Would it be too harsh to criticize Roberta Williams? She was undoubtedly a pioneer of the adventure gaming scene, but years and years of genre evolution have revealed that maybe she wasn't the best game designer. Still, while Mystery House and King's Quest remain important landmarks - the former for introducing graphics to text adventures, the latter for implementing full visuals and character controls - Phantasmagoria doesn't command nearly the same respect. It's certainly revolutionary in combining full motion video of live actors with the framework of an adventure game. History eventually confirmed that FMV-based games were an evolutionary dead end, however, marking Phantasmagoria as a call-to-arms for a war that never happened. It didn't help that, by most accounts, the game was pretty bad.
By the mid 90s, Roberta Williams was still mostly known for her fairy-tale style King's Quest, with a few dalliances in murder mysteries with the Laura Bow games. Phantasmagoria was to be something different, a truly adult horror story. If King's Quest IV dared to make gamers cry, Phantasmagoria dared to give gamers nightmares. It's an admirable attempt, but like practically every FMV-based game, it falls victim to two things: terrible production values and incredibly sparse gameplay.
The story of Phantasmagoria is cribbed almost directly from Stephen King's The Shining. Donald Gordon and Adrian Delaney, a young married couple from Boston, find an astonishing deal on a gorgeous mansion out in the boonies. It is, of course, haunted - as if the room full of weaponry and the functioning electric chair weren't some kind of tipoff. As Adrian begins to explore around the mansion and discover all of its secrets, Don gets possessed by an evil spirit and begins acting psychotically abusive. Furthermore, Adrian's sleep is disturbed by gruesome nightmares. As Adrian eventually discovers, the mansion was previously owned by a magician named Zolton Carnovasch, who had more wives than Henry VIII. (The "Phantasmagoria" is the name of an escape wherein he's tied to a chair and must escape before his head is sliced by a slinging blade.) Each of his ladies died under tragic circumstances - it should be no shock that he murdered them. It should also be no shock that the same demon that inhabited Zolton has inhabited Don, whom Adrian must outwit in the climactic chase sequence of the final chapter.
As any horror fan can tell you, suspense is all in the buildup. The plot is so easily telegraphed that you can figure it all out within the first five minutes of play, but there are seven whole CDs to be filled. A good chunk of it involves Adrian wandering around the mansion, unlocking previously locked doors and conversing with the sparse townsfolk. It feels like time ill spent - there is literally one whole chapter (and one whole CD) solely devoted to Adrian visiting town and buying drain cleaner. As such, it feels more like you're just clicking hotspots until the next video sequence plays.
Phantasmagoria arrived a few years after Myst, and its design seems to be trying to capitalize on the casual audience that made Cyan's game such an enormous success. It was also released during a time when clicking around and looking at the pretty pictures was considered an acceptable game mechanic. To be fair, in Myst there were at least some puzzles so it justified itself as more than just a slideshow. Phantasmagoria has puzzles in a vague sense, inasmuch as there's an inventory, and occasionally you'll need to use items in other places to move on. These "puzzles" are never actually difficult, but most of the trouble lies in figuring out exactly where the items are. Most of the game world focuses on the mansion, which is relatively expansive, and it's tough to find exactly what you're looking for. Your directions are rarely clarified in the narrative, requiring you to hit the red skull button on the bottom of the screen, who gives you not-so-subtle clues to your current goal. This is all in place to draw in the casual-game-playing audience. The game also realizes that maybe players could get stuck - in which case you can immediately start up any of the seven chapters, although you usually miss some introductory videos. Up until the late stages of the game, there's no way to die, either. The final gameplay segment is the type where you need to click on very specific items in a short period of time or else you'll be killed. It's intense, yes, but not much fun when you have to do it over and over.
In spite of how large and detailed the mansion is, there's not much to interact with. Phantasmagoria eschews the multi-icon interface of Sierra's earlier games in favor of a single cursor to move around and interact with stuff. You don't directly control Adrian, but rather, she stands faithfully, arms at her side, staring off into nothingness. That is, until you click on a hotspot, after which she'll then take a few steps towards it and the scene will transition. There's no "look" command, and very little to interact with. The SVGA backgrounds are quite pretty - they were rendered in that time in the 90s when computer generated graphics were very artificial but quite attractive, and the mansions and its grounds are still pretty, even today. The fact that it's so devoid of other characters lends to the sense of isolation, and it does feel rather creepy.
Despite all of this, there's still some incongruity in the visuals. Although there are some video cutscenes, which play at a lower resolution and are a bit blocky, most of the action consists of the live-action characters walking over the CG backgrounds. The visual quality of the actors varies, but they always look out of place against the background. It doesn't help that there's still some traces of ghosting around their edges, a remnant of early blue screen technology. The main musical theme is a standard Gregorian chant - clichéd, but effective. The rest of the music is MIDI, and while it's pretty decent, its tinny sound on an FM synth card does it no favors.
Beyond the vapid game design and mixed visuals lies the video itself. Let's be honest - the production values are awful. Adrian, played by Victoria Morsell, isn't too bad. Although you never see much of her personality, she plays the role well, and her acting is rarely cringe worthy. Don, played by David Homb, is far too over-the-top to be taken seriously. But even they are better than the embarrassing supporting cast.
There are numerous scenes that are meant to be disturbing that come off as ridiculous. Many of these involve Harriet, a homeless lady living in the mansion's yard, and her mentally challenged son Cyrus. There is a scene where he's up against a wall, doing something nasty to Adrian's cat. The way the scene plays out, Adrian walks up behind him and basically says, please, stop beating my cat. He looks confused, puts the cat down, and then walks away. It's all extremely awkward. Perhaps Williams had shades of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in mind, twisted into creepiness, but it doesn't play out that way at all. What's even weirder is that the guy who played Cyrus, Steven W. Bailey, is the only cast member to graduate into a successful acting career, eventually landing a prominent role on the ABC medical drama Grey's Anatomy.
Although the game is filled with weird moments like these, by far the worst is the much vaunted rape scene, which seems to have been inserted solely to prove how "adult" Phantasmagoria was. It worked - it garnered tremendous PR, it was mentioned in every preview in every magazine, computer gaming or otherwise, and it even got it in a bit of trouble with retailers, especially considering there was no ESRB back in 1995. But it's still really badly done. It's actually not too graphic and starts off relatively tastefully - as tasteful as a rape scene can be, anyway - as Don seduces Adrian gently but quickly grows violent. As Adrian falls to the floor, weeping, Don looks off into the distance, furrows his brow in befuddlement, wipes out the hair out of his face, and then sorta just wanders off the set. The gravity of the scene is totally ruined. It's ludicrous, is what it is. The whole production is just as bad as any of the Z-grade movies that have been parodied in Mystery Science Theater 3000 over the years, but even most of those never held the deluded self-importance that seems to permeate Phantasmagoria.
About the only time that the game ever becomes truly enjoyable is the final portion of the game, when Adrian stumbles upon the ghosts of Zoltan and his dead wives. These poor girls each had a hobby/vice, which Zoltan then used to kill them in ironic manners. They're bloody. Later, when Don really gets violent and sticks Adrian in Zoltan's torture device, it can also get bloody. When a cheap-looking CG demon pops out of Don and tears Adrian's face off, it's even bloodier. All of these death scenes manage to be squeamishly horrifying and grippingly intense, so at least that's one promise that the game fulfills. At the same time, they're also amusingly silly, something which was a bit of a trademark of early Sierra games. Like the rape scene, these were probably meant to be taken completely seriously, and they sort of veer off the mark.
So Phantasmagoria is really just a bad game - it's something that would struggle to qualify as a direct-to-cable movie, and only barely earns the "graphic adventure" moniker. It's actually surprising that Roberta Williams herself picked this game as the one being most representative of her gaming career - it probably should've been the one that she would want forgotten.
Phantasmagoria was developed for PCs, with DOS and Windows versions shipping on the same discs. However, it was also ported to the Sega Saturn, although that version was only released in Japan by Outrigger and renamed Phantasm. It's stretched out to eight CDs, and comes in a slipcase that holds two double size CD cases, making it the largest game available on the system. Due to its contents, it was also given a "yellow" age warning, suggesting it's only for gamers 18 and older without being offensive enough to get a "red" rating, which marked softcore porn. The port is faithful, although everything is dubbed in Japanese. The FMV quality is a bit worse than the PC version, seeing as the Saturn didn't have great video compression (without the MPEG card, anyway, which this game does not support), but it's passable. The visuals do suffer during the gameplay segments due to the drop in resolution. The graphical interface framing the main window is gone, though, leaving only black borders.
Despite its mixed reviews, Phantasmagoria sold extremely well. Sierra continued its line of FMV adventure games with The Beast Within, the second in their Gabriel Knight series. While it still had some issues, it was a substantially better product, with better acting, better writing, and some actual puzzle elements. After this, they released their third FMV/adventure title: Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. Despite the name, it has very little to do with its predecessor from a storyline standpoint - it's a psychological thriller as opposed to a story about a haunted house, and other than one minor reference to Adrian Delaney, there's no storyline connection at all. Roberta Williams also stepped aside as the designer, leaving the task to Lorelei Shannon, who previously worked with Williams on King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride.
Although released only two years after the first Phantasmagoria, A Puzzle of Flesh is a huge technical improvement. The graphics utilize 16-bit color, and the video compression, though not up to DVD quality, is still substantially better. It also ditches the computer rendered backgrounds (for the most part) and uses real locations. While it does lack the attractively rendered visuals of its predecessor, the visual style is also much more consistent, which makes the whole production looks substantially less cheap. The music is remarkably tense, and despite some occasionally cheesy synth instrumentation, is quite excellent. Overall, it's still not fantastic, but at least it's been upgraded to the level of a Sci-Fi Channel original movie.
The story focuses on a young man named Curtis Craig, who we are introduced to as he's a resident of an insane asylum, strapped to a gurney and being treated with electroshock therapy. It jumps forward a bit, and we find Curtis back in the real world, seemingly well-adjusted with a standard office job. But then he starts having numerous eerie visions, which at first creep him out a bit. But then one of his co-workers - a fellow he didn't particularly care for - is brutally murdered. He begins to doubt his sanity even further, which also attracts the attention of the police. Soon, more of his co-workers end up dead, his visions become crazier, and he begins to dig up all kinds of sordid memories regarding his childhood. All of this, he gathers, is somehow related to the pharmaceutical company he works for, which is seemingly conducting all kinds of nasty experiments, and is presumed to have murdered his father. Furthermore, he's caught between two women - his adoring sweetheart girlfriend Jocelyn, and the aggressive S&M queen Therese, whom he's attracted to for reasons he can't quite understand.
Like its predecessor, A Puzzle of Flesh tries to approach the themes of psychology and sexuality with more maturity than most video games. It does a better job of it, partially because the writing's better, and partially because the acting isn't nearly as abysmal. There's a lot of exploration of Curtis' childhood, told through counseling sessions with his psychologist, that deal with his attraction to not only sadomasochism, but also to his buddy Trevor. While Trevor has some stereotypically gay mannerisms and acts mostly to lighten the mood, it's never forced or flamboyant. He's undoubtedly the most likable character in the whole game, and perfectly fulfills the role of a concerned friend without devolving into a negative caricature.
The treatment of all of this is interesting - in 1996, it was rare to have such a prominent gay character (and is still rare today) and Curtis might perhaps the first bisexual game character ever. For the most part, it's all handled in a mature manner, even though some of the S&M scenes provide some unintentional humor. (While Curtis is suspended from series of chains, he looks around nervously at the leather-clad Therese and remarks, "I don't think this is such a good idea." But the story doesn't tie any of these themes together in any meaningful way, as if it's just trying to being controversial for the sake of it, something which the first Phantasmagoria was also quite guilty of. The packaging proudly wears its RSAC rating (the predecessor to the ESRB), promising "provocative frontal nudity" and "blood and gore" It's definitely no worse than an R rated film, but it was enough to get it pulled from certain retail stores and banned in Australia.
The impact of these adult subjects is also undermined by the final segments, which go completely off the deep end. At this point, the game stops being about Curtis' inner struggle with his sanity and more about aliens from Dimension X. Wait, what? Yup, it's a completely jarring transition from psychological horror to science fiction, and while it's an interesting twist, certainly much more compelling than the story of the first Phantasmagoria, it never feels like it fits. It's not like it's played off to be ambiguous either - one could potentially make the claim that this final chapter represents Curtis' final descent into madness, but there's nothing that supports this beyond mere conjecture.
Despite its occasional bouts of lunacy, the movie segments are still an improvement over the first game, but A Puzzle of Flesh ultimately commits the same gameplay sins. There's very little to interact with, and roughly 90% of the game involves clicking on everything possible to find all of the triggers to progress. Wake up, talk to your rat, go to work, talk to your co-workers, talk to your psychologist, go to a restaurant/bar, and then repeat in the next chapter. The puzzles are extraordinarily sparse - most simply involve figuring out passwords, which is never hard to do - and other solutions are lying around scribbled on Post-It notes.
The few other puzzles are terribly integrated. Right at the beginning, Curtis discovers that his wallet is missing, and upon some searching, finds it under the couch. The solution is not to move the couch, but rather, to get your rat, send it to retrieve your wallet, and then lure it out with a granola bar. How absurd. For a standard adventure game, this isn't that crazy of a puzzle, but when you've removed the layer of abstraction that replaces live actors with cartoon characters, you'd expect the puzzles to work in a vaguely rational manner. And then, just like the plot, the whole design veers off course in the final chapter, where you're expected to solve a puzzle involving an alien circuit board without any instructions whatsoever, as if the developers felt like they needed to make up for the simplicity of the rest of the game. There's also another series of timed "click the right spot or you die" events, and they're just as annoying as before, although you still get the nice, gory death scenes when you fail.
The folks at Sierra were fully cognizant of how barebones their game was, so they added in a secret Easter egg hunt. Hidden stuff is nothing new to adventure games, but there are literally dozens upon dozens to find, along with a scoring system. They're practically impossible to uncover without using a guide, but they give some incentive to play through the game once you've already seen it. Most of them are silly sound effects (including a few from The Simpsons) but there are also a few wacky outtake clips, including one where one of the directors walks into the scene dressed as Batman.
The biggest question, though, is why exactly is A Puzzle of Flesh a computer game and not a movie? Electronic games are a perfectly valid medium for storytelling because it makes the player an active participant rather than a passive observer, potentially allowing for closer emotional resonance. For as insubstantial as Phantasmagoria was, at least there was a sense of isolation and exploration as you made your way through the manor, making it easier to empathize with Adrian. There's nothing like that in A Puzzle of Flesh, at all - the game world is too small to get involved with, and it never feels like you're really involved in Curtis' life. There are a few nice touches - you can read through your e-mails, and amongst idle banter and corporate memos, you'll find (imaginary?) e-mails from Curtis to his co-workers outing himself as a lunatic, or job offers straight from Satan himself.
A Puzzle of Flesh is also quite short - there are technically about four hours of video spread over five CDs. That's okay, though, because while it's still heavily flawed, its ambitions are a bit more fully realized, and despite the near total lack of interaction, it's still strangely engrossing.