Phantasmagoria was so scary to me as a 12-year-old that I had to seriously consider whether I wanted to write about it here; having to think about it enough to write this brings up some vivid emotional memories of pure horror.
In case you’re not familiar, this horror game for PC came out in 1995, and it came loaded onto seven cds. Even before I started playing, I knew it was serious stuff. My friend and I stayed up into the early morning hours, glued to the desktop monitor, as we pointed-and-clicked our way through an admittedly trite tale of young marrieds moving into an old mansion with a demonic history.
(If you played the game, hit the video below and the music will really take you back. If not, listen to it anyway; among the best game theme songs of all time, no question.)
Phantasmagoria was one of the first games to feature real actors green-screened onto matte backdrops, and as such was more like a real horror movie than an animated video game. We guided heroine Adrienne, in her never-changing salmon-coloured sweater, as she tries desperately to uncover the history of the house’s murderous former owner before her husband becomes irreversibly possessed by his extra-evil spirit. Watching husband Don degenerate from a loving partner to an abusive, terrifying monster (there is a rape scene in this game!) as we progressed through the game’s chapters pulled us in, even as we were dizzy with fear of the next graphic, gruesome scene.
A weird aspect of my relationship with Phantasmagoria is that after completing it, as I looked up 1990s-style “fansites” about the game and replayed favorite chapters, I became more, rather than less affected by it. Once the fascinated infatuation of those two days of seemingly nonstop gameplay receded, I could appreciate more fully the horror of the story and visuals. I had occasional nightmares about it years later, as an adult.
Fast forward to today. I’ve played a few other horror games in the interim; Quake, a couple of Resident Evils, part of one Fatal Frame. Definitely not one of my favorite genres, but one I haven’t totally avoided. It goes without saying that no other games have had even a fraction of the impact of Phantasmagoria.
Today I read this article about the upcoming survival-horror game Outlast. The headline suggests that this game may be in a horror subcategory beyond the likes of Silent Hill and Resident Evil, and may actually prove too scary for most people. The idea is that you spend the game in first-person view in a scary asylum (classic and effective environment) with no weapons and no actions other than running and hiding from hideous monsters. By rejecting the gun-toting empowerment of most horror game protagonists, Outlast may cross over into truly affecting territory, and in doing so will follow in the footsteps of Phantasmagoria’s resourceful but mostly terrorized Adrienne.
Released today for PC and slated for a later PS4 release, Outlast might be too scary for me. When it’s time to decide if I’ll buy it for PS4, I’ll have to seriously consider whether or not I learned my lesson from Phantasmagoria.
Have you ever been scared by a game?