In 1995, Sierra On-Line had already established itself as a steady source of quality adventure software titles. This is in no small part due to the contribution of game designers like Roberta Williams (King's Quest, The Colonel’s Bequest). At the time, having a home computer and playing computer games were becoming rapidly more popular. This posed an opportunity for some companies to try to expand their audience and influence.
Enter Phantasmagoria, the first live-action, horror-genre adventure title. It is easily one of the most controversial titles in adventure game history. Phantasmagoria was ground-breaking, yet incredibly arrogant. The game was designed to reach adult consumers, though not gamers in particular. To do this Phantasmagoria utilized a storyline with mature themes mapped out in a fashion reminiscent of novel chapters, over two whole hours of FMV (full-motion video) live-action sequences, and the integration of the live actors with beautiful prerendered environments. It is this blending of book, movie, interactive entertainment, and game that make it blindingly apparent that Phantasmagoria was aimed at much more than the core of established gamers.
The effort to broaden the audience for computer games is commendable, yet gravely cheapened in execution. Phantasmagoria is mapped out like a novel, spanning a whopping seven CDs. The player assumes the identity of Adrienne, a mystery writer who has recently moved into a creepy mansion with her very unlikeable husband Don. Adrienne doesn't have to poke around long before things begin to turn for the sinister. She quickly discovers that the grounds belonged to a famed illusionist named “Carno,” who was known for his interest in the “dark arts.” It is rumored the place has been haunted for 100 years. No one even bothered to tell her! She doesn't even have all the keys to her new property. As if that wasn't bad enough, her husband Don is turning into a major jerk. It's quite sad actually, all Adrienne has is a cat and a BMW. The whining from the protagonist commences nearly at the beginning of the game. Boohoo.
Although it was ground-breaking, Phantasmagoria was also pompous. This game is like a self-important child demanding too much attention. The mature themes are carried to the extreme. The obvious merit of the effort to push computer gaming in a whole new direction is horribly disfigured by the juvenile inclusion of almost intolerably graphic scenes. There are several scenes of violence against women, almost always in a domestic setting. There is an extremely vivid and poorly executed portrayal of rape. There are also many grotesque murder sequences cheaply cloaked in the form of visions from the past. I know that there are horror fans who love gore and violence to the extreme. Unfortunately, wrapping extreme violence and gore in period costume is an affront to seasoned horror fans and to the unassuming gamers. All of this content comes across as arrogant. The story and gameplay could really have done without these extreme scenes. It is obvious that these things were thrown in to get people talking and sell the game.
With so much live action footage there is some debate as to whether Phantasmagoria is a game or an interactive movie. I feel it is more of an interactive movie. There are nuances of game elements, but it is more of a “click, watch, click, watch, repeat” experience. The third-person perspective and traditional point & click interface help to create the illusion that it is a game, but whatever game elements exist, they are not very important to the title overall. There is an in-game hint feature that hands out direct spoilers.
At the time of the game’s release, FMV was thought to bring gaming experiences a more realistic touch. Some thought the story was more tangible if the characters were shot in live-action instead of the cartoonish animation that was commonly available. I think some later FMV titles (Black Dahlia, Tex Murphy: Overseer) do a better job of using this facet of live-action to their advantage. Phantasmagoria, however, completely misses the mark. The character acting is deplorable. On the whole, Adrienne is a very unsympathetic character. In an effort to try to create empathy with the player, she is portrayed as a constant victim of her husband’s violent tendencies, and an overall wimp. She is whiny and doesn't even attempt to stand up for herself until way too late in the story. Honestly, it is asking a lot from the player to want to save this character from the horror after a few chapters.
Whatever realism is brought by the use of live-action is tarnished by the character invariably returning to a “mark” or a particular place in a scene and standing stiff as a board. I realize this was probably done to minimize the number of sequences of the character walking around, but it give the game a very forced and unnatural feel. Another aspect that adds to the unrealism is the sloppy dialogue recording. No matter where the characters are they sound like they are in an ampitheatre. The voices are have a lot of reverberation and no attempt was made to scale the sound to size of the environment.
Camera perspectives also lend to confusing the player. When you move Adrienne to certain places, the camera reorients in such a way that it is difficult to tell where she is in the scene. This makes for some repetitive walking back and forth, and can become frustrating. The light, inventory-based puzzles become a diversion from these frustrations, but they are neither challenging or thought-provoking. The puzzles mostly serve to unlock the doors to more overly grotesque FMV scenes. An important thing to note here is that you can limit the graphic content with an in-game “censor” feature. Though, I can hardly see what content would be left if one were so inclined.
In the end, I think Phantasmagoria is a failure of a game. However, I think that many beloved FMV titles would not have made it to shelves if not for the controversy and attention that this ambitious title received. I first played this game in 1996, and I was enjoyed it a lot then. Live-action was a very interesting concept. Since then, the FMV horror-mystery has been done in much more palatable and effective ways. There is no real challenge here for those looking for a fun game, and there is no real merit in it as an interactive movie. The only real achievement Phantasmagoria made was to break new ground for better games. 1 star is for the game itself, ˝ star is for the revolutionary way that Phantasmagoria shaped computer games.