It would be one thing if these deaths were pixilated splats of red and grey, but seeing them acted out had a different effect altogether. There seemed to be no limit to the extent to which Phantasmagoria stretched to find horror. The story traded in torture, and even, at one point, hinted at rape. These are difficult topics to capture in tone - too blasé and they become tasteless and grotesque, too serious and they risk becoming overwrought camp. In this case, Phantasmagoria aimed for The Shining, and ended up with something closer to Saw - the final product was more grindhouse than arthouse, a tale with plenty of blood and guts but not a lot of brains.
If we judge Phantasmagoria on how real it looks, it doesn't measure up. We, in our voracious media appetites, are like that jaded magician's audience who has seen every trick. As Adrienne walked through the house, she was always surrounded by a thin halo of pale light - the telltale sign of a B-grade blue screen job. And certain moments simply didn't shake out as planned. In one version of the penultimate scene, with Adrienne running panic-stricken through the house's many corridors, she chances upon an insane man, laughing deliriously, wearing a long, flowing wig ... and beside him is a new victim, lying scalped in a bloody heap. Eugh! We're supposed to think. That's no wig! It's a scalp!
Except that's no scalp. It's a wig.
This might be the final paradox of horror - the division between seen and unseen. Give us the most rudimentary computer graphics, and we'll rely on our minds to fill in those blanks, the same way audiences of the original phantasmagoria saw ghouls and goblins dancing in flickering shadows. But tear away that veil of imagination and we can scan for the tiniest inconsistencies. What seems terrifying in the shadows might seem embarrassingly mundane in the light of day.
For all its shortcomings, Phantasmagoria is not unplayable. It is still shockingly different in its sensibilities than most of everything that has preceded it or followed it in gaming, and it does successfully draw from the time-tested point-and-click adventure formula that Sierra is known for. For the puzzle-loving gorehound that thrills at the sight of a woman's head being cleft in twain, Phantasmagoria is the perfect game. The juxtaposed graphics, histrionic acting, and over-the-top violence have only grown cheesier over time - so if you're looking for a Rocky Horror campfest, Phantasmagoria is a dish best served cold. But for everyone else it has all the appeal of a plate full of entrails.
At the end of it all, it's questionable whether Phantasmagoria lived up to its namesake. With its full cast and fully acted protagonist it strove for a greater level of immersion in a game experience than ever before. The result, though, managed to be doubly unreal; an unconvincing performance in an unconvincing game. Phantasmagoria ended up both loved and laughed-off, but mostly forgotten, passing by quietly and lingering, half-noticed in gaming history - a phantom of a different type.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, but he moonlights as a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.