The Stephen King Rejection That Led To A Famous Horror Video Game

Phantasmagoria. It's not just one of the coolest words ever — it's also the name of a 1995 point-and-click horror video game that was the result of a would-be collaboration with famous horror author Stephen King that never came to fruition. Despite King's lack of involvement — and the fact that the game would become the subject of controversy in multiple countries, with some video game sellers refusing to carry it altogether, "Phantasmagoria" still went on to sell over 600,000 copies within its first year of release, making it one of the best selling video games of its time. With this in mind, one can't help wondering why King declined to be a part of what would become a hugely successful game title, and what exactly caused all the controversy? Luckily, we've got the answers.

No King? No problem.

Writer and video game designer Roberta Williams wanted to branch out and avoid being pigeonholed as someone who only made more family-friendly games like the popular "King's Quest" series she'd created, and so she wanted to create a horror game. In her own words, Williams said "I felt I had more to offer than fairy stories. I wanted to explore games with a lot of substance and deep emotions." As Williams was a horror fan who was particularly fond of the movies based off of Stephen King's novels, she repeatedly reached out to the author in hopes of working with him to create her first horror video game, but to no avail. 

In an interview with "PC Gamer," Williams' stated that King probably just had no idea who she and her team were, but that it didn't stop her from pressing forward to create "Phantasmagoria," saying "He didn't know who we were, what we were, so I just went ahead and made my own [horror game], 'Phantasmagoria.' Which actually went well."

Writers having a bad time: a classic horror trope

Even though King ultimately decided not to work with Williams and her team for "Phantasmagoria," she still acknowledges her fellow writer as a source of inspiration for the game — a fact that becomes obvious when you look at the game's plot. It's no secret that King often draws inspiration from his own life and career when creating characters for his stories, with more than a few of them being writers from small New England towns. Just take a look at "The Shining," for instance. In it, the character Jack Torrance is a writer who is gradually driven into a homicidal state of madness thanks to the influence of the ghosts who haunt the Overlook Hotel where he and his family are staying for the winter.

Similarly, the protagonist of "Phantasmagoria" is a writer named Adrienne who moves into a haunted New England mansion with her husband. The mansion's previous owner, Carno, was possessed by a demon who forced him to kill his own wives in particularly gruesome and horrific ways that seem to align with some aspect of their personalities. For instance, the wife who suffers from a drinking problem is murdered with a wine bottle, while the foodie wife is force-fed bloody, uncooked animal entrails until she chokes to death on them. Adrienne witnesses all of these murders through a series of dreamlike visions — hence the name "Phantasmagoria," which means "a sequence of real or imaginary images like those seen in a dream." Meanwhile, Adrienne's once-loving husband has been possessed by the same demon that once inhabited Carno's body, and he becomes increasingly violent, terrorizing Adrienne and other characters in the game as a result of the demonic influence. In addition to all the murdering of innocent women, the game also features the on-screen sexual assault of the woman protagonist at the hands of her possessed husband.

The carnage caused controversy

While this probably isn't particularly alarming or uncommon given today's landscape of violent video games that exist in abundance, things were a bit different back in 1995 when "Phantasmagoria" first hit the market. For one thing, "Phantasmagoria" is an interactive movie, so it looks more like a trippy live-action horror flick than a typical video game because it uses a mixture of real actors and computer generated backgrounds to create its scenes. This means that actual people are seen playing out all of the macabre mayhem found within "Phantasmagoria," which was probably more than a little jarring when compared with other violent video games of the era that probably benefited from being comparatively more cartoonish and likely seen as less disturbing than watching real people pantomime things like rape and murder in what looks like a demented version of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

This combination of live action and graphic violence is likely what led to the now-defunct discount computer retailer CompUSA declining to stock the exceptionally violent PC game upon release, although representatives for the company did not cite the abundance of gore and unprovoked violence against women as the reason for doing so. Despite this apparent snubbing by both Stephen King and America's biggest discount computer retailer at the time, "Phantasmagoria" went on to become a bestseller. Additionally, despite the inclusion of horrific subject matter the game developers of "Phantasmagoria" were considerate enough to include a censoring option within the game, so that gamers who preferred not to witness some of its more gruesome content could still play through the story. Players who chose to play the censored version of the game would still hear the accompanying audio of the more controversial and graphic scenes, but would see a blurred screen instead of some innocent woman being murdered with gardening tools and mulch.

Stephen King + video games = ???

While Ken Williams, husband of "Phantasmagoria" creator Roberta Williams, recently said that King probably regrets his choice not to work with them due to the success and legacy of the game, King and video games don't exactly have the best track record with one another. Both before and after the creation and subsequent success of "Phantasmagoria," there were several attempts to adapt King's work into a digital, playable format, but none have been particularly successful or noteworthy. The most recent of these attempts is the game "Stephen King's F13," which debuted in 2000 and received an IGN score of 2.1 out 10 — making it over 20 years old and a massive disappointment.

Despite the notable lack of good, officially licensed video games based off of King's work, Dave Richard, the creative director of the popular multiplayer horror game "Dead by Daylight," has expressed an interest in righting this wrong, stating that he hopes to collaborate with King by bringing some of the author's monsters and villains into the game. Those of us who rest at the intersection of "gamer" and "massive Stephen King fan" can only hope King will be on board to make this collaboration a reality. Who wouldn't want to chase their terrified friends around as Pennywise or try their hand at surviving a stay in the Overlook Hotel? So much of King's work could easily lend itself to a great survival horror game, it would be a shame to let the opportunity to successfully transform his work into an interactive medium slip through his fingers the way "Phantasmagoria" did.