RE:Play – Phantasmagoria

From my own post on Kolchak.

“The history of horror is basically a history of what we aren’t all that frightened of anymore.

Horror began appropriately enough in France shortly after the Reign of the Terror.  Religion was officially outlawed.  The Catholic Church had been forced out of the country and if you were going to worship anything at all, it had to be the Goddess of Reason.  Graveyards were filled with dead people who were according to the First Republic, gone forever.  They were in an eternal sleep from which there would be no waking.

Into this government-mandated spiritual vacuum stepped Étienne-Gaspard Robert, the creator of the very first horror show: The Phantasmagoria.

The Phantasmagoria was a  “Magic Lantern” show that combined sound effects and an eerie music score provided by Ben Franklin’s glass harmonica. 

Robert, unlike his various conmen spiritualist predecessors had to keep an eye out for militantly atheist authorities, so he was very clear about the fact that what his audience was watching was fiction.  It wasn’t real and it was purely for entertainment.

The Phatasmagoria was the world’s first horror film.

And by all accounts audiences found it utterly terrifying.  Admittedly Robert was careful to serve them punch laced with laudanum before the show started but that only goes so far.

Phantasmagoria arrived when Sierra Entertainment was at something of a crossroads.

Doom stalked the land and by that I mean that FPS games were suddenly dominating the video game market. Mortal Kombat was vomiting gore all over the arcades. Clearly there was a market for fighting games.

In 1995 Sierra had dominated the computer gaming market for ten years but the market was clearly changing and Sierra’s corporate knowledge didn’t really favor the new fashions in gaming. However, they were undisputed kings of the adventure-puzzles and if those could stay relevant then Sierra was still in business. And in 1995 that seemed possible.

Two years before a game called Seventh Guest had rewritten the rules on the adventure-puzzle games. It was the first to require the use of the CD-ROM drive to play it.* More importantly, it was enough of a must-play that it made gamers take the plunge and fork over a good chunk of change to Creative Labs to buy a CD-ROM.

For the benefit of my younger readers. In 1995 hard drive technology had hit a wall of about 500 MEGAbytes (I misspelled that as gigabytes twice). ROM drives could get you a better than a gigabyte of data. This made the use of live actors a workable proposition. Note my previous use of the word “workable.” I didn’t say anything about the use of live actors being a good idea.

However, there is no question that Seventh Guest made money. It wasn’t a hard decision for Ken Williams to pursue this market. So, his wife Roberta set about making Sierra’s first horror game with live actors.

I remember the thrill of anticipation when I first loaded this one up back in 1996, (yeah I had to buy a new computer). That excited and tense feeling you get when you are in the lobby of theater that is showing “the scariest movie of the decade.” While it was loading, I felt that building tension you get when you are on the first uphill climb of a rollercoaster. You know it’s going to be scary but you also know you will be safe.

And then the game started and that all went away.

The opening scene was cheesy even by mid-nineties’ standards. Opening scene is a guy with a ponytail taking pictures of a small New England town. A few buildings look real but then he takes a picture of an obviously CGI mansion, then he zooms in takes a couple of more snaps and then the POV zooms through the keyhole we are then treated to a number of images swooping by that are supposed to inspire, well, terror, I think. Swords being stuffed into a basket while a woman screams. Snakes with human heads and other bizarre images. This was possibly a shout out to the original Phantasmagoria during the Terror but I’m not sure. Finally it settles on a blonde woman who is tied to a throne and is screaming. Than an ax bloodily splits her forehead. The same woman suddenly sits up in bed, panting in terror from what was obviously a nightmare.

But then JUMPSCARE her head is suddenly encased in bondage gear and stuff drills into it. She wakes up for real this time. She is in bed with the hairy photographer who sloppily nuzzles her to (gag) comfort her. Then they have PG-13 sex with side-boob. Thus fulfilling the “strong sexual content” promise the box made to us.

The plot is that Adrienne the novelist and Don her photographer husband bought this fixer-upper of a cursed mansion. It was owned by a Blue-beard, serial killer/Satanist named Zolton Carno. Adrienne releases his cursed, demonic soul from a wooden box and Carno promptly possesses Don. Adrienne starts having visions of Carno killing his previous wives. These are unlocked by solving various Sierra puzzles. You meet several characters along the way like Harriet the Garden Gnome and the actor who played Jaffar in Aladin. There are as usual many ways to get yourself killed. I almost said they were gorier than Sierra’s usual death scenes but then I thought better of it.

There is also an out of blue rape scene when Don violent when he and Adrienne are having fully clothed sex. Which was breaking new and unwelcome ground for the company.

Finally Adrienne is captured by Don and tied to the execution throne. However, she gets a hand free and kills him with the mechanical head ax from her nightmare. But she is awful broken up over it. Killing Don frees the demonic form of Carno, who comes after her and she traps him using the plot contrivance ritual. The End.

Honestly, this is not one of my favorite Sierra games. A lot of that had to do with the quality of the performances. These weren’t the best actors working at the time. The actor who played Don was so over the top with his cackling you couldn’t take him seriously. Victoria Morsell who played Adrienne was a Nineties Blockbuster Tweedlet who starred in things with titles like Hot Line and Savage. The rest of the phoned-in performances looked like they were being delivered by people who had been rounded up at the local community theater. These kinds of games were filmed entirely against green screens and it’s pretty hard for a good actor to deliver under those circumstances let alone a mediocre one. Given the technical limits of these live-action games there were frequent and prolonged pauses while the computer did its thing. The puzzles were a requirement for any Sierra game but they also served to take you out of the moment. All of these things taken together meant that it was impossible for the story’s atmosphere to develop. It was a horror game that was never scary at all.

Phantasmagoria had a budget of eight hundred thousand dollars but ended up costing four million. Which was a harbinger of things to come. However, it did rake in twelve million in sales. In the short term it was a success.

But in the long term. I think live ROM era games did more to damage the adventure-puzzle genre than the arrival of the FPS gaming.

Simply put, the charm of Gabriel Knight and Roger Wilco was gone.

*Or at least it’s the first one I can remember.

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