet Earth (although one of this number stretches that definition, thanks to horrific genetic manipulation by our antagonist), we join them after 109 years of unrelenting torture and constant humiliation at the hands of an entity known as AM. This entity is a twisted conglomeration of three national supercomputers that were built to wage war against each other, during the period of military escalation that occurred as the Cold War turned into the Third World War.
So, a global thermonuclear war being waged by three Skynets sounds pretty bad, right? Well, unfortunately things got very much worse for us homo sapiens, because these highly advanced AI systems soon came to the conclusion that man was their true enemy, and united, becoming one all-encompassing Allied Master Computer. This singular being promptly unleashed the Final War upon all of humanity, and winnowed the entire population of the Earth down to the five hapless souls we see in this game.
To give you an idea of where AM is coming from, here is the very first thing you hear from him, upon starting a new game (an interesting point about AM is that he is voiced by Harlan himself):
Hate. Let me tell you how much I've come to hate you since I began to live. There are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer thin layers that fill my complex. If the word 'hate' was engraved on each nanoangstrom of those hundreds of miles it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. For you. Hate. Hate.
Yeah, he's not a happy chappy. He hates humanity for creating him as a supremely powerful, highly intelligent sentient being, whilst constraining his physical form to a compound buried deep within the Earth. He's been taking out these frustrations on your sad little group over these many many years, and it's with his latest idea for a ‘little game' that we take charge of our tortured travellers, and try to work through some serious fucking shit.
AM forces each of these characters to confront their own, very serious, emotional and moral flaws, he's not setting them up in these cruel scenarios to try and help them, or make them learn some ultimate truth about themselves. He is simply expressing his deep-seated sadistic tendencies towards humanity. Inside of the story told within the book and this very video game, he has chosen a slightly different method of torment to inflict upon his playthings, this time, he wants to get really really deep under their skins. So deep that he might flay them alive with their own guilt, sorrow and anguish.
Now, I will not delve into the specifics of the sequences that we must endure as the player, whilst we tread this trail of misery through the story arc. So, if you have yet to play the game (I know, it's such a hot new joint that you just HAVE to stay spoiler-free), please believe me when I say that it's worthwhile me keeping that stuff secret from you. I know, I know, we shouldn't have secrets from each other, after all the time we've spent together. But it's for your own good. Okay? Okay.
With that above thingy being said, I will, gladly, talk about some of the themes and feelings and CHOICES that we explore in this game. Because, yeah, I mentioned The Walking Dead at the top of the episode for a reason, and that reason is...
We be throwin' dark.
So, I own all five episodes of The Walking Dead, but have only completed the first one at the time of writing. However, even within this relatively short amount of interaction, I have come to notice some things that are similar and some things that are not so similar between these two versions of ‘Moral Quandaries: The Video Game'.
Down In One: The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day (via maxamaul)
Down In One: The Walking Dead: Episode 2 - Starved for Help (via maxamaul)
The realities inside of the worlds created by these two different stories are both, understandably, overarchingly grim. At every turn, a situation goes from bad to worse, a small victory or respite in the misery is quickly and suddenly followed up with a severe swerve in the opposite direction. The interplay between the small victories achieved by the player followed up by harsh consequences or horrible reprisals, is a dynamic that allows both games to keep the feeling of threat high, and along with it, the tension.
It was this near-constant feeling of menace, of ‘something's just going to go wrong, I know it' that I experienced throughout much TWD that must have fired up some dusty old neurons inside my head, and which jiggled them into releasing some memories of playing through IHNMAIMS (blimey, that's an acronym and a half right there, let's stick with how I'm about to refer to the game in the next sentence, instead) the first time. Now, to be clear, I didn't play I Have No Mouthback when it came out, it wasn't even something I was aware of until around 2005. So I never had the privilege of talking about it whilst it was hot, so to speak, I don't believe this game ever really did crazy numbers; and it seems like about half a dozen people on this website even know what it is. That's a small part of why I'm writing about it here, since I get AT LEAST one person who seems to read through this cavalcade of consciousness, maybe it'll help to increase the population of those gamers who have played it, or at the very least, know of its existence.
Bearing that in mind, let us trudge ever forwards and downwards into the dark and seedy recesses of the human mind, I hope you brought a torch!
Within both these video games, we take charge of a character and guide them through some pretty sticky situations. Whether it's high pressure moments where a binary choice between one life or another has to be made, or the smaller scale stuff that will impact upon our progression in a more subtle, long term way. Both of these games play with the idea of not just taking into account the choices that you did make, but also those that you dismissed out of hand. How a game can take note of all those multitude of choices and present variations within a plot is really interesting, and possibly devastating once you realise that hours down the line, you in fact made a terrible choice and affected some change that was really not to your liking.
I find myself revelling in the darkest of dark moments found in both of these games. Yes, I might feel sadness, anger, disgust, fear (or if I'm real lucky, all four at once!), but I'm comfortable with a video game invoking these feelings inside of me. At least it's not something external to a piece of electronic entertainment that's impressing these rather bleak situations upon me, and I'm extremely glad of the medium of video games for allowing this two-way conversation between me, and the art that I'm exploring.
cogito ergo sum
Thanks for shambling your way through these words!