The lights are on
While some younger readers might find it hard to believe, our culture’s interest in post-apocalyptic settings didn’t originate with the Fallout series. Harlan Ellison’s 1967 short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” is an early landmark, offering readers an unimaginably bleak look at humanity’s future, with five desperate souls enduring the constant torture of a deranged AI. Despite its sparse characterization and lack of a traditional narrative, it was adapted into a computer game of the same name in 1995. Here’s the story of how Ellison and a pair of designers transformed the story into one of the most disturbing point-and-click adventure games of all time.
When David Sears heard that publisher Cyberdreams was adapting one of Harlan Ellison’s short stories into a game, the longtime fan’s mind began racing. “I was thinking ‘Oh, it could be ‘Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman’; or maybe ‘A Boy and His Dog’; and it’s going to be some kind of RPG or something,’ Sears recalls. “And they said, ‘No, it’s ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’ and I was like ‘What?’ At the time, in the game-development community, people said, ‘Oh I love Ellison’s stories, but there’s no way you could turn that into a game.’ I thought, ‘Wow, what have I gotten into?’”
To make the task even more daunting, this was Sears’ first job in game development. Previously, he was a writer and assistant editor at Compute magazine. A feature he wrote on Cyberdreams’ H.R. Geiger collaboration Dark Seed led to a job writing a clue book for the adventure game in the pre-Internet era of 1992, which in turn led to the current offer: Spend a week with the notoriously prickly author Ellison and distill his iconic work – one of the top 10 most reprinted stories in the English language – into his first game-design document.
Finding An InSears says that Ellison immediately made him feel welcome. The two talked for a while about Ellison’s writings, science fiction, and other areas of common interest. Sears’ fears of being seen as a fanboy or as being ignorant were unfounded. “I don’t want to damage his reputation, because I’m sure he spent decades building it up, but he’s a real rascal with a heart of gold – but he doesn’t tolerate idiots,” Sears says.
Now came the tough part: turning a tale set in a hopeless world featuring five characters with no real histories into something playable. The story ends with four of the characters dead, with the remaining survivor transformed into a shapeless mass of goo (see sidebar). Super Mario Bros., it wasn’t. The breakthrough came with a simple question. “The question David posed to Harlan that got them started was ‘Why were these people saved? Why did AM decide to save them?’” recalls David Mullich, who produced the game. Ellison was put off by the question, which he told Sears he’d never been asked before. Realizing they were onto something, the pair began working on their concept. The story would be split into five vignettes, each based on one of characters.
“That was going to be the premise of the game – finding out why these characters had been chosen by AM to be tortured and resurrected endlessly and forever,” Sears says. “And then he immediately sat down and started typing on his Olympic manual typewriter.”
Over the next few days, Ellison and Sears began fleshing out each of the five characters, creating deeper histories for them and delving into why they were selected. “I went to work, and I started making my notes, but he had to go first and come up with a premise,” Sears says.
“Harlan wanted to touch on controversial themes,” Mullich recalls. “Each one dealt with a very strong theme.” Some of the issues the game explored included the nature of guilt, sexual assault, and, perhaps most famously, the Holocaust. It was an early attempt to tackle genuinely mature subject matter in an era where “mature” typically meant showing a heroine in a bra.
Since Ellison was responsible for steering the adaptation’s creative direction, Sears found himself with free time in that first week while he waited for Ellison’s notes. The writer would offer Sears distractions, such as recommending that he go out onto the home’s balcony and enjoy the view. When those didn’t work, Ellison dug into Sears’ interests. “What do you like to read? Do you like comics?” Sears recalls Ellison asking, with Sears replying that he liked Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. “Dialing from memory he makes a call and says ‘Hey Neil, this is David, I’m collaborating with him on a game for Cyberdreams. He’s a fan and he’d love to talk to you about your work.’ So Neil Gaiman talked to me for about an hour, straight off the plane from Mississippi.” Later, Sears had lunch with Babylon 5 writer and producer J. Michael Straczynski, and was among the first to see the show’s pilot episode. “Harlan went out of his way to be a great host.”
Of course, there was still plenty of work to do. “I worked with [Ellison’s notes]over the course of a week in collaboration with Harlan to turn out what we both thought was a really, really good design document,” Sears says. “Cyberdreams disagreed, and they said it was just a proposal.” Sears collaborated with Ellison for an additional week before returning home to Mississippi, where he finished his work on the document over the next six weeks.
This article first appeared in issue #225 of Game Informer.
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