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Phantasmagoria: A Brief Study in Horror

/ Oct 26th, 2012 No Comments


It is Halloween season once more, giving everyone a justifiable excuse to get scared. For gamers this should not at all pose any problem. There are a barrage of games that can help you get your October dose of interactive fright and can help set a ghoulish mood for this spooky time of year. It can be quite a chore to pick out the best games that do this. To help you narrow that search, here is a game that successfully scares the gamer and an explanation of why it is so terrifying to play.

For your consideration is the 1995 game, Phantasmagoria by Sierra games. This point and click adventure game was designed by famed game developer, Roberta Williams: the creator, writer and lead designer for the King’s Quest game series. It marks a departure from her usual family friendly games, instead appealing to more adult audiences. The game was highly controversial when released as it featured many frightening images and disturbing content.

Sounding like the perfect game to play this season so far doesn’t it?

[adsense250itp]In Phantasmagoria you play as Adrienne, a mystery writer, who along with her photographer husband Donald moves into the infamous Carnovasch estate on a small island along the coast of New England. The house is infamous for its previous tenant, Zoltan “Carno” Carnovasch, a magician known not only for his startling magic shows but also for his unsettling life, much of which occurred in his home. This doesn’t seem to affect the couple who are finding no issue with their new home.

You join the couple a few days after they move in and after a foreshadowing nightmare experienced by Adrienne. You are practically in the eye of the storm at that moment. Both Adrienne and her husband are as content and happy as can be. It’s when you explore the house more that the game sends you a clear signal that something is wrong. The look of the house is gaudy and Gothic. Many disturbing possessions once belonging to the previous tenant are on open display. There are even hints that your new home is, not surprisingly, haunted.

Adrienne looks out at her new home

The exploration comes to a head when you discover a secret chapel inside the estate. Inside you discover a box. Adrienne’s curiosity in opening it unleashes something. What exactly it is, the game doesn’t make clear until later on. What is made blatant immediately for the rest of the game is that Adrienne’s husband Don is affected, causing him to grow more unsettled, cruel, violent, and unpredictable. It’s also the instigator of much of the horror that is to come.

A painted glimpse of the evil

After that you are put in the worst position imaginable:  finding a means to rid yourself of the thing you’ve accidentally unleashed. You will have to learn more about the mansion’s history and its former owner for a solution. As you come to discover neither of which is good as both are interconnected with what horror befalls you.

From start to finish this task is accompanied by Gothic imagery, haunting sound effects and chillingly composed music. These are byproducts of the developer’s goal to generate a dark and bleak mood. It makes your adventure more eerie. It makes your explorations of the mansion and its surrounding area filled with uncertainty and dread as the tale progresses.

Shock is the ultimate mood setter in Phantasmagoria and the biggest reason for its controversial nature. As you progress, you’ll bear witness to scenes of murder and sexual content. Such content is deliberately designed to elicit disturbed thoughts and shock. It is a means to remind you of the cruel entity you face, the sordid history of the manor and that you are in the worst place imaginable. Even to this day the kind of shock it can produce is still very effective contributing to the horror of this game and also making its story all the more visceral.

At the entrance to the mansion

Phantasmagoria’s story owes much of its inspiration and style to Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King. Like the stories of said authors, horror is developed slowly rather than relied upon consistently, almost like a steam in a kettle before pouring into the air. When they do happen they are done in a calculated fashion. Most often they happen to provide exposition on the mansion’s terrible history, and to illustrate the terrible predicament you’re in. You’ll find that you often have to earn the right to be scared rather than expect scares to come to you. Given how methodical this game is about this, you may find yourself without being scared directly for a while, butnever fret, your patience is rewarded.

One unique facet of this game is that, for the bulk of it, you cannot die. Well, that is, not until you reach the game’s finale with everything leading up to its huge scary build-up. After that, you are in genuine peril as by the time you do reach the end it’s too late to escape. You have hit a point of no return, which, coincidentally, happens right just after you learn enough about the history of the place you live in to discover how to defeat the evil within it.

This is when the scare factor kicks into high gear. No longer is the game safely scary, you are genuinely in danger. If you do not act quickly or make the right decisions it’s game over. It’s a very tense section of the game constantly requiring quick thinking and fast reactions with the result being a final confrontation with the abomination responsible for your ills. It’s an intense and fast-paced conclusion that runs full speed to the game’s end.

Evil is anything but pretty

Phantasmagoria, though old by the standards of today’s games, is still a wonderful relic of gaming horror. If you can stand some at times bad acting, it’s antiquated looks and relatively easy difficulty it is a solid scare. Should you purchase a copy then know that physical copies of Phantasmagoria have been out of print for years. Remaining copies of it are still sold at fairly inexpensive prices though, primarily through online merchants such as You might be lucky enough to find it at a used book store or independent game seller for a modest price. If you don’t feel like waiting for your game to be delivered or want to save yourself a search, sells the complete unedited version for download at their official website. No matter how you choose to get it, Phantasmagoria is bound to keep you occupied this Halloween season.

And be sure to remember the golden rule when playing horror games: play with the lights off.

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan has been a lover of video games since his father brought home a Windows 95 computer. When he's not doing that he indulges in his other passion: writing. Jonathan holds an AA degree in Journalism from Saddleback College in Southern California.
Jonathan Anson
Jonathan Anson

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