In response to "House of Horrors" from The Escapist forums:
Two things about Phantasmagoria:
- Being a gamer at the time of the release, I recall there was a bit of a divide between the game's reception among gamers and among the mainstream press (the Will Shortz-created puzzle mag GAMES, which named it one of its games of the year; I think there were bits in Time & Newsweek). Sierra had hoped for Phantasmagoria to be a gateway for non-gamers into the hobby given its FMV cinemas - at the time, FMV wasn't popularly viewed as the laughingstock as which we all see it now, but the key to games finally growing up, to a marriage between cinema and gaming. (A while earlier, in the wake of the Mortal Kombat controversy, Time had done a big cover story on gaming that examined the trend toward digitization and realism in gaming, hailing FMV as the wave of the future. The centerpiece for their argument? The Sega CD Corey Haim vehicle Double Switch.)
Anyhow, the game had been designed accordingly to be newbie-friendly, and many felt that the results were overwhelmingly easy. The puzzles were regarded as very easy and forgiving, and there was a built-in hint system that pretty much gave the answers away if invoked. The general attitude among gamers toward was this was frustration (even sometimes if they liked the title, IIRC), while the magazines were impressed with the game's graphical prowess, seen to enhance the storytelling. There was the predictable brouhaha over the gore, of course (a bit toned down, actually, since Phantasmagoria has a gore filter you can turn on), but there was an equal controversy over whether Phantasmagoria was dumbing the genre down.
- I'm not sure the game's story is as brainless as charged. It's about an author and her photographer husband who've just moved to a new house. The heroine's just off a new success and the hottest writer on the market (her profits bought their new place); her husband's career, meanwhile, isn't doing too hot, and though they love each other, there's a sense that the husband might be jealous of his wife's success. The subsequent tale of horror, about a demon who possesses men and takes his vengeance on the women they love, kind of builds on this theme of male suspicion of female independence - there's a reason why the mad, possessed magician's varied means of murder always target his wives' heads specifically. At the climax (spoilers ahead), the heroine discovers her husband's darkroom covered with photos of her with her head lopped off - at which point the husband (possessed, of course) bursts in and declares, "A woman's body is a delightful thing - but the head is useless!"
Roberta Williams wrote the story, and despite the questionable execution, it always struck me as one that wouldn't have come from the traditional programmer demographic. During the game, the husband becomes physically overpowering, using his physical bulk to intimidate the heroine, a trend which culminates, of course, in the rape scene, a form of violence perpetuated primarily against women specifically. I don't want to be defending rape scenes here, but it's almost appropriate here (a lot depends on execution and needless explicitness, of course), as the story's about fears that are specific to women about men - fear of violence from a partner who will generally be bigger and stronger; fear about being resented for success by a husband or loved one because it's "emasculating" to be "beat" by a woman; fear about being valued as a decorative object instead of a person and punished when one attempts to show agency or - well, use one's head.
(Please note that I'm not with this analysis accusing males of being all horrible, oppressive wife-mutilators or claiming that women go around in perpetual fear of men. I'm simply noting these are fears that can pop up in certain male-female relationships and that it's unusual for a game to explore them.)
Anyhow, there *was* a point to the story; whether it got drowned out by the extreme gore is another issue. (I'm certainly not going to argue with the article on the quality of the acting/directing or how the FMV/digital art mash-up looks today.)