What defines true horror? How does that definition vary from person to person or culture to culture? When does the horror genre blur the lines between genuine scares vs. cheap shock value tactics?
Although I generally discuss indie titles, Iʼve selected Roberta Williamsʼ Phantasmagoria (1995) not only for the Halloween occasion, but also because of its influence in gaming history. As someone who looks up to Williams as a role model, I wanted to discuss her most controversial, yet challenging project and describe its successes and failures. At the time of its release, it was notoriously known for its graphic violence and sexual content, which resulted in it being banned by parent and religious groups. By todayʼs standards, much of the content lacks the same affect it had over 20 years ago.
When evaluating such details and how well the game holds up by todayʼs standards, there are some elements that worked for the story as well as elements that didnʼt quite suit the intended horror. From how the story and characters are written and represented, to the cinematography, to where there is a genuine sense of true horror verses shock value, contemporary game designers interested in horror and/or FMV can benefit from studying what served Phantasmagoria well and where it fell short.
Story, Characters and Creating a Strong Sense of Place
First and foremost, story and characters are what draw spectators in. A good plot with interesting and relatable characters is what encourages players to identify with them, especially the protagonist. The basic premise of Phantasmagoria takes place at an estate that was once inhabited by a famous late-1800ʼs magician named Zoltan Carnovasch (Robert Miano), better known as simply as Carno. A couple, photographer Don Gordon (David Homb) and his wife, mystery novelist Adrienne Delaney (Victoria Morsell), who is the gameʼs protagonist, buy the property. When Adrienne interacts with the locals, they are surprised she and her husband moved into the ominous mansion. Adrienne denies the existence of ghosts, though her reactions to the strange occurrences early on in the game seem to suggest otherwise, not to mention the fact she deems the place is unsettling.
Story wise, haunted houses have always been a common setting in the horror genre. Some might say that concept lacks originality because of that, but others will pinpoint that it all depends on how writers utilizes these familiar settings and tropes. In her 2012 article, Four ways to make better horror games, Leigh Alexander describes a “strong sense of place” as being essential to the experience:
“The cool thing about horror is that tropes can actually be used well; even though the “creepy hospital” has been done countless times across media for as long as anyone can remember, it still works, because when players sees certain “creepy hospital” visual cues, they understand immediately theyʼre in a dangerous place.
Hotels, prisons, schools and mansions frequently appear in scary media too, because of the fact they carry long legacies inside their walls. Know why each of these environments work and being able to use culturally-universal “scary places” to strong effect is important, but the games that have unnerved me the most are ones that use place to subvert expectations. For example, if the player is led to believe early on in a game that her home, bedroom or other regularly-visited place is safe, itʼs more terrifying later when something about it changes”.
That being said, Phantasmagoria displays those traits well enough that the player feels that ominous feeling lingering. The couple moves into what is supposed to be ʻhomeʼ, yet clues hidden throughout the game reveal something is amiss.
With a combination of music by Mark Seibert and Jay User, along with additional music by Neal Grandstaf and the atmosphere of the estate, such as changes in color scheme, aesthetic choices, decor, furniture and peculiar looking objects and devices add to that essence of horror. Despite the midi quality of the sound and the CGI rendered backgrounds, Sierra used the tools of the period to the best of their advantage. In regards to the writing, Williams drew inspirations from the works of Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe. Even so, the pacing leading up to the climax of Phantasmagoria is effective in the sense that suspense build up is best presented in the gameʼs 7th chapter. Rather than constantly killing one random character after another throughout the entire game just to make it a horror story, the rising tension in the final chapter pays off. Although Adrienne is somewhat underdeveloped as a character, there are a few positive traits that make her somewhat relatable to a degree. She is fairly quick thinking as seen in the final moments of the game when she is fighting for her life. Killing Don out of self-defense is the only way she is able to unleash the demon that possesses him. Her reaction as a result, such as her fear, trauma and sadness are strongly highlighted in this scene despite the limited amount of expression and mannerisms she is given throughout the story.
Where Story and Character Falls Short
What doesnʼt work in terms of story and character are the apparent plot holes and most of the acting. Based on what the player gathers about Adrienne early on, it seems rather odd that for a renowned writer, she is seen as less open minded to the possibilities that the Carnovach estate is in fact haunted. This point was mockingly brought up by PushingUpRoses in her review, PHANTASMAGORIA AKA The Story of DRAIN CLEANER. Aside from being “stiff, boring, poorly acted…for a writer, she is incredibly short sighted. Despite the mansion becoming increasingly scary with more instances of haunting and Donʼs obvious change in character, she insists that she doesnʼt believe in ghosts”. When referring to the scene where the antique shop keeper, Lou Ann (Stella Stevens) asks Adrienne “Do you believe in ghosts?”, which Adrienne takes an unusually long time to respond with a sharp “Of course not” to, PushingUpRoses snarks at as she pinpoints:
“Yeah, okay. So I suppose you just ignored this weird apparition in the nursery, the blatant warnings on your laptop and the weird visions of Carnoʼs murders. Dude, Carno even comes to you in a seance in the form of flemmy green boogers to try to warn you! That is some serious shit! No to mention the fact that Don has started acting like a complete dick…By the way, the warnings Adrienne comes across during the game are being left by the ghosts of Carnoʼs previous wives, all murdered by him in really gruesome ways. I guess they want to help Adrienne so she can start planning her escape and getting the hell out of there, but Adrienne doesnʼt believe in ghosts.”
The problem with the way Adrienne is scripted is that if a writer is truly a critical thinker and has a sense something is out of place, they should react on their first instinct and take the warnings into consideration. The minute Adrienne sees proof that the locals are right about Carnoʼs mansion and the sudden change in her husbandʼs behavior, she should have realized right then and there the house is haunted. Keeping her in denial functions more like an excuse to stall for more filler sequences that are completely irrelevant. When Adrienne learns about Carno, his wives and what happened to her husband the second she accidentally released the demon, wouldnʼt the writing make more sense if she had been mindful and spent the entire game aware, trying to figure out if there was a way to save Don from a fate similar to that of Carnoʼs rather than have players wait to the very end of the game for her to put her bias aside? Even so, after she is raped by Don, she is clearly afraid of him. However, the next day in that same chapter, she acts as if nothing had happened. She continues to interact with the clairvoyant hobo, Harriet Hockaday (V. Joy Lee), who warns her about the evil lurking, to which Adrienne continues to deny.
When evaluating the plot, settings and characters, the concept overall is solid and fitting on paper. The archetypes, music and location blend quite well. The writing that went into the character of Adrienne shows potential in that she is a writer and she takes time to explore. Unfortunately, the character falls short due to lack of in-depth qualities beyond what is presented to the player and that she fails to kept an open mind to the obvious changes going on in the house and her husband. Itʼs towards the end Adrienne begins to show more emotion and expression when the situation gets far more serious beyond reverse.
Controversy as Plot Device or Shock Value?
Character development (or lack thereof) aside, the gameʼs controversial rape scene where Don viciously molests Adrienne in the bathroom appears to serve no place in the story whatsoever. As also brought up by PushingUpRoses, Carno is never said to have attempted rape on any of his wives anywhere in the story. It was apparently “shoehorned in” just to get a reaction from audiences. Roberta Williams justified the scene in a 1999 interview with Andy Bellatti, who asks why it was “essential for furthering the plot and character development”. According to Williams, she felt it was “very essential to to plot” and “knew it would be controversial” that it could have been omitted from the story:
“I kept it in because it was the pivotal point in the plot where Adrienne suddenly realizes that something is terribly wrong with Don. Up to that point, she knows that Don isnʼt “feeling well” – but she attributes that to the bump on his head or to stress from moving or with his work. We know that heʼs possessed by some sort of demon, but she doesnʼt. This is the way I wanted to let Adrienne know that something is very wrong with Don, and that heʼs capable of hurting her. I wanted her to start being afraid of him and to abruptly kick her out of her comfortable world and into a world of horror…And…it was a sort of counterpoint to the lovemaking at the beginning of the game where Don is “normal” and we see that he loves her and is really a gentle person.”
The intended purpose and effect this scene is supposed to have is lost on most players as even without historical context about the game, when examining the plot holes, there could have been other ways to express this bizarre transition in Donʼs personality. Adrienne receives early warning signs in the form of supernatural imagery and flashbacks numerous times and as early as Chapter 2, but she takes a hint as late in the story as Chapter 4.
In terms of cinematography, there are some instances that are effectively executed and some that seem inconsistent. One example where the cinematography is considerably well utilized is during the first minute of the introduction. Don is seen carrying his equipment outside on a cliff. The fade ins and fade outs where he sets up demonstrate passing of time for how long it takes for him to set his camera up. The player also sees what Don is shooting at from his perspective looking through the camera lens. One is a shot of a church, the next is of a brick house and finally, our main point of interest: the Carnovasch estate.
From there, the cinematography begins to fall flat. When Don points his camera to the peculiar looking mansion, he takes three shots of it. It would have probably been
interesting to see his face and what his expression would have read upon laying eyes on such a curious looking place. Although the intention is obvious that taking more than one shot of the estate indicates his fascination with it, it would have been more effective had the player seen the characterʼs interest and wonder so the player identifies better with Don in that situation.
The introduction starts off with that appeal to see whatʼs inside with a close up of the door inviting the player in. However, what is being presented in the fly through sequence does not reflect how the houseʼs interior actually looks, let alone what specific objects Adrienne will see that represent Carnoʼs life and career. It just displays random gruesome imagery and bizarre figures. Upon the doors opening, the player flies through a tunnel filled with dangling arms, swords, chains with hooks and rib cages. There is a light at the end of the tunnel leading to more randomly unpredictable imagery. Knives stabbing at a barrel simultaneously, a snake with a human head wearing a turban, a poster-like object with a sinister face, a rusty old cage and floating curtains build up to Adrienne strapped to a chair beneath a guillotine and struggling to break free. She is then seen waking up from what is clearly a nightmare she is having, but then the player sees this sudden, if not rather redundant sequence where her face is locked up by some sort of torture device. Once again, she wakes up from the nightmare. This time the player knows she is fully awake.
Why is this introduction ineffective? Taking into account what it shows the players in contrast to what they gradually learn about Carno, it exaggerates and barely connects with what the antagonistic character does to harm his wives. The only part of this sequence that reflects any of Carnoʼs sins directly is when Adrienne is strapped in the chair and screaming since this device is shown later on in the gameʼs final chapters. Without the nightmare-within-a-nightmare, that image alone would certainly serve a foreshadowing. In fact, that entire intro would have been put into better use had it subtly focused primarily on what the player will see without it being a spoiler than tossing in irrelevant and somewhat misleading images of whatʼs to come.
The sex scene afterwards does not tie in potently as intended. Don comforts Adrienne with very little exchange in dialogue and stating his promise that heʼll “always be there to protect [her]”. It would have perhaps been a solid scene had there had been room to flesh out these characters when displaying the emotions of fear, love and consolation, but the limited dialogue and the quick transition into the sex scene stifles that opportunity. Again, it was out of the interest of shock value and less on the narrative. Had there been more focus on giving Adrienne and Don some time to fully express their emotions than on the sexual aspect, this bedroom scene could have been much more convincing. As with any other medium, games should have as much freedom as film and books to portray sex as it is a part of the human condition. The way this was handled in Phantasmagoria contributes to the much of the issues that have always been attached to games, where adult subject matters are rarely taken seriously.
Other scenes where the gameʼs cinematography is put into its best use are its panning shot of the mansionʼs lobby, a zoom in of Adrienne at the window in Chapter 1 and pointing the camera at where the playerʼs attention should be attentive of are amongst the gameʼs forte. Other scenes where the cinematography is lacking include mainly of Adrienne remaining stiff as other characters appear more active in a given scene. For example, when interacting with characters like Lou Ann, Mike the technician (Carl Niemic), Harriet and her foolish son, Cyrus (Steven W. Bailey), they are seen continuously animated when Adrienne is not interacting with them. However, next to them, Adrienne is standing still in a sort of army stance when there is no player input. She does have an occasional movement in this state where she flicks her hair, but it is very out of place with the setting as if she is not invested in the moment.
The conversation Adrienne has with Malcolm Wyrmshadow (Douglas Seale) in Chapter 6 is perhaps the strongest use of cinematography in the entire game. Of all the acting, the late Seale, with his role as an elderly man deeply affected by the trauma he experienced as a child living with Carno by having to have witnessed the possessed magicianʼs final moments, delivers a more genuine performance that players can sympathize with. The quiet setting in his dimly lit living room where Malcolm emerges from the shadows gives off that sense of the characterʼs reclusive nature. Once Malcolm informs Adrienne that the evil that possessed Carno is back an itʼs too late to redeem Don, the silence transitions to a sorrowful and mysterious music score. When he mentions the book to Adrienne, her face goes from concerned to thinking about what she had done upon entering the hidden chapel. The player sees a flashback fade in and out as Adrienne reflects on her mistake. Within flashbacks of Carno, Marie and Gastonʼs demises, musical score matches up with the narrative and goes silent in the present timeline when Malcolm is about to reveal important information about what he saw take place a century ago. Aside from when he concludes and tells Adrienne what she must do to retain the demon, when the player sees Malcolm speak, those are the only times during his backstory sequence the score is silent.
The cinematic technique used here is known as the 180-degree rule, which focuses on the space between one character to another within the scene they are in. The axis, which is an invisible line, puts these characters in place as the camera sits in the middle. On one side, we see Malcolm speak. On the other side, we see Adrienne listen and respond. The way this was utilized created, not only that sense of conversation, but more of a personal story being told from an elderly man who experienced trauma at such a young age to a young woman who is preparing herself for the inevitable. The use of the 180-degree rule along with the setting and color palette as well as the tone of the conversation offer players that unsettling calmness before the worst that is yet to come.
While the cinematography has its weak moments due to some of the imagery being out of place, some of the acting and interaction and a seemingly rushed script, there are some moments where the player is given the intended reaction the game was supposed to trigger. Had the unnecessary elements that contribute little or nothing to the story been removed or reworked, it would have perhaps better developed the story, the characters and its horror elements.
True Horror vs. Shock Value
This finally leads up to where Phantasmagoria either adds a genuine sense of horror vs. shock value. There are moments in the gameʼs plot that sound chilling on paper. Simply being told about it than actually seeing a visual representation of it can cause one to respond to it with dread, depending on the personʼs definition of fear. While defining fear and shock value are subjective by culture and individual, the use of cinematography in Phantasmagoria coupled with how well the actors display an emotion could tap into such a response. Gore is a fine line between fear and sickness and not always necessary to evoke a reaction.
The most prominent scenes in Phantasmagoria, which sparked all the controversy back in the 1990ʼs were the death scenes depicting the grisly demises of Carnoʼs wives. Each of these sequences appear as visions of the past Adrienne relives. Later in the game, she enters the rooms where each of the murders took place and watches them reoccur before her very eyes. Adrienne is in shock, no doubt. Although these scenes garnered the reaction Sierra was actively calling out for, by todayʼs standards or re-watching them a dozen other times, they come off as being nothing more than flat out repulsive. The flashbacks occur when Adrienne least expects it, but what falls flat about them is how quickly paced they are. With or without bloodshed, had the death scenes been gradually building up tension before the kill, Sierra would have possibly established an emotional connection with these characters players could sympathize with. Abruptly rushing in and less tension building certainly does indicate that there is more interest in the shock than the actual horror.
Perhaps the strongest death scenes in the game are the demises of Carno, Marie and Gaston in the flashbacks and when Adrienne is forced to kill Don in Chapter 7. Although not the most naturally enacted, the pacing of Malcolmʼs flashback along with his narration build up the suspense that encourage players to identify with what he sees and what was so appalling about it. Unlike the deaths of Carnoʼs other victims where they tend to feel rushed, Marieʼs decapitation at the guillotine, Gastonʼs brutal beating and Carno dying a slow death after being stabbed flow well at the pace that Malcolm speaks.
The sequence of events leading towards Donʼs own demise result from the tension the player garners as a playable Adrienne making her desperate attempts to escape from his clutches and meeting the same fate as that of Marieʼs. After inevitably failing, Adrienne is seen strapped to the chair by Don. The player is given enough time to react and distract him. Once Don loses his train of thought, the player clicks the lever, prompting them to see Adrienne pull it and the blade hits and seals Donʼs fate. This scene is considerably well executed (so to speak) because both the gameplay and the cinematic elements give the player enough room to assimilate their surroundings before the confrontation with the demon. The last chapter opens with Adrienne, tearfully reminiscing on her memories with Don when they were happily married as seen in the photo she looks at in her room. In the meantime, Don is seen engaging in far more erratic behavior by putting on clown make up and dressing up like Carno as if preparing for a performance of some kind. Before going face to face with Don, Adrienne picks up some necessary items, essential for her defense. During that time, the music is more ominous than in any other part of the game. She slowly walks into the darkroom to find a collage of photos of herself on the wall with her head separate from each of them, representing decapitation. Don threatens and attacks her. Based on player choice, Adrienne could make an escape and stall for more time. Regardless, all the doors are supernaturally shut and Don manages to capture her. This is when Adrienne comes to terms with the fact that itʼs either she kills him or he kills her. When Adrienne finally does it, it takes the burden off the players shoulders that Don is no longer the protagonistʼs concern, but we know it comes with a price. We are given that sense of vulnerability that there are no other alternatives if we expect Adrienne to survive the situation sheʼs in.
If viewers are going to see characters getting slaughtered or die in other such revolting ways without being simply shocking, solid pacing and tension building are the best writing and cinematic techniques that can best juxtapose both emotions.
Phantasmagoria is truly a product of its time as its history and writing shows. Yet, while the game was obviously created with the goal in mind to be an eye-opener and shock the public as it did upon its release, itʼs not without its fortes either. While the story has obvious plot holes, underdeveloped characters (most notably Adrienne), scenes that fail to serve any meaningful purpose to the story and rushed ʻhorrorʼ scenes, the concept overall shows some potential. Considering the limitations of the time Phantasmagoria was made, the feeling of exploring the house provides the player with that aura of being in a place that is supposed to feel like home, but something is completely wrong. The cinematography is put into effective use when pinpointing where the player should focus their attention on. Even so, towards the ending, the gameplay and cinematography blend in such a compelling manner that anxiety gets the best of the player. Although Phantasmagoria lacks high-quality storytelling and character development, inspecting both the gameʼs strengths and weaknesses is beneficial to game designers who seek to improve the horror genre, and/or especially the art of FMV.