Gamers with a proclivity for horror have been getting their fright fix dating back to the early days of the Atari 2600. Since then, names like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have endeared themselves to the gaming community. However, the medium is full of titles that often never make the radars of fans, yet are just as important to the overall landscape of horror gaming as are their mainstream counterparts. Some have been lost to time; others were overlooked due to larger titles or because of questionable content. At any rate, these games deserve to be experienced by any who enjoy a good scare.
These are Horror Gaming Essentials.
Back in the ’90s, video games utilizing full-motion video (FMV) were sparking interest among the community. The digital battleground long dominated by the animated stylings of 8-bit plumbers and spiky-haired hedgehogs was infiltrated by content that featured real actors and on-set locations. These titles were too large to fit on the standard cartridge format of the time; FMV games required the space and processing power that could only be provided by CD-based consoles and PCs.
Because of the way that these games were produced – many were filmed akin to the way TV shows and movies were – storylines would tend to be very linear. A single title might be fun for a couple of playthroughs, but generally, the replayability for an FMV title would be pretty low once the game was completed. 1992’s Night Trap and 1993’s Mad Dog McCree were prime examples of this.
FMV titles were a fad of their time. Flaunted as selling points for the Sega Saturn and 3DO, very few had any long-lasting appeal. Many would lose their luster. One title, however, while not doing anything to disrupt the status quo, would drench itself in buckets of blood and gore, and create something that was seemingly designed for horror fans.
The game is 1995’s Phantasmagoria, and if you were getting your gaming fix on Sony’s Playstation or the N64 you might’ve just missed this gory little gem.
In the ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s, Sierra Entertainment was enjoying success in the home PC gaming market. Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Ken and Roberta Williams, the company would produce several titles, perhaps most prominent of which was the exemplary King’s Quest series.
Many of their early games featured point-and-click mechanics and presented stories that had mass appeal, or at least could be considered appropriate for players of most ages. But in wanting to push the concept of full-motion video to its limits and develop something outside of the fantasy content the company had become accustomed to, Roberta began to romanticize the notion of putting out a horror-themed game.
In a series of fits and starts, she would attempt to get a title with adult tones and content off the ground. But believing that technology at the time couldn’t keep up with what her vision was, her ideas wouldn’t come to fruition until nearly a decade after she’d first entertained them.
Over Budget and Over the Top
$800,000 was initially earmarked for the title, but as time and efforts moved forward, that easily crept up to $4.5 million. Not surprising when considering the actual production didn’t merely mirror the process of shooting a major motion picture, it surpassed it in every way imaginable.
Phantasmagoria starred a cast of over two-dozen actors, some of which had starred in films and TV shows. Six hundred individual scenes were shot for the game, all in front of blue screen, and were handled in a new studio that carried a $1.5 million price tag. Gore effects were created by an outside FX studio.
Filming for the game took nearly four months, with actors pulling six-day weeks in twelve-hour shifts. From start to finish, it would take nearly two years to produce, largely in part to having done something that hadn’t been attempted before in the gaming industry. Overreaching in terms of budget purportedly caused friction between Williams and her husband, but her efforts were not in vain. Within the first week of release, Phantasmagoria would amass $12 million in sales by moving 300,000 individual units. It would top video game sales charts and only trail products such as Windows 95 in terms of overall computer software sales that year.
For My Next Trick…
Writer Adrienne Delaney (Victoria Morsell) and husband Don (David Homb) purchase a seemingly innocuous mansion in hopes of kick-starting some inspiration for a new novel. Almost immediately, Delaney begins suffering from nightmares. Unbeknownst to them, the home’s previous owner, famed magician Zoltan “Carno” Carnovasch (Robert Miano of Donnie Brasco fame), had been dabbling in the black arts within the home’s confines. Eventually possessed by a wicked spirit, Zoltan goes on to murder his wives – all five of them. Unintentionally, Adrienne frees the same demon that corrupted Zoltan, which then does the same to her husband.
As was typical of FMV style productions, gameplay was that of the point-and-click sort. Players move an on-screen arrow to different locations to interact with them, move the main character, or pick up and add items to their inventory. Focus was on advancing the story by having players solve puzzles, with an effort to keep challenges relatively easy and logical so as not to disrupt the sense of immersion. The developers didn’t want players dropping out due to complex mechanics.
Phantasmagoria is blissful ignorance at its best. This is a video game, after all, which means you’re going to have to do video game things. You’re going to have to talk to some folks; move a few things around; run and hide from bad guys that mean you harm. But underneath all the window dressing, Phantasmagoria is really your favorite campy horror movie, rolled in liquid gold cheesiness and served up just the way you’ll enjoy it. Mindless, goofy fun, just begging for your attention.
Bloody, Ruffled Feathers
Phantasmagoria probably won’t be remembered for its story, and certainly not for the performances of its actors (they’re bad … really bad). No, its strengths lie in its gore effects, particularly in the creative and imaginative ways that Zoltan dispatches of his wives and the death scenes involving Adrienne.
The fictionalized act of murder is always bound to stoke the ire of some, but in the case of Phantasmagoria, it wasn’t the only source of controversy.
Some tropes will always feel taboo, even when presented in the context of the most extreme forms of horror entertainment. Sexual assault often tops that list. Very few offenses can impact and have such an everlasting effect, which is why projects like I Spit On Your Grave and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door use it as a catalyst for fear and isolation.
After having been possessed, one of the first atrocities that Don commits against his wife is the act of rape. The scene depicted is relatively short and committed without overtly graphical representation, but is no less chilling. It’s vile and ruthless, and establishes the game’s protagonist as Delaney’s husband, shattering the image of a support system that should be helping her deal with her nightmarish visions.
As it were, some retailers at the time refused to stock the game because of its adult content. The game carried an M-rating from the newly founded (at the time) ESRB, but the negative publicity that surrounded Phantasmagoria was enough to make chains such as CompUSA reluctant to stock the game. Other shops, such as Walmart, did keep the title readily available, and it’s reported that nearly a year after release, Phantasmagoria had doubled its opening week sales numbers, topping more than 600,000 units sold.
Some critics loved it; others panned it. Many took umbrage with the rape scene, and as is par for the course, mainstream media and elected officials would damn Phantasmagoria for rotting the youth of America. There was no denying, however, that the game was a sales juggernaut, and was one of the most successful titles to come out of the era of FMV gaming.
Success begets sequels, and the following year saw the release of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. Although Sierra published it, the original development team wasn’t involved in its creation. A stand-alone title with no direct correlation to the first, it ultimately fell flat with gamers and wouldn’t enjoy the same commercial success as its predecessor.
Roberta Williams would cement her legacy as a trailblazer in the world of game design. Never again would she create a title as dark as Phantasmagoria, but her work on the King’s Quest series would earn her the respect of peers and fans. Having been credited as the “Queen of the Graphic Adventure,” she recounts her time in the industry at Sierra Gamers.
For those interested in owning a physical copy, the original seven-disc set (!) of Phantasmagoria isn’t difficult to find, nor is it saddled with an inflated price. Digital distribution is also available for both the original and sequel through GOG and Steam. For less than $10, anyone with the desire to do so can spend a few hours reliving the gory goodness made possible only through FMV.