If you spend any time watching horror movies, from classic thrillers to B-grade schlock, you might catch yourself marveling at how unrelentingly dense the characters can be. More often than not, the genre trades on rotten people in bad situations making terrible decisions, until it becomes staggeringly obvious to everybody except the people in the movie what should and shouldn’t be done. “Don’t go in the basement!” “Stay together!” “That artifact is cursed!” Of course, they never listen. The buxom young thing stumbles right into the torture-den and gets vivisected. The owner of that suspicious amulet starts crawling on the walls and spewing pea soup. Serves them right for ignoring sound advice.
In 1995, as if in answer to the frustrations of the armchair horror buff, Sierra On-Line introduced Phantasmagoria – a new type of game so realistic as to be billed an “interactive movie.” The game took its name from a device crafted in the late 18th century, a type of “magic lantern” containing a light source and reflective surface that would shine a shifting image on an indistinct background. It sent audiences fleeing in terror. True to its namesake, Sierra’s Phantasmagoria promised to be a technological turning point that changed the way we experienced horror media. There would be no more impotent shouting from the balcony – from here on, we would be making the decisions.
A share of games had taken a stab at succeeding as interactive movies, but none approached the concept as literally as Phantasmagoria. Rather than simply create a game inspired by horror cinema, Sierra On-Line envisioned Phantasmagoria as a horror movie that you played, and its sheer scale reflected those aspirations. The game’s script came in at 550 pages, more than four times the size of a traditional movie script, with another 100 pages of storyboards, representing 800 scenes in all. Sierra hired actors to perform entire scenes, which were filmed over four months using a crew of over 200, and even included a Gregorian choir of 135 in the production. The finished game itself was massive, shipping in seven CDs on the computer, and eight for the Sega Saturn.
The live action of Phantasmagoria was not constrained to cutscenes alone. The player was given control of Adrienne, a new homeowner in a haunted mansion, whose every in-game action was performed by an actress. This greater level of visual detail was to make for a new level of player immersion and a new level of videogame horror. Nowhere was the game’s cinematic ambition more clear than in the opening scene, in which a series of pixelly, animated torture devices whizz through the aether, each more sinister than the last, chopping and buzzing and spinning in place. This grim montage was interrupted by a cut to the live-action Adrienne jolting up out of bed. The pixel horrorshow was just a dream, after all, but everything that came after was on a whole other level. In a strangely literal sense, things were about to “get real.”
But reality is a funny thing, and harder to capture than you might imagine. In Phantasmagoria‘s case, the combination of the realism of live-action film with the graphical abstraction of mid-nineties PC gaming was a complicated marriage. Though the character of Adrienne was portrayed by a real person, the environments she navigated, ranging from the haunted house itself to the surrounding grounds, were ordinary, pixilated fare. The juxtaposition was odd and unflattering. Rather than Adrienne’s physical presence lending these environments a type of realist cred, it often tended towards the opposite, drawing attention to how unreal the backgrounds really were.
Given standard videogame mechanics, the movie treatment also lent itself to absurdities. Physically acting out everything a game character does is a good way to reveal how ridiculously adventure game avatars behave – constantly opening and shutting doors and drawers, sitting and standing. Open, shut. Sit, stand. Whatever the folly of Adrienne’s horror movie predecessors, at least they had the wherewithal to not linger in the same place, opening and closing a drawer for five minutes. Adrienne’s movement from one location to another wasn’t particularly believable, either. Click to get out of a chair, and Adrienne would stand up, walk to the middle of the room, and look at nothing in particular until another click sent her loping off in this or that direction. It’s in these moments between a player’s actions that Adrienne looked not like an actor mid-performance, but a slumping marionette with her strings cut.
Then there was the weirdness of the game’s story itself. Phantasmagoria followed Adrienne and her husband, Donald, as they moved to a spooky old mansion with a questionable history. It’s just the two of them and their cat Spazz, but as they poke around, they begin to suspect that they are not completely alone. Anyone who knows their horror movies knows that this is not going to end well: It was just a matter of time before Donald started to wander, wild eyed, until he was full-frothing, Jack Nicholson mental. Adrienne would do a lot of screaming and running. And Spazz was, clearly, mincemeat. But even as Phantasmagoria aspired to that basic premise, it drew its scares not from the legitimately creeping menace of a lover turned psycho, but from something far messier – such as the gut-flipping squick of seeing a woman’s head popped like a pimple.
Stephen King, in a discussion of horror mechanics, separated them from most to least successful – first terror, and then horror, and then, finally, “the gross out.” Phantasmagoria was heavily set on door number three. Deaths were of the Grand Guignol type: flesh stretched, eyeballs burst, and blood gushed everywhere. As Adrienne explored the mansion, she began to see visions of its perverse history. The house was once owned by Carno, a demon-haunted magician, who took to slaying a Bluebeardesque succession of wives through ironic and elaborate punishments. He stabbed one unlucky missus through the eye with a wine bottle. Another one got stabbed in the face with a spade, then fed mouthfuls of bloody mulch until she succumbed. A third was strapped down with a tube shoved in her mouth, forced to choke down gristle and animal entrails.
By compelling the player to witness these gruesomely elaborate deaths, Phantasmagoria reneged on its premise to place the player inside a horror movie. Instead of being able to influence events, we must watch helplessly as Adrienne witnesses these ladies getting the axe. All the while, Adrienne gawks, and blinks, and gasps – the stuff a horror movie audience usually does. After a few hours, a frustrated player might feel a bit like that dining wife with the funnel in her craw – strapped into place, forced to chew through wave after wave of this gore.
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.