Preview - Phantasmagoria (DOS, 1995)

While it would certainly be no great challenge to visit your local software store and find large numbers of games revolving around a science-fiction or fantasy scenario, the computer game world has almost completely ignored the horror genre. That is, until very recently. The success of such creepy products as The 7th Guest and the Alone in the Dark series have gotten other publishers to sit up and take notice. As a result, the next few months will see an unprecedented explosion of frightening titles, including Harvester, Ecstatica, and Sierra's long awaited Phantasmagoria.

Phantasmagoria is the brainchild of Roberta Williams, best known for her extremely popular King's Quest series. Those of you who are familiar with this family-oriented adventure series will probably find it a little difficult to imagine the same mind at work on an adult tale of terror. But Williams and Sierra are very serious about this project.

Williams describes Phantasmagoria as "the most advanced scripting I've ever written for multimedia entertainment and the highest production quality executed by Sierra." This "advanced scripting" involves a 400 page script, more than 100 pages of detailed storyboard and 500 camera angles.

The story involves a young married couple, Don and Adrienne, who come to possess the island home of Carno, the fictional equivalent of Harry Houdini. Despite the seemingly peaceful surroundings, something seems subtly, yet unmistakably wrong. In fact, their presence in the house has awakened a malignant entity that has lain dormant for a century. This evil spirit slowly takes over Don's mind and body.

The player takes the role of Adrienne, and must locate the only living witness to the long-past events that originally unleashed the evil in the house. If Don is ever to return to normal, Adrienne must solve the mysteries and overcome the invading spirit. But even while she investigates this horrific puzzle, she runs the risk of being murdered by her own loving spouse . . .

Interestingly, there seem to be two different metaphors at work in the presentation. Instead of just going until it ends, the story unfolds in novel-like chapters. Williams chose this approach because she believes "that a game should provide players with the same knowledge [as a novel] of just how far they've got and just how far needs to be completed." At the same time, much of the actual technique is very filmic, really trying to achieve all the implications of the oft-used "interactive movie" label.

Sierra has chosen to carry the film metaphor to its furthest extreme. They have constructed a one million dollar studio in Oakhurst, CA (near Yosemite National Park) for filming the 20 live actors. The studio contains state-of-the-art camera, editing and recording equipment, and while it will certainly be used for many future projects, Phantasmagoria is its testing ground. The scenes are recorded against a 50x 50 foot blue screen wall, and then inserted into the exquisitely rendered digital "sets."

To really make an "interactive movie" also meant hiring a director who knows his way around a camera, so Sierra hired Hollywood veteran Peter Maris to oversee the shooting. Maris is the man behind such films as Terror Squad and Diplomatic Immunity. Admittedly, working on a project of this size was a challenge even for him. In his own words, "Filming Phantasmagoria was almost like shooting four movies. The script of this game is four times the size of a 90-minute action movie."

Interestingly, while Phantasmagoria is packed with gorgeous graphics, it will not follow the example of its horror predecessor, The 7th Guest, and allow the camera to move around the sets. Instead, it features a series of static locations that the characters move around. While there is a depth element in the sets, it doesn't change on screen. This technique was chosen to allow for greater ease of gameplay. It's much easier to retrace your steps and find particular items if you don't have to worry about the third dimension.

Phantasmagoria will break, or at least stretch, many of the unspoken conventions of the game industry. For one thing, it's very unusual for the player character to be female. Also, the game interface is especially designed to be easy for beginners to use. With that and the unusual storyline, it seems that Sierra is striving to reach a new audience. This won't be an easy task. CD-ROM drives are certainly not as common as VCR's. However, Sierra is already known for a very high level of game quality, and even if it doesn't have people running out to buy Pentiums, Phantasmagoria is bound to be a success.