Video games have long aspired to attain realism: usually by chasing more realistic gameplay and better graphics. One of the most interesting attempts at achieving this goal came in the form of the Full Motion Video game.
The FMV game was essentially an interactive movie. FMV games utilised motion-capture and blue screens to project real actors onto pre-rendered backgrounds and create the illusion of realism. Much in the manner of those seaside cardboard cut outs with a space for your head, and you’re supposed to look like a gorilla or beach babe.
Of course the problem with this was that the pre-rendered backgrounds were all mid-nineties CG quality and obviously fake. Contrasted these almost cartoony backdrops with real life actors (nineties stand definition compression aside), meant that the effect was closer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than Tron.
But with the FMV game, there was a lot of overlap with cinema. So much so, that I have decide to break from my movie reviews to review a video game. The Sega Saturn and Windows point-and-click horror game, Phantasmagoria.
Phantasmagoria, most notably, represents the folly of a games industry at its most bloated. This game came on 8-discs, had a script five times as long as the average movie, and had a Hollywood special effects team working on it as well as its own choir. I believe Sierra spent somewhere in the region of $4 million developing this piece of shit. It looks and plays out like it was shot for a tenner exclusively for the Horror Channel.
I’m not even sure how it could have had a 500 page script; the game’s basically The Shining meets Hausu. From the starting point of a newly-wed couple, Adrienne and Don (a proper late 80’s/early 90’s sleazeball), moving into a mansion previously owned by an evil magician (isn’t this just Rocky Horror minus the fish nets?), we’re led through a story of elaborate traps, séances, sentient vomit, possession, drain cleaner, and a giant demon.
Don inevitably falls under the influence of the magician and abuses, tortures, and kills everyone from the unnecessarily large cast. Including a scene in which he hate fucks/rapes Adrienne, which was pretty controversial at the time in that horribly faux way.
The gameplay is nothing to write home about. And it’s not really my area, anyway. So I’ll sum it up thusly: it’s a point-and-click game, you search the scenery to find things, combine the things with other things (sometimes using moon logic) to solve puzzles. Many games of this genre are of the sort of fiendish difficulty The Count of Monte Cristo would come up with. Phantasmagoria, however, is rather forgiving – in order to not cloud its cinematic aspirations.
No, I’d recommend Phantasmagoria, not because it’s a good or scary game (let’s face it, there are episodes of The Magic School Bus that are scarier than this) but because it reveals in recreating the B-movie. The developers naturally used this realism offered by the FMV to cram in the worst excesses of low-budget cinema; so there’s violence, gore, sex, and nudity.
To the game’s credit, the death scenes are far gorier than anything even that era’s most controversial games – Doom and Mortal Kombat – offered. At these times the campy quality veers off into snuff territory. Using real actors ramps up the horrifying brutality of the kills, especially when the practical effects are grungy in that old school way.
One scene sees a woman repeatedly stabbed in the face with a trowel and then fed mulch until she dies. Another has someone choked to death after being force fed on entrails. There’s also an elaborate neck breaking trap straight out of a Saw film. And when the big demon comes at the end, one of the bad endings sees Adrienne’s face torn to shreds.
It’s the cheese that makes Phantasmagoria worth playing. There’s a reason why films like The Room and Army of Darkness are popular. But the difference is Phantasmagoria was an earnest effort at making a truly horrifying game, and that’s what makes the fact it’s terrible all the more wonderful.
From the awkward animation as Adrienne stops and starts, waiting for the player to tell her what to do next, but in reality makes her look like she’s shit herself and only just realised. To the ridiculous The Abominable Dr. Phibes style deaths, complete with overbearing orchestral music; Phantasmagoria is the film you help your film student friend make in college.