10.25.2008

Game review: Phantasmagoria

I've been waiting for years to play Phantasmagoria. In 1995 when Sierra released it, the now-classic horror adventure game was both groundbreaking and controversial. Groundbreaking, for its unprecedented use of fully integrated full-motion video (FMV) production techniques, which required a 550-page script, four months of filming, a whopping $400 million budget, and an ungainly seven cds' worth of game data. Controversial, for its provocative move to expand audiences by introducing mature and explicit content into a computer game — then even more than now perceived as primarily a children's medium — including a much-publicized "rape scene" that got the game boycotted by some retailers and even banned in Australia.



The fateful Carnevash estate.



The mystique of mature content in a game drew me, especially coming as it did from Roberta Williams, prolific author of numerous well-known adventure games (notably the King's Quest series), since it seemed to be a departure from her usual style. I grew up on Roberta Williams, with King's Quest being my first foray into the adventure-gaming world (King's Quest V on NES, to be precise); I associated her authorial stamp with its sunny storybook locales and fairy-tale motifs, as well as with other nursery-ready works like her 1987 tots' title Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Williams herself is quick to point out that she has often worked with darker themes in murder-mystery games like Mystery House and The Colonel's Bequest, and that, far from an outlier, Phantasmagoria is representative of her body of work. While initially curious about what a "grown-up" Williams oeuvre would look like, having played it through, I would now have to agree that Phantasmagoria is Roberta Williams through and through. And that's not entirely a good thing.



Exploring the premises.



Phantasmagoria tells the story of novelist Adrienne Delaney and her photographer husband, who purchase and move into the old Carnevash estate outside a small town in Maine. The old mansion, formerly owned by a stage magician and rumored dabbler in the dark arts, is naturally haunted, inhabited by restless ghosts, an ancient evil, and memories of its dark past. While husband Don gets down to some manly restoration work on the property, Adrienne is left to wander around the place and get acquainted with her new home. She unwittingly releases the evil influence, and the phantasmagoria begins.



Meeting the estate's former master.



This is the perfect game for Halloween; in fact, it plays like a walk through a Halloween haunted house. It even takes place in October. Williams's taste in horror is, let's say, traditional. The opening cutscene features a fly-by through a dungeon corridor full of body parts, torture implements, mirrors, caskets, and monster faces. The in-game hint feature is in the form of a talking skull. (Which has no connection with the story, by the way. It's a totally superficial element of the interface.) Throughout the game, the requisite spooky atmosphere is reliably generated by crypts, blood, skeletons, rats, glowing eyes, swirly ghosts, and organ music. There's nothing wrong with the standards, of course. And if this is a haunted house, it's one of the fancy ones, with the big budget, sturdy props, and professional makeup artists. But that doesn't change the fact that it's full of horror-movie clichés. All that's missing is the orange and black crêpe paper.



Flight through a dark passage.



That's really the hallmark of Williams's work; she takes the clichés, mixes them together, polishes them off, and presents them in a pretty nice package. It's been a successful formula. But she wears all her influences openly, and never really makes anything hers. The earliest King's Quests were a collage of disparate nursery rhymes and tales. Marching from screen to screen, you could visit the Three Bears' house, Neptune's palace, and Dracula's castle, all cut whole from their respective worlds and pasted intact onto her own. Later games had slightly subtler stitching, taking maybe only an element or two or changing the names, but the Seven Dwarves, Wicked Witch, Beauty and the Beast, and other familiar types were still easily spotted. Williams has readily admitted to being influenced and inspired by the storybook tales that filled her childhood, dragons and wizards and princesses and ghosts. There's nothing wrong with using fairy tales and old stories — it's been done to excellent effect by the likes of Corey and Lori Cole and American McGee, to name a few who spring to mind. But there's a crucial element of interpretation missing. Williams's fairy tales read straight — and so do her horror stories.



Haven't I been here before? In King's Quest...like, Everything?



I am focusing on the stylistic and literary aspects because it is a truism of FMV games that interactivity must necessarily take a backseat to storytelling, due simply to the demands of producing a game with live-action avatars. And while the compromise struck here is a good one, and the gameplay is admirably well served — Phantasmagoria is not quite at the level of "interactive movie" as some have charged — it is still subject to the limitations of the medium. There's more do to than just clicking to trigger cutscenes, but the puzzles are fairly simple, generally of the talk-to-everyone, look-everywhere, manipulate-inventory type, and will not challenge experienced gamers. Which is why it's so important that the narrative elements be well-constructed and immersive. Which is why it's so disappointing that the story elements weren't executed better. A dime-novel plot is fine to thread together an action-packed shooter or even a nitty-gritty puzzler (7th Guest, anyone?), but Phantasmagoria needed more originality.



A vision of the past.



Adrienne looks and feels like a Williams heroine, that is to say, a watered-down Disney princess. (I had similar complaints about the two King's Quest outings that featured female leads, KQ IV and VII, the latter of which was developed concurrently with Phantasmagoria.) Just because the camera is pointed at her most of the time doesn't mean that she qualifies as a Strong Female Protagonist. April Ryan she's not. She's got the long golden hair, the doe eyes, the fragile wrists, and the man-pleasing instincts of a typical storybook porcelain doormat — and now, with her recent move into the Carnevash estate, she's got the picturesque castle home, too. Yes, she faces tough challenges, and she defeats an insidious evil (if you win the game, that is). But she does it with far too much simpering, whining, quaking, shying away from getting icky, gasping, crying, hesitating, and playing with her hair for my taste. Especially that last one. I checked out every mirror in the house, hoping for a ghostly vision or a message scrawled in lipstick or steam or a portal to another world. Adrienne checked out every mirror for an occasion to repeatedly pose, primp, and fluff for what seemed an interminable amount of time. And this was just during gameplay — about half of the interchapter cutscenes also take place in front of a mirror, with Adrienne putting on lipstick or brushing her hair. There's even a set of toiletries on the bathroom sink in some chapters that you can use in case you feel that Adrienne hasn't gotten enough grooming in what with all this adventuring business.



My soul is about to be devoured by infernal powers, so I want to look my best.



It isn't just the girly mannerisms that get me, though. Now, Adrienne doesn't have to be Action Adventure Woman to make me happy. Great games like Silent Hill get by fabulously on the conceit of throwing unheroic, ordinary people into dangerous horror settings — Harry Mason isn't exactly Duke Nukem, and that's a good thing. But I don't think Adrienne is an intentionally wimpy character. I think that's just how Williams sees her heroines. Likewise, I think she sees the character of Don (at the start of the game, before he gets possessed and turns evil) as the model of a sensitive, caring husband. I don't think he's supposed to come off as the controlling, condescending jerk that I saw. I could barely tell the difference between pre- and post-possession Don, except that he seemed to switch from passive-aggressive to aggressive-aggressive. And then there's the whole secret history of the manor itself, about a dark man possessed by evil (his name is Zoltan and he wears a black and red cape — that's how you tell someone is a villain in a Williams game), and the gruesome violence he inflicted on a series of hapless wives. Some have labeled Williams's world as misogynistic, but I don't think that's quite right. I just think her outlook is seriously, crippingly...ah, old-fashioned?

You may have a hard time believing it at this point, but I did actually enjoy playing the game. Yes, it was a little cheesy and schlocky, but what a way to while away an October evening. Lights down and speakers up, as they say. And the game goes by rather quickly. You can finish it in the same time it would take to watch a few cheesy, schlocky monster movies, and it wouldn't be time badly spent. Mostly I was disappointed that such an ambitious undertaking couldn't have been more, but in the end, I enjoyed it for what it was. It's a simple tale, simply told, with lots of flashy, spooky, gory Halloween effects. The much-ballyhooed "mature content" label doesn't connote any especially shifty, murky plots or provocative psychological themes. It's a straightforward ghost story, the kind any kid could murmur around a campfire, just with extra explicit gore, and sex, and alcohol. That's why the optional "censor" feature works so well — it just skips over the gore and sex (I think the alcohol remains), leaving a simple story that's no more troubling or challenging than the latest Goosebumps title off the YA rack at the bookstore. In short, it's camp. It's pretty good camp, at that.

I breezed through the first couple of chapters with relative ease. The various puzzles and obstacles served to delay gratification just long enough to have to work for it a little, but some basic diligence and thoroughness will ensure a minimum of aimless wandering, and very little throwing up of hands. Williams wanted her game to draw non-gamers, aiming for broad appeal by playing up the novelistic aspects and simplifying the interface, dispensing with a KQ-style multi-icon system in favor of a single cursor with point-and-click hotspots. In this, she succeeded, and casual gamers should feel comfortable and welcome here.



A lot of the time is spent watching Adrienne looking at things.



The dramatic climax in the seventh and final chapter changed things up a little, for better or for worse I'm not sure. I probably would have enjoyed the endgame vastly more if not for a perfect storm of individually very minor technical hitches that conspired in the aggregate to ruin my playing experience, and my mood. First, I will say that for a thirteen-year-old title, Phantasmagoria ran astonishingly well. From the start, I had no audio, video, memory, or graphic issues at all. It ran perfectly happily in XP without any of that tedious compatibility mode/color depth/screen resolution/emulator fiddling that's required for so many classic games these days. A full install option would have been appreciated to avoid swapping cds, but the chapter format helped keep cd-swapping down to an acceptable minimum of once per chapter.

The first problem was that inserting any cd, not just the first one, triggers an autorun that steals focus and flashes a prompt to start the game (no matter that the game is already running). This tripped me up several times. The first time, I thought I was being prompted to continue my game, and unwittingly launched a new one. (A new game can be started in any chapter, which is an interesting feature. It's good for going back if you want to see a certain part again, but it doesn't even have to be unlocked, which means that a new player can skip to any part of the game without finishing the earlier parts, if she is so inclined.) Even if you avoid this pitfall and click "cancel", if you've already started the next chapter before the autorun is triggered, the loss of focus will cause the introductory cutscene to be skipped completely. When you return to the game window, the gameplay portion will have already started. In fact, this was how I managed to completely miss the most controversial scene in the game, and I didn't even realize it.



Look, Adrienne, a mirror! Go on, check your hair. Oh, wait, is something supernatural going on?



The next problem was a more serious glitch — the inexplicable disappearance of all of my savegames after the third. I know they were there, because the game wouldn't let me create another game with the same name, but they simply did not appear in the list. Rather than continue my most recent surviving game, which was saved several chapters back, I had to start a new game in Chapter Seven. It wouldn't be so bad, but when you create a new game in a chapter, your inventory contains only the minimum items you would have needed to successfully complete the previous chapter. In this case, I started out missing certain items that I had already acquired in my lost saved game, and which I needed for this chapter. Some of the problems have multiple solutions, and an alternate to that item was available, but as far as I knew I had just lost a crucial and irreplaceable item, which there was no way to retrieve in the current chapter. This caused some frustration.

Finally, the cursor, which is a gold cross that changes to red over a hotspot, was rendered in a muddled black and white in this chapter, making me miss important hotspots and make disastrous mistakes during timed sequences. I learned that this is a known issue, that a quirk of the way the game processes movies in this chapter made a color cursor impossible to implement. I found that a poor excuse. If one of the seven chapters of the game simply can't handle a color cursor, then the cursor for the entire game should be redesigned to be black and white and change in a recognizable way over hotspots. Don't train the player in a feature that you remove when it most counts. Tsk tsk!

So for all of the foregoing reasons, I was having a horrible time with the endgame, which I think in other circumstances I might have rather enjoyed. Here is the only time in the game where the character is in peril, and there is a fairly exciting chase sequence and some timed decision points where you have to get yourself out of a tight spot. Failure is rewarded with death, and a chance to retry from the point where you first went wrong. There are multiple paths through the endgame, and it contains some of the game's most interesting sequences.

Apart from the technical difficulties and setbacks, though, a few further aggravations mar what should have been the game's high point. For one, the movies aren't skippable. So if you mess up, like I did, and have to retry a dozen times or more, like I did, then you have to watch the same series of movies and watch yourself be gruesomely killed in the same way over and over and over again. Suspenseful sequences like that lose some of their effect when you get to know every pixel by heart. Second, there are a few key items you need, but I wasn't really sure what they were, since during the all-important scene in any game where the wise old character explains to you what you need to do, the conversation happens offscreen! All I heard was a list of items, many of which I had never heard of before, and one of which it isn't even possible to obtain ahead of time, so I could never go in knowing I had everything I needed. The whole time I was fighting through that endgame, I wondered if I would make it to the very end only to fail because of a lack of supplies. Meaning I'd have to watch all those movies again. And in fact, that is exactly what happened. Theoretically, it seems that the automatic retry feature would protect against you constantly replaying a path that had already been screwed up by an earlier mistake, but it only looks at the moves you make — it doesn't care what you have in your inventory, so I was in fact replaying a doomed path. All of this combined to make me very, very, very glad when I finally finished the game.



Run!



So how does Phantasmagoria stand up? Its historical significance cannot be denied, both for its technically ambitious envelope-pushing and the sheer buzz and consternation it caused. It's also an important cornerstone in Roberta Williams's long career. None of which is sufficient cause for anyone to play a game, of course, excepting the scholar or completist. I have mentioned that it's appropriate for the growing audience of casual gamers but, as the screenshots will amply attest, it's not for those who have a low tolerance for the graphics of earlier eras. Impressive in its day, and fine for my classic gamer eyes, but I'm told that many people find that kind of obvious bluescreening and grainy low-res video an affront to the senses, so I must issue appropriate cautions on that front. And as far as story goes, I am the last person on earth to discount the importance of story to a game, but, even given all the flaws I've painstakingly described, it has to be admitted that there's far worse. Phantasmagoria is enjoyable, in varying degrees based on your enjoyment of fright-fest horror fare and your tolerance for hammy acting.

So I would say, if you're a casual or adventure gamer, if you like B-movie horror, if you liked King's Quest, if you're bored, and if you can find a cheap used copy on Amazon, and especially if it's almost Halloween, then go for it.

If not, then come back for my review of Scratches, which is my next game. I started it last night. It's about a novelist who buys and moves into an old haunted Victorian mansion in October, then weird things start happening. Spooky, huh?

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3 Comments:

Blogger Steven L. Kent:

I reviewed that game when it came out. I also did a story about it when CompUSA took it off its shelves because of that rape scene. When I asked the Sierra VP of marketing about CompUSA's decision, he told me, "Well, if you watch the scene closely, she never tells him to stop."

23:40  
Blogger bluewyvern:

I'm of two minds on the whole controversy. On the one hand, a rape scene is no more objectionable in an M-rated game than in an R-rated movie, and Phantasmagoria was always intended to be an adult game. It's not like the game doesn't present it as a scary, terrible thing -- it's supposed to show how Don is possessed and turning evil. It's supposed to be shocking.

On the other hand, I do have a problem with Williams's idea of what an "adult" game is. There's no emotional or psychological complexity, none of what the tv ratings call "adult themes" -- it's a simplistic plot on par with that in any of her kid-friendly games, only with the liberty to depict the sex and violence and language that usually have to be suppressed; instead of showing that the villain is bad by having him tie people up, wring his hands and twirl his mustache, in the "adult" game you can show he is bad by having him slice people's heads open and commit rape. Everything else remains the same.

Perhaps in that sense it's gratuitous. But that's an issue of taste, not morals, and the retailers should stay out of it in any event.

00:27  
Anonymous m Andrea:

This was a really excellent review, thank you very much.

My objection to the portrayal of rape in all forms of entertainment media can be summed up as: "On the one hand, a rape scene is no more objectionable" than an attempted lynching.

Think about your reaction to that sentence. Think about why progressive folks get understandably upset when minorites or gay folks are always portrayed in a sterotypical way. Think about how a hate crime is minimized and trivialized when it is constantly portrayed as " good entertainment value". Think about the privilege required to be able to say casually, "oh depictions of attempted lynchings or gay bashings don't bother me at all".

If the true purpose of rape portrayals was to position a character as evil, then there are lots of other behaviors which could easily be substituted instead. But they always go for the rape, and a smart person would be asking why. There isn't any reason to use rape as a plot device, considering the objections to it, and certainly not with the frequency that device is used now, so why use it?

20:42  

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