I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream Soundtrack, John Ottman, 1995
Point-and-click adventure games arguably reached the peak of their popularity during the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly, this period also saw the genre daring to branch out into previously untapped, darker subject matter – although whether this was always handled with the necessary maturity and taste is up for debate. The best known example of these edgier adventure games might be Sierra’s Phantasmagoria, but arguably more confronting and thought-provoking was I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.
Based on Harlan Ellison’s short story of the same name, the game presents a bleak sci-fi scenario in which a super-computer eternally tortures humanity’s final five survivors following a nuclear holocaust, simply for its own pleasure and out of infinite hatred for mankind. Having Ellison himself involved in the creation of the game made sure it featured far better writing than most other video games. However, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream suffered from some design flaws that held it back from becoming a genre classic. Still, even decades after its release, the game stands out for its unflinching look at some immensely depressing subject matter, articulated through the repugnant yet tragic life stories of the five survivors players control during the game.
Musically, the I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream soundtrack would have presented both a formidable challenge and immense opportunities. The task at hand was to underscore a very, very downbeat narrative in the understated style typical of adventure game scores – while working with a narrative and characters that were much richer than what most video games would offer. Thankfully, the developers found a composer who was more than up to the task: John Ottman, who would see his breakthrough the same year scoring and editing Bryan Singer’s neo-noir classic The Usual Suspects.
Arguably, Ottman is best known for his large-scale, near-symphonic soundtracks including some of the X-Men movies, Superman Returns and Jack the Giant Slayer. Seeing him score a gloomy mid-1990s adventure video game is a surprise, but maybe only initially. Known for grandly orchestrated work, Ottman had cut his teeth composing for movies by rescoring his friends’ student films. This likely provided him with the experience writing for the sort of MIDI instruments used on the I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream soundtrack. And it’s worth keeping in mind that several of Ottman’s early film scores were written for movies with horror aspects – particularly Snow White: A Tale of Terror. As such, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream forms a more organic part of Ottman’s output than one might think.
And while the I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream soundtrack doesn’t have Snow White’s sudden mood changes, it shares the same feeling of morbidity that seeps into every single note. Ottman makes creative use of chamber music-sized orchestrations, relying heavily on woodwinds (including saxophone) and percussion. The resulting instrumental palette produces a claustrophobic and haunting mood – but at the same time is capable of intimate expressions of regret and hope, vital to properly underscoring the protagonists’ conflicted, multi-faceted personalities.
What makes the I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream soundtrack even more intriguing is the fragmented melodic and harmonic material Ottman writes. His compositions may rarely change their languid pacing and oppressive demeanour, but they are anything but predictable. Ottman’s overwhelmingly chromatic harmonies are constantly surprising, while his jazz-influenced melody writing has a complexity and maturity rarely encountered in game scores. This is a soundtrack that demands and rewards multiple close listens under headphones to unearth its myriad subtleties. Like few other game scores, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream keeps the emotions it conveys fascinatingly ambiguous and unstable. As such, it perfectly mirrors the murky emotional and moral state of its protagonists.
There’s no doubt that the I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream soundtrack feels overwhelming claustrophobic, as if underscoring a doomed search for answers in some subterranean, darkly-lit cavern. But Ottman finds individual tone colours for each protagonist to underscore their individual storyline – which has the added benefit of staving off monotony. The fact that Nimdok used to be a Nazi scientist conducting horrific medical experiments is unobtrusively, but effectively communicated by adding snare drums to the ensemble. The mock-medieval pomp and stateliness of Ted’s compositions brilliantly comments on his former life as a conman bankrolled by various rich lovers. And Garrister’s crushing guilt resulting out of an abusive marriage and institutionalisation of his wife leads to compositions dominated by disorienting percussion. Throughout all the doom and gloom of these compositions, Ottman’s melodic writing – no matter how challenging it might be at times – preserves these characters’ humanity.
The I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream soundtrack isn’t easy to embrace, but it is never cold, always keeping its emotional connection to its protagonists alive. And it’s during each character’s ‘Redemption’ tracks that these glimmers of empathy are allowed to shine bright enough to banish those demons from the past. It’s fascinating to witness how Ottman manages to steer these compositions into hopeful, sometimes even bombastic major key territory, without ever sacrificing the music’s ambiguous nature and elusive progressions. Even when “Win” celebrates the game’s (very hard to achieve) ‘good’ ending, it does so with a sigh of relief rather than jubilation, yet still builds patiently towards a grandiose conclusion that somehow feels in tune with the rest of the soundtrack. A little-known gem, the I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream soundtrack emerges as one of the intriguing and intricate adventure scores ever written.
Purchase on Good Old Games.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - Ellen's Exploration John Ottman 4:00
- 02 - Ellen's Fatal Flaw John Ottman 1:29
- 03 - Ellen's Redemption I John Ottman 2:30
- 04 - Ellen's Redemption II John Ottman 1:56
- 05 - Benny's Exploration John Ottman 3:20
- 06 - Benny's Fatal Flaw John Ottman 2:15
- 07 - Benny's Redemption John Ottman 2:50
- 08 - Nimdock's Exploration John Ottman 2:58
- 09 - Nimdock's Fatal Flaw John Ottman 2:32
- 10 - Nimdock's Redemption John Ottman 2:28
- 11 - Ted's Exploration John Ottman 3:04
- 12 - Ted's Fatal Flaw John Ottman 2:00
- 13 - Ted's Redemption John Ottman 2:24
- 14 - Gorrister's Exploration John Ottman 3:34
- 15 - Gorrister's Fatal Flaw John Ottman 2:33
- 16 - Gorrister's Redemption John Ottman 2:42
- 17 - Blob John Ottman 0:57
- 18 - Win John Ottman 5:20
- 19 - Credits John Ottman 5:34