Phantasmagoria (1995)

Phantasmagoria Box art

Blood and Thunder: a review of Phantasmagoria

The theater was established in 1896, on the Rue Chaptal, by a man named Metenier. It’s perhaps amusing in retrospect that Metenier died the following year, leaving the place in another’s hands. Patrons made their way to the theater down a classic Parisian cobble-stone alley, and ducked into a place of dark glory. Black rafters above. Gothic figures twisting in pain along the portals. The walls covered with the very same fleurs-de-lis with which the French Inquisition branded criminals and heretics before they were to burn. Sensuously carved cherubs and seven-foot angels looked down into the 300-odd seats of the audience. These filled nightly, despite the fact that they were extremely uncomfortable. The cramped little building had once been a church, an irony which, I am sure, was lost on no one.

The patrons? A motley lot of every class and profession. Such nasty entertainment as this made strange bedfellows. They came to see “plays” of a certain kind, not to be seen themselves; by the time one sat down in the Theatre du Grand Guignol, respectability was no longer an issue.

Here young women would be thrown into gigantic lighthouse lamps for your edification. Here acid was hurled into men’s faces. On any given night you might see a girl’s eyes put out with knitting needles. Naked actresses raped, crucified or dismembered–sometimes all three. A great variety of surgeries, tortures and mutilations were performed, by villains ranging from gypsies to insane old women to men with flesh-ripping hooks instead of hands. Every act, no matter how outrageous, was accomplished with the greatest realism, using theatrical props and effects specially developed for the Guignol.

The theater even had a secret recipe for stage blood, which was used in such copious amounts each night that it had to be kept hot in an enormous cauldron backstage. They kept it steaming because it congealed very much like the real thing, and because the audience was splashed with it often enough during the performances that it must be kept at human temperatures, for the sake of realism.

Such a spectacle had never been seen before and has not been seen since, save perhaps for an occasional moment on film. The directors who can achieve that same dislocating wrench of pure horror–the surge of adrenaline and nausea that accompanies a sight so extreme that one’s natural sense of disbelief is completely numbed–have become legendary. Tod Browning. Dario Argente. Alejandro Jodorosky. Sometimes, on his better days, John Carpenter.

In 1995, I never dreamed that a computer game–even an interactive movie, enjoying the highest possible production values–would ever be able to achieve such an effect. But it happened, in a game that paid open homage to the Grand Guignol, both in its title and its premise: Sierra’s Phantasmagoria.

Setting the Stage

Phantasmagoria was set in the 1990’s, but the game revolves around events long past. The plot revolves around the life of a stage magician working before the turn of the century, an illusionist whose performances would have fit right in at the famous theater in Montmarte. He called his show the Phantasmagoria, and in it he simulated various acts of torture and murder, in a display designed to both titillate and terrify his audience. Over one hundred years later, a young professional couple has bought the magician’s estate–a beautiful mansion and grounds, all built in an isolated coastal region of New England–for a song.

The oldest trick in the book, of course, a cliché so familiar that it needs no explanation: cool old house at low price=big trouble. When you try to use this premise in a movie nowadays, they string you up.

Strangely enough, it still worked here. A computer game can be different from a film. A certain alchemical transformation takes place when a member of the audience becomes a player. The transition from passive to active role is a kind of philosopher’s stone, magically making old cliché’s new again. It’s one thing to sit on your butt in a movie theater, with a tub of popcorn in your lap, watching while things happen to someone else; and it’s something else entirely to actually be in the situation yourself, with the sickening certainty that something terrible is going to happen, and have to try and do something about it.

Gameplay in Phantasmagoria was exceedingly simple, designed to be as easy and unobtrusive as possible. The mouse-driven interface was based on “hot spots”; the cursor turns red when it passes over an area where some action can be performed. Objects are picked up by clicking on them, and they go into the inventory automatically. There are no “invisible” objects in this game–if an object that you need to pick up is small or might tend to be missed, it will be given a pulsing glow to attract attention to it. Puzzles, such as they are, are very simple, logical and straight-forward. The game concentrates more on the mystery confronting the characters than on making things difficult for the player–a vital ingredient in the game’s success as a horror title. Frustration and suspense are mortal enemies.

Chaining the Lady

There are two things that any modern gamer is going to notice immediately about Phantasmagoria. First, that it is an antique. At the time, the creators were attempting to reach a new height of realism and beauty in a computer game. There were seven CD-ROM discs’ worth of stunning graphics, including gorgeous photo-real sets and play that actually consisted of full-motion video. The player moved a live actress around to various hot spots on the screen and triggered cinematics with the clicks.

Live action “cinematic” games have been largely abandoned since the 1990’s as a failed experiment. Some elements have lived on to the present day: professional actors, sound, original score and special effects are standard. Video sequences and character interactions tend to be computer-generated, however. The video sequences in Phantasmagoria might very well look dated and strange to the modern gamer, and there were hours of them in this title. At the time, the game was an important technological leap, and represented a step forward for the whole industry. Now its achievements have been surpassed and some of its experimental aspects have been left far behind.

One of the aspects which I hope is not dead, however, was the fact Phantasmagoria featured a female protagonist. In many ways, this may have been an even more important step forward than the graphics were. Much was made of this at the time; it was considered a direct challenge to the male-dominated computer game “establishment”, which produced then and still produces now a vast majority of male protagonists for CRPG’s.

The player here takes on the role of Adrienne Delaney, a pretty young novelist, who has moved into this haunted mansion with a husband named Don and a cat named Spazz. In the course of the game, Adrienne explores the mansion and the surrounding grounds, makes trips to a village on the shore a few miles down the road, and interviews a small cast of local characters, while strange and inexplicable events accumulate both in her house and in her relationship with her husband.

Was this character a challenge to a sexist industry? Yes and no. Roberta Williams, the game’s designer, had a previous history of female characters; she was the creator of the Laura Bow mysteries, which had won a small following and a certain amount of critical acclaim. Her continuing work with female protagonists was unusual in a business where even the most brilliant female designers–Jane Jensen, also at Sierra, is a name that springs easily to mind–devoted their best work to male characters.

On the other hand, Williams didn’t exactly upset the male chauvinist applecart with her female characters. Both Laura Bow and Adrienne Delaney are traditional girlie-type girls, despite their good qualities. One of the annoying aspects of Phantasmagoria was being forced to watch Adrienne preen herself in various mirrors around the house as she travels from room to room. You had to keep looking into those mirrors, because there were important dramatic sequences associated with them, but when I tried out the “hot cursor” spots in the bathroom, only to see Adrienne brush her hair, rub her hands with lotion, and put on makeup (and all without advancing the plot one iota), I actually let out a squawk of outrage–mortally offended, both as a woman and as a player, at this interjection of pointless “chick stuff”.

I would certainly agree with anyone who said that there need to be more strong female characters in computer gaming, and that male players should have less trouble identifying with female protagonists. But I don’t think that end can be accomplished by exaggerating the girl stuff and hamming up the differences between men and women. Even female players are often turned off by that kind of thing, and rightly so.

Blood and Thunder

Although it’s a serious one, the problem of identifying with Adrienne was the greatest difficulty with the game. In almost every other respect, Phantasmagoria was excellent; once the hurdle of Adrienne’s pronounced femininity was overcome, the game became extremely involving. Although it wasn’t immediately obvious, most players would recognize by the half-way point that there was something else unique about this game: it was truly horrific.

The horror operated at several levels. Just for sheer visceral impact, Phantasmagoria had several sequences which would leave all but the hardiest viewer shaken and more than a little sick, including several graphic murder scenes and a realistically disgusting rape. There was nothing fun, diverting or laughable about those scenes; I was left queasy and cold after each one.

That’s not all there was, of course–there were also very strong emotional horrors involved, which gave the story a firm grounding in pain, fear, grief and betrayal. And there were supernatural elements as well, which took the story into a deeper realm of terror by introducing the strongest of all fears–the unknown.

This was a mature horror feature, the purpose of which was to frighten, repulse and disturb the player, rather than to challenge or amuse. The tone and the approach were the most serious that any horror game had ever enjoyed, and some care was taken to make sure that nothing got in the way of a very profound, very dark emotional experience.

The plot unfolded slowly and easily, the pace picking up as days passed until the action reached its horrendous, frenetic conclusion. The majority of players, especially those with some experience playing role-playing games, would find this game very easy; those who didn’t would benefit from an available hint feature, which kept the plot advancing and frustration at a minimum.

Plot, dialog and scene construction were good and fairly consistent, without any distracting lapses of quality. The story of the demonic illusionist in particular was an achievement–scary, engaging, and terribly sad as well. Documents, interviews and artifacts were used to advantage, both to uncover the mysteries of the blood-drenched past and to advance the plot in the threatening present.

Pace and mood are extremely important in a horror game, and Phastasmagoria didn’t blink once in the 23 hours it took me to finish it; it surpassed all the best horror CRPG’s that came before it, if only by its avoidance of “brick wall” puzzles and jolting departures into adolescent humor. The player was never let off the hook or invited to break off his identification with the character. The horror slowly grew as the tale continued, as more and more nightmarish scenes were piled one on top of another, until the final panic-stricken confrontation at the end was almost a relief.

The oppressive horror didn’t vanish the instant the machine was turned off, either. I’m not what anyone would call the nervous or squeamish type, but I had a strong physical reaction to this game. After a long session, the weight in the pit of my stomach took hours to dissipate.

For a horror fan, that feeling is a good thing–a sensation always desired, and very seldom achieved, when you sit down to watch a fright flick or read a gory novel. It means that you are in the presence of greatness, that you have experienced a work of art. It’s akin to one’s reaction to a symphony, a powerful line of verse, or an extraordinary painting–a potent experience, one which cannot easily be put into words.


In the end, even today, there is only one question–is there anyone who shouldn’t play this game?

Yes. This title should be kept away from children, young adults and people who have Trigger Issues regarding sexual violence at all costs. It had a “censorship” option, which cut down on the graphic physical violence by pixellating the images, but no one should be lulled into complacency. There was no real way to reduce the emotional and supernatural horror of this game, and it was emphatically not for the young or the vulnerable. I personally wouldn’t let anyone under the age of sixteen open the box, much less play it. This being said, please be aware that I’m one of those tiresome stick-in-the-muds who would also refuse to let kids watch movies like Saw and Hostel.

Other than that, I would say that Phantasmagoria had a great deal to offer in its day, and might still be of interest if you can find a copy. It was a beautiful program in some respects, well worth playing for its look and feel alone. It’s a bit short, yielding only twenty to thirty hours of play for an average gamer, but it could provide richly textured entertainment to those who could appreciate its value as horror gaming history.

For those who could see what was accomplished here, Phantasmagoria was a signal event, one of the most powerful horror titles ever released and easily the most single-mindedly horrific. Like the Theatre du Grand Guignol, it may not have been “refined” nor even “original”–it was only moving. But blood and thunder has its own appeal.

Rating: 4 — 4 1/2
Pros: High production values; good acting, writing and directing; effective horror sequences.
Cons: A little short, only 20-30 hours of gameplay; exaggeratedly feminine protagonist; NOT AT ALL suitable for children or young adults.

Review first published in Computer Gaming World Magazine, 1995.

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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2 Responses to Phantasmagoria (1995)

  1. netiaz says:

    But, why does the box-art not resemble the game, other than the stylized title type? I’ve wondered this for years.

  2. Arinn says:

    I honestly don’t know, but I’ve always liked the box for this game. Reminds me a bit of the art for Miller’s Sin City, which came out a few years earlier in the 1990’s. Perhaps a Miller influence on the graphic artist who did this cover.

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