When Phantasmagoria came out for the PC in 1995, I was first in line to get it. My anticipation for this game was borderline mania and I think that my entire gaming history might be characterized by this kind of tense, childlike excitement. Zelda II, Mario 3, FFXII, the Wii – make no mistake, these are things to get fucking excited about, but Phantasmagoria is special because with the exception of a couple fellow nerds at my school, I was the only one who even knew this game was coming out. Not so many families had PCs back then, and even less had subscriptions to Sierra’s Interaction magazine, which was just about the only source for info on a game like Phantasmagoria because Gamepro and EGM wouldn’t touch PC games back then. But here’s how I saw it: a game made entirely of live motion video, taking place in a haunted ass house where you would be forced to explore and solve puzzles and be exposed to all kinds of demonic horror – plus they said the game was for mature audiences only.
Starting maybe with Golgo 13 for the NES, I can remember the titillation that came from a cut scene where Duke Togo turns out the lights – and one Miss Cherry Grace is still in the hotel room with him. Later in Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers when Malia Gedde finally gives in and sleeps over at St. George’s books, I can remember actually boasting in the locker room at my school how I had gotten laid in the game. And now, Phantasmagoria was promising all kinds of sex in addition to blood and satans and whatnot, and I couldn’t tell you which was was the driving force behind my fervor: the pursuit of soft porn or the prospect of a fantastic game. It was a Roberta Williams game, after all, and she created the King’s Quest games so her resume was in good order.
One of my biggest regrets in life happened right around the time building up to the release of Phantasmagoria when I was at the Indianapolis airport with my family and was sure I saw Roberta Williams herself sitting in the waiting area of some gate. First of all, it looked exactly like her, and we made eye contact and she had this mysterious expression on her face that almost seemed to say that she knew that I might know who she was, because after all – I was one of her chief demographics for King’s Quest fandom, and it wouldn’t be the first time a young teenage boy complimented her on her work. Secondly, I was actually carrying the latest issue of Interaction magazine in my bag and it had a feature on Phantasmagoria, which I had been reading to rags all month. It would have been the easiest icebreaker in the world, but I got slightly starstruck, and also had my doubts that it was her, so if I did go over and was mistaken… God damn it, god damn it, god damn it to hell. Was it the Butthole Surfers who said it’s better to regret something you did than something you didn’t do? That’s goddamn right. And though it probably wasn’t her, it probably was and now I’ll never know. Try to imagine what that photo would look like in this blog: Me and Roberta and my newly signed issue of Interaction. I would kill a whole room of small animals to restore my game to that point and find out if it was her or not.
When I got the game, I fucking loved it. Even though my computer was like the lowest-end Pentium and could just barely run it, I ravaged that game and took in every possible thing there was to experience. I think that I was nervous about my parents being in the same room when I played this game, because you never knew when someone would say “fuck” or start raping or murdering someone. It delivered just about everything I had been hoping for except actual nudity. The murder scenes were so great that I would bring my friends over for viewing parties. Love that Carno.
Now, in retrospect, I have to say that the “game” aspect of Phantasmagoria is even more lamentable than its lack of boobery. It’s more of an interactive movie, and the acting is once again a big pile of shit. How nice to not be able to perceive these kinds of things when I was a kid. Compared to the puzzle solving aspect of games like King’s Quest, Phantasmagoria is simply awful. I think that because they had to film every scene like a movie, the production costs forced them to limit the number of items and puzzles for each chapter. They don’t take incredible ingenuity to solve, and it’s almost Zeldian in the way that most of the game is spent trying to access new areas of the house. Which would be fine, except that Link uses any means at his disposal to get to new places including incendiaries and explosives. Adrienne of Phantasmagoria, on the other hand will say “Damn it, it’s locked,” and just give up instead of forcing open the doors of her own house. Think about it – there’s a door that goes to a theater in your living room. A THEATER IN YOUR LIVING ROOM. Are you really going to wait five business days after you move in to access that shit? That would be my first order of business – open theater now, play with ghosts and get the locks replaced later. One of the early “puzzles” in the game is actually going to your realtor and demanding all the keys. You get ONE. It’s all one big time-release lock system for this game, and it’s utterly illogical in its execution. If you can push a key through a keyhole and catch it with a newspaper in the third chapter, you should be able to do it in the first – just saying.
This type of ‘necessary idiot’ puzzle solving might have been excused because it was Sierra’s first endeavor in FMV game production, but instead, it became the formula for the subsequent ones, Gabriel Knight II and finally Phantasmagoria II. And Phantasmagoria II is so mind-bogglingly stupid that it makes the first one look like goddamn Myst by comparison.
I recently tried playing Phantasmagoria II: A Puzzle of Flesh on my computer, but only got through the first chapter before the game stopped working, and I see this as a blessing now. I played this game back in the day, and just remember it being really fucked up because there was something about an S&M club, getting your navel pierced, and banging some chick on a stage. Neat shit, but the only thing more fucked up than the content is the absolutely insufferable gameplay. I could go into detail, but I’d rather direct you to where I went so that I could watch the game and not actually have to play it anymore. Please visit The Spoony Experiment to see what master game reviewer and kindred soul, Noah Antwiler has to say about Phantasmagoria II. He filmed his whole first playthrough with scathing, hilarious commentary, and I guess this is just one of many games that he reviewed in this fashion. Really admirable stuff, and we at EpicuziplayiT thank him for his service and sacrifice.