Phantasmagoria is a mid-90s horror adventure game from Sierra and the creators of the vaunted King’s Quest series. At that point in time, adventure games were undergoing a decline, not necessarily due to quality, but due to the growing popularity of action and strategy games on the PC. In that light, Phantasmagoria feels like an ambitious attempt to establish a new generation of adventure games that would propel the genre into the next century.
I think in my mind, I’ve always seen Phantasmagoria as a grander and more important game than it actually was. That’s because as a kid I first saw this game when it was featured in a brief segment on the local evening news. While the game did garner some controversy due to its depiction of violence against women, the segment I saw was actually more of a fluff piece extolling the game’s story and use of digitized human actors. In my little kid brain, it was clear to me that if an institution as important as the local Fox affiliate had deigned to give Phantasmagoria air time, then it must be a really great game! As an adult, of course, I understand that segments like these are used by news stations as padding for when they don’t have enough real news stories to cover their 30 minute block. Nonetheless, the praise this game received has been ingrained in my head for two decades since, and I’ve always held Phantasmagoria in high esteem, despite never having played the game.
The lesson here is that you shouldn’t trust what you see on the news.
Phantasmagoria is a horror-themed, story-driven adventure game that follows Adrian Delaney, a semi-popular novelist, and her husband Don, an equally semi-famous photographer who have decided to move to the quiet New England town of Nipawomsett so that Adrian can peacefully work on her next novel. As hip young affluent weirdos, the couple have decided to make their residence in the abandoned (but surprisingly well-kept) home of Zoltan “Carno” Carnovash, a 19th century magician and serial widower. What could possibly go wrong?
Unsurprisingly, Carno’s seemingly bad luck in love was no mere coincidence, as he was in fact under demonic possession and driven to murder his wives by otherworldy forces. And while Carno may be long dead, the dark spirit of his madness still lies dormant in the house and finds a long-awaited vessel in Don. This plot really exists somewhere in a spectrum between Stephen King’s The Shining and one of those terrible Lifetime channel movies where the female main characters are more or less tortured by their husbands for 90 commercial-saturated minutes.
The first chapter of Phantasmagoria starts with Adrian and Don settling into their new home, and the place really is something else. The peculiarities of this quasi-mansion estate include a giant face sculpted into the side of the building, sphinxes guarding an ominous locked door in the foyer, a live electric chair, a room filled with creepy baby laughter, and a secret chapel hidden behind the library amongst other things. As someone who recently became involved in the home buying process and came to realize the intense scrutiny it requires, the absurdity of the house leaves me wondering who would ever buy into something like this. What’s more is that Adrian and Don seem barely cognizant of how bizarre their surroundings are. Early in the story, there are some throwaway comments where they make fun of the builder, but that is the one singular time that I can remember where they express concern over the eccentricities of the house. Never do they ever seem bothered by the fact that there is a WORKING ELECTRIC CHAIR IN THE GUEST BEDROOM.
Haunted houses work best when they have a modicum of subtlety, otherwise the audience will struggle with suspension of disbelief. Characters that choose to live in a place that is overtly unnatural or dangerous just aren’t that believable, especially when those characters are people of means like Adrian and Don who could easily afford to live wherever they want. But to be fair, in the starting chapter where the player gets to explore the house for the first time, the house did manage to capture my imagination even if it clashed with my incredulity. “Hmm, I wonder what’s waiting behind this scary door guarded by sphinxes,” I said to myself. “I can’t wait to see how the story uses the electric chair,” I thought. As stupidly overt as the house is, it sets up curiosity for the rest of the story. Unfortunately, when compared to these expectations, the rest of the game up to the climax feels rather uneventful.
Phantasmagoria is a seven chapter ordeal. At the end of the first chapter, Don becomes possessed after Adrian unseals the demon that’s been trapped in the house, and it feels like the story is about to take off, but then………..well not much really happens. Adrian spends the following chapters somewhat aimlessly poking around town and the house, as Don becomes more aggressive and abusive toward her. It’s hard to articulate how empty the plot of Phantasmagoria can be at times. Adrian’s motivations are often unclear, and she is seemingly oblivious to the growing danger in her own marriage. Most chapters involve her exploring a new area of the estate, and unlocking little snippets of Carno and his victims’ story. The problem is that Carno’s story really isn’t that interesting. It’s the very cliche story of a stage magician whose lust for true magic leads him to becoming the thrall of dark forces.
……And then there’s Harriet and Cyrus. A not insignificant chunk of this game is taken up by a bizarre subplot where Adrian discovers a homeless mother and son living in her barn, who she promptly puts to work doing household chores and lawn work. The questionable undertones of this story element aside, these characters do very little to advance the core plot of Don’s descent into madness or play into the horror that is supposed to be the game’s core. They simply serve to be emblematic of the padding that fills out this game.
While Phantasmagoria aspires to be a grand horror game, there’s not a lot of scares to be had in the first six chapters. Although Don is slowly becoming more and more of a dick, Adrian is never in any real danger. The scares come at specific points in the story when Adrian has visions of the various ways in which Carno murdered his wives. The scenes are pretty gruesome and really exist more for shock value than to develop true suspense and tension. As you can tell from the screenshots, Phantasmagoria uses digitized footage of live actors, and when the game was released, it came under a fair bit of controversy for its depiction of violence against women. The whole affair reeks of 90’s schlock. There’s even a painful to watch sex scene midway that crosses the line into rape and just feels incredibly tone deaf compared to the rest of the game.
Outside of the story, the game is sprinkled with light adventure game puzzle solving. It’s standard adventure game fare: find items to get other items to clear obstacles that are in the path of your progress. The puzzles are actually surprisingly easy. At the point in time when this game was released, adventure games were starting to come under fire for the obtuse and absurd logic they required, with Sierra, the company behind this title, being one of the largest targets. Phantasmagoria is incredibly easy when compared to this standard as a result of taking this criticism to heart and wanting to focus more on the story.
The final chapter of Phantasmagoria is a major departure from its preceedings. The game’s climax turns into more of an interactive movie with Don finally breaking down into a murderous rampage. In an extended chase sequence, Adrian must evade Don while finding a safe path out of the house. This segment is very trial and error in nature: go down the wrong hallway or into the wrong room and Don will meet Adrian with a gruesome death. This is the part of the game where it best approaches proper horror, and yet it still doesn’t quite reach its goals. As a deranged killer, Don, himself, is more cartoonish than threatening, and once again the game falls back on its primary means of achieving horror which is to simply use cheap, gratuitous blood and gore for shock value, although I will admit the practical special effects used in these scenes is quite impressive.
Horror is fairly relative, especially in the context of time. I’m left wondering if I had experienced this game for the first time as a kid in the 90s, would I find it scary? Maybe I would and maybe I’m just too old and desensitized now to get any chills from cheap gore. Certainly, the game reviewed and sold well upon its release. On the other hand, time and age may account for the scares falling flat, but it doesn’t excuse the story for feeling underdeveloped.
Phantasmagoria was a late in life product of Sierra, known for many classic adventure games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest. I have honestly never played a Sierra adventure game other than this one, so I can’t say if its representative of the company’s typical quality or not. Reading the history of this game, it’s clear the team went into this project with a lot of ambition, but became ensnared in practical constraints such as time, budget, and early 90s technology. For its time, Phantasmagoria was an unparalleled production, and I can respect the work and aspiration that went into this game even if I think it has aged poorly.