Nothing says "get hype" like this trailer for Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, a seemingly endless quick-cut montage of deliciously cheesy FMV acting with no context or sense of narrative or character.
Then again, the trailer is pretty great nostalgia fodder—this past weekend while hanging out in New York with some friends (including erstwhile Kotaku columnist Leigh Alexander), we watched this trailer and soon found ourselves sitting back and watching the bulk of a very enjoyable Let's Play video of the game. (Primary takeaway: MAN is there a lot of emailing in this game!)
I thought I'd share the trailer, and see how many of you have fond/frustrated/weird memories of this game. I was also emailing with Leigh, and she wound up writing me a lengthy email about the game that we decided to reprint here.
Take it away, Leigh:
Leigh Alexander writes:
FMV games are all terrible, but I love them. No, hang on, listen.
From some misguided sense that games would be better if they were closer to movies, the FMV era was born. When I say "era", what I mean is "a few years of hanging clunky cursors over green-screeny video stills."
It's like someone said, "let's take a cool grown-up movie, but just make every scene really complicated, so that you have to find five nonsensical objects and screw them all into one another before the movie can continue."
But these games are part of a fascinating and not-entirely useless bit of gaming's history, too. They showed up alongside the mainstreaming of affordable home computers, and clearly the thought was that now that families all over the western world now can play computer games, we ought to smash their expectations of blippy little asteroids and childish Marios by giving them proper adult entertainment.
FMV games thrived on the promise of content that was not for kids. There had always been adult games dating back to the primitive days, like Softporn Adventure, Leather Goddesses of Phobos or Leisure Suit Larry, but these all felt like some programmers' naughty inside-jokes; they didn't seem to take themselves particularly seriously.
This wave was different. Personal computing was maturing, so games needed to mature too? Right, tits on everything. Forbidding, glossy black packaging, raised red text, titillating cover photography, and box print promising shockers — sex, violence and madness, shorthand for adulthood as video games understood it at the time.
Wait — sex, violence and "gritty" mental health themes are still largely the only things commercial video games understand to mean "mature." And revisiting some FMV games lately, I wonder if their clumsy, ridiculous and even occasionally offensive gestures in the direction of maturity might have been more interesting than modern games.
Tender Loving Care is one of the most hilariously bad games I've ever played. A friend promised me that the absurd $8 cost of its recent App Store re-release would be worth it, and it was — the only use of my Apple TV to this day remains broadcasting this game for friends at parties. It features borderline-grotesque multiple choice questions about the player's sexual preferences, and an oddly-used John Hurt striding into frame between chapters to speak directly to you, the player, a disembodied ghost who rifles through the lives of a troubled family.
The premise is this: A marriage has been rocked by the loss of their young daughter in a car accident. Troubled by his wife's ongoing shock, denial and depression, the husband invites a care nurse into their home. Cue disturbing love triangle shot through with codependency, control issues and psychiatric problems. It's creepy and mostly awful, a fascinating relic.
Yet as a concept, learning about a couple's marriage and their sexual identities by reading the files in their psychiatrist's office, or the sprawling diaries of the troubled wife, actually seems unique and ahead of its time even today. Reading an entry about voyeurism while you yourself are playing as a voyeur isn't a meritless juxtaposition. Gone Home will become many players' game of the year in part for how it grokked the appeal of understanding people and interrelationships through voyeuristic snooping.
Sierra's Phantasmagoria 2 is another game that thought quaint, "extreme" images of abusive mental healthcare facilities or BDSM relationships were sensational enough to excite mature players. It worked on me as a young teen who probably ought not to have been playing — I was riveted and sleepless. In my memory the game is the most frightening thing in the world.
As an adult I find it awkward, boring and virtually unplayable. I mean, there is a scene where the protagonist, geeky Curtis Craig, drinks a shot called a "shiny red rubber" and gets his bellybutton pierced on stage to entertain his dominatrix mistress. The game pounds techno music at you. I don't even know how it wants me to feel about any of that.
But as a protagonist, Curtis is actually relatively risky for games. He's struggling to re-integrate himself back into a job and a relationship after a history in and out of mental healthcare facilities. In the game, he visits his doctor regularly, where he shares his experience of abuse by his mother, his curiosity about gender issues, and the confusion he feels regarding sexual feelings toward his male best friend.
Do these themes mean anything when they're mostly paved over with a murder subplot, problematic attitudes to "insanity" (having mental health issues very, very rarely means you're maybe a secret murderer), and culminate in an absurd CGI alien dimension (serious)? Probably not. But someone tried them, and their efforts were met with relatively little fanfare. Audiences didn't like FMV games because they were silly and bad, not because they were phobic about unfamiliar experiences, or that they didn't want to play as a bisexual geek who worked in a cubicle.
You can replay Phantasmagoria 2 via GOG.com, but you probably would rather watch a Let's Play. The awkward transitions (there's a short clip of Curtis walking through a door every time you click on one), the choppy animations, the intrusion of 3D-modeled objects, the green-screeniness and the low resolution all feel like amazing relics.
They feel like art, even, and not in the musty old "are games art" way. These days, the gap between what technology can do and who human beings are forms a fascinating and widely-appealing creative school. A new generation is obsessed with the iconography and tactility of the old-school internet; Emoji, the distinctive and often odd pictures that serve as our "faces" online, just had their own gallery show. The almost-humanity of Twitter bots leads lots of followers to think of them as poets.
The Bear Stearns Bravo project, not-coincidentally co-founded by Twitter poet Horse_ebooks and YouTube artist Pronunciation Book, views FMV games as art, fascinated by their unique, odd production and the strange chasm they illuminate in our experience of games.
Recently, Kirk and I put a Let's Play of Phantsmagoria 2 up on the TV while we were hanging out with friends. It was amazing and very avant garde, we think. You should probably watch some weird and beautiful FMV game trailers today.
Kirk here, again. I like where Leigh is going with this. How's about we turn this comments section into a tribute to the best (and worst) trailers the FMV era had to offer...