The concept was very simple: The player controlled their character by clicking on objects or places on the screen that they wished to interact with. Should there be some kind of connection, the story would progress sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. If there was no connection, nothing would happen. Each of these games were essentially tests of intelligence, reasoning, and creative thinking.
As you can see from this list, the point-and-click genre lent itself to multiple genres, from horror to adventure, comedy to fantasy, and more. One of the gem companies that issued forth many of these kinds of games was Sierra Entertainment, the creators of the Space Quest, Gabriel Knight, and Leisure Suit Larry titles, amongst a great many others.
And in , they introduced a supernatural horror title by the name of Phantasmagoria, which our own Daniel Kurland wrote about earlier this year. One of the top selling games of , it generated positive critical response and a fair share of controversy for its use of graphic violence, including a rape scene. CompUSA, one of the largest software retailers at the time, announced before its release that they would refuse to carry the title, although they never gave an official reason why.
A little more than a year later, a sequel would be released that had nothing to do with the first game aside. Much like how John Carpenter envisioned the Halloween series to be an anthology with unique and independent storylines, so too did Sierra see that being the path for Phantasmagoria.
Alas, that sequel did not do nearly as well as its predecessor and the short-lived franchise came to an end. Twenty years ago today, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh was released and I want to take this opportunity to recognize a game that was wildly ahead of its time, one that dealt with themes that popular mediums today are still trying to figure out.
Join me below as we meet protagonist Curtis Craig and follow his journey of pain, repression, guilt, and horror. The story of the game is rather simple. The player controls Curtis Paul Morgan Stetler , who is a young professional that works for Wyntech, a pharmaceutical company.
This is shown later in the game as he becomes involved with Therese, a woman who is involved in the local BDSM community. For example, why does it matter that Trevor is gay or that Therese is into bondage?
If you clicked on the right object or combined the right items in your inventory, a video would play that progressed the story along. These videos were full on cinematic presentations that were filmed in a studio with real actors and real sets.
This was unlike other games that used live actors overtop generated backgrounds, such as The 7th Guest or the first Phantasmagoria. As a result, the game felt far more like we were in control of a movie and it was up to us to figure out the next scene.
As the story unfolded, we find out that Curtis was abused as a child at the hands of his mother, who forced him to dress as a girl and physically assaulted him repeatedly. Players witnessed these flashbacks and had to endure the sight of a young boy being mistreated in horrifying ways. As these memories begin to resurface for Curtis, he begins to experience terrifying hallucinations, ones that infiltrate the world around him and make him question his sanity.
To top it all off, his coworkers are beginning to die in visceral and gruesome ways. While video games have never really hesitated in killing off characters, it was rare at the time to see something so realistic in the medium. Usually we were witness to pixelated characters meeting their demise, not something that would feel perfectly at home in a Clive Barker novel. Yes, the presentation of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh was already something taboo and shocking. But gore is something that the entertainment world was already rather used to.
By , we had films like Cannibal Holocaust, Day of the Dead, Maniac, Suspiria, and countless other horror films that gleefully splashed red across the screen.
Hell, even Robocop had heaps of gore! Rather, it was the serious and unflinching approach to sex and sexuality that set it apart from everything prior. He happily discusses his dating life and his attractions to Curtis, who has no problems or any sense of unease whatsoever. Later on, we find out that Curtis himself has been repressing his own bisexuality and is trying to find ways to come to terms with it and his attraction to Trevor. So now we have a side character that is gay and a main character that is bisexual, the former being, as previously mentioned, revolutionary, while the latter was simply unheard of.
Even today the concept of putting bisexual characters in movies, video games, TV shows, etc…, is treading new ground. This game dared go down that path 20 years ago. Even today, we have a hard time in our society discussing mental health without treating it as something for people to be ashamed of.
In my quest to pay respect and admiration to this game, which I played through multiple times, I managed to get in touch with Paul Morgan Stetler, the actor who played Curtis Craig. When asked about how he came aboard the project, Stetler tells us: I was cast as Curtis very late in the game. From what I can recall, they had already cast an actor from Los Angeles who dropped out at the last minute over a contract dispute. I remember reading opposite Ragna Sigrunardottir, who played Therese, an actor in town I had met once or twice before and it was pretty clear the director and producers liked our chemistry together.
They offered me the role either that same day or the day after and the shoot was scheduled to start a month, or so, later. The following day, a package was delivered to my apartment and in it was the entire script, something like pages!
It was difficult to read because it was formatted in a way that was as much for the game aspect as it was for the story. I liked that Curtis was desperately struggling with his identity and unsure of his own sanity.
I felt like I could get in the mind of somebody like that. An average person put in an extreme situation and trying to do the right thing, even if it leads to grief which, of course, it does in spades. The other thing that surprised me was that Curtis would essentially appear in every single scene of the movie I tended to think of it as a movie and not a game and that it was his journey that players would track from beginning to end.
So the idea of trying to create a complex character an audience could identify and sympathize with made me want to do it. Plus, the fact that it was scheduled to be a six-month SAG shoot which is unheard of in the film world, even for most blockbusters meant that I was essentially going to be paid to act in front of a camera, something I had very little experience doing as a stage actor.
It was like a paid internship. So, I bailed out of the play and said yes. I specifically addressed the way the game tackled BDSM and bisexuality, which I was curious how he approached them and felt they were handled by the writers.
I remember that the writer, Lorelei, was pretty into that culture and her enthusiasm for it was evident in those scenes Curtis had with Therese.
It was kind of a nightmare day of shooting, wearing that thing. It took 4 or 5 stage hands to hoist me up there and attach me to the chains and after minutes of shooting, it became painfully uncomfortable. The actor who played my dad in the flashback scenes was actually married to Ragna Therese at the time and they had a beautiful 4 year old girl. If you recall, during that scene, Curtis has an awful hallucination where the ghost of his dad shows up at the side of the bed and plants a disgusting kiss on him.
So that was a pretty surreal and awkward day doing this racy bondage scene with Ragna while her husband playing my dead father is on set watching. Lot of Oedipal shit going on there. What stood out for Stetler was the dialogue, which he found to be laughable at best, god awful at worst.
My biggest hesitation, to be perfectly honest, was how truly awful the majority of the dialogue was. Totally deserving of parody. While many people might imagine that someone would be thrilled to play a game where they are the main character, Stetler made it clear that he really had no interest in experiencing that for himself. All I see are the mistakes I made. How she kept all of the plot points in her head and all of the different outcomes blew my mind. It was a joy to act those scenes. While it may seem that Stetler has some gripes aimed at the game, he is quick to make it clear that there was a lot of great memories associated with the overall experience.
All in all, it was a great experience. Andy Hoyos, the director, was a blast to work with and the crew were a bunch of young guys fresh out of USC film school whom I imagine are all major Hollywood players now.
I loved working with the other actors Paul Mitri, Monique Parent and Ragna Sigruardottir, I remember we had lots of laughs between takes.