When Film and Games Collide – PC – Phantasmagoria – 1995

Phantasmagoria
(c) 1995
Sierra Online
Genre: Point and Click Adventure/Horror

Video game controversy is something I’ve been very intrigued by since the days of Lara Croft and her ever-expanding polygons back on the Playstation.  As many of my gaming cohorts know, I’m also a huge fan of horror games.  Unsurprisingly, these two things go hand in hand more often than most people think, or at least they used to.  While most people know of the Night Trap controversy that contributed to the ESRB ratings we know of today, another game came out on the PC around the same time that had some heckles raised: Phantasmagoria.  Really, though, how does a controversial game from the mid-90s hold up on the controversy scale nowadays?

As a bit of a warning, though I know the folks reading this will most likely be adults or already know about Phantasmagoria, I feel it would be irresponsible of me to not at least mention that this post will (albeit briefly) talk about somewhat uncomfortable topics in the final paragraph or two.  Such is the way when talking about certain controversies, but my being ever the worrier, I would rather raise the flag for people than have them trek through unwittingly.

The story of Phantasmagoria follows Adrienne Delaney, a mystery novelist who has recently purchased a home in a small Massachusetts town with her photographer husband, Don.  With a curiosity only bestowed on those destined to live out a horror movie, Adrienne explores the grounds, finding a sealed up altar and a tome in a locked box.  When she opens it, however, she releases an evil that ends up infesting her husband, turning him from a loving husband to am irritable powder keg of a man.  Digging deeper, Adrienne uncovers the strange mysteries of the estate and the blood-drenched events that took place there.

Like most point-and-click adventure games, the beauty of the game lies in its puzzles and small touches littered throughout the environments.  As you control Adrienne, you are not relegated to stay on the estate grounds.  Should you choose to, you can travel the island that the house is on, and you can even go into town to talk to the locals (who provide much more useful information that many other games do).  A fantastic touch is that the further you get into the game, the more things change.  You never feel like things are too static.

Riding the wave of the FMV- Full Motion Video- revolution, the game is full of pre-filmed background with the actors roaming around against a green screen, super imposed into the backgrounds for the finished product.  This is the biggest sign of the time that the game came out of, as it looks

much more photo-realistic than most games.  It adds a certain charm to the game, going back and playing it now.

As an added note, Roberta Williams wrote the script for the game.  For those familiar with Sierra On-Line’s other works, or adventure games in general, she also penned the King’s Quest series and other more family friendly adventure games.  According to interviews, Phantasmagoria was a huge departure for her, but the one that is the most indicative of her career.  There are fun factoids abound from this game, and it doesn’t take much digging to find various websites illustrating its cult status.

The game itself is fun as a point-and-click adventure game.  Traveling around the grounds of the house and the town, you feel like you’re alone in the dilemma you’re in, even when you’re not.  As you move the cursor around the screen, it glows red when you find a ‘hot spot’, which makes exploration more fluid.  Unlike various other games of the same genre, you are never stuck hunting for the right pixel to get the next item you need.  If an item is small, it’s usually highlighted.  Quite a few of the frustrations from the adventure faire are eradicated, making for a friendly entry to the genre.

The story isn’t awful, either.  It isn’t working to revolutionize the horror genre, but something that I read in another testimonial about the game certainly rings true.  Roberta Williams takes a premise that has been done plenty before- ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Amityville Horror’ come to mind- and puts her own spin and voice to it, which ends up making a game that is interesting, if not much else.  The more you find out about the estate and its history, the more you want to know.

Exploration is the name of the game, though, as you can miss nearly all of the nuances of the story if you simply go from point A to point B.  Talking to the people in town, sometimes up to five times in a row, rewards the player with tons of information regarding Carno, the previous owner of the estate, and his murderous rampage.  While I wouldn’t count it against an adventure game for the ability to miss so many things- and believe me, they make the entire game worth playing- it’s not the same tack that gamers are used to playing with in this time.  You definitely have to put yourself into a different mindset to get the most out of Phantasmagoria.

You also can’t look at this movie in any reviewing sense without thinking of it as a movie.  The acting is pretty much indicative of a B-horror movie made in the 90s, though the actress playing Adrienne (Victoria Morsell) pulls the weight she needs to as the protagonist of the story.  Considering how much work went into the game through its actors, it’s difficult to criticize too much.  As everyone pulls at least a passing performance for a horror flick, though, it doesn’t detract or add much to the impression of the game.  The script has enough corniness to it, as well, to add to that midnight drive-in feel.

The graphics are great.  They were filmed, so it’s hard to say much that is negative regarding how the game looks.  The one problem is that as this was at the rise of the FMV adventure game movement, the actors chronically seem like they are too far removed from the backgrounds of the game.  The programmers did a great job of making sure everything else looked correct, however, such as objects and set pieces that the actors were ‘grabbing’, despite only really having a green screen and boxes to film against.

Aurally, the game hits its major faltering step.  The background music is atmospheric, adding in Latin singing choirs and the requisite stringed instruments.  The real issue is that there is so much inconsistency regarding the voices of the actors.  I found that I was constantly having to raise and lower the volume of my speakers, as one scene, the actors would sound incredibly distant while in the next, they would be clear as a bell, therefore being too loud for what I had previously set my sound up for.  Seeing as this was somewhat of a problem with the cinema at the time, it is probably to be expected, but it became a bit of a pain as the game went on.

Now, what of this ‘controversy’ that was mentioned, you might ask?  When the game was released, it quickly became known for two things: gruesome death scenes and a particular scene where an implied rape is depicted.  Of course, the second is more offensive than the first, though both warrant merit.  Sometimes, these things dull over time, as standards for controversy shift endlessly.  These things, at the time, led to the game being banned or given adult-only ratings in various countries.  Even today, people would turn away from the game knowing those things are in it.

The most uncomfortable and controversial topic to be addressed is obviously not the gruesome deaths, and the scene surrounding the sexual portion of the game is brief.  It is not graphic, but it certainly is uncomfortable, and the game takes a turn for the dark and terrifying afterward.  The scene is not arbitrary, either, as it is defended by Williams as being a turning point for the heroine that she felt was necessary.  While I don’t want to go into much more detail regarding the topic, there has certainly been worse on screen, but in video games, I think voices would still be raised over the scene.

Violence is also something that people are not unfamiliar with in games.  Plenty of games have people being sliced into bits, split in half, or meeting other bloody ends.  Even as a horror aficionado, however, I had a tough time watching a couple of the murder scenes in this game.  They’re fairly well executed special effects wise, and they can easily send a shiver up the spine, even by today’s standards.  After almost twenty years, I could see this game being banned, if not completely taken off the shelves by the public.

With all of that said, however, the game does not take these things lightly or produce them as anything but what they are.  This is an adventure game for adults.  Do all adventure games for adults have to have these elements?  Not by any means.  This is the particular story that this games and its creators wanted to tell, however.  They carved out a piece of video game history, and to be fair, the game was one of the top-selling games of that year for the PC.  If my research is right, Phantasmagoria was the top-selling game to come out of Sierra Online, even up against their more popular games like King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, and Leisure Suit Larry.

While it can be said that not every game is for everyone, obviously this game comes with that caveat two-fold.  The controversial elements in the game can still be seen as controversial, though there is a censored mode of the game that you can play through, at least helping with the violence (I played through uncensored, so I don’t have a report on how the censored version helps or hurts).  If those controversial bits don’t push you away from the game, however, it was a fun and fairly short game to trek through, clocking in at roughly sevens chapters that range between a half an hour to an hour each, depending on your digging for story bits.  With the game being sold by GOG.com for roughly $10, if not less at various times, it is easy enough to procure.  It may not terrify you, but it certainly gives a fascinating look into the games and view of the time.

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