A Moment of Terror: Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh

[4 March 2010]

By Rick Dakan

Spoiler Warning: This post gives away a spoiler that’s irrelevant to the story of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh but that is also the game’s most effective moment.

It’s the only time I really remember being scared in a video game. I’ve been startled by demons jumping out of monster closets in Doom 3. I’ve been creeped the hell out by Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I’ve screamed in alarm in Wing Commander while flying through an exploding kilrathi fighter only to slam at full speed into the suddenly revealed side of the freighter that I’m supposed to be escorting. There was that time that I was so angry that I broke my TV. But the only time that I remember being actually, really scared was while playing Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. And now it’s available for cheap and easy download at Good Old Games.

I was living in a tiny, badly lit apartment by the beach (so tiny that when they remodeled the place years later, they turned it into a laundry room). It wasn’t even night-time but rather a hot summer afternoon. I had the blinds drawn though, and the room glowed with that late-day amber light that you usually only find in Southern Gothic horror movies. On my 15 inch monitor, a full motion video horror story was playing out. It included monsters in copier rooms at the office, strained conversations with co-workers, and kinky sex. None of those things were scary at all, and while at the time I thought the actors and writing good enough for the job, this was all low-budget horror flick stuff. The kind of stuff that just doesn’t scare me.

No, the scary parts came from working on the computer. At various points in the game, you in your role as an office worker in his cubicle have to log onto the company system and do some work. The game screen switches from point and click adventure style to a simulation: your computer becomes your character’s computer with e-mail and other office-appropriate functions. Even then it seemed sort of simplified and unwieldy compared to my actual desktop, but it was believable. That believability was key, because it allowed me to suspend that pesky disbelief without even being conscious of it.

The terror came on subtle and simple. Compared to the special effect driven video sequences, I’m sure that it was the cheapest, easiest feature to implement in the game. I didn’t even know for sure what was happening or indeed that anything was happening at all. It was a flickering in the corner of my eye, a movement at the top right of the screen. It made me nervous, but I had my mind on other things (plot things, things I don’t remember at all now). As my disquiet grew, the weirdness couldn’t be ignored. I stopped everything else and just stared at that corner of the screen. I felt self-conscious about it because it might have been nothing at all, just a trick of the afternoon light or a defect in my old monitor. And then it flashed for less than a second, a single word. Maybe it was two. Memory fails me because there would be more of them, but it was something along the lines of “Murder.” It really, actually scared me.

The game had built up to this moment well with my character’s psychological state already seriously in question. Something bad was going on, but I didn’t know what it was. Then, in that moment, that flash of a single word, the game changed my reality. My brain had accepted the game’s computer interface as an analog experience to my own desktop. It was expecting creepy e-mails and weird images in response to mouse clicks. It wasn’t ready for the supposedly stable elements of my user interface to start urging me towards homicide. Ahh, how I treasure that moment.

Now you can have it too, except I’ve ruined it for you. I did put that spoiler warning up top (although I might’ve undersold it). I’m torn about buying A Puzzle of Flesh again. I think that it’s great that it is available, but I’m pretty sure that playing it now would ruin those memories. We’ll see, but if anyone out there does play it now for the first time, I’d love to know if it holds up even a little bit. Anyone else have some outstanding scary moments from video games?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/121737-a-moment-of-terror-phantasmagoria-a-puzzle-of-flesh/