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20 Years Later, The Overlooked Genius of ‘Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh’

In the early and mid-90’s, a widely popular and utilized video game format was the point-and-click adventure. 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.

Some of the big titles that came from this era were The 7th Guest, Myst, Loom, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Sam & Max Hit The Road, Sanitarium (a personal favorite), and a swath of others. 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 1995, 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 1995, 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. Seemingly rather shy and withdrawn, Curtis gets along well with most of his coworkers (but not Bob, who we’ll come to later) and presumably is very good at his job, as he gets praise and compliments from his superiors. His best friend Trevor, who is a gay man, works with him and he’s casually seeing another coworker Jocilyn, although it’s clear that she wants more from him and he is hesitant to commit. This is shown later in the game as he becomes involved with Therese, a woman who is involved in the local BDSM community.

Now, some of the details I’ve written in the previous paragraph may seem unnecessary. For example, why does it matter that Trevor is gay or that Therese is into bondage? It’s because both of these are deeply explored themes with the camera refusing to flinch away, regardless of the fact that this was a video game, a platform that had yet to be accepted (I say that loosely) as a medium for both children AND adults. Yes, there were games by then that were “scarier” and “gorier” but they were still aimed at older teens, not adults. Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh didn’t just aim to break that mold, it wanted to shatter it beyond any semblance of repair.

Let’s come back to the game, shall we? As mentioned previously, the game’s mechanics were built around a point-and-click adventure system. 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.

To give an example, Bob, the coworker that Curtis doesn’t get along with, is nailed to a cubicle wall, his lips are stapled shut, and he is then eviscerated with a box cutter. The game doesn’t hesitate in showing the player any of this, although it’s shown in a fractured and fragmented presentation. 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 1996, 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! So the gore wasn’t the real shocker in this game. Rather, it was the serious and unflinching approach to sex and sexuality that set it apart from everything prior.

As mentioned previously, Curtis’ best friend in the game is Trevor, a gay man who adores horror movies (my man!) and has no qualms about his sexuality. He happily discusses his dating life and his attractions to Curtis, who has no problems or any sense of unease whatsoever. If we can be honest with ourselves, I think we can all admit that having an openly gay character in a video game in the mid-90’s was somewhat revolutionary. 99.9% of the time, video game characters didn’t have a sexual preference. They just…existed.

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.

The way Curtis finds himself coming to terms with the recollection of memories around his mother’s abuse as well as his sexuality is by talking with a psychiatrist. Mental illness plays a large role in this game, which was personally important to me as I’ve suffered through my own battles with depression, anxiety, and other pains. Even today, we have a hard time in our society discussing mental health without treating it as something for people to be ashamed of.

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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. I sent over several questions and got back some wonderful information, which I’d like to share with all of you.

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 had just been cast in a play I was excited to do at the Arizona Theatre Company when my agent called about the last minute audition and I almost didn’t go because it would have meant dropping out of the play, but she talked me into going in. 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. I hadn’t read the whole script, just the audition sides and, again, I was reluctant to drop out of the play in Arizona so I told my agent I needed to read the whole script before I made any decisions. The following day, a package was delivered to my apartment and in it was the entire script, something like 350 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. And since I’m not a gamer, I had no idea what half the stuff meant. But I did see that, despite the horror movie elements (which I’ve never been a huge fan of), there was a psychological element that appealed to me. I liked that Curtis was desperately struggling with his identity and unsure of his own sanity. The script reminded me a bit of a 90’s film I always liked called Jacob’s Ladder. 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.

BDSM and bisexuality were still fairly taboo subjects back in the 90’s and the fact that a live action video game, of all things, was willing to explore these themes without judging them or portraying them in a cliched way was a pretty bold move.

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. The one thing I remember was the scene where I’m in some sort of bondage harness and dangling from chains attached to her bedroom ceiling. 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 30-40 minutes of shooting, it became painfully uncomfortable.

And it wasn’t sexy AT ALL. 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.

Like I said, I’m not a gamer (well, I do own a Wii and occasionally play Mario Strikers with my 7 year old) so I had no clue how it would be viewed in that community. My biggest hesitation, to be perfectly honest, was how truly awful the majority of the dialogue was. Having come from a background of doing classic plays written by some of the greatest writers of all time, I remember cringing at Curtis’ lines and thinking to myself, “How can I possibly say these words in a way that sounds natural?” It was by far the most difficult part of the shoot for me

When I found out that someone did a MST3K kind of spoof on the game a number of years ago, making fun of the characters and plot and such, I was thrilled. 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.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m not a gamer…I’ve never actually played the game. That said, I have seen lots of footage and used bits and pieces for my demo reel but that’s about it. Like many actors, I’m not a big fan of watching myself onscreen. All I see are the mistakes I made.

I don’t mean to harp so much on the writing…what Lorelei did on the whole was an absolutely epic undertaking. How she kept all of the plot points in her head and all of the different outcomes blew my mind. And while dialogue wasn’t necessarily her strength, I will say that I thought some of the scenes Curtis had with his Psychologist were extremely well written. 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.

Speaking of “between takes”, I do remember there was an Addams Family Pinball machine in the green room of the studio we were working in and there was a TON of downtime as the crew would set up for the next shot. By the time the shoot was over, I think the entire crew collectively dumped nearly $1000 in that machine. I can honestly say that, while it’s true I’m not a gamer, I was for a very short while a true “pinball wizard”.

Revisiting the game for the first time in well over a decade made me realize that it’s not flawless, by any stretch of the imagination. Still, it’s a tightly contained thriller that has tons to offer any fan of puzzle games that are laden with horror. Looking back on it with today’s eyes, I still find myself shocked with Sierra releasing such a progressive game. I can only hope that game developers will look back upon Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh and find the inspiration to take more risks with games, to challenge our views, ideals, and beliefs with seriousness and commitment.

Twenty years ago, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh hit shelves. The issues that it brought up and tackled are still ones we are fighting to this day with no definitive end in sight. For that alone, I regard it as one of the most important games ever released.

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7 Comments
  • KSE1977

    Awesome story on a game that I enjoyed. I must admit I had forgotten some of the subtext and elements introduced. I should revisit it if it is on GOG.

    • It certainly is! You can actually get both games for something like $13. I didn’t put that in the post because I didn’t want people to think it was a paid promotion or sponsored or anything like that.

      • KSE1977

        Meh, the games are worth that price and you are clear that they are dated. I am going to pick it up today. Thanks for the awesome retrospective!

  • olivececile

    I can’t believe anyone remembers this game. I had forgotten most of the plot, but the ending stuck with me. Existential horror that really spun me as a probably-too-young-for-this-game preteen.

  • Tim Nuttall

    Just started playing….Curtis just tried to get his pet rat to retrieve his wallet from under the sofa, instead of just moving the sofa like a normal human being, then wonders why it can’t follow instructions like some kind of super rat. The FMV makes this video game logic seem all the more silly. In short, I already love it.

  • sudo apt-get gud

    I heard that, Curtis!

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