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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Phantasmagoria Review

This is the addendum to my Phantasmagoria Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Phantasmagoria yet, you don't want to read this page, because there may be details here that will ruin some of the fun of playing; please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Phantasmagoria

These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling for the titles of some classic computer games, read this page, and be inspired to write a really kick-ass horror game. Ah, well, a girl can dream, can't she? Here's all the news about Phantasmagoria that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Looking back at most games ten years after I first played them, I'm left to conclude that they weren't really as good as I thought they were at the time. With Phantasmagoria, I find myself rather lamely offering that the game wasn't really as bad as I thought it was at the time. That isn't a compliment, and shouldn't be taken as one. This game didn't suck, but it was thoroughly mediocre. It's hard to remember anything that was memorably good about it at all. In retrospect, though, Phantasmagoria deserves some props for expanding the scope of computer adventure games (this game was far longer and more involved than any computer adventure I'd previously played) and for introducing more adult elements into a computer game (adventure games in particular were stuck in a real rut at the time, pretty much refusing to portray anything not meant for an 8-year-old, and Phantasmagoria bumped the genre out of said rut in effective fashion). It was even an important development to have a female protagonist in an adventure game, constantly terrified horror-flick heroine or not--she was still better than Rosella, her prissy and rather feckless predecessor. So I appreciate that, ten years after the fact. I doubt graphic adventure games like The Longest Journey and Syberia would exist if not for Phantasmagoria.

It doesn't change the fact that ten years later, the only strong memories I have of playing this game are of me and my friends heckling the protagonist, being grossed out by a couple of really disgusting cutscenes, and being infuriated by the tacked-on realtime endgame. Phantasmagoria utterly failed to scare me. And for a horror show, that's simply an unforgiveable offense.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Phantasmagoria a 4 out of 10 (rating: flawed). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, any of a dozen of things, really. Adrienne could have been better-acted and worn different color shirts each day to give some sense of the passage of time. More original puzzles would have helped, especially some with more than one solution. The plot was too linear and the player had no input into it at all. It would have been nice if at SOME point in the game, you could have chosen somehow between two different paths Adrienne could take. And the realtime endgame should have been pulled out by the roots. For one thing, nobody plays a glacially paced 3D puzzle adventure game for weeks on end if they wanted to roleplay a realtime fight with a demon. Forcing the players to do this in order to win the game at the end is a baffling move even if it had been well-done. Second of all, the action sucked. Adrienne is still slow and tentative in her motions, the controls are still rudimentary, and if you don't run away in exactly the right pattern, you won't be fast enough and the demon will eat Adrienne's face, AGAIN, forcing you to replay the entire long endgame with Don, AGAIN. Look, if I wanted to play an action game, I'd play a GOOD one.

In the final count, though, it would not have saved the game to fix any of those things, because it had a deeper problem. Phantasmagoria aspired to be movie-like, but the movie it aspired to be was a B-grade slasher flick. And so it shared all the problems real B-grade slasher flicks do--a villain with no purpose in life, a heroine who's so stupid you boo her at least once, supernatural special effects that inspire laughter, terrible pacing that keeps anything from being suspenseful, pointless goriness to try and distract you from the lack of suspense, and no discernible plot ("here's how character B dies, and here's how character C dies!" is not a plot.) For Phantasmagoria to have truly been an interesting game, it would have had to aim higher than this in the first place. Think of the last truly scary movie you watched--Silence of the Lambs, The Ring, anything that truly got your heart thumping while you were watching it. Odds are good that that movie featured a terrifying villain who may have been mad, evil, possessed by a demon, or all three, but nonetheless had some AGENDA. (Hannibal Lector was maneuvering to try to get out of prison, for example, and also had a believable fascination with Clarice. Samara in The Ring wanted revenge for her wrongful death, and had a very specific action she wanted from her victims.) Odds are good that the protagonist and maybe even the viewer were able to figure out what was going on from clues in the environment, and that unexpected and scary twists in the plot resulted in a few dramatic deaths along the way. Odds are excellent that the heroine did not wander aimlessly around her creepy old mansion doing nothing in particular for long stretches of time. There probably were no dead cats.

Phantasmagoria could have done this. The demon possessing Don could have had some sinister raison d'etre, not just the desire to kill people in increasingly disgusting ways for the heck of it. There could have been a plot in the middle game, something Adrienne was trying to accomplish or sleuth out. There could have been a human being who actually died during the course of this game (there's not much suspense involved in watching videos of murders you already knew had been committed decades ago, after all!) The pace could have been tighter, the atmosphere creepier. The setting could have been much more claustrophobic; the fact that Adrienne drives her car to town and buys things at will destroys any chance at immersiveness the game might once have had. (Why, pray tell, didn't she go to the police, or the House of Ruth? Why didn't she buy a gun, or a blessed crucifix, or a good screwdriver? Why didn't she at LEAST drop her obviously doomed kitty cat off at the vet till she was done battling evil?) Even more disturbingly, there could have been signs that Don was struggling with his demonic possessor throughout this epic, which would have leant emotional drama to Adrienne's need to murder him at the end.

Phantasmagoria could have done these things, and it would have been a good game. But that's a lot like saying "If 'Cannibal Zombies of Death II' had been more like 'Silence of the Lambs,' it would have been a really good movie!" Undoubtedly. But it wasn't trying to be, and so it didn't happen. If you're looking for a horror game that aspires to be emotionally evocative, two that gave me true scares were The Black Mirror and Sanitarium. But even the "Nancy Drew" series, unfortunately, is tenser and less corny than Phantasmagoria. You'd be hard-pressed to find a game that wasn't.

Best Quest: There were no quests in this game, really.
Lamest Quest: There were no quests in this game, really.
Best Puzzle: None of them were very memorable. Having to remember the Christmas ornament in my inventory near the end was the only thing I really had to use my brain for.
Worst Puzzle: Many of them were boilerplate, but the only one that really stood out as lousy was having to find all the items you were going to need for the endgame before confronting Don, because otherwise you'd get stuck in a dead end with no way out during the realtime sequence later on.
Best Plot Twist: Having to kill Don near the end. Even with the crappy characterization, I did wince at that.
Lamest Plot Twist: The death of the cat. Like anyone over the age of six didn't see that coming a MILE away?
High Point: There was only one moment at which Phantasmagoria actually made me jump, and sadly enough, it involved the cat, who jumped out of a dark corner of the stable unexpectedly at one point. The more unexpected startlements you can get into a horror game, in general, the better.
Low Point: The horrendous realtime endgame. What could they have possibly been thinking...?

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