A Brief Word on Phantasmagoria

It’s tough to motivate myself to write anything here when I’m staring down that long list favorites, so I think I need to start out a little smaller. In that spirit, I’ll just write about what I’m playing lately. For some reason, that is Phantasmagoria.

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Oh, I’m praying, alright.

Sorry, “Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria”.

Yup, it’s one of those. Has any game with a designer’s name on it every been good? Actually, nah, there are plenty. Sid Meier’s been doing it his whole career and his shit’s legit. I guess American McGee has just ruined it for everyone else, heh.

Anyway, putting her name on the game betrays Mrs. Williams’ pretensions right from the start, and to be honest that is most of the problem with this game. It’s a notoriously bad point-and-click adventure, and you know, I could usually get behind that! Bad movies and games are great, and especially (as Half in the Bag recently discussed) when they’re made with earnestness, and true belief that the production is good. But when that honesty spills over into a clear, deep arrogance like this, then you’re in trouble.

This is obviously Roberta Williams’ attempt to take the then-burgeoning FMV adventure game trend and put her stamp on it. After all, she’d basically invented the genre that that particular fad was nested in, so why shouldn’t she show ‘em how its done? Well, at this point in her career, it was evident that she was already losing her touch. She’d just put out the abysmal King’s Quest VII (a to-this-day shocking and unexplained turnaround from the genre-defining King’s Quest VI), and like Phantasmagoria, that game suffered immensely from a misplaced emphasis on long-winded storytelling amid messy, experimental, great-in-concept visuals.

Like its precursors, Phantasmagoria takes on the tall order of merging rendered 3D backgrounds with green-screened video footage of live actors. As anyone who’s ever played one of these games should know, this looks weird. Good games of the time creatively worked around this issue, or cleverly masked it. Myst kept all of its live video footage confined to magical books the player viewed other worlds with, making the divide in visuals seem natural. The 7th Guest had its video characters appear only as wispy, transparent ghosts against its dark haunted-house backdrop, using the disparity to support the spooky vibe and working it into the story. Phantasmagoria has no such resourcefulness. It just smashes into the problem head-on, presenting us with real actors onscreen 100% of the time, floating through brightly lit, enormously ugly renders of the silliest haunted mansion you’ve ever seen, as well as everyday environments like streets and stores that look like they were designed by aliens.

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Seamless.

It’s weird. There is absolutely no cunning or cleverness about this production whatsoever. Like, you think they’d cut away from questionable-looking shit or use some kind of tricky filming to get around the awkwardness, but they don’t, they never do. Every shot of the characters miming an interaction with a badly rendered door or whatever is soooo slooooww and longgggg that you can see every minute detail of how they were directed to do it. It’s like they’re weirdly proud of their achievement, or something, but even for games of the time it’s terrible! I don’t get it.

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So natural.

Just walking the game’s heroine, Adrienne, around the opening environment for a couple minutes will give you the full measure of this game’s weirdness. Between walking animations, Adrienne always stands in the same awkward stance–back perfectly straight, eyes blankly ahead, feet together. She transitions into and out of this pose before and after everything she does, as this is clearly the ‘default’ position they used as the cornerstone to make her animation work. I get it, that’s fine. But the default they chose is so incredibly unnatural that it destroys any low-level immersion the game had managed. Seriously, imagine you’re watching a movie and every time the main character did anything–opened a door, bent down to pick something up, turned off a water faucet–they took two seconds to return to a rigid, robotic posture before doing anything else. It’s jarring. She’ll even do it before a cut to a different angle, which strikes me as the perfect opportunity to ditch that shit, but no. Actually, maybe that makes it better. Makes you think…that’s just how Adrienne is! She’s a weirdo about posture, haha. Ahh…

On top of that very basic ineptitude, there are other weirdnesses with the filming and how the characters are portrayed. For one, every single thing Adrienne does takes so FUCKING long, you will not believe it. I can’t complain too much, because you have the option to skip any animation (the game would be unplayable if you didn’t), but it is downright comical at times. I found myself completely entranced last night, while after commanding Adrienne to climb out of the cellar she took a solid, no-shit TEN SECONDS to close the trap door behind her before moving on. I know that doesn’t sound like too much, but seriously, this is a video game. Watching your character close a door for ten seconds is absolutely ridiculous. Now apply that to every other action in the game, most of which are equally mundane. Turning on and shutting off a faucet, unlocking a door with a key, walking up a flight of stairs–it’s all interminable. And it can be easily explained, sadly. When they were filming these actions, they obviously did only one take, called it good if it went ok, and didn’t think for one second about how it would translate into a GAME. Oh, and then used that footage untouched, no matter how long or bad, in the final game. I swear, this game plays like a long string of completely unedited footage from dailies off some bad movie. There is no pacing or artfulness to anything. Virtually no thought to framing, composition or anything else from a young person’s first hour at film school. It feels so wrong.

In addition, our poor heroine herself is ridiculous. The actress playing Adrienne is very pretty, and the camera sometimes seems to linger on her face and chest for longer than it needs to, imparting a touch of creepy voyeurism (and given what I know about what happens later in this game, I’m confident I’m not reading too much into things here), but at the same time, her clothes are weird and unflattering. Adrienne’s sporting a dull orange sweater, black mom jeans, and bright white sneakers. And hilariously, despite the events of the game taking place over a series of consecutive days, this is what she’s always wearing. Her character waffles between being an intelligent, independent woman and a weak, dominated dim-bulb at a moments notice, and it ends up making her as blank as the look on her face when she’s standing around between actions. For another female protagonist from Roberta Williams, the woman who dared to break that boundary earlier in her career when it was unheard of, this is pretty disappointing…and doubly so, given, again, what I’ve heard about the later events in this game apparently involving rape and lots of women being murdered in creative ways.

But, oh boy, doesn’t that last part sound exciting and adult! Rape and murder! In my computer adventure game! That was how they were selling it back in the day, and I’ll admit that the notoriously ‘adult’ nature of this game is part of why I’m playing it now. But man, oh man, people must have been disappointed in this game, haha. I am coming up on halfway through it and noooooooooooooooooothiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing whatsoever has happened yet. I’m not even talking like the gruesome shit. I’m saying seriously nothing. Here, I’ll sum it up for you, tell me what you think.

The setup is that a young couple moves into a crazy, creepy mansion once owned by a scary magician who died here with his wife, or something. They’re not sure.

Now imagine that basic setup as the plot of a film (The Shining, perhaps), and how you figure the pacing of that should work. Now imagine it as a VIDEO GAME, which is going to be much longer than a film yet at the same time demand more action up-front, as it is an interactive medium.

So, with that in mind, imagine that this is the entire first half:

  • The husband and wife move in, and the husband sets about working on the plumbing, which is in disrepair.
  • The wife explores the strange mansion and experiences minor potential poltergeist activity, all in broad daylight.
  • The wife meets two squatters living on their property and agrees to let them stay in exchange for work, without consulting her husband.
  • The wife visits the nearby town and speaks with her realtor, the owner of a general store, and an antiques dealer, all of whom intimate that the mansion may be haunted.
  • The wife also discovers that the magician had a young ward who stayed at the mansion, and who, despite being one hundred years older, is still alive. She visits him at his home and he confirms that he knew the magician, and asks how the house is now.
  • The husband, without warning, becomes combative and abusive towards his wife. She mostly puts up with it.

AND THAT’S IT. Halfway done and that’s where we’re at. Seriously, if you can think of a video game where less happens in the first goddamn three hours, please mention it in the comments. Even for adventure games this is unheard of.

But you know what? All that said, I’m still enjoying myself. It’s crazy to see this, the weird grand finale to Roberta Williams’ video game career. It’s such a great monument to PC video game design of the day (it came on SEVEN CDs!!) that I’m just treating it like a gonzo history lesson. And it’s got a couple of ok points, too. Maybe I’ll talk about those in another post after I’ve played more.

About djsharpecheddar

Have you seen a little girl?
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2 Responses to A Brief Word on Phantasmagoria

  1. Jerod says:

    She has a beautiful face, but her outfit makes her look awful, and that loop of music irritates me after thirty minutes or so. Also, I don’t understand why she would have any locked doors in her own home that she wouldn’t already be carrying the keys needed to open them.

    Excellent post, by the way. It was a great deal more interesting than the game itself.

  2. Jenn says:

    Fantastic writing. I’m not even a gamer but today while trying to remember the name of that weird, vintage haunted-house game I played way back when (Phantasmagoria) I was led to your blog and thoroughly enjoyed reading your post about it. Hope you keep blogging, you’re a gifted writer.

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