No modern discussion of horror games, or gaming tech on PCs, would be complete without Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria with its recommendation for only 18 and above audiences. Today, you can grab it for a few bucks over a a digital distribution service like Good Old Games.
Back during the early-to-mid 90’s, CD-ROM technology was drawing in the gaming industry with the promises that the massive space crammed onto each plastic disc seduced developers with. The idea that CD-ROMs could open the floodgates on a true Silicon Valley/Hollywood hybrid title would usher in warehouses of titles ranging from shovelware compilations to porn. I remember seeing CD-ROM 2x speed kits for PCs having the kind of effect on PC pundits and enthusiasts that SATA did for HDs. “Dude, it’s DOUBLE the speed!” I also remember how much of a PITA configuring CD-ROM to work in DOS was. MSCDEX, how I hated thee.
Soon, gaming’s dalliance with “movie-like” gameplay dominated the early nineties as numerous developers stumbled around trying to find that perfect fusion between Hollywood and gaming. Not every attempt was successful, but stars such as Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Tia Carrere, and Grace Jones would become pioneers in bringing star power to the properties that could bring them to life – something that hasn’t been lost with voice-over roles in today’s high end AAA titles.
Other games, such as Cyan’s phenomenally successful Myst in and Trilobyte’s 7th Guest in 1993 had only encouraged others to do leap right into the CD-ROM market. Although Myst was full-CG, it was still a remarkable gateway game whose simple gameplay and enthralling visuals created a new generation of armchair gamers. The 7th Guest pushed hardware requirements the way that Crytek’s Crysis or Origin’s Strike Commander did in their days, but its use of FMV meshed with notoriously tough puzzles also made it a poster boy for the possibilities that CD-ROM brought to the table.
Phantasmagoria, released in 1995 months after this ad ran in 1994, can be said to be a culmination of those efforts by Sierra On-Line as well as an attempt by the storied developer to one-up the competition. Sierra tiptoed into CD-ROMs slowly by offering “enhanced” versions of several of their games that had previously come out on disk, such as Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (now featuring the voice of Tim Curry). And after treating King’s Quest VII to the full CD treatment, Roberta Williams went full bore into the medium with Phantasmagoria’s movie-like production values spread across 7 CD-ROMs, most of which was dedicated to the movies on the discs.
Instead of using a lantern to project frightening images in theater as its namesake suggests, she would be doing the same with CRTs everywhere thanks to CD-ROMs. Fans of the family-friendly fare of King’s Quest were surprised to learn about Williams’ bold step into horror – it was a completely unexpected and surprising turn for the fairy-tale maestro. Yet this was a storyteller who knew her craft. She had been telling tales for nearly a decade and a half and everyone was excited to see what the results would be.
With a multi-million dollar budget and script, Phantasmagoria’s production ran itself like a real film. It told the story of Adrienne Delaney, a writer who, with her photographer husband, move into a mysterious mansion to find inspiration for her next book. That the mansion was formerly owned by a 19th century magician may also have something to do with the nightmares assailing their sanity as soon as they move in. Soon, even stranger things begin happening and Adrienne’s husband begins a horrifying psychological transformation heralding even worse things to come. It’s up to Adrienne to find out what is going on to try and save her husband, and herself, from whatever evil is lurking in the mansion.
Like Sierra’s other adventures, you can see the protagonist and in this case, Adrienne is arguably the first FMV character to fill that role in a game like this. Previously in other CD-ROM titles that used FMV, the protagonist was quite literally the player who saw the world through the interface. Now, they can actually guide Adrienne around each scene like in a traditional adventure game – yet still be staring at the world through a huge interface bracketing the video.
Each CD-ROM comprised a major chapter to the game and each could be played out of sequence. Puzzles were in short supply, however, and critics have noted that the game often feels too much like a movie without the kind of interaction Sierra’s other games boasted. Phantasmagoria was also notable for the extreme, adult themes of its gory horror with incredibly graphic death scenes. Sex, implied or suggested, and a controversial (though “tame” by today’s standards) rape scene also peppered the gameplay and a hint system helped everyone through it if they were stuck.
But however much of a milestone Phantasmagoria is in history, it doesn’t hold up well today. The poor graphics and the sub-par acting, story, and linear puzzles can seem incredibly crude now and leave much to be desired as some have mentioned in their own retro-reviews.
Yet back then, and to those that remember playing it, this was cutting edge stuff; bold, risky, uncompromising, and a title which Williams has remarked on as a defining game of her career. Phantasmagoria pushed the perceived ideas of what was considered acceptable in gaming to the point where Australia banned it – though today, Australia banning anything doesn’t seem all that unusual. Even so, it wasn’t without its detractors who weren’t so enamored of its casual design as they were for the underlying principles it was built on.
Although Phantasmagoria didn’t set the world on fire for what it brought to the table, it did make Sierra buckets of money and was lauded by more than a few critics that liked what Williams attempted to do with the genre. It’s the kind of spirit and experimentalism that developers today can sometimes feel unable to explore thanks to publisher demands on ESRB-friendly elements to address sales targets.
Williams’ pioneering vision also pointedly addresses the question of whether the medium can deliver maturity in the same way that films and books have. While Phantasmagoria may not be the best example in that regard, it still stands as a milestone of the “interactive movie” era of CD-ROMs and title renowned for challenging the perception that games can’t also be as adult as popular media.