It all began with a single childhood trauma.
At age four, future video game designer Roberta Williams saw the 1959 film Horrors of the Black Museum, a movie about a frustrated writer who hypnotizes his assistant and makes him torture people to provide inspiration for his books. The film was released by Anglo-Amalgamated, the producers of Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom, films so violent that critic David Pirie termed them a “Sadian trilogy” (after the Marquis de Sade, French nobleman, philosopher, and writer whose name gave us the term “sadism”). The movie scared Williams away from the horror genre for a time, but as a teen she ventured back, soaking in movies like Carrie and Halloween.
In 1995, Williams added her own title to the universe of horror: Phantasmagoria. The game was a point and click adventure horror game released for MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows, and the Sega Saturn. The game was developed and published by Sierra On-Line, the company responsible for classic adventure games like King’s Quest and the Leisure Suit Larry series.
In the game, players controlled Adrienne Delaney, a mystery novelist. She had recently moved with her husband to a mansion, previously owned by magician Zoltan “Carno” Carnovasch. This simple premise set the scene for a story of murder, possession, and (perhaps most disturbingly) a rape.
The rape scene made the game particularly controversial, leading some companies to refuse to stock the game after its release. Parents, religious groups and more condemned the scene and one publication went so far as to say that the Phantasmagoria “makes a game of sexual violence.” The game could not be sold at all in Australia after the Office of Film and Literature Classification refused to give it a rating. For her part, Williams defended the game pointing at the games like Doom and others were far more violent, and in those games the protagonist was the perpetrator of the violence. Williams also argued that the scene was essential to advancing the plot, which involved the main character’s husband becoming possessed by the spirit of Carno.
The game was Sadian beyond the rape scene. Its cinematic graphics emphasized the realism of the game’s violence. Special effects helped create graphic and disturbing scenes like a head being split in half by a pendulum blade and a head being burned. These effects were achieved using replicas of the actors’ heads, pumps full of fake blood, a network of strings that allowed them to pull the fake head apart, and other prosthetics that emphasized the grizzly nature of the injuries.
None of this controversy diminished the success of the game (it arguably increased interest). The game won several awards, earned $12 million dollars its opening weekend, helped raise Sierra’s stock prices, and spawned a sequel titled Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh.