Phantasmagoria. The game that made us all wonder if sweet King’s Quest/Mixed Up Mother Goose designer Roberta Williams had secret “issues.” The game spoken of in mostly hushed tones and shocked awe – “Did you SEE that part where that girl got killed?” “Did you SEE that rape scene!?” And the game that did or did not revolutionize the “interactive movie,” depending on who you talk to. Does it deserve all of this ruckus it has stirred up over the years? Yes. Is it the scariest game ever made? Sadly, no.
A “phantasmagoria” was a term for an old Vaudville-era show using an early, crude form of a slide projector (called a magic lantern) and some silk screens positioned just to the sides of the stage, to project the images of spirits and ghosts “floating” in the theatre. The term makes for a fitting title. The game is about an old Vaudville magician named Carno, famous for his horrific stage acts and gruesome ghost shows, and the couple who inherit his twisted estate. It also is unintentionally a fitting description for the game itself – a lot of magic lanterns and silk screens that produce great-looking effects, that ultimately distract you from the story and terror that aren’t there.
Horror games, like horror movies, are difficult to review with any accuracy, because the experience is more subjective than any other genre. What scares one person may not scare another, and may be completely too much for a third. The best I can really do is tell you how the game affected me and why. Despite hoping that this could finally be it, the scariest psychological thriller I’ve ever played, Phantasmagoria didn’t scare me, didn’t even make me a little unsettled. It reminded me the most of the 90’s remake of The House On Haunted Hill – a campy plot with the only updates made to the raunchy, full color gore.
You play as mystery novelist Adrienne Delaney (Victoria Morsell). Her husband Don (David Homb) is a magazine photographer who happens across the old island and mansion estate of Zoltan “Carno” Carnovasch while on one of his shoots. Apparently it is for sale, and game opens in your first day in the new home. This gives an excuse for you to have not fully explored the place yet, and you, being a mystery writer and all, set out to poke around the strange mansion. Along the way, you’ll discover a bit of the history of Carno and the house, meet some new friends, find the expected bevy of hidden secrets, and unintentionally release a demon that inhabits the body of your husband and turns him into a raging asshole.
The game takes the digital actor idea Sierra used in creating its characters for later versions of Police Quest, and applies it to video. The actors are shot in front of a bluescreen and composited into an elaborate digital background. In theory, this is meant to create the feeling of watching a movie and directing its outcome, while being cost-effective by using real actors without building any actual sets. Roberta Williams also stated in many interviews that she believed having real people as the characters was crucial to creating horror and empathy for them, and I suppose I see her point. Yet in practice, the execution isn’t a great deal different than any other adventure game, and the human actor isn’t treated or handled differently than an animated character.
In previous games, your animated character would stand stock still until you click somewhere in the gameworld. The character then goes through a few cycles of animation as he/she/it saunters over to the specified point, then goes still again. The identical sequence occurs here, with slightly more fluid “animation” as you watch a video sequence of Adrienne walking, and a slightly more odd feel as the video goes to a still image of her in a “default” position, waiting for new input. Her default position is to stand like a Marine at attention, and every single action or move she takes requires her to both start and end in this position. So it’s annoying, but forgivable, to watch constant extra seconds of her walking around to her starting position, flipping her hair back, and awkwardly straightening up and looking ahead, to match the still image shown next.
There is also the much-panned fact that she doesn’t change her clothes for a week. Technical reasons are the excuse, but I’m not going to say that it detracted in any way from the game. It does reinforce that she’s just another adventure game character, this time made of video instead of artwork.
As this is an interactive movie, there must be equal balance between the interacting and the movie. I must give credit to Williams; she mostly avoids getting enamored with the idea of making a movie (the pitfall of so many ’90s game designers), and keeps the intent of making a game at the forefront. Non-interactive sequences are thankfully brief, and mostly relegated to a opening and closing movie for each chapter, and dialogue or object examination scenes within. The other sections, as Adrienne navigates the digital environment, are frequently edited down to the start of her walk and a new shot of the end of her arrival at her destination. I don’t think it ever took more than a second to move from place to place, and a “fast forward” button has been included to jump ahead to the end of any movement cycle. Don’t worry about using this feature – any key plot scenes are shown in a separate movie format that use the escape key to skip instead of the button.
Another brilliant move is to divide the game appropriately across seven chapters, and seven discs. This limits your disc-swapping to the start of a new chapter, and you can explore the entire mansion grounds without having to switch discs for certain rooms or unique events. There’s only one section where you must retreat to a previous disc, but this is for the longest “plot revelation” movie sequence in the game. This system works quite well, and is very appreciated.
The most important thing that can be said about the graphics is that they match video and prerendered graphics pretty well. The video characters exhibit some pixelation not present in the backgrounds, but this is light and not anywhere near Sega CD level. Otherwise, spill from the bluescreen is negligible or simply not there, lighting on the characters match the lighting of the virtual space, and the scale is appropriate and believable. The non-interactive movie sequences can be seen in a full-frame (a little more than half of the available screen) format, or a quarter-screen with scanlines option for slower computers. The smaller screen is serviceable, but the full screen option offers a complete image, is the same size as the rest of the game and thus more seamless, and is the obvious choice if you are able to use it.
The mansion seems to have been built by the same contractor who put up Stauf’s mansion in The 7th Guest. Oak, marble, and gold trim are judiciously used, along with some gaudy fabrics to give it an overwhelmingly Victorian, opulent feel. Carno’s mansion has a distinctly carnival atmosphere, both in decoration and music, presumably meant to reflect his character. It also has the effect of making the environment seem more like a sideshow, and less in the realm of standard or Gothic horror. It is also far better lit, and decorated with much brighter colors, than 7th Guest. I found this to make the game seem a little more childish, and a little less unsettling or foreboding, but perhaps the contrast was their intent. It also features a number of digital outdoor areas, with digital trees, water, and the like. They look a little goofy in comparison to the indoor areas, but it seems like some small attempt was made at making them look stylistically unreal, like a Tim Burton set. A digital mainland town is also present with a few stores you can visit, and generally looks far better than your island and garden areas.
The characters are a varied group, all performed well by a collection of TV and B-movie actors. There’s a full range from you and your husband, to the antique store owner who has a lot of convenient information on Carno. There’s an even more convenient hundred-year-old man (Douglas Seale) who lived with Carno back in the day, and has a voice like the Emperor from Star Wars. He interestingly gives one of the best performances, and I found myself really trying to listen to what he had to say through his frail, frightened voice. Adrienne is portrayed well by Morsell and makes for a suitable heroine. She is not the ditzy “lock the front door and run upstairs when the killer is in the house” kind of woman, and the mystery writer profession is presumably a license to be inquisitive and clever. She spends an excessive amount of time preening in various mirrors while unobservantly missing paranormal activities behind her, but otherwise, I suppose the nicest thing that can be said is that you don’t want her to die.
I can’t say the same for the other major characters. There’s a silly bag lady and her oafish son who feature into the plot, who elicit more eyebrow-raising than laughs. I suppose they are meant to be the comic relief, but with a story that lacks tension, they come off as simply silly and overly hammy. Your husband is portrayed well, even as the demons take him over and he starts to become more crass and violent. Unfortunately, his final stage is a real groaner. It’s not a fault of the actor, it’s a fault of the direction he was given to “be a total madman.” He runs around, cackling with evil glee, like a psychotic child trying to get Mommy’s attention. Carno (Robert Miano), who you will see in the expected visions of the past, does a much better job at being methodical, reserved of word, and scary.
Much of Phantasmagoria’s reputation comes from its sex scenes. There are two, and they played it mostly safe here. The first is of the suggestive humping variety, but no actual nudity is shown. This is meant to contrast the second, the game’s notorious rape scene where we see how Adrienne’s husband has gone from a gentle lover to a possessed jerkwad. “Rape” makes you expect this is going to be worse than it is, but it’s still certainly uncomfortable as he paws at a disinterested Adrienne who finally gives in, only to see the demons take over and get rough. That’s it for the sex, and I’m sure Sierra felt that anything more for a game in 1995 would be pushing too much, too soon.
The deaths are a different story, probably more graphic and imaginative that you have heard or would expect. They are certainly above a typical mainstream Jason/Freddy picture – no one just gets stabbed in the chest with a knife. I don’t want to give these away any more than that, as they are pretty much the most fun of the show, but not for the squeamish. Part of what makes them so gory, I think, is that they’re almost always brightly lit, while film usually puts such results in shadow. This is offset by keeping them to movie sequences. You can never click on a corpse and view a close-up still, like a typical adventure item, or allow the gory scene to be up on your screen for more than a second. A password-locked censorship option exists, but the game’s themes hardly make this a game for the kids anyway.
I was originally disappointed with the speed at which I was blazing through the discs. Indeed, the crucial plot-elements of a chapter will only take about thirty minutes per disc to drive through. However, this is still a Sierra adventure, and exploration is rewarded. Instead of points, you will usually find extra backstory, or visions and corpses tucked in out-of-the-way areas. If you get particularly stuck on what to do next, an in-game hint system exists in the form of a talking skull on your interface bar. Clicking the skull will give a direct clue (i.e. “Someone waits inside the house”) without apparent penalty. The skull will not lead you to these extra scenes, however, and it’s almost worth going through every room in each chapter to avoid missing anything. It at least helps to color the motives and emotional state of Adrienne, if you assume these are all scenes you’re “meant” to have seen by the end. In most cases, it will be quite obvious when something in a room has changed, or when a new discovery is available, so it’s worth popping your head in the door as you pass by.
The game is quite simple for novice players in ways beyond the hint system. You can only hold eight items at a time, and the game is designed so that you will not need or gain another until you use one you already have. These items will never be used on each other inside your inventory. In most cases, their use is obvious, like applying a key to a locked door. In less-obvious cases, you can simply “pull” the item from your inventory and move it over the item in the world – if you can use it, the cursor will turn red. The same extends to exploring the house, as a red cursor indicates something you can investigate further.
The game is also completely linear, you won’t “miss” an item you’ll need in a later disc, you can update your save at any point, and you cannot die. The exception is the last chapter where you can frequently die, but this is all contained in the last disc with no need to swap back to a previous one. When you die in these sections, you can also restart from the beginning of the final scene, or review the previous choices you made to try a new sequence of actions.
This game, according to Sierra’s own marketing, cost four million dollars to make. To get that kind of money as a game designer, you’d have to be sleeping with the CEO of the company! [drum fill] I suppose the real question is if this shows with the final product, and if all that money spent translates in some meaningful way to the player. I was impressed with the graphics, and the skillful marriage between a pre-rendered background and a full-video actor. 7th Guest toyed with the idea, but to sustain it through an entire game, and sustain it believably, is no small accomplishment. I was legitimately surprised, I’ll even bump that up to “shocked,” at the level of gore and graphic violence they were able to get away with for the time. I suppose this was possible by billing it as an “interactive movie” and not a “game” in the Mario sense. It’s also not over-the-top or pathetically inappropriate. It is, however, surprisingly rank stuff for a videogame.
But I was incredibly disappointed with the familiar plot, and lack of real story innovation outside of the macabre carnival-kills. The game does a fair job of pacing out its story and holding its cards, but there’s also a lot of building up to nothing. The haunted house/possessed lover line been done before, and better, in previous films and some games. It also makes little use of the interactive medium to bring the horror to a personal level or have you make decisions. Instead, you simply guide the protagonist around and observe the results. It’s an impressive technical achievement, and a decent try at an “interactive movie,” but certainly your avatar on the screen is more scared than you will be.
Impressive work with video and digital backgrounds. Certainly has no qualms about pushing boundaries and being an “adult” game.
Story is not quite as impressive or mature. Certainly a lot of violence and a lot of backstory, but not a lot of originality, and not even a campy level of horror.