Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh
Genre: Point-and-Click Horror/Sci-Fi
Anyone who has talked with me about video games for an extended amount of times has stumbled on my love of FMV games. It’s probably due to the mixture of cinema and the interactivity of the medium, but something has always intrigued me about the jump to using live actors and CGI to bring games to the ‘next level’.
About three years ago, I put together a piece on a full-motion video game called Phantasmagoria, a game that was developed and published by prominent adventure game designer and Sierra On-Line luminary Roberta Williams. After the immense success of creating a video game that was aimed squarely at a more mature audience, it was only logical that a sequel would be developed; that’s the way that media works and Sierra did not disappoint in delivering another game to the short-lived franchise.
Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh appeared on shelves a year after the original. Despite not being helmed by Williams this time around- the reins had been passed to a colleague of hers, Lorelei Shannon who wrote and directed- the sequel’s horrific box art and correlation to its controversial predecessor gave it the perfect setup to once again break records. The issue with following up groundbreaking work, however, is finding new ground to strike in a novel way. On the surface, this game seems ready to deliver the goods.
Once it’s open and the gears start turning, though, does the puzzle fit together or are there are few pieces missing that keep the final product from being as iconic as the first?
A restraint buckle hanging off of the side of a gurney. A group of doctors working to detain a frantic young man, eyes wild with delusion and panic as he struggles against a straitjacket. The sterile walls of a hospital room, tinted in a just-too-vivid shade of blue.
As the medical staff deals with their patient, the perspective snaps to Curtis Craig, the young man who had been restrained, now waking in a sweat in his bed. He starts his morning getting ready to head to Wyntech, the pharmaceutical company he works for, and while the nightmare doesn’t seem to be uncommon, he goes about his morning jarred. Still, life goes on.
It isn’t long before things start to go awry at Wyntech. Amidst the bouts of paranoia and mental duress Curtis deals with from past traumas, the sudden grisly demise of a reviled co-worker begins a spiral into an urban legend that has haunted Wyntech for as long as any of the current employees can remember. Despite the staff’s desperation to recover from the shock of their colleague’s murder, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that the danger still looms over Wyntech, threatening and ever-present.
It’s up to Curtis, who stumbles on some cryptic information in his paranoia, to uncover the truth behind the rumors at Wyntech to protect himself and the people around him before they all succumb to the invisible terrors that only he seems to be able to perceive and grasp.
The game’s simple mechanics are almost exactly like Phantasmagoria and other point-and-click adventures. Against pre-rendered backdrops, the player moves a cursor to highlight items that can be interacted within the environment. By clicking a reactive part of the screen, the player can also move between areas, giving a different perspective or moving throughout the game’s world to interact. Nearly everything in the game revolves around, as the genre states, pointing and clicking. Phantasmagoria does take this a step further, as clicking on particular people and places multiple times in succession will create complete conversations and is usually vital to progress.
By hovering over the bottom of the screen, you can interact with Curtis’ inventory of items he has picked up. Clicking on one of these items will usually change the cursor to said item so that it can be placed on a person or place on the screen. When the item is highlighted over the target, clicking again will attempt to use them in correlation with one another. This is the primary way that puzzles are solved and characters can be interacted with about particular topics.
The Good, The Bad, And…
Given that this game is a sequel- albeit largely unrelated to the original Phantasmagoria– it’s hard not to compare it to the first. In some ways, Phantasmagoria 2 differs and excels while in others, it takes a half-step back. Given the reins of leadership being handed off by the iconic Williams to Lorelei Shannon, there were large shoes to fill. Where the original Phantasmagoria felt claustrophobic and isolated its protagonist (whose name makes a brief cameo in an advertisement delivered to Curtis’ apartment), Curtis feels like he is surrounded by people throughout most of the game, either checking in on him or generally working nearby. Also, rather than delving into the past of the game’s locale like Adrienne Delaney had in the predecessor, Curtis’ adventure takes a deeper look into himself and a few of the characters around him. Not only is the tonal shift palpable, but the shift from story-driven to character-driven narrative makes the game feel like its own island off of the coast of what the original had set up.
One of the only issues I had with Phantasmagoria 2 was that a few of the puzzles felt unnecessarily convoluted. For instance, the now infamous first puzzle of the game involves Curtis losing an item under his couch. Rather than acting like a normal person and moving the couch to retrieve it, he sends his pet rat, Blob, to fetch it for him. Of course, then the rat won’t come out so she has to be lured out with food. There are a number of obstacles like this that are too obtuse to not feel frustrating, even with all of the items at your disposal.
While the script is nothing special in most respects, the game really does shine with a few interactions, particularly involving Curtis’ conversations with his best friend, Trevor, and with the therapist he begins to see throughout the story, Dr. Harburg. Not only do they feel the most “natural” so far as the actors are concerned, but they give some fantastic build-up regarding the world and Curtis as a protagonist. The rest of the game decidedly feels like it would have served better as a work of narrative fiction rather than a “video game film” in the way that much of the dialogue is written. It isn’t disappointing in comparison to the FMV games of the time, but there are parts that have not aged well structurally.
Something that drew me to the game and wanting to explore it a bit more- and this is a bit of a spoiler if you truly want to go into the game completely blind- revolves around Curtis as a protagonist and Trevor. Out of personal interest, I pride myself a bit on trying to find games with positive LGBT representation. Curtis stands as the first ‘officially’ bisexual characters in a video game, engaging romantically-slash-sexually with three of the characters in the game: his girlfriend, an eager female co-worker, and his best friend, Trevor. Of these, the most natural feels like the progression with Trevor, and Paul Morgan Stetler thrives in his scenes as Curtis interacting with Trevor. A lot of attention clearly went into Curtis’ self-analysis and breaking into his own psychology, but between his performance- which, like most FMV games to be fair, is a bit uneven at points- and Shannon’s writing, his performance and realizations feel natural and relatable to anyone who has been through similar moments in their life. Trevor also presents as a character who speaks nonchalantly as a gay man, discussing his dates with Curtis and making jokes that are never scoffed at or played off at the expense of the character. Trevor acts as the game’s comic relief, but he never feels like the butt of the joke which is a breath of fresh air given how characters like him are handled in many other games. If you’re looking for positive representation, Phantasmagoria does a fantastic job with these two characters.
Like many games of the genre, Phantasmagoria 2 involves movie quality sets and real actors, so the question of visuals starts at a relatively high standard bar. The transitions between gameplay screens and filmed sequences can be a bit grainy, but the quality drop is minimal. Even the more ‘phantasmagoric’ sequences later in the game look really well done, and the game carries the same charm that films of the time had with practical gore and special effects spliced with well-executed cinematography to create some jarring moments. The settings are governed a bit through lighting and filters, as well, so each area feels distinct in its purpose- the offices that the characters work in appear sterile and just a bit too bright, for instance, while the therapist’s office sits in a muted sepia-tone and a bar that Curtis visits a few times is steeped in saturated blues and reds.
Audibly, the game always feels like it has something going on. Sometimes, there’s background noise like the murmur of people or music playing in the background. Other times, there is a distinct soundtrack to set the tone of the scene. All of the dialogue is well-recorded and balanced so that I didn’t feel like I had missed anything; something certain games had trouble with given the medium. The one thing that bothered me was going in and out of conversations that clearly had been filmed all at one time but were broken up for the players’ convenience. The music doesn’t persist when there are breaks, resulting in an audio yo-yo between intense music and silence in some sequences. It’s a necessary evil due to the nature of how FMV games were made at the time so it’s hard to hold it against the game too strongly.
Phantasmagoria 2 is it’s own worst enemy in some cases, even dismissing the original game. It delves deep into some very strong and adult themes- alternative lifestyles and discovery of self-being the most prominent- and when it does so, it’s clear that the game is a passion piece for Shannon. There are a lot of well-written moments, whether you agree with how characters are acting in them or not. There are also plenty of cute nods to let horror fans know that they are in the right place. As a note, those looking for a wholesome time here, be warned that there are brief moments of nudity and BDSM, but they are scarce. Phantasmagoria as a whole has never really been a “family” game. All of the trappings of late 80s and early 90s horror are on display from start to finish.
The issue with the game resides in its mechanics and the trails going from point A to B between these themes, though. Puzzles feel like they are there strictly because they need to be and while a number of scenes between story beats exist, a lot of them feel like filler when they aren’t developing Curtis on a deep level as a character. It makes the world feel fleshed out (see what I did there?) but the interesting bits are so interesting that the path feels almost boring by comparison.
If you’re into bizarre horror that focuses a lot on characters and dark themes, this game is worth checking out. It pings some of the same notes that Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit did for me, to draw some comparison, but it hangs onto the unsettling charm of the original Phantasmagoria in the process. If it sounds like something you’d be interested in, it goes fairly cheap on Steam and other PC gaming platforms and is a worthwhile look back at FMV gaming as well as LGBT representation in gaming history.