Last week I did something I should have done a long time ago. I played an adventure game.
It was the brainchild of Roberta Williams (known for such Sierra series as Kings Quest and Laura Bow), a horror adventure called Phantasmagoria. The plot was a straightforward Shining knockoff: young couple moves into old mansion, husband gets possessed by a demon, wife has to stop him. As the wife, you explore the mansion grounds while unraveling the backstory of the crazed magician who owned the place. In traditional adventure game fashion, there are rooms to unlock, characters to talk to, and a handful of items to pick up.
What makes Phantasmagoria stand out from other contemporary adventure games (for better or for worse) is that it was designed around the full-motion video technology that was all the rage back in 1995, technology that often took precedence over a game’s playability. (For some good examples, check out the Angry Nintendo Nerd’s review of the Sega CD.) Players still have control in Phantasmagoria, but the game’s extreme reliance on full-motion video limits their ability to interact with their environment. Each time our character did something as simple as wash her hands or open a door, the game had to show it in full video animation. Because this animation takes up a lot of CD space, the game limits how many things you can look at, pick up, or operate. To help players differentiate these few active objects from the background objects (and limit challenge), a single cursor turns a different color when the mouse is moved over an object with a definite purpose.
The giveaway mouse system prevents the puzzles from becoming very hard, and the structure (divided into chapters) makes the game ridiculously linear. Most of its challenges are less like puzzles and more like arbitrary actions to be performed so that time may pass and players can see more cinematic sequences. Epitomizing this is a bar graph that literally shows how much of the game players have seen. In this sense, Phantasmagoria is more of a playable movie than an open-ended adventure game.
The game’s heavy emphasis on visual effects is also striking to those used to traditional adventures where text reveals much of the game’s world. Again, because so little of Phantasmagoria is accessible to players, the game has little to say about the contents of a given room. Instead of a vivid description of a bureau’s contents, the game shows us a few jewels and a cigarette case. Players still get an impression of the bureau, but it comes through visuals, not words. This visual emphasis works to some extent, but as an experienced adventure gamer and lover of prose, I was disappointed.
The easy interface, lack of challenge, and heavy visual effects make Phantasmagoria easy to cruise through, but players who understand the bigger story will find it infinitely more enjoyable. Apart from the plot of Adrienne discovering that her husband is possessed, there is the backstory of the magician who found a cursed book and murdered a succession of wives in gruesome fashion. Said backstory is revealed by talking to people and watching cut scenes like in traditional adventure games, but a surprising amount of information can only be uncovered after stumbling upon hundred-year old letters and newspaper articles. Players must not only discover these sources on their own, but can do so at any point in the game. This is what makes adventure games special: whereas books and movies reveal information linearly, adventure games give players the opportunity to digest it at their own pace. It’s as active as exploring a story in the real world, and that’s what gives the medium real potential. Maybe it just took Phantasmagoria to remind me.