Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh
|Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh|
|Release date(s)||MS-DOS & Microsoft Windows
|Genre(s)||Interactive movie, point-and-click adventure|
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh is also known as Phantasmagoria 2 and released as Phantasmagoria II: Fatal Obsessions in some European countries. It is an interactive movie point-and-click adventure game released in 1996 by Sierra Entertainment. Though technically a sequel to Roberta Williams' 1995 game Phantasmagoria, Puzzle of Flesh shares no connections with its predecessor in plot nor characters, as Sierra initially intended the Phantasmagoria title to be a horror anthology, with each installment of a different story and style. While not a commercial success, A Puzzle of Flesh, like its predecessor Phantasmagoria, is remembered for its controversial violent and sexual content, which led the game to being heavily censored or banned outright in several European and Oceanic countries.
The player controls Curtis Craig, an introverted 26-year-old man who on the surface seems to be living a mundane life while working at a pharmaceutical company. However, the player quickly learns that nothing in this game's environment is what it may appear to be. Curtis regularly has disturbing hallucinations when at his office, seeing flashes of gore or getting odd e-mails (for example, one claims to be from Hell offering him a job as a murderer).
Curtis has been released from a mental institution one year prior to the game's events, and following the onset of his visions he has regular visits with a therapist. His mental health problems largely stem from his childhood traumas: an abusive mother who committed suicide and a father who, before he died in an auto accident, was working on a top secret project at Wyntech, the same company where Curtis is now currently employed. Curtis has repressed most of his childhood memories, and over the course of the game he remembers details that suggest his father was murdered by Wyntech for reasons related to the aforementioned project.
One day an unpleasant and backstabbing coworker, Bob, is found brutally murdered in Curtis' cubicle. Though Bob was generally disliked by the whole office, Curtis had expressed the joking desire to kill him and feels apathy towards Bob's death, which leads Curtis to fear he may have murdered Bob in a psychotic break. This incident impacts the myriad other relationships in the office. While Curtis has dated his commitment-seeking coworker Jocilyn for a significant length of time he also becomes involved with a more adventurous coworker, Therese, who on a first date introduces him to the local S&M fetish scene. Another coworker and best friend, Trevor, is an openly homosexual man, and Curtis himself admits to his therapist that he is attracted to Trevor, acknowledging his own bisexuality.
After Curtis' superior Tom is murdered as well Curtis suspects his boss, Paul Allen Warner (who had threatened Tom during an argument the previous day) to have murdered him and thus possibly Bob. The next day Therese is found murdered after her date with Curtis, placing more suspicion upon him by the police. As the number of deaths and hallucinations keeps increasing Curtis eventually discovers this is all connected to "Threshold," the project his father had worked on with Warner. Decades prior, Wyntech had discovered a rift leading to "Dimension X" in the basement of their building and sought to use it for monetary gain by selling teleportation technology to the United States government, performing experiments first with animal subjects but later using mental patients supplied by the corrupt Dr. Marek, who was employed at the asylum where Curtis was later committed. Desperate for better results, Warner took advantage of Curtis' father bringing the child to work and impetuously used Curtis as a subject - without his father's permission and much to his horror, although Curtis was quickly returned from the rift. The project was eventually shut down when the military showed no interest but recently reactivated when Warner discovered the inhabitants of Dimension X could synthesize any chemical desired at the cost of some components and a couple of "human specimens." Warner planned on sacrificing as many people as necessary in exchange for a highly addictive antidepressant/weight loss drug which would then be released on the market, causing the Earth's population to become reliant on the product and making Wyntech the most powerful corporation on Earth.
As Curtis comes closer to the truth his therapist and Trevor are murdered, causing Curtis to finally confront Warner. Warner, however, is suddenly knocked out by a horrifying humanoid creature that introduces itself as "the Hecatomb," a "manifestation" of the "real" Curtis Craig. The child Curtis that returned from the rift is in fact an alien duplicate while the real Curtis was trapped in Dimension X, experimented upon, hideously mutated, and developed vast psychic powers - and madness - as a result. This real Curtis, acting through the Hecatomb, was responsible for the murders and hallucinations with the purpose of driving the duplicate Curtis insane. This would allow the real Curtis the ability to psychically take over the duplicate's body, regaining the life the duplicate Curtis unintentionally stole. The duplicate Curtis escapes the Hecatomb through the Dimension X portal, mercifully kills the real Curtis, and returns to Earth.
Jocilyn suddenly appears revealing that she knows the truth (somehow - how she came to know it is never explained). However, a message from the inhabitants of Dimension X is heard asking Curtis to return since he doesn't belong on Earth. The player then has the choice between two endings: either Curtis chooses to leave, in which case he spends one last day with Jocilyn before departing or he chooses to remain on Earth. If the player chooses the latter, the ending sequence shows Jocilyn happily talking about everyday life arrangements to a regretful-looking Curtis, who curls up an anxious fist beneath the table. The fist briefly morphs into a grotesque alien shape.
Prior to either ending the scene implies Curtis puts the still-unconscious Warner through the rift. A post-credits scene in Dimension X shows the still-living severed head of Warner suspended by bio-organic matter.
The basic aspects of a point-and-click adventure game are here; as Curtis the player travels to various locations, interact with the often strange and eccentric people in his life, and collects items and solves puzzles.
A Puzzle of Flesh's gameplay features a standard point-and-click interface, played from a third-person perspective: the cursor, when waved over an object or area that can be manipulated, will highlight, and clicking it will initiate a live-action clip that furthers the game along. Inventory is stored along the bottom of the screen and a simple click-and-drag command will cause inventory items to interact with other objects.
Due to the large amount of graphic violence and sexual content, A Puzzle of Flesh came with password-enabled parental controls that thoroughly edited out the game's offensive content.
A Puzzle of Flesh also has a large number of comedic Easter eggs, which the player can achieve on a point system, although, due to some of the complex key commands one must perform to enable them, most of them are impossible to access without outside help. These Easter eggs range from simple sight gags and messages to minigames and hidden videos.
Lorelei Shannon, who had previously served as a writer on the Roberta Williams games King's Quest VII and The Dagger of Amon Ra, was selected to take on the task of writing and designing the sequel to Williams' Phantasmagoria. While the first installment was a supernatural horror in the tradition of The Shining and the works of Stephen King, Shannon redeveloped the series into a more modern, urban setting and utilized a psychological horror approach with science fiction undertones; Shannon has said the game was influenced by such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson, and was influenced visually by Seven. Some reviewers have also noted a slight plot similarity to the film Jacob's Ladder.
While Phantasmagoria was shot with live actors super-imposed in bluescreen backgrounds, A Puzzle of Flesh was filmed entirely on set and on location, not unlike a regular feature film (although the game's final scenes, in the Alien World, were shot on bluescreen). Filming took place in and around Seattle, Washington from February to September 1996. Shot on Digital Betacam, nearly four and a half hours of video was shot, from a script over 200 pages long. The entire budget for A Puzzle of Flesh was roughly around four million dollars.
For a while, Sierra was planning Phantasmagoria 3, and had asked Roberta Williams to return as its lead designer. However, after the commercial disappointment of A Puzzle of Flesh, along with the decline of the point-and-click adventure with interactive movie genres, the project never materialized.
Cast and crew
A Puzzle of Flesh's live action sequences were written by Lorelei Shannon, directed by Andy Hoyos, filmed by cinematographer Matthew Jensen and edited by Wes Plate. The cast was as follows:
- Paul Morgan Stetler - Curtis Craig
- Monique Parent - Jocilyn Rowan
- Ragna Sigrun - Therese Banning
- Warren Burton - Paul Allen Warner
- Michael David Simms - Dr. Terrance Marek
- Regina Byrd Smith - Detective Allie Powell
- Paul Mitri - Trevor Barnes
- Don Berg - Bob Arnold
- Michael Taylor Donovan - Tom Ravell
Additionally, actress V. Joy Lee, who played "Harriet" in the first Phantasmagoria, returns in the sequel as "The Ratwoman", a mental patient. Lorelei Shannon makes two cameos, as a mental patient and a gas masked patron at an S&M club, and director Hoyos makes an appearance as yet another mental patient.
Themes and censorship
Though Phantasmagoria was controversial for its use of graphic violence and a rape scene, in A Puzzle of Flesh sex was considerably more explicit: as sexuality plays a major part in the game's plot, which includes four sex scenes featuring bare breasts, bondage, sadomasochism, public sex and offscreen oral sex. Various death scenes include graphic images of gore, including disembowelment and exsanguination, and A Puzzle of Flesh was also rated harshly for strong language, including two uses of the word "fuck", which in 1996 was a rare occurrence in video games.
One notable aspect of the sexual aspect of the game was the bisexuality of Curtis Craig, making A Puzzle of Flesh one of the few computer games to feature a playable character with such a sexual orientation. One of the characters in the game, Curtis' best friend Trevor, is openly gay, and it is later revealed Curtis harbors feelings for him (all sexual scenes are however reserved for male-female encounters only). Several reviews have praised A Puzzle of Flesh's treatment of a homosexual character (and his relationship with heterosexual characters), portraying him in an earnest and natural way, while most video games at the time still depicted gay characters as over-the-top stereotypes. (see: LGBT characters in video games)
A Puzzle of Flesh received primarily negative reviews from mainstream game reviewers. Most negative criticism was targeted at the clumsy gameplay, short length, linear gameplay and the lack of interactivity caused by the large amount of FMV video footage. Reactions towards the game's plot and cinematic production was mixed, ranging from lukewarm to positive.
GameSpot gave a harsh review, giving A Puzzle of Flesh a 3.7 out of 10 rating, calling it clichéd and absurd, summarizing "As the credits rolled, all I felt was regret - regret that I had spent a good chunk of my life in this ugly world, with annoying, unappealing characters and their silly problems". Game Revolution's review was similar, calling the game "a predictable, dissatisfying mess".
Response within the community was a bit more positive, with likewise criticism pointed at the gameplay and structure, though more praise was given to the game's storyline. The adventure-based gaming site Adventure Gamers gave 'A Puzzle of Flesh' a rating of 2.5 out of 5, finding flaws in both its story and cinematic production, but noting that those looking for light entertainment will have "a hell of a lot of fun". Similar sites, such as Adventure Classic Gaming, called the plot "intriguing and well executed", though its gameplay "falls short to qualify as a mediocre adventure game". Just Adventure was a bit kinder in a way, saying that "it's trashy, it's tacky, it's badly acted, it's badly cast, it's ugly, and it's short. Also, like Phantasmagoria, it's a lot of fun", and "It's a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless", likening it to watching a good B movie.
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