CD-ROM REVIEW : Rocky Digital Picture Show : ‘Phantasmagoria’ Sets New Standards in Size and Gore


Late last year the digital world marveled at the size of the CD-ROM game “Under a Killing Moon,” which was so big and complex, it took up four compact discs.

After that, multiple CD-ROM games became common, but a new title from the Sierra-On-Line company outdistances them all. “Phantasmagoria”--a modern-day, gothic horror, interactive movie--comes packed in a CD-ROM holder that contains seven discs.

Its price tag for development, according to Sierra, was $4 million, an extraordinarily high figure for a game.


Is bigger better? Technologically, in this case, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Plot-wise, it’s unfortunately a no.

First the good news. The money spent on “Phantasmagoria” is certainly evident on the computer screen. The live-action actors wander through numerous settings, all of which were computer generated with, for the most part, a tasteful sense of style and graphic textures.

The game, set in a New England seacoast town, might not have the spectacular stylization of a “Gadget” or “Myst,” but the details of the haunted mansion where most of the action takes place provide an appropriately gloomy backdrop for the action.


The game play is smooth, even on computers that are not state-of-the-art. For some titles among the new crop of high-tech CD-ROM games, you need a Pentium or PowerMac in order to run them at an acceptable speed. But “Phantasmagoria,” which is being released in both DOS/Windows and Macintosh versions (the DOS/Windows version was the one viewed for this review), ran seamlessly on a 433/DX.

The game-play is also blessedly logical. Unlike with “Under the Killing Moon” and other multiple-disc games, you don’t have to constantly switch discs as you enter different settings. “Phantasmagoria” is set up so that each disc is a separate “chapter” of the story. You play each until you have solved all its mysteries, and then simply graduate onto the next.

The point-and-click mechanism for moving the characters around is clean and easy to use.

As long as we’re on the topic of good news, the Carl Orff-like theme music by Mark Seibert, featuring the voices of a large choir, is certainly a step above what is used in most games.


But now about the plot. It’s by Roberta Williams, who also created the highly popular, animated “Kings Quest” CD-ROM games.

The main character in “Phantasmagoria” is Adrienne, a successful mystery novelist who moves with her photographer husband from Boston to an old, rambling, three-story house near the coast. Even though Adrienne and her husband appear to be a happy couple, it seems he has bought the place without her even getting a chance to look at it.

On her first morning in the house, which came equipped with furniture, an extensive library and ever-lit fireplaces, we follow along as she explores the many rooms and uncovers some of their secrets.

It turns out the house was once inhabited by a stage magician who dabbled in the occult. Adrienne at one point inadvertently unleashes an evil spirit that takes control of her husband, turning him into a murderous monster.

“Phantasmagoria” tries hard to use this time-worn story line as a jumping-off point for terror. But the scare scenes are divided into those that are merely boring and others that are repugnant.

The boredom factor may not entirely be the fault of the game’s creators--live-action interactive movies might simply not be a good medium for horrific thrills. Unlike in a regular movie, where scenes unravel without interruption or input from the viewer, an interactive movie’s point-and-click action seems too fragmented to build up much tension. A character suddenly appearing on screen in “Phantasmagoria,” even when brandishing a menacing weapon, doesn’t pack much of a visceral wallop.


Interestingly, a stylized, graphics-intensive game such as “Gadget,” in which you don’t have to wait for characters to move around the screen, is far more successful at creating an unsettling atmosphere.

Worst of all, “Phantasmagoria” attempts to provide terror by including particularly graphic, sadistically violent scenes. I’m normally not repulsed by violence in games--the fighting sequences in “Doom” and “Mortal Kombat,” for example, are so cartoonish that they are not disturbing.

Williams is to be congratulated for making the protagonist of her game a woman (the vast majority of computer games are male dominated), but the violence she allows to be observed by and visited upon Adrienne (including a love-making scene that turns into a brutal sexual assault) are savage in a way that bring about not cathartic horror, but squeamishness and disgust.

One national computer store chain has refused to carry “Phantasmagoria” because of the violence, but that may be going a bit far. It’s far better to notify gamers that this CD-ROM set includes a few adult scenes that are quite possibly offensive.

It’s too bad, then, that these scenes so crucially mar a game that benefits from the contributions of many talented and accomplished people.

“Phantasmagoria” sells for about $60.