This is Making Time, a column about the games we've always wanted to play, and the games we've always wanted to play again.
In some ways, Phantasmagoria is the quintessential 90s game, borrowing elements – intentionally or not – from some of the decade's biggest phenomena. Released in 1995, it was smack in the middle of publisher Sierra's adventure game heyday. Like CD-ROM sensation Myst, all the characters are rendered using full-motion video, while the environments are all composed of static, pre-rendered 3D backgrounds. And, like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap before it, Phantasmagoria's realistic and often gruesome depiction of its characters stirred up controversy.
The story of Phantasmagoria is pulled straight from traditional horror tropes. A young married couple, Adrienne Delaney and Don Gordon, buy an old mansion located outside of what appears to be a coastal town in either New England or the Pacific Northwest. As her photographer husband begins converting a second-story bathroom into his personal darkroom, Adrienne decides to explore the house.
Players take on the role of Adrienne, controlling an FMV sprite of the actress who portrays her (tastefully dressed in another 90s phenomenon: high-waisted jeans). Once belonging to an eccentric 19th century magician named Carno, the house and surrounding grounds are strange to say the least, replete with bizarre torture devices, outlandish architecture, austere portraits, lots of secret rooms and one grab-happy haunted bed. Before too long, Adrienne goes poking around where she shouldn't, uncovering a hidden chapel and releasing an ancient evil that promptly possesses her husband.
Adrienne spends the rest of the game coming to grips with Don's ever-worsening condition, delving deeper into the mansion and discovering Carno's past. Along the way, she meets a few colorful characters, gathers numerous household items and formulates complicated solutions for seemingly simple puzzles.
Remember, all of these scenes are played out by real actors. No effort is made to hide or obfuscate the ghastliest moments, either. Everything is shown in gruesome detail. While some are campy by today's standards, many of the death scenes – Adrienne's in particular – remain absurdly graphic. In the 1990s, when the likes of Mortal Kombat and the super cheesy Night Trap were terrifying parents everywhere, the violence of Phantasmagoria seemed positively stratospheric. Adolescents would gloat about how Phantasmagoria had been banned in Australia. CompUSA refused to carry it.
There's an important distinction to make here, though. These scenes are not designed to titillate, unlike the explosive headshots and "chainsawdomy" we see today. Instead, they were designed to horrify, like the ghoulish form of theatre Phantasmagoria was named after. They amplify the grim, terrifying situation in which Adrienne finds herself and, in that respect, do their job very well.
Some of the story doesn't make much sense either, and the occasional bout of adventure game logic contrasts sharply with the realistic presentation. For example, Phantasmagoria insists that a letter opener is the ideal tool to remove mortar from a brick. And why would a famous magician build a theatre inside of his own home and host performances there? Why is Adrienne so nonchalant about hiring vagrants living in her barn as groundskeepers? Why is she not even slightly alarmed by the floating ball of ectoplasm above the crib in the old nursery? The answer, of course, is "relax, it's a video game."
Thankfully, the overarching plot is interesting enough to see through to the end, especially if you spend some time exploring and digging up the pieces of Carno's past (literally, in some cases). Ultimately, Phantasmagoria may be best remembered for its over-the-top violence, but its branching adventure and macabre story are what make it worthwhile.
Not to mention its awesomely cheesy closing theme.