Once upon a time, in the land of Serenia, a luxuriant green valley surrounded by azure mountains and covered by a pale sky, there was a shabby magical shop, run by a long-bearded wizard by the name of Crispin…
No, wait, that is the wrong game. This is an adventure from the pen of none other than Roberta Williams, but this time around you will do without Cedric the Owl, King Graham and the royal family of Daventry. And if you think that a Roberta Williams game automatically means an enjoyable trip through a colorful world, perfect for parents and children alike, you’re in for a very big surprise with Phantasmagoria. Williams had already shown herself eager to write dark and unsettling stories – her debut adventure, Mystery House, and The Colonel’s Bequest were clear signs – but with Phantasmagoria she totally raised the bar, deciding to shock players and grab them by the throat with a disturbing story about a lonely woman fighting powerful malevolent forces.
If the premise doesn’t sound shocking today, that is largely because of Phantasmagoria. The historical value of this game is indisputable, since it opened the way for a lengthy succession of games that borrowed heavily from its style, its graphical presentation, its storytelling gimmicks and more. Many of those games overtook Phantasmagoria both in quality and in success, because Roberta Williams’ sixteenth adventure is far from perfect. Nevertheless, without it we might never have experienced masterpieces like The Beast Within in the years to follow.
Phantasmagoria is a milestone in at least one other regard: nowadays it’s pretty common to talk about appealing to the casual market, but Roberta Williams did it first, with this very game. Phantasmagoria, for better or worse, put PC gaming on popular magazine covers and TV newscasts, creating unprecedented media coverage that convinced even many non-gamers to go out and buy the game. And the reactions back then were generally enthusiastic. Even Entertainment Weekly declared that the game was “one of the surest signs yet of computer games approaching the quality level of movies.”
What is so outstanding about the game, then? What magnificent qualities attracted the attention of serious journalists and gossip columnists alike? For the experienced adventure gamer, the answer is disappointing: there’s nothing so outstanding about the game, which is actually mediocre in terms of plot and unsatisfactory in terms of gameplay. The hype for such an average adventure was due to the scandal that caused a moralistic crusade by some concerned parents and stores which refused to sell the game.
Phantasmagoria casts the player in the role of Adrienne Delaney, an attractive thirty-something novelist with a handsome husband, Donald, and a fairy tale-like life. The happy couple has just rented an old, extravagant mansion in New England because Don, a renowned photographer, has chosen the wooded estate as the perfect place for his latest photo session. The only problem is that, during the 19th century, the mansion was home to an eccentric illusionist, Zoltan Carnovash, whose wives (he had four of them) had the inexplicable habit of mysteriously disappearing without any trace, and even now there are rumors in the nearby town that the house is cursed. Adrienne and Don knew nothing of this when they purchased the manor, but it took only a nightmare and some extremely vivid hallucinations for Adrienne to start realizing that something is very wrong with the place.
In fact, something terrible did happen in the mansion almost a century before, something as twisted and corrupted as Zoltan himself, whose haughty, flamboyant and petulant personality is embodied in every brick of his eccentric manor. Adrienne soon finds herself entangled in an old story of unfathomable secrets and dark magic, trying not only to save her husband’s soul but to solve the gruesome mystery buried underneath Carnovash Manor. What ancient evil did Zoltan awaken in his search for power? How many lives has he sacrificed for his ambition? The truth lies in a grim, eerie mausoleum, as well as in the memories of the only person still alive who had the chance to meet the old magician himself. Adrienne will have to unearth those secrets quickly, however, because Zoltan’s curse is affecting Don, and her only hope for his salvation may be a long-forgotten, perilous ritual.
As for that scandal, through the course of its seven acts, Phantasmagoria manages to show veiled bits of female nudity, sex scenes, gruesome deaths, tortures and abuses, splatter details of blood and bowels, and eventually a “rape” scene with a strong emotional involvement. It’s this last issue that stirred up outraged reactions which claimed that an explicit scene of domestic violence was not only dangerous but also immoral. The reality is that this infamous scene is one of the most poignant moments in the whole game. Whilst the haunted house plot is fairly superficial and stereotypical, the relationship between Adrienne and Don, who becomes perverted by the house’s malevolent influence, is wonderfully and even tactfully depicted. That particular scene helps to deepen the theme of their star-crossed love, showing the strength of Adrienne’s affection toward her husband even in the face of the twisted curse that is slowly destroying him. Unfortunately, this is pretty much a standalone case, since the other aspects of the plot and the writing feel utterly contrived. I think Roberta Williams felt more comfortable with the light-hearted, fairy tale atmosphere of King’s Quest, because her ventures into the darker corners of the human soul often show an overly heavy reliance on abused clichés, thus hampering the emotional impact of her horror and mystery stories.Continued on the next page...