Phantasmagoria was a big deal.  In 1995 having your videogame come on a CD was pretty cool, and Phantasmagoria came on 7.  It was made by Sierra, then at the height of the adventure game world, and designed by Roberta Williams.  It may come as a surprise to modern gamers, but at the time there was a Queen of Game Design.  Not only was she responsible for the legendary Kings Quest franchise, but when Phantasmagoria came out it was her twentieth(!) video game.

It’s wasn’t just big in the video game world either, this thing made waves.  It was a horror game.  It had a rape scene.  It had real actors in it, and you could control the real actors in the video game.  This is a year before the Nintendo 64 came out, that’s how ahead of its time it was.

I can still remember the sleek black box, and playing it on my brand new Pentium 1 computer, and loving every minute of it.  Naturally when I saw that gog.com had Phantasmagoria on sale it would be time for a walk down nostalgia lane, and maybe would prompt me to play some of the other adventure game classics like Full Throttle, Monkey Island, Space Quest, and who knows what else (Day of the Tentacle is what else, that’s what).

Well, gentle reader, I was wrong.  Dead wrong.

Phantasmagoria was terrible.  It managed to do just about everything wrong, and as much as I went through the experience with rose tinted nostalgia glasses I couldn’t believe just how awful it was.  How awful was it?  Shit, let’s count the ways!

 

1)  The acting.  I understand that real actors in video games was ahead of its time in 1995.  It’s not like Wing Commander III had come out in 1994 with Mark Hamill and John Rhys-Davies.  Victoria Morsell, the lead character was all-right, but her surrounding crew of David Homb (husband), Steven Bailey and V Joy Lee (groundskeepers) are particularly awful.

husband:

groundskeepers:

Put up with whatever of that you can stand.  I guess playing it when I was 14 made it palatable.  The other characters in the game are merely over the top, rather than being downright awful.

 

2)  The puzzles.  The classic adventure game puzzle has you finding a strange item and using it to overcome an obstacle.  Like in Full Throttle where you clear a minefield by using a box of dozens of wind-up Energizer Bunny toys to clear a path (while the game plays Flight of the Valkyries, awesome).  Or in Day of the Tentacle where you give keys to a man-in-ski-mask in exchange for a crowbar so you can pry the gum-with-dime-stuck-in-it off the ground so you can chew the gum so you can get the dime so you can activate the vibrating bed so you can get the moist sweater… etc.  Both those scenarios are fairly silly, and thats ok because they’re funny puzzle games.  Phantasmagoria isn’t.  It’s a horror game, the main character gets sexually assaulted, there’s some very gory scenes (like when she graphically has her head cut in two by an axe).  You can’t have silly stuff, but you still need classic find the doodad to activate the dinglehopper so you can get the whatchamacallit game mechanics.

The problem is that when you’re watching a real actor unable to unlock a door in a house she owns, you naturally think she’s go to the shed and get a hammer and take the door off its hinges.  Or maybe kick it down.  Whatever.  What you don’t think of doing is newspaper from the kitchen and then getting the bent nail from the hole in the ceiling of the cabin and sliding the paper under the door then poking the keyhole with the bent nail.  Circuitous solutions to real problems make sense in a cartoony environment and break the storytelling when you see real actors doing it.  The game is full of these.

 

3)  The pacing.  Getting horror pacing done right is pretty tricky.  You need to draw the viewer in slowly, so that whenever the fantastical element that is the core of your story comes into play it is believable.  Rather than the delicate seduction of a proper horror story the supernatural elements in Phantasmagoria are jarring.

So the early chapters have Adrienne exploring the mansion she’s just bought, and in the creepy baby’s room upstairs you see a floating spectral cloud of goo.  Adrienne reaches out and touches it, and says “What is that?” and then does nothing else.  Every other chapter you can go back to the baby’s room, and sure enough, big old cloud of floating spectral goo.  This doesn’t freak her out or make her call the press, she’s just ok with this breach of every physical law known.

The story builds up, we find out there was a magician who owned the house before her, he was creepy, had several wives who disappeared mysteriously, her husband starts acting strange, good stuff.  Then out of nowhere.

Fucking big green demon out of nowhere.  I’m not saying big green demons are bad, and this was the very end of the game, but when you’re watching a low impact horror film like Paranormal Activity and then suddenly you’re in the middle of Haute Tension, you get shaken out of your disbelief.  It’s like if in Jurrasic Park the characters suddenly got uzis and the movie turned into Rambo 7:  The Dinosaurening.  Just doesn’t work.

 

4)  The everything.  I don’t want to harp on the video quality for cutscenes.  It was 1995 and thats not fair.  So I won’t.  The interface having the screen cut in two and having a giant red talking skull give out hints when you click on it?  Or the giant eyeball you click on to examine things closer?  I’m not sure if that was a programming decision to save resources by not rendering the whole screen, or what, but these two interface elements just seem so… childish in the middle of a serious horror game.  Phantasmagoria is short.  The whole game is probably beatable in about 3 hours.  Including the cutscenes.  I… I don’t want to go on.

 

After all that what’s left?  I guess the core story is kind of fun.  Victoria Morsell does put on a good show in a few of the scenes, and in particular the last chapter has some good moments.  The music is good, especially the two tracks that were recorded with a 135 person Gregorian choir.  If after reading all that for some reason you want to play it, or maybe the nostalgia is too strong you can still get it for 9.99$ at gog.com.  It’s almost worth it just to see this artifact from the birth of video games with proper video in it, also Roberta Williams called it the game most representative of her career, so take from that what you will.

On a scale of 0 to awesome I rate this game masturbating to scrambled porn.  Maybe it was fun when you were a kid, but looking back on it it’s kind of sad and maybe now you’re wondering what the hell was wrong with you.  I am.

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