Publisher: Sierra
Developer: Sierra
Year: 1995
Platform: DOS; Windows; Ma c; SEGA Saturn

Never before has Roberta Williams, or rather any game designer, integrated horror and humor to such monumental proportions. Of course, the humor derives itself from the George Lucas-type dialogue and poor acting, and much of the horror comes from the realization you had spent quite a bit of money to play this mess.

One of the first, if not the first, computer games to have full motion video sequences with live actors, the potential and expectations for Phantasmagoria were through the roof when the game was released. In reaction to that, many reviews absolutely thrashed the game when the results were seen. So when I played the game eight years afterwards, I had low expectations.

Adrienne and her husband, Don Gordon (played by David Homb), have just bought a haunted house several miles from the nearest town which is in the middle of Nowhere, New England. Don’s a successful photographer, and this is the ideal place for his practice.  Adrienne is a successful suspense novelist. We begin the game on their first full day, and Adrienne has to explore every nook and cranny until she releases the horrors of the house.

Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria DOS Exploring in the kitchen

Over the next few days, Don becomes less like the loving husband he portrays at the beginning and more like Jack Torrance from The Shining. But instead of spewing out memorable and haunting lines like “Here’s Johnny!” the best Don can come up with is “The body is a wonderful thing.  But the head is useless!” And then Don ends just about every sentence with “Muahahahaha!” Trust me, they can’t teach stuff like this at comedy school.

In fact, David Homb horribly overacts at every opportunity. Even when he’s gentle and loving at the beginning, ending every sentence with “sweetheart,” he looks like he could just up and commit genocide at the flip of a switch. Not that he was given any lines to work with. The first morning, Adrienne asks him if he would like some coffee and he replies in an excited voice, “Yeah!  Big one!”

On the other hand, Morsell does what I see as an excellent job considering the material she was given. She displays a myriad of emotional states throughout, mostly believable, and reacts appropriately to most of the situations thrown at her. My only gripe is that Williams has her stopping at every mirror in the game to toss back her hair and check for blemishes, even when the situation warrants being on the look out. Besides Homb, most of the other actors do fine jobs, especially Robert Miano as Carno.

Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria Windows Main female protagonish seems to have a thirst for knowledge and unlocking secrets, which will be the main reason for this game to enter the terrifying story.

However, a problem persists throughout the game, due to its nature more than anything else, in that everything feels a little broken. Adrienne will just escape a traumatizing event, and then walk around casually. Realistically, the producers could not have filmed Adrienne walking every inch of the house in every possible emotional state, but the point stands. Also, none of the characters can ever change clothes during the entire week the game takes place, another attack on mimesis.

And there are genuinely scary moments. I played the game with the lights off in a dark room, and the music and imagery combined with the occasional tense moment coming from not knowing what’s going to be around the next corner had me on edge a few times. And the final “chase” scene has some suspense as well, at least for the first forty-seven times Adrienne gets killed.

But rather than true horror, a larger part of the game relies on enough gore to make Wes Craven blush. The faint of heart should consider playing the censored version, as there are some truly disturbing images, including an effective but controversial rape scene that got the game banned in Australia.

The end game is not so rewarding, as it is very short and, while realistic, not very satisfying.

Despite all my complaints, I did enjoy the game, probably because it was different than anything else I’ve played. Considering its weaknesses, it is probably a blessing the game was incredibly easy. One icon and a lot of pixel hunting is all that is required.  The in-game hint system is not needed, as there is hardly a puzzle that could be considered difficult by adventure game standards. Case in point, I won this game over the course of two evenings.

4 thoughts on “Phantasmagoria”

  1. Wes Craven? They get gorier than that. Watch John Carpenter’s The Thing.

    Though…hmm. Did Craven do the third Nightmare on Elm Street? That was gory as hell. If he didn’t, never mind. But I don’t have the drive to look right now.

  2. FMV games probably blew the minds of gamers back in the nineties, but I think time has revealed the movement to be a dead-end revolution. I remember playing the first chapter of this game, thinking it was amazing because the characters were played by real people (I didn’t get past the first chapter because it was the only one featured on the Roberta Williams Anthology and I never got the full game). Nowadays, it’s kind of laughable, isn’t it? Speaking of which, you’re absolutely right; Don in full crazy mode in the final chapter is absolutely hilarious. It’s usually not good when your horror game is funnier than most comedies.

    Also, I find it weird that Ms. Williams points to this game and says it’s representative of her career instead of something more reasonable like King’s Quest VI.

    1. FMV can still work from a thematic stand point if you have a good director, especially if the main character is in first-person (so you don’t have to worry about continuity as much). But it’s so cost-prohibitive based on the return, unless it’s a game projected to make millions. And that’s not adventure games. Occasionally there’s FMV in indie games still (with actors working for free) and it can be fun.

      In that Phantasmagoria has a cliche plot, terrible script, and stupid puzzles, it’s perfectly representative of her career!

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