This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Back in the 1990s, when point and click adventures were all the rage, I was very much in LucasArts’ corner when it came to their rivalry with Sierra for the critical and commercial top spot in that subgenre, and on balance I still think LucasArts had the edge in terms of quality. But thanks to GOG’s reasonable prices and effective emulation, I’ve been tempted into dipping into some of the old Sierra classics anyway. Previously I’d dipped into the Gabriel Knight series; sticking with the horror genre, I’m now going to give the (violent, sexualised, regularly subject to bans, regularly dealing in triggery subject matter like rape and abuse and mental illness) Phantasmagoria series a whirl. Hold my hand in case I get scared, won’t you?
Famed mystery novelist Adrienne Delaney (Victoria Morsell) and her husband Don Gordon (David Homb), who is a photographer for all the hit magazines, have just bought themselves a new home – a sprawling mansion on an island near a sleepy New England fishing village. The house used to belong to the famous 19th Century stage magician Zoltan Carnovasch, better known as the Great Carno – but back in the day, Carno was fascinated not just with sleight-of-hand illusions but the real deal, and after he obtained an ancient grimoire his life took a decidedly dark tone. Controlling Adrienne, it is your task to investigate Carno’s house and get to the bottom of the mystery – taking care that you do not become another victim of the evil Carno called up from the netherworld.
I mainly know Roberta Williams’ designs via the King’s Quest series, of which I am not a fan – too many illogical puzzles, arbitrary insta-deaths and ways of locking yourself out of being able to finish the game for my liking. I was happily surprised, then, to find that Phantasmagoria largely lacks all such things. Pretty much every puzzle solution is a logical use of the materials you are provided – the magic stuff is, naturally, an exception to this, but even then the requirements of what magic you need to do are clearly signposted for you. Death is basically only possible during the very final chase sequence, which foregoes the usual save system (which is rather rudimentary and allows for only one “bookmark” in the story), instead letting you replay bits of the chase sequence from partway through or to restart the chapter altogether if you want to take a different tack. You need to have a particular set of items to win the game there, but some of the items have alternates and furthermore you don’t necessarily have to have all of them before the chase sequence starts – it is possible to pick some of them up before or after it begins. Several puzzles have alternate solutions as well, and it is very hard to lock yourself out of further progress completely (and may even be impossible).
In short, it’s actually a very well-structured adventure game that avoids almost all the things which frustrate people about King’s Quest and other Sierra adventures, but there’s a couple of factors which overshadow that in people’s appreciations and recollections of the game, for better or worse.
The first such factor is Sierra’s embrace during this era of FMV (full motion video) as a graphical style for games – this is stuff like Wing Commander or the second Gabriel Knight game where actual actors were filmed to provide the character animations for the game and cut scenes were filmed like TV scenes. Phantasmagoria stands as one of the most expansive FMV games ever filmed, spanning seven CDs (effectively one CD per chapter of the story) and with an enormous amount of footage filmed against green screens in a studio Sierra built specifically for the project. It ended up costing over four and a half million dollars to produce; that doesn’t seem like so much by modern-day videogame budgets, but you have to remember that this was the early 1990s, and at the time that was an absolutely incredible budget to plow into a videogame. (By comparison, the same year LucasArts would bring out Full Throttle, one of its most big-budget adventure games, and that only cost a third as much to make; Hitman 2 didn’t cost so much to make, despite being a large and extremely elaborate AAA game from 2002).
This is in some ways unfortunate, because FMV is an aesthetic which has not aged well. The videoed characters’ transitions from standing still, waiting for the player to give them instructions, to becoming active and doing stuff never quite make it out of the uncanny valley, and the video quality, whilst lavish at the time, looks rather unfortunate now. In addition, perhaps because they spent so much money getting the footage Sierra seem to have decided to use every single bit of it; every single transition between scenes is accompanied by Adrienne walking from place to place, and there are numerous bits where if you click on a random chair you will get treated to about thirty seconds or so of Adrienne moving to the chair and sitting down on it. (If you are lucky, she will stand up again in that time; if you are unlucky, you will have to click again and watch her taking an inordinately long time to stand up.) Thankfully, a skip button is provided so if you can tell you are seeing some useless footage you have already seen before you can jump forwards, but this feels like a clunky, heavy-handed, bodged-together solution to a serious structural problem.
The other thing about FMV is that it is very dependent on the skills of the actors involved. As I explained in my Gabriel Knight review, hiring actors for voice acting is vastly more cost-effective than hiring them to do acting on film. For film, the actors need to get their makeup and costume sorted, show up to the studio, wait around whilst people get all the props and lighting and other technical bits sorted, and otherwise devote a great deal of their time to the project, and of course the actors will need to fit this into their schedule so that they can be there at the same time as any actors they need to appear alongside much of the time. Conversely, for voice acting you need a basic recording studio, a functional microphone and storage medium, and an actor, so from the actor’s perspective voice acting is a very time-effective way of doing some acting and getting some money in and from the employer’s perspective they don’t need to pay the actor for remotely the same level of time commitment.
As a result, whilst Sierra’s budget for games could get great actors with genuine star power to appear in voice-acted games like the first Gabriel Knight (featuring Tim Curry and Mark Hamill, neither of whom were at the top of the food chain at the time but neither of whom were exactly random nobodies either), for FMV games they had to make do with a somewhat more variable lot. Victoria Morsell is actually quite good as Adrienne, which is lucky because obviously she is the character you spend by far the most time with; conversely, David Homb is convincing enough as Don when he’s the happy, friendly Don of the early game or the cruel, abusive Don of the middle game, but when he becomes the cackling, hooting, clownish cartoon villain Don of the late game he’s just risible. Other actors are passable in an amateur theatre sort of a way.
The other widely commented-on feature of Phantasmagoria is the fact that it is very much not a game for kids – an outcry ensued on its release, despite the inclusion of a password-lockable “censored” mode. Williams set out to tell a horror story for grown-ups, and that is very much what this is; there’s a sex scene in the intro movie, and later in the game, when Don’s behaviour has becomes seriously threatening under the influence of the curse, there is a rape scene. This latter caused an enormous amount of controversy but I actually thought it was quite adeptly handled; although the word “rape” is not used in the script, it does present a nuanced sequence in which Don tries to get frisky, is initially rebuffed, then Adrienne reciprocates a bit, then she wants it to stop and Don breezes straight past her withdrawal of consent and manages to convey that this is a very bad thing and that no means no even when someone said “yes” earlier, which is a detail which frankly a lot of media doesn’t get right even today.
That said, I have reservations about “possessed person becomes abusive because of possession” storylines, because I think it can play into that ugly “They’re not usually like that! I can help them with my love!” narrative in real-life abusive situations which doesn’t exactly need reinforcing; I can think of a few instances where people have managed to finesse it – generally in a “They always had these abusive impulses, the evil force is just nudging them to succumb to them more” sort of way – but this isn’t one of them. (See: cartoon hooting in the final phases.)
The actual sexual content involved is not that explicit – you don’t actually see any anatomy you wouldn’t see regularly on network TV in the States – and I suspect the outcry was based less on the content itself and more on the fact that people had the idea that videogames were for kids and therefore were always marketed to kids, even when games like Phantasmagoria specifically tried to market themselves to adults.
The other aspect of the adult content, of course, is the gore. There are some gruesome, gruesome deaths in this game; at one stage you can have visions of the deaths of past victims, which are grim enough, but the real gems here are the various ways Adrienne can die in the final sequence, which involved models of Morsell’s head being constructed and torn apart or hacked clean open in various ways. Here, the shoddy quality of FMV may actually help make it all seem more realistic than it would if we could more clearly see the fakiness of it all. (The death you suffer if you are killed by Zoltan’s swinging-axe deathtrap, in particular, is an absolute masterpiece of the gore artist’s craft.)
The writing in the game is mostly solid, as is the puzzle design, though there are some deficiencies here and there. There are few truly hard puzzles, which is a blessing frankly, but some of the puzzles are a little too simple – there are several bits where you can literally progress in the game just by walking about enough until enough things happen to allow you to progress a particular challenge. In the middle there’s two comic relief characters added, Harriet (V. Joy Lee) and her son Cyrus (Steven W. Bailey), who don’t add a whole lot to the plot aside from providing a really heavy-handed mechanism for a plot dump in chapter 5. They get weirdly shoehorned in – it turns out they are vagrants who have been living in the barn and on discovering them Adrienne agrees to hire them as a housekeeper and groundskeeper because obviously when you find that strange people have invaded your home your first impulse is to give them permission to access all areas of your home NO WAIT THE OTHER THING.
I rather wonder whether their role was originally rather different in an early draft of the script before being extensively cut; it would feel a bit less ham-fisted if they showed up from the beginning as a housekeeper and groundskeeper hired before Adrienne and Don arrive. That would also make them feel less jarring, because then most of their comic relief antics could be shunted towards the early chapters so that they don’t end up spoiling the otherwise excellent ramping-up of claustrophobic dread that the game delivers. (Some of their comedy is not that funny, of course. Being poor and homeless is not funny. Nor are characters who are supposed to be developmentally disabled and are basically played like the parodic pop culture “Tell me about the rabbits, George” version of Lennie from Of Mice and Men and who play into that whole ugly “developmentally disabled people have super-strength” trope.)
Perhaps the most overarching issue with Phantasmagoria – and I realise I say this as someone who really liked watching Morsell’s head being utterly wrecked by a big axe – is its lack of restraint. The mansion is so absurdly huge and absurdly spooky in its architecture that it is near-impossible to take it seriously; in the light of that, there’s less “How could these people have possibly known the horror they are letting themselves in for?” and more “How could these chumps have possibly not realised that buying this house was a terrible idea?” It feels like a Scooby Doo setting crowbarred into a serious Stephen King horror novel, which is jarring and not quite right for the mood.
Still, at the same time the whole production comes together to produce something that none of its flaws in concert can quite ruin for me, and which leaves me with a much higher regard for Roberta Williams as a game designer than I previously had.
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh
A year ago, Curtis Craig (Paul Morgan Stetler) had some sort of psychotic episode which saw him hospitalised; now, though, he’s doing much better, and he’s back at his job as a technical writer for Wyntech, a pharmaceutical company. Despite his somewhat eccentric and overbearing department head, Paul Allen Warner (Warren Burton), his overtly hostile office rival Bob Arnold (Don Berg), and his rather introverted nature, Curtis is actually quite popular in his office. His best friend is cubicle neighbour Trevor Barnes (Paul Mitri), he’s dating his other cubicle neighbour Jocilyn Rowan (Monique Parent), and the other woman in his department, Therese Banning (Ragna Sigrun) seems to have designs on him as well.
Curtis has everything to lose, then, when he starts to have terrifying auditory and visual hallucinations, causing him to worry that he might be heading to another psychotic break. Then, when that thundering asshole Bob Arnold gets brutally murdered, Curtis thinks that that break may have actually been reached – that he killed Bob without any memory of it – but his therapist Dr. Rikki Harburg (Cynthia Steele) considers it a remote possibility. But who, then, is the killer – and is it possible that Curtis’ symptoms have an external cause after all?
Lorelei Shannon, who had co-written a couple of adventures with Roberta Williams previously, was given the lead on this second (and, to date, final) Phantasmagoria adventure. The intention was that Phantasmagoria would denote a brand rather than a more specific ongoing story or consistent setting – that each game would be written by a different hand with no requirement to have any connection in approach, style, setting or characters, or really any common thread beyond the broad horror brief.
Admirably, Shannon took this and ran with it, eschewing the over-the-top campiness of the first game for a more low-key approach which begins rooted in psychological horror before heading into stranger territory. This greater realism is coupled with greatly reduced use of green screen effects, which basically don’t appear very much at all until the very final act; most of the scenes are filmed on proper sets. This also results in a more restrained and realistic set of performances from the actors, with the result that the game feels much more immersive and tends towards more verisimilitude than the preceding game. This does mean that at some points the inclusion of the more puzzle-y puzzles feels jarring; who puts a rotating-tile puzzle on the door to a BDSM club’s play room?
Ah, yes, about that: just about the only major way in which A Puzzle of Flesh follows its predecessor’s lead is in its inclusion of way more adult sexual content than people were used to seeing in games of its vintage. If anything, A Puzzle of Flesh actually goes further: unlike in Phantasmagoria, you actually see boob here, there’s a significant BDSM subplot, and references in the dialogue to cunnilingus at that.
At point, the extent of the story’s enthusiasm for this stuff slightly overrides common sense. There’s one bit where Therese has Curtis in a suspension harness in his bedroom and literally the only way it could have worked would be if a) there were already rings installed on his ceiling for the chains of the harness to hook onto, in which case Curtis’ cluelessness about the subject seems kind of overplayed, or b) in between the previous scene fading out and this scene fading in Therese and Curtis put down newspaper, drilled holes, installed rings in the ceiling, cleaned up the dust from the drilling, put away the newspaper, and then got down to their action, and I dunno about you but I tend to find that once a sex evening has hit a certain point, stopping everything so that my partner and I can undertake some do DIY tasks would be at best a non sequitur, at worst kind of a mood-wrecker. Likewise, the BDSM club at points more resembles someone’s fantasy of what goes on than any reality.
At the same time, though, there’s also a more nuanced treatment of sexuality here. Trevor is a rare example of a gay character in a videogame of this era who doesn’t have the camp dial set to 100% at all times, and is one of the more developed supporting characters at that; Curtis himself is bicurious, goes in for a kiss on Trevor before Trevor starts in on a “Nuh-uh, just friends” speech, and in one of the in-game therapy sessions seems to be fumbling towards defining as polyamorous. (Of course, the gay guy does die and there’s a weird 1990s willingness to introduce gay themes without actually showing anything gay actually happening whilst the straight sex scenes go all-out, so it’s kind of problematic by today’s standards, but for 1996 this was way ahead of the curve in the videogame space.) This is all handled with impressive sensitivity, with Dr. Rikki reassuring Curtis (and the player through him) that there’s nothing wrong with any of that, or the consensual BDSM for that matter, and that it would be erroneous to assume that these fantasies and desires of his were outgrowths of his childhood traumas.
Your sympathetic therapist is a significant figure thanks, of course, to the game’s strong focus on mental health issues and hallucinations as plot elements. I had been worried that the story would just be a demonising “mentally ill people are monsters and don’t realise they are monsters” thing, but actually the plot adeptly avoids that, though it does set you up to expect it for the sake of the plot twist. It is clear that if there is any connection between the horror and Curtis’ symptoms at all (and there is some ambiguity as to how much of those symptoms are simple mental illness and how much are supernatural manifestations), it isn’t Curtis’ mental health causing the horror – rather, the terrible events that have happened to him are what has thrown him off-balance in the first place.
That said, there are some tropes of the unhelpful “mental hospital as torture palace/psychiatrist as oppressor” variety, but they are somewhat deftly handled; the most cartoonish such instances are part of the hallucinations and therefore may represent a biased distortion rather than a reality, and the oppressive psychiatrist is specifically shown as being opposed to the helpful therapist and more interested in helping the corporate conspiracy than actually helping. I still think the paradigm of “hospitalisation bad, visiting therapist good” to be an oversimplified reduction; yes, being hospitalised is not optimal, but it can and should be a viable option for those who feel that they need it, and to imply that there is no middle ground between involuntary incarceration and being dealt with as and when your therapist has an appointment available seems unhelpful.
Now, as far as the actual horror plot goes – that’s just great. As expected, there’s a big revelation about Curtis partway through the game, and the magnitude of that and the sheer audacity of what WynTech has been doing with their sinister Threshold project offer truly shocking moments once you piece together the implications. (Strict ambiguity is maintained as to whether Craig’s mother knew about his, ah, very particular status and whether that motivated her abuse of him, or whether she was simply an extremely cruel person with her own range of issues, which is probably sensible to avoid an inadvertent “abuse can be justified” implication – though the plot does include a probably unhelpful “abuse victims need to forgive their abusers on some level” implication later on.)
At first glance the BDSM stuff seemed to be kind of pointlessly sensationalist, but it feels in the long run like there’s a running theme there and in the main plot of Curtis realising that he doesn’t quite fit into a conventional, vanilla idea of how things and people should be. There’s fairly clear signs that Curtis is not entirely comfortable or satisfied with the heteronormativity-reinforcing “stay with your monogamous girlfriend” ending, and any return to “normality” for him would be a facade, which in combination with the sexuality stuff and the way Curtis’ unhappy childhood memories revolve around being violently rejected by a traditional housewife-type mother in a traditional white picket suburban existence makes it feel like the whole plot has been an allegory for anyone who feels simultaneously like they don’t fit in with the script society expects people to follow, and feels like that society is punishing them for it.
It is the gameplay which is A Puzzle of Flesh’s weakness, which is kind of an irony for a game with “puzzle” in the title. There are some improvements over the previous game – the final act is less frustrating and repetitive to play through (though it is also substantially more linear than the impressive range of ways you can complete the final chase sequence in Phantasmagoria), and the more conventional save game system in addition to the “rewind to just before you made the fatal decision that got you killed” feature is a welcome touch. Nonetheless, all too often the gameplay is only really noticeable or memorable when it provides an awkward roadblock, rather than actual fun. The “combining items in the inventory” mechanic is clumsily implemented, and there are several points where the distinction between clicking on one area of the screen or a slightly different area of the screen – or, for that matter, what clicking on that area of the screen is actually supposed to represent you doing – is so muddled and confused that there were a couple of times that I looked up hints online only to find that I was basically on the right track but had to click somewhere slightly differently from where I was clicking.
On the one hand, the gameplay is sparse enough and simple enough for most of the game that all this is only an occasional irritation rather than a constant annoyance. On the other hand, the real downfall of the game is that the story is good enough, and the gameplay light enough, that I am left not entirely convinced that A Puzzle of Flesh really needed to be a game in the first place – it could have been a pretty decent horror B-movie with really not much rewriting required at all. What with the collapse of the whole “interactive movie”/full motion video computer game idea in the wake of A Puzzle of Flesh (indeed, the poor commercial showing of the game was arguably one of the very catalysts of that collapse), I feel like A Puzzle of Flesh was a decent enough movie to click through, but that said a game I finish in five hours feels like it’d not quite give me value for money had I not paid a fraction of the release date cost decades down the line, and a movie that lasted five hours would need to have a bit more meat on the bone than this.
Also, maybe it’s the Bowie fan in me, but I can’t stop thinking of the game’s title as A Portrait In Flesh because of that awesome triptych from Diamond Dogs.