Some 25 years ago, game design legend Roberta Williams decided to dip her toes into a new genre of games, trying out the idea of making an interactive movie. In the early and mid-90s, full motion video (FMV) games were seen as exciting, a way to move the genre beyond sprites and early 3D engines as well as making it clear that video games were done being "kid's stuff." But Phantasmagoria would be the first from Sierra On-Line, a company better known for their King's Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series of adventure games. It was a bold move for Sierra as a company and Williams personally. This was before the ESRB, before the Internet was pumping out massive content every millisecond, when developers could get away with a lot more in terms of content.
But was it a good game? Good enough for a sequel, back then. Looking at it now? Ehhh...
Theatre of Blood
FMV games had one big thing going against them: format limitations. Video recording and compression were still working out the kinks. Bink Video, one of the current industry standards, was still a few years away from release when Phantasmagoria came out. So when game magazines mentioned that Roberta Williams' first FMV game would be taking up seven CD-ROMs, it was kind of a big deal.
Because Williams had so much experience with adventure games, the actual game mechanics of Phantasmagoria were quite polished. You had a limited inventory, but you carried items from chapter to chapter, and the controls were fairly good. However, it seemed kind of stuck between the seamless navigation found in Myst and the split text-and-graphics interfaces of classic Sierra adventures. Playing Phantasmagoria now, it seems like Williams was kind of feeling her way through, trying to stick with what worked while also trying to come up with something new (for her, at least).
The story, told across seven chapters (pretty much one for each CD), has a tone which harkens back to Paris' Gran Guignol, a theatre company in the 19th Century known for putting on lurid and shocking tales of madness, murder, and atrocity, complete with their own secret recipe for stage blood which more than once got on audience members in the front row. Novelist Adrienne Delaney (played by Victoria Morsell) and her husband, photographer Don Gordon (played by David Homb), have moved into the Carnovasch manson near the sleepy New England hamlet of Nipawomsett. The mansion, once owned by a world famous illusionist named Zoltan Carnovasch (better known as "Carno"), has been empty for most of the 20th Century, owned by a successive number of families but never occupied. Carno himself had a dark reputation, having been married five times and widowed three (that anybody knew), as well as his only daughter dying in a tragic accident. As Adrienne explores her new house, she unwittingly releases an ancient evil, a demon which consumed the magician Carno a century before and now seems to be starting the madness all over again with Don as its new host.
At the time, the video quality was pretty decent compared to some other productions. The actors were clearly working in front of a blue screen, but the integration with the pre-rendered CGI sets was quite good. By today's standards, it's pretty blocky (even with the improvements GOG.com brings to the table). Moreover, the story itself suffers. This was Roberta Williams' first major film project and it shows in the pacing. Weirdly, the odd pacing of the film portions contribute to an equally odd sense of pacing in the game portion. The game takes place over the course of a few days, much too quickly for Don's madness to believably manifest (even assuming demonic possession). Moreover, there are limitations in the game which feel like a certain amount of game content had to be cut down to make room for the video segments. It's a weird feedback loop which ultimately diminishes the game as a whole.
All things considered, Phantasmagoria is definitely a landmark game, but it's one which has aged badly, for all of the advancements it made both technically and artistically.
If the first Phantasmagoria drew inspiration from the Gran Guignol, Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh draws heavily on the psychological horror style of David Lynch and the body horror themes of David Cronenberg. Unfortunately, it not only goes in a wildly different direction from its predecessor, it also manages to be a considerably less satisfying experience.
Players take on the role of Curtis Craig (played by Paul Morgan Stetler), a technical writer for a pharmaceutical company called WynTech. A year before, he suffered some sort of psychotic episode, requiring hospitalization in a mental institution. Now, he's back at work with a girlfriend who loves him, a best friend who worries about him, a vampy co-worker who wants to bed him, and a standard issue jackass who delights in tormenting him. Of course, that last person becomes an even bigger problem when somebody brutally murders the jackass in Curtis' cubicle. And given the hallucinations Curtis seems to be experiencing, Curtis isn't entirely sure he didn't do it. What's more, WynTech seems to be working on something otherworldly, with Curtis figuring into their plans in some capacity.
Unlike the first game, Phantasmagoria 2 used actual sets rather than computer-generated renderings. From a practical aspect, this makes the video sequences more realistic to the eye. However, it also inadvertently makes the game considerably more choppy. Instead of a King's Quest-style game, we're treated to something closer to Take-Two Interactive's Ripper in terms of functionality (despite Ripper using virtual sets to good effect). The choppiness manages to cause the opposite sort of problem that the first game experienced. Where the original Phantasmagoria seemed excessively short, the use of full video sequences for even the simplest exchanges of dialogue manages to somehow drag things out from a pacing perspective. It's hard to get through the first chapter, even though the game itself is only comprised of five chapters compared to the first game's seven. And because people keep coming in and out of the sequences, rather than sticking around like normal people would, the dialogue comes off as extremely stilted and the action feels inauthentic. Even the game's sex scenes feel less convincing than ones found in the Mass Effect series, and slightly less convincing than the ones from the first game.
More damning is the haphazard grab bag of elements which are tossed together in the vain attempt to try and tell a cohesive story. There's moments which you'd almost swear are passing references to other thrillers and psychological movies, such as Jacob's Ladder or Naked Lunch, and then you completely lose that sense of connection because the actor seems to lose their focus on the part, or they overact on a line which seems like it should be more subtle. Even a shout-out to the first game (a mention of a book signing by Adrienne Delaney) falls flat, much the same way that Bordello of Blood's brief reference to Demon Knight didn't quite seem to work. Complicating matters is the way that the audio (at least in the GOG.com version) isn't really optimized the way it probably needed to be. Dialogue is unusually low and can only be generally turned up to a certain level, which is still too soft about half the time, while music feels too loud even when cranked almost down to the bottom.
The only thing which seems to have been improved from the first game is the user interface. Before, half the screen was taken up with the inventory, a hint system, and an examination function to let you get a closer look at certain items. In Phantasmagoria 2, the UI is hidden unless you move the cursor above or below the frame of the video. It was certainly clever, but at the same time it inadvertently overemphasized the "cinematic" elements. It felt less like a game and more like futzing around with playback on a video disc using special function buttons on your remote.
Roberta Williams did not work on Phantasmagoria 2, and that's probably a good thing for her professional reputation, all things being equal. On the other hand, one has to wonder what she might have made if she'd taken another stab at the genre. For all its faults, Phantasmagoria at least had a degree of cohesion to it. No such cohesion is present in the sequel. If you're feeling particularly masochistic, you can pick up Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh on GOG.com and play through it. But it's not the sort of game you want to go through a second time.