Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh (also known as Phantasmagoria II or simply A Puzzle of Flesh; known overseas as Phantasmagoria II: Fatal Obsessions) is an FMV-based, psychological horror 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 (with the exception of an easter egg), 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 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.

Storyline[edit | edit source]

In the game 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 in Seattle, Washington. However, the player quickly learns that nothing in this game's environment is what it may appear to be.[1]

Curtis has been released from a mental institution one year prior to the game's events, and has regular visits with a therapist. His mental health problems largely stem from having an abusive mother who committed suicide and a father who, before he died, was working on a top secret project at Wyntech, the same company where Curtis is currently employed. Recently Curtis has been seeing and hearing strange things that might be hallucinations or something more horrific.

One day, Bob, an unpleasant and backstabbing coworker is brutally murdered in Curtis' cubicle. Though Bob was generally disliked, Curtis has expressed the desire to kill him, which leads him to suspect that he may have murdered him in a psychotic break.

While Curtis is dating a female office coworker Jocelyn, he also becomes involved with a more liberated woman, Therese who introduces him to the local S&M fetish scene. His best friend Trevor is an openly homosexual man, and Curtis himself admits to his therapist he is likely bisexual, claiming to be attracted to Trevor.

After Curtis' superior Tom is murdered as well; Curtis suspects his boss, Paul Allen Warner (who had threatened Tom the previous day) to have murdered him and possibly Bob as well. As the number of deaths and hallucinations keeps increasing he eventually discovers this is all connected to "Project Threshold", the project his father had worked on. 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, performing experiments using mental patients supplied by the corrupt Dr. Merrick, a doctor at the asylum where Craig was committed. At one point, Warner even used the then pre-pubescent Craig as a subject, without his father's permission. The project was eventually shut down when the military showed no interest but was 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 several people 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 hopelessly addicted on the product and making Wyntech the most powerful corporation on Earth.

When Curtis confronts Warner over this, the latter is suddenly knocked out by a horrifying humanoid creature that introduces itself as a "manifestation" of the real Curtis Craig. It turns out that the Curtis that came out of the rift is in fact an alien duplicate while the real Curtis was trapped on Dimension X and became hideously mutated as a result. The real Curtis was responsible for the murders and hallucinations with the purpose of driving the duplicate Curtis insane so that he could take over his body. The duplicate Curtis escapes the manifestation through the Dimension X portal, kills the real Curtis and returns to Earth. Jocelyn suddenly appears revealing that (somehow) she knows the truth and that she loves him. 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 Jocelyn before departing or he chooses to remain on Earth. If the player chooses the latter, we see Curtis and Jocelyn talking happily in a restaurant while the camera focus on Curtis' hand beneath the table which morphs into a grotesque blob before changing back. A post-credits scene shows the still-living severed head of Warner suspended in the air in Dimension X.

Gameplay[edit | edit source]

The basic aspects of an 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.

Production[edit | edit source]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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 of 1996.[4] Shot on Digital Betacam, nearly four and a half hours of video was shot, from a script over 200 pages long.[2] 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 programmer.[5] However, after the commercial disappointment of A Puzzle of Flesh, along with the decline of the adventure game genre and interactive movies, the project was cancelled.

Cast and crew[edit | edit source]

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:

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[edit | edit source]

Though Phantasmagoria was extremely controversial for its use of graphic violence and a simulated rape scene, A Puzzle of Flesh was considerably more explicit: sexuality plays a major part in the game's plot, which includes four intense sex scenes featuring bare breasts, bondage, sadomasochism, public sex and offscreen oral sex. Various death scenes include graphic images of gore, including disembowelment and blood loss, 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, leading to a thwarted (and long foreshadowed) kiss between the two late in the game (the explicit sexual scenes are 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.[6]

Due to its amount of sex and violence, A Puzzle of Flesh was heavily censored in most European countries and banned in Singapore and Australia, although a re-cut version was eventually made available in the latter.[7] In the United States the game was given a "Mature" rating from the ESRB, and a RSAC Rating Level 4 (of 4) for its sexual content and a Level 3 for its violence and language.[8]

Reception[edit | edit source]

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. A Puzzle of Flesh currently has a MobyGames user rating of 3.5 out of 5.[9]

GameSpot gave a harsh review, giving A Puzzle of Flesh a 3.5 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".[10] Game Revolution's review was similar, calling the game "a predictable, dissatisfying mess".[11]

Response within the adventure game 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".[6] 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".[12] 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.[13]

The game gained a cult following in 2008 thanks in part to a Let's Play series on the game made by internet humorist Noah Antwiler of The Spoony Experiment.[14]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh for Windows - MobyGames. Retrieved on 2008-12-11
  2. 2.0 2.1 Larme, Anthony. 'Lorelei Shannon Interview' August 1997.
  3. Radiobuzz. Lorelei Shannon Interview August 25, 2005.
  4. Larme, Anthony. 'Wes Plate Interview' June 1997.
  5. Bellati, Andy. 'Roberta Williams Interview' November 1997.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Morstabilini, Andrea 'A Puzzle of Flesh' review Adventure Gamers. August 15, 2008.
  7. IMDb: A Puzzle of Flesh: Certification IMDb. Retrieved January 17, 2009.
  8. 'A Puzzle of Flesh' Ratings System December 12, 2008.
  9. 'A Puzzle of Flesh' at MobyGames MobyGames. Accessed January 15, 2009.
  10. Dulin, Ron. 'Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh Review' GameSpot. December 10, 1996.
  11. Licht, Ofer. 'Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh' Game Revolution. December 1996.
  12. Jong, Philip. 'Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh' Adventure Classic Gaming. July 19, 2008.
  13. Review: Phantasmagoria II: A Puzzle of Flesh. Retrieved on 2008-12-11
  14. The Spoony Experiment: Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle Of Flesh review. retrieved 2009-11-08
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