SummaryBold move, long fall.
The GoodThis is one of a rare species, an adaption from book into game form significantly involving the original author.
Now, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is your classic story of supercomputer starts global thermonuclear war, exterminates human race save five, keeps said people around for amusement through torture. Harlan Ellison himself appears as the voice of the sentient ultracomputer "AM", which is rather an interesting statement.
As the game begins, AM informs its captives that it has "prepared a little game" for them. Actually five games, each tailored to the flaws of the person. You can play these subgames in any order. While in a subgame, you can give up and try another character's subgame, though that discards all progress in the current one.
This alone should tell you that this game is a radical variation on the original story; in it, the characters struggled together. In the game, there is more introspection with the characters on their own.
The subgames explore the background and personality of the characters by casting them among people and scenes from their past and/or situations that hinge on their character. I could see an excellent opportunity for moral complexity here. The game, however, throws ambiguity to the wind and indicates how much Good and Bad you've done by displaying a green tint behind the character's portrait on the status bar. It's basically a karma meter; do something Bad, such as torturing animals, and you lose karma.
The really interesting thing here, then, is that you're playing characters that have pasts and personal problems, unlike the naïve, well-meaning vanilla heroes with no history to speak of you get in most adventure games. From the karma meter description above, you may have guessed that you're supposed to make each character a better person through doing The Right Thing(tm). You can tell when you've done good, because your character portrait will flash a moronic grin. No, I'm not kidding. The first time I saw it I nearly choked.
Still, you may think, figuring out which action agrees with the character's moral standards might be interesting. However...
The BadOne subgame is plain ridiculous. Another has a gratuitous time progression that forces you to play each day twice just to get your bearings, while a third basically shouts the character's background at you. In fact, the subgame that works the best is the one where the story is revealed behind solutions to barely tangential puzzles, which is a sure sign that the designers weren't up to this difficult task.
There was one subgame which I thought realized the character competently, but it contained some of the worst puzzles I've ever seen. And the ending... well, I can't really talk about it without spoiling, so I won't.
The interface feels unfinished, unresponsive and clunky. The character animation often looks downright comical, like poorly directed marionettes. There are serious bugs. There are puzzles that give no feedback on your actions. There are several opportunities for stranding yourself, one of which may leave you to play most of the game over again. And finally, if you're going to have a story-driven adventure, you'd better not have any pixel-hunting puzzles. I Have No Mouth does have a pixel-hunting puzzle and I did scream. Loudly.
The Bottom LineAll this is irrelevant, however: It's still required playing, because it's one of the few game adaptations to significantly involve the original author, and the only graphic adventure I can think of that works towards really complex characters. And for anyone remotely interested in Harlan Ellison and adventure games, there's simply no question. Shame, really; a more polished I Have No Mouth might have hooked some people on adventure games, possibly even raised the standards of what an adventure game should be.