Saturday, August 28, 2010

Defending the Indefensible

Much tongue-wagging has occurred on the topic of "The Death of the Adventure Game." I'd rather not get into that at the moment, but I have noticed something occurring simultaneously as the genre began withering away in the mid 90s. Throughout the "Golden Age" of the genre (mid 80s to mid 90s) there was a general consensus among fans about the quality of the games coming out from the likes of Sierra and LucasArts. Titles like Kings Quest V and Secret of Monkey Island were almost universal praised and instantly canonized upon release. Even today, those games are still recognized as classics by almost anyone with an interest in the genre.

But this critical consensus began evaporating with the release of a number of games that polarized adventure game fandom. Probably the first to do so was Myst; followed by Phantasmagoria, the second and third Gabriel Knight games, the last two King's Quest entries... and so on. Each of these games has a very strong following. But each has also been reviled for such crimes as "dumbing down" the genre, having ridiculous plots, bad production values, illogical puzzles, being too short, to easy, too hard; the list goes on and on. Even more traditional offerings, such as those from Microïds, have drawn mixed feelings from old school adventure gamers.

Well, parts of it look pretty.

What's all this leading up to, you ask? While preparing for second half of Chrontendo's history of adventure games, I found myself playing, for the first time, the most controversial game the genre has ever produced: Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria. I first recalled hearing of it back in the 90s, when it was known primarily for its violent, sexual content, its breathtakingly realistic digitized graphics, and the fact that it was a harbinger for the forthcoming transition of video games from mere entertainment to art. 15 years later, it has a much different reputation: more of a "what the hell were they thinking?" sort of reputation. One of the charges levied at Phantasmagoria is pandering. Pandering towards to the non-gaming crowd by reducing the number and complexity of puzzles, adding a game-spoiling hint system, and tossing in some cheap skin and gore passed off as "mature" content. Aside from that, the game's poorly acted low-rez FMV scenes appear hilariously dated by today's standards.

Other parts, not so hot.

I was quite surprised, then, to find that I actually liked playing Phantasmagoria. It's certainly not the most sophisticated adventure game Sierra produced. The plot isn't too original: young couple buys old, secluded, mansion; mansion turns out to have a violent and disturbing history; forces of evil return to haunt young couple. (In this case, the previous owner, a magician named Carno, unleashed a demon, got possessed and killed several wives in quick succession. The new owners accidentally free the demon, and the husband gets possessed.) The puzzles are pretty simple and mostly involve finding typical adventure game items such as keys, old books, mysterious broches, etc, and then using them on the corresponding locked doors and secret entrances. You also need to frequently talk to members of the game's relatively small cast in order to advance the story. The game world is quite small and you can breeze through the game pretty quickly if you know what you were doing.

A mysterious sealed up room. Every home should have one.

But still, I found the spooky house setting to be pretty enjoyable, what with all the hidden rooms, underground passages and secret crypts and chapels. The whole tantalizing "locked door" ploy goes way back in video games; we've seen used in every Dragon Quest game so far. However, I think the whole "exploring the house" thing might have some inherent psychological appeal for me. Unusual houses are a recurring element in my dreams, and I often dream that I find hidden, unused or forgotten areas in a house. In a game purportedly aiming for psychological realism, however, it seems a bit absurd. Who would buy and move into a house in which large parts were inaccessible? Didn't they do a walk-through? What about an inspection?

A perfect starter home. Three bedrooms, two baths, and a gigantic auditorium-sized room which we cannot show you because its oversized ornate doors are locked.

Early FMV games tend to be mocked for cheap production values and bad acting, and Phantasmagoria has those in spades. Or at least seemingly cheap production values. An enormous amount of time an money was spent on the game, months of filming were required and professional actors were used. A huge choir was needed to perform the game's opening musical piece, a dramatic "O Fortuna"type piece of music (that video game reviewers like calling a "Gregorian Chant" for some weird reason.) It was Sierra's most expensive game by far, but also its best selling game at that point.

FMV games usually tried to rope in one familiar name or face, and here it's 1960's sex symbol Stella Stevens, playing a bit part as an antique store owner. Most of the other roles are taken by TV and stage actors such as Robert Miano, whose Bronx accent made him well suited for gangster roles, but who sounds a little strange as a 19th century magician. But despite and money and talent funneled into Phantasmagoria, the FMV scenes still look and sound awful, and some really terrible performances drag the whole thing into camp territory. Presumably the blame can be lain at the feet of director Peter Maris, whose filmography consists entirely of Z-grade action and horror movies.

She just witnessed a terrifying vision in a mirror of a woman murdered with a jagged wine glass to the face, yet she seems only slightly concerned.

But the cheesy FMV and over the top performances just add to the game's goofy appeal. Throw in some surprisingly gruesome death sequences, and you've got the video game equivalent of Troll 2, or maybe The Wizard of Gore. If bad acting and laid-back game play were all that was wrong with Phantasmagoria, I'd give it my unqualified recommendation. Though the game falls apart at the very end, with a long FMV chase sequence that requires you to quickly perform a series of actions at key points in the video, with failure resulting in death. A lot of folks hate quick time events and pixel hunting. I don't mind them too much separately, but put them together, add in a small, grainy, dark video image, and you have a recipe for game induced rage. As further proof that one man's treasure is another man's trash, several reviews of the Phantasmagoria pointed out the final chase as the highlight of the game.

What do you do? Use the hammer? The poker? The evil book? You have 1 second to decide.*

Furthermore, it's quite easy to miss many of the FMV scenes. The bloody murder scenes, which are basically Phantasmagoria's money shots, are normally triggered by examining a particular place or object. Sounds simple enough... but, the catch is that Phantasmagoria is spread out across seven CD's: one for each chapter. Each disc can only hold a limited amount of video, which means you have limited opportunities for accessing those FMVs. Checking a mirror on disc five will trigger a cut scene, but checking the same mirror on the other six discs will do nothing. If you accidentally trigger the event that starts chapter six before checking that mirror, then you're SOL (at least as far as I know.) So, it's quite easy to miss much of the game's non-plot essential content.

I can at least console myself with the fact that not everyone in the world hates FMV games across the board. Not that long ago, Sketcz over the HG101 blog posted a lengthy three-part entry on his love of FMV games, which (I assume) is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Still if there are human beings willing to publicly bestow the likes of Sewer Shark with a four star rating, then I'm willing to state that I think Phantasmagoria is pretty decent.

I just bought a house with a functioning electric chair. What could go wrong?

Postscript: Sorry for being away from the blog for a bit, but I've had to take in one of my mother's dogs, since it was not getting along with her other dog. Also: dealing with my mother-in-law's post surgery recovery. She has now temporarily moved in with us, which is going to require some major adjustments on my part. If there is an extended period of silence in the near future, it probably means I've been arrested for murder.

*As a matter of fact, in this particular screenshot you are screwed, since you didn't get the toy snowman (you're also missing the rosary.) You would think that while being attacked by a demon-possessed dude, a blunt object or holy object would be the logical choice. But no... you need to use the snowman on him.


Helm said...

Truth be told a lot of very forward-thinking and interesting adventure games came out in the 1996-2000 period where the genre was traditionally 'dying'. Angel Devoid, Journeyman Project, Azrael's Tear, Alien Logic, Neverhood, Bad Mojo, Realms of the Haunting, so on.

Phantasmagoria might be a bad game in most respects but I don't think the 'whacky fourth wall breaking retro adventure starring Gobblefroth Zapworth' style of graphic point and clicker has aged so much better. People tend to remember shit (and it is shit) like say, Simon the Sorceror fondly, but if they sat to play it now without the benefit of nostalgia they'd see it for the horrid trek through boring dozen of screens' worth of nothing, illogical puzzles and oh, here's a sarcastic joke here and there.

qaylIS aka Nicolas Deußer said...

Hmm, Phantasmagoria sounds like a clusterfuck...back in the day I only heard that it is a bad game, and also censored in my country...or was it another game? I get kinda dizzy when I think about FMV adventures.

And I still believe every married judge which rule "not guilty" for mother-in-law murder =)

GarrettCRW said...

Actually, it's the sequel to Phantasmagoria that has gotten the most hate. Noah Antwiler absolutely destroyed the damn thing with a 20-something part "Let's Play" video.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Phantasmagoria was famously banned in Australia, and seems likely that it could have censored in some countries. In the US, some "family friendly" type stores didn't stock it.

The sequel was designed by a different team, and has somewhat higher production values, such as physical sets, rather than CG backgrounds. Those of you allergic to heavy FMV games are advised to avoid it.

Hopefully, Neverhood will make it into the History of Adventure games, since it's so unique. Depends on whether it runs, and I'm able to get video capture working. Some older Windows games are iffy.

Todesengel said...

If you need help getting Neverhood to run I have a Windows XP patch that I can shoot your way.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Neverhood ended up working just fine in XP, without even having to use the compatibility feature. But thanks for the offer.

Todesengel said...

Awesome, glad to hear it worked fine for you.

Anonymous said...

I share your views on Phantasmagoria, Dr. S. I have not played the game since the 90's, but I do recall that it was strikingly easy for a Sierra game. It's also the only Sierra game I know of that had a built-in hint system, but naturally it was one of the only ones I didn't need a hint to complete.