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Reliving the controversy of Phantasmagoria

Richard Mitchell
Richard Mitchell|@TheRichardM|February 11, 2013 6:30 PM

This is Making Time, a column about the games we've always wanted to play, and the games we've always wanted to play again.

Reliving the controversy of Phantasmagoria
I have a confession to make. The only reason this column exists is because I wanted an excuse to write about Phantasmagoria, an adventure game created by industry pioneer Roberta Williams. Not that I could have told you who Roberta Williams was when I first played the game in the mid-1990s. I played the majority of the game on my friends Danny and Mikey's computer. My family didn't have much of a PC at the time, but Danny and Mikey had a 486 beast that could run Windows 95 and a glut of incredible games I couldn't get at home. (Maybe I'll tell you about my family's PCJr in a future column.)

In some ways, Phantasmagoria is the quintessential 90s game, borrowing elements – intentionally or not – from some of the decade's biggest phenomena. Released in 1995, it was smack in the middle of publisher Sierra's adventure game heyday. Like CD-ROM sensation Myst, all the characters are rendered using full-motion video, while the environments are all composed of static, pre-rendered 3D backgrounds. And, like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap before it, Phantasmagoria's realistic and often gruesome depiction of its characters stirred up controversy.
%Gallery-178177%The story of Phantasmagoria is pulled straight from traditional horror tropes. A young married couple, Adrienne Delaney and Don Gordon, buy an old mansion located outside of what appears to be a coastal town in either New England or the Pacific Northwest. As her photographer husband begins converting a second-story bathroom into his personal darkroom, Adrienne decides to explore the house.

Players take on the role of Adrienne, controlling an FMV sprite of the actress who portrays her (tastefully dressed in another 90s phenomenon: high-waisted jeans). Once belonging to an eccentric 19th century magician named Carno, the house and surrounding grounds are strange to say the least, replete with bizarre torture devices, outlandish architecture, austere portraits, lots of secret rooms and one grab-happy haunted bed. Before too long, Adrienne goes poking around where she shouldn't, uncovering a hidden chapel and releasing an ancient evil that promptly possesses her husband.

Adrienne spends the rest of the game coming to grips with Don's ever-worsening condition, delving deeper into the mansion and discovering Carno's past. Along the way, she meets a few colorful characters, gathers numerous household items and formulates complicated solutions for seemingly simple puzzles.

But all of that is standard adventure game fare, and you might be wondering what was so controversial. It all boils down to subject matter. As it turns out, Carno developed something of a penchant for murdering his wives, a fact Adrienne discovers through a series of surprisingly graphic cutscenes. Thanks to the demonic presence in the house, Adrienne bears witness to grisly murders from the past, watching as the ghostly apparition of Carno dispatches his wives one by one. One scene features Carno ramming a dirt-filled spade into his wife's mouth. Another is force fed animal viscera until she chokes to death. Another's neck is twisted completely around by a horrific machine. Even Adrienne herself falls victim early in the story, as she is raped by her husband. Later on, death scenes depict her head split apart by a torture device or literally ripped in half by a demon.

Remember, all of these scenes are played out by real actors. No effort is made to hide or obfuscate the ghastliest moments, either. Everything is shown in gruesome detail. While some are campy by today's standards, many of the death scenes – Adrienne's in particular – remain absurdly graphic. In the 1990s, when the likes of Mortal Kombat and the super cheesy Night Trap were terrifying parents everywhere, the violence of Phantasmagoria seemed positively stratospheric. Adolescents would gloat about how Phantasmagoria had been banned in Australia. CompUSA refused to carry it.

There's an important distinction to make here, though. These scenes are not designed to titillate, unlike the explosive headshots and "chainsawdomy" we see today. Instead, they were designed to horrify, like the ghoulish form of theatre Phantasmagoria was named after. They amplify the grim, terrifying situation in which Adrienne finds herself and, in that respect, do their job very well.

Reliving the controversy of Phantasmagoria
None of this is to say that Phantasmagoria is a perfect adventure game. Most of the death scenes are optional, for one. I missed two of them this time around, and wouldn't even know they were there if it wasn't for Google and YouTube. In fact, a great deal of the game's content is optional. That's a shame, as many players could miss a lot of the story, especially the bits about Carno's descent into madness. And, while the full-motion video presentation is novel, some of the performances leave a lot to be desired. Don's performance at the end of the game, when he finally goes full-on crazy, is positively eye-rolling.

Some of the story doesn't make much sense either, and the occasional bout of adventure game logic contrasts sharply with the realistic presentation. For example, Phantasmagoria insists that a letter opener is the ideal tool to remove mortar from a brick. And why would a famous magician build a theatre inside of his own home and host performances there? Why is Adrienne so nonchalant about hiring vagrants living in her barn as groundskeepers? Why is she not even slightly alarmed by the floating ball of ectoplasm above the crib in the old nursery? The answer, of course, is "relax, it's a video game."

Thankfully, the overarching plot is interesting enough to see through to the end, especially if you spend some time exploring and digging up the pieces of Carno's past (literally, in some cases). Ultimately, Phantasmagoria may be best remembered for its over-the-top violence, but its branching adventure and macabre story are what make it worthwhile.

Not to mention its awesomely cheesy closing theme.
Reliving the controversy of Phantasmagoria