In moving around my schedule, I may have unknowingly screwed myself over. If you follow me on Twitter, you’d know that I was originally going to cover Ghoul School today as a bit of a breather. I was going to need one after playing I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream on Friday. Instead, I pushed it to the weekend, allowing it to consume most of my day off and leaving in… an odd mood.
Harlan Ellison typed up the original short story in the span of one night, letting this tale of hatred and torment pour out of him without much thought. What ended up being published was mostly untouched from that original draft. That rawness is really to the benefit of the story, since the themes within are gruesome and unpleasant. Like Ellison himself, it’s a unyielding piece of work that demands a lot from you, perfect for its short format. To linger any longer would prompt the reader to commit to that unpleasantness for a dangerous amount of time. When adapting the story into an adventure game, that seemed to be the exact goal.
In an interview, Ellison was quoted as saying that he wanted a game that was impossible to win. By his own admission, he didn’t know much about games, but seemed to have a begrudging respect for the medium and its potential. When it was explained to him that the game needed at least one good possible outcome, part of me thinks he agreed only because he knew what kinds of things he could drag the player through to get there.
After a world war wiped out most of the population, a supercomputer by the name of AM granted immortally to five humans, specifically for the purpose of torturing them. Since AM itself is a human creation, it has no capacity for anything other than what it was built to do – destroy. As revenge for its own tortured existence, it decides to punish those five humans for eternity, exposing them to an ironic hell that hurts them on a deeper level far beyond the physical. They can not dies, so their only hope of salvation is a loss of sanity.
It is, easily, one of the most unpleasant games ever created, dealing with topics such as sexual abuse and mental illness. By his own admission, Ellison wanted to shock and disturb people, but not simply for the sake of it. He, oddly, saw the game as a morality tale, something that taught the player ethics. “If, in fact, you could not win this game, at least you could lose better” he said. To call it ambitious is an understatement. Unfortunately, it is held back a bit by the era it was made. It’s often nonsensical and frustrating, and not just in a narrative sense, trying its best to transcend the 1995 adventure game shell that it’s trapped inside of. It’s still functional, but I also can’t help but wonder what Ellison would in a modern space.
This isn’t me clamoring for a remake, mind you. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is still one of my favorite PC games of all time, even with its flaws, but it’s also the only time Ellison ever did anything in the medium. Horror could always use an extra shot in the arm and I’d like to think someone has at least attempted to have that conversation with him since. If not, we need to do so while he’s still here. Something tells me 2016 isn’t finished taking awesome people away from us.