There, now you know how I felt upon starting my latest (and last) session of Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria. Turns out I had saved right before that infamous scene of sexual assault that so dominated the coverage of this game in its day, so it was literally the first thing that blindsided me when I turned the game on. Also, the scene itself had about as much class, tact, and nuance as someone just yelling the word, so, there you go. There’s your Phantasmagoria experience in a nutshell.
Truth be told, the scene itself is pretty tame, and probably didn’t warrant as much discussion as it got. Loving dry-humping through clothes turns into angry, forceful dry-humping through clothes, and thats about the extent of it. But, for the time that was pretty unheard of (I mean, I guess it still is now, huh?) so Mrs. Williams’ desire to push the boundaries paid off.
Of course, the only other boundaries she pushed with this game is just how much you can steal from your genre contemporaries and embarrass yourself in the process. As I described in the last post, the first half of the game is a slog through a cut-rate, silly version of The Shining‘s setup, but plunging into the back end where you “unravel” the “mystery” of the “story” quickly reveals that the game is actually just an enormous ripoff of Trilobyte’s 1993 point-and-click puzzle game The 7th Guest.
Phantasmagoria’s plot turns out to be about how the magician who once lived in Adrienne’s new mansion practiced real, black magic and was possessed by a demon which caused him to murder his many wives and his daughter. As you progress through the later part of the game, Adrienne has visions of the murders occurring throughout the house, and ends up facing her possessed husband, and eventually the (incredibly ridiculous looking) demon itself.
The 7th Guest is also about how a famous entertainer of children–this time a toymaker–used demonic magic to build his career and ended up murdering a bunch of people in his creepy old mansion, which the player similarly witnesses as flashbacks, and slowly pieces together by exploring the grounds and seeing what happened in each location.
So, Phantasmagoria ends up being the answer to the abhorrent question “What if we took The 7th Guest and made it…more EXTREME?”. Where Guest has a tasteful, mostly implied sex scene, Phantasmagoria has a full-on rape. Where Guest has the player witness ghostly murders play out from a first-person, detached viewpoint, making them distant, obscured and disturbing, Phantasmagoria has a bunch of multi-angle-shot scenes of “ironic”, grisly murders (exclusively of women) which the player’s character witnesses by looking through mirrors. Where Guest has a supernatural villain respresenting greed who exploits the many weaknesses of humanity in order to carry out his dark urges (stealing the souls of children), Phantasmagoria has a literal, giant demon that chases you around the mansion and kills people because it’s evil, and that’s what evil things do.
Phantasmagoria’s plot is incredibly pedestrian and yet confusing becuase of how poorly it’s told. Depending on how you play, you can end up missing large chunks of it, but that may actually be for the best. I’d love to describe it in more detail, but I a) hardly remember most of it, which should tell you something, and b) what I do remember is so overwrought and embarrassing that I don’t have the energy to go into it. It’s like one of those bad movies that’s almost ‘so bad it’s funny’, but just ends up being ‘so bad it’s really, really boring’. Like Christopher Lambert’s Beowulf.
As much as I want to be done talking about the story, I think I do need to touch on at least one particular scene, which may be the clumsiest and most ludicrous moment of exposition in anything, ever.
WARNING: None of this is a joke, or even slightly embellished.
After wandering around the mansion for a while and wondering what the heck the deal is, Adrienne is invited to participate in a seance hosted by the two squatters who she discovered on her property earlier, and inexplicably agreed to take on as groundskeepers. For the record, these two people are: An ultra-exaggerated caricature of an old, haggard bumpkin woman, and her enormous simpleton son, played like an actual Warner Brothers cartoon-character version of Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
So yeah, they’re holding a seance in the barn and Adrienne is like, ok, I’ll indulge these mentally-handicapped people who work for me, why not? Of course, the old mother manages to actually contact the spirit world, but what happens as a result is absolutely unhinged. She starts seizing and barfs up a load of green goo which (in an effect lifted directly out of The 7th Guest) forms into a face. It’s the spirit of the evil magician himself, who proceeds–quite politely–to explain his entire backstory and the central conflict of the game.
“I, Zoltan Carnovasch, was greedy and foolish, and opened the door to the dark dimension. I released an obscenity, an entity of pure evil. It had been contained, but now the pestilence is free to infect once more. You are the chosen one. Only you can send it back.”
Sigh. I’m getting tired of ragging on this game, so I’ll stop now. It’s just really, really, really bad. Maybe one of the worst games I’ve ever played. But it has a couple of good points…I think? Let’s see how many I can think of.
– “Carno”–the villain’s stage name–is pretty perfectly chosen. The root carn (meaning flesh) brings to mind a lot of gruesome imagery (carnivore, carnage), in addition to sexual (carnal) and other fun connotations (carnival). Fits the game’s themes very well.
– Victoria Morsell, the actress who plays Adrienne, is actually kind of not terrible in a couple scenes. Read any line from the script and you can tell she’s not exactly being given a lot to work with, and there have been worse green-screen performances. Certainly much better than the guy who plays her husband (who’s so over the top he’s wrapped around and is back at the bottom). Also, she’s pretty cute.
– I like that Don, the husband is a photographer, and so as he’s going crazy, he spends more and more time in his dark room. For some reason I always enjoy a dark room as a threatening place. I also like that the final chase sequence kicks off there. (And hey, it’s a DARK room, get it?)
– Adrienne and Don have a cat named “Spaz”. That’s a great name for a cat.
So yeah, I think I’m done here. If I have some flashback to something ridiculous that I forgot, I’ll let you know. But, suffice it to say, Phantasmagoria is pretty terrible.
On to the (non-)sequel Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh!
P.S.: Remember in my first post about this game, how I complained about how slowly your character does everything? Please enjoy.