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A Brief History of Gaming Sexual Failures part 3

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Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

With the anarchic early days of video games passed the industry was reinvented around a staunchly kid-friendly model. But as the years rolled on and the early generations of gamers came of age less family-friendly elements slowly seeped into video games. While a hearty amount of violence soon became almost compulsory in game development, sex was still firmly off the table.

Phantasmagoria - 1995

Veteran developers Sierra, most well known for their very wholesome adventure games like Kings Quest, decided on a risky venture to test the maturing waters of the gaming demographic with Phantasmagoria. Rather brazenly citing Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe among influences, programmer Roberta Williams cobbled together a traumatic supernatural horror game starring live-action actors.

The proliferation of CD-ROM drives in the home meant combining so-called ‘interactive movies’ with adventure games was now possible at considerable cost. The script for Phantasmagoria ran 550 pages long covering over 800 possible scenes within the interactive narrative. Lead actor Victoria Morsell spent months in front of a blue screen recording every possible reaction her character might require. The game producers even hired a Gregorian choir of 135 people for parts of the soundtrack. This was game creation on an unprecedented level, approaching the budget of a blockbuster film.

That such a lavish production would revolve around a project that had absolutely no intention of being even slightly suitable for children made it even more anomalous. The story would feature graphic, realistic depictions of violence, creepy demon terror, and (almost unbelievably, considering past sins) rape.

The game saw trashy writer Adrienne Delaney holed up in a remote mansion with her husband Donald Gordon. With unavoidable Shining parallels, Adrienne manages to unleash an evil spirit that begins to affect Don’s behaviour. He gets a little crazy, a little violent, and eventually crashes into the bedroom and sexually assaults his wife.

Needless to say this got some people talking. Exactly why the creators decided the best way to approach a touchy subject like sex in this thoroughly puritanical industry was to charge headlong into depravation I couldn’t say; but it certainly broke boundaries and stoked controversy.

Phantasmagoria is one of the earliest agitators for some of the most contentious issues facing the video game industry today; age restriction, self-regulation, and major retailers’ refusal to carry games they consider objectionable.  The game was banned in Australia (who have made quite the prudish name for themselves) but got a pass in Germany (who are traditionally far more concerned with violence than sex). Despite the dust up Phantasmagoria still did boffo numbers for Sierra.

In the end, however, the game caused more damage than it repaired. Its over-the-top acting, silly storyline, and boring gameplay were nowhere near justification for the crude, unnecessary, controversy-courting rape scene. 

Even in its failings the game served as a challenge on two important fronts. It confronted the commercial side of the industry with the idea that a game could be aggressively inappropriate for children without the planet spinning off its axis, and it implored the creative side of the industry to find a way of handling sex, an integral part of human experience, in a meaningful way rather than simply ignoring it.

Next: Fear Effect 2 completely fails to rise to the challenge.


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