Girl in the Machine
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
A Strictly Female Affliction

In 1995, Cyberdreams published a one-of-a-kind adventure game for the PC that was based on Harlan Ellison's unsettling short story, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." The dystopian premise of both is basically the same: an all-powerful supercomputer called AM has taken control of the Third World War and destroyed most of humanity. Only five survivors remain, and they waste away in an underground chamber plagued by immortality of AM's making. Spurred by his hatred of humanity, AM has been torturing the five for 109 years, and this is where the game begins.

The basic structure of the game is this: the player navigates through five "stages" based on the psychological state of each character. The character must outsmart AM's torments by overcoming the challenges within. It's much more complex than that, really, but I'm afraid I don't have time to do the game's depth justice right here.

What I do want to discuss is something that bothered me greatly while playing through this otherwise stellar game. To begin, it isn't surprising that, of the five main characters, only one is a woman.

This is Ellen, whose cage deep underground is a splintering canary yellow. We learn just as she's introduced that she has a paralyzing fear of this color, which the game unfortunately (and repeatedly) describes as driving her to "hysteria." AM consistently focuses Ellen's torture on the color yellow, as we quickly see when we're presented with her stage:

An enormous, solid gold pyramid.

As we navigate the halls of Ellen's psyche, it's her fear of yellow that guides us. What could have possibly caused this unusual phobia? Why, after over a century of confronting the color, does it still inflict such panic?

We uncover the answer when Ellen enters a sarcophagus and finds herself in a very familiar elevator.

There's a piece of yellow clothing on the floor. Much to her horror, Ellen finds that she's locked in the elevator, and the clothing springs to life as an ominous shadow, taunting her, revealing her secret at last. Ready to know what's caused this terror of all things yellow?

She was raped.

To be completely honest, as circuitous as it all seems, I was expecting it. And it makes me sigh.

Rape is a tricky thing to incorporate into any fictive medium. It's violent and ugly and terrible -- and very real. I definitely do not doubt Harlan Ellison's writing prowess, either. However, what makes me uncomfortable about the inclusion of rape in a woman's backstory is that it's such a go-to motivation for fleshing out female characters. She's weak because she was raped; she wants revenge because she was raped; etc., etc. We see it so often (admittedly more in written fiction and comics rather than video games) that it's become cliche.

What's more, it's a strictly female affliction, which serves only to hammer home the cold reality that this is a danger that mostly women have to face.

This isn't cut-and-dried, of course. I'm not calling for an issue as tough and universal as rape to be excised from all of fiction. We also have to consider that the original short story was written in the sixties, and that rape is very rarely -- if ever -- dealt with in video games. However, in this particular case, Ellen is the only woman of five vastly differing characters, and, in a game as beautifully written and richly-detailed as this one, it's disappointing to say the very least.

Of Ellen's fellow prisoners, a former Nazi scientist must face the horror of his own work and a man whose wife was locked up in an insane asylum has to deal with his guilt. These are just two of the varying backstories that we come across. And we've seen this over and over: male characters with branching personalities and motivations are a sharp contrast to their more static or cliched female fellows. This is a much more general but just as prevalent affliction. If female characters were granted the same depth and diversity, it would be another step closer to a less patriarchal culture.

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is an intricate game that'll both disturb and challenge you. Its puzzles and narrative are what most adventure games wish they could offer, and if you can dig up a copy, I highly recommend it despite its flaws.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 10:15 AM + Link to this post

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