Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is the most frightening science fiction short story ever written, 6,000 chilling words about a psychotic supercomputer and the five humans it exists to torment. Written in 1967, decades before computers were features of our everyday lives, it nevertheless anticipated and influenced an entire strain of 1980s and 1990s pop culture that was highly ambivalent about the role of artificial intelligence in our society. It’s hard to imagine The Matrix or Neuromancer without this story.
In 1995, the now-long-defunct California publisher Cyberdreams released a computer game based on Ellison’s twisted masterpiece. Only, this was no cheap adaptation: Ellison, famously protective of his copyrights, actually co-designed and co-wrote the game. It’s a classic adventure game, in the style of Monkey Island and King’s Quest, with a novel’s worth of prose to digest and devious puzzles to solve. Its biggest accomplishment, however, is cultivating and maintaining the hopeless, existential, downright philosophical tone of the book. A lot of that has to do with the art and especially the MIDI soundtrack, composed by the film composer John Ottman. And Ellison himself voiced AM, the malevolent supercomputer.
For years the game has been hard to find; earlier this month, through the work of Night Dive Studios, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream was rereleased through the digital distributor Steam. It’s on sale today for $2.50 in honor of the holiday. For a fraction of the cost of any number of unimaginative, rote, iterative horror games, you can own a piece of gaming literature. Buy it for yourself, or better, for a horror fan in your life.