Opera Fatal

     from Ruske & Pühretmaier Design und Multimedia

Just playing this game was an entire journey. It's an oldie adventure game made for the Mac OS 7 and Windows 3.x, meaning that no matter how you slice it, it's hard to emulate - it needs an operating system to run, so it has to have a full emulation of the OS instead of just a DOS or Apple shell, but at over two decades old, it's much too ancient for any of the modern compatibility modes or easy-use emulators available on modern platforms to run it. In the end, I had to mount it as a ghost CD drive, install Windows 3.1 on DOSBox, and play it all in one shot since I wouldn't be able to keep that environment running without starting it over next time. (Folks with Macs might have an easier time, since it was originally a Mac game and I understand there might be easier emulators out there. I wish you all luck.)

Anyway, it was a process to get this game to run, but once I did, I was rewarded with a slice of incredibly mid-1990s adventure gaming that will give anyone dedicated enough to get to it flashbacks. The game was originally released in German, but there are also Italian and English versions.

 

This intro splash screen only lasts for a moment, but if you look closely, you can see that the main character is named as "Maestro Angelo", which suggests a connection to the Angel of Music in Leroux's original novel. This is the player character and they're never named during actual play, so if you blinked you'd miss it and play through the whole game as just "the maestro".

 

The art for this introductory sequence is nice and atmospheric, with a slightly unfinished, sketchy concept art kind of a look; the animation is rudimentary, which isn't surprising for a game from 1996. The most jarring thing about it is the pseudo-3D art, which was just beginning to become all the rage; computers weren't rendering 3D art very well yet and programs were just beginning to get good at making it, but the push for realism in games had begun, so a lot of this game suffers from the awkward transitional graphics of wanting to incorporate 3D in the art but not being able to do so without the overall look suffering.

 

The intro sequence is essentially just a quick establishment of the plot: the Ars Musica opera house is supposed to be about to premiere a new production of Beethoven's 1805 opera Fidelio, but someone has stolen the score at the last minute, and apparently no one thought about having backup copies made, because I, the conductor, am absolutely losing our mind over it and need to find it immediately before opening night tomorrow.

The bust of Beethoven on the front of the opera house is a little weird, considering that he only wrote the one opera and it's never been performed here before due to the plot, but maybe they commissioned it to glower down at the patrons for the occasion or something.

 

There's some nice MIDI music in the introduction sequence, and then we're finally here at the first scene, which really makes the "how do we figure out how to do 3D" thing I was talking about come into focus. The room looks like a hotel ballroom that gets rented out for the local comedy club's open mic night rather than a formal opera house foyer; there's obviously a lot of experimentation going on in the visuals here.

The worst part of this game is the interface, which is trying to be unobtrusive and functional and, unfortunately, overshooting and hitting clumsy and frustrating. The cursor is a tiny white dot whenever it's hovering over any area that cannot be interacted with, and turns into an arrow only when in the designated areas that allow a player to move in that direction, which are not always intuitive depending on how many directions a given area might allow movement in; it turns into a hand when over something that can be interacted with, but with a punishingly precise area so that moving the mouse too quickly might make it impossible to tell what you're supposed to click on. This isn't uncommon for adventure games of the time period and would probably be considered part of the challenge of the game, but it's frustrating more often than it manages to feel rewarding.

Another disappointment is the fact that there are very few things in the game that you can interact with or look at that aren't things that you need to use to succeed at the game - which means that a ton of the rooms' backgrounds and items are null zones that you can't click on. All the dead space is just wasted opportunities for the player to be entertained and amused even when they aren't on track to win at the moment, and the fact that there are occasional easter egg items that can be clicked on but no consistency about which means that players just end up confused about which things were actually important to the game and which were for flavor. Along with the fact that many rooms have a musical sting upon entry that then peters out into silence a few seconds later, and the game feels sort of unfinished, as if it were rushed to publication without actually being filled out all the way.

Where this game shines, though, is in the settings menu, weirdly enough:

 

The game's got a cute and easy-to-navigate interface for turning the narrator's voice and transitional music on or off as well as adjusting the volume for whatever sounds are on, and the option to save the game and load previous saves after a break, but those aren't the real showstoppers. The awesome part of this are the four panels to the left - Music Examples, Music Theory, Instruments, and Music History - which are bonus content. They're part of what earns this game its advertisement as educational, and unlike other similar games in the genre, players don't have to unlock the content via play; it's already available the minute you fire it up.

I love each and every one of these. Frankly, I'd love them even if they were in a modern game, so in a game from 1996 I love them and I'm super impressed.

 

The Music Examples area is a library of recordings of the works of famous composers, organized by the musical period to which they belong; each one includes several recordings to choose from with not only a music file to play but also information about the piece and its composer. It's a really nice bonus and almost unheard-of for games in this time period - as long as you had reasonably decent sound on your computer, you had a bunch of free classical music to enjoy at any time.

Then we have the Music History section:

 

This is essentially a free basic music theory textbook, which is fantastic. Each "volume" gives a short, informative overview of music theory concepts for beginners, including terminology and composition, in a nice progressive line of live presentation videos with voiceovers as well as text to read; you could literally use it to teach basic theory. A lot about this game actually lends itself very well to an educational environment. I can't see a lot of players sitting down to read about compositional form in the game instead of investigating the mystery... but the game designers fold everything in, as we'll see in a little while.

Then we have the Instruments!

 

This might be the most impressive part of the whole archival area; the section contains a list of classical instruments, each of which gives the player a rendered 3D image of it, cutting edge for the time, as well as a video of someone actually playing it in a classical setting to give players the idea of what it looks like in use and how it's actually used in orchestral music. There's also a nice little text history and description of each instrument, again with a voiceover for the visually impaired, and a virtual keyboard to allow the player to tool around on the instrument with a pretty decent MIDI facsimile of the instrument's sound.

The Music History section suffers from an unintuitive interface; you have to drag various screens with information down from the top, which was not immediately apparent and wasted some time, but it also provides a nice selection of information about the history of composition, music forms, and famous composers over time.

That's a lot, y'all. You could have sold a CD-ROM with just all that information as an educational aid without any game at all, and plenty of educational companies that printed textbooks and nonfiction actually did. That's a hefty load of excellent extras for a player who is about to embark on a game heavily involving classical music, and even better, we're going to see it all get integrated into various puzzles. The game's strongest point by far is how educational it is and how excellent a job it does of tying the information into the entertainment factor.

And speaking of entertainment, let's get right into it with a creepy note:

 

Well, okay, then, but the big questions raised here are who our thieving Phantom is, and why they've decided to steal the score and set up a giant opera-house-wide scavenger hunt to get it back. Is this someone I've wronged somehow? Did the production of Fidelio cause some kind of problem that I'm not yet aware of? Is the Riddler on the loose?

 

Unfortunately, the game doesn't want to tell me. Not to mention that you haven't left any riddles anywhere yet at the time we see this note on the front box office, asshole, so maybe back off and let me start looking around, okay?

The inventory is actually on the main screen, using the first black lines below the main window, although you can't tell for a while since the first portion of the game involves exploration and it takes a minute before you're able to actually pick anything up. This is very much a traditional adventure game, although it is in first-person instead of having a visible avatar, which was becoming more popular in late 1990s games.

Also unfortunately, the pseudo-3D makes it hard to tell where in the simulated space you are at all times, which in turn makes it hard to figure out which directions you're supposed to go, and the clunky arrow-click interface doesn't help. Another extremely obnoxious quirk of the interface is that when you interact with something that changes the background image - for example, you open a drawer or a cabinet - you have to close it again before you can leave the area, which is not especially intuitive and frequently left me clicking angrily around, not sure for a moment why I couldn't turn around and leave.

The interface is a really weak point, but the riddles are not!

 

That's right, there's one of the game's many riddles... and it's not a riddle at all so much as a little musical theory test. It sets the tone for the vast majority of all the "riddles" in the game, which all involve testing the player's musical knowledge, from very basic ones like this to more complicated or advanced questions about terms or techniques. Some of the answers are scattered around throughout the game - for example, this one is posted on a bulletin board in the same room - but others just require you to know the answer... which works out fine, because if you aren't already a student of music, you have a built-in music theory and history panel that you can access from the Settings menu any time you want to.

 

The screenshot above is a good example of a bunch of things that are not especially great about the graphics. The new and none-too-smooth 3D is in play with the awkward design of the table, there's a whole bunch of dead space on the empty table and walls and unadorned shelf that has very little to interest the player, and with the exception of the image popped out on the left, the few objects you do see are simplistically rendered and mostly non-interactable. The overall effect is sloppy and disappointing, especially when combined with the continuing aggravation of having to put the damn picture away again before being allowed to look or move away from the table. Oh, and you have to click exactly on those little tiny round handles; clicking anywhere on the drawers themselves has no effect.

It is a nice touch that there's a scarf hanging over the back of the chair in this first dressing room, though, which might be a nod to Christine's scarf, rescued from the sea by Raoul in Leroux's novel. This is one of those games where the Phantom story almost certainly has quite a bit of direct influence, but also isn't following the plot directly, so we have to take these moments when we see them.

In the upstairs hallway, there's another nice touch with a sound effect of running feet somewhere behind me when I try to move toward going into the rooms. No mysterious Phantom ever actually appears, because he's too fast for me, but he's apparently very busy because the sound effect goes off pretty much any time venturing into the hall happens after leaving any of the adjacent rooms,.

 

This journal is the focal point of most of the game; whenever you learn the answer to a riddle, you come and inscribe it here in the journal, thus proving you can figure out what the Phantom is up to because of your mad music theory skills. Unfortunately, it's a clunky system; you have to come to the exact room it's in and open it up in a multi-click process, all using the obnoxious interface, and as you explore further and further into the opera house and get better at figuring out creative ways past obstacles, going back to it gets more and more annoying. You also can't take the notes with the riddles on them with you, so you'd better be prepared to remember which number they had on them, because that and the number of asterisks are the only clues you're going to get. (I wrote a lot of things down.)

It's basically the predecessor to the now-familiar hidden-object/adventure genre's journal or notebook interface which the player carries around with them and can access at will, but old and harder to use. So like most of this game, really. It's a snapshot in time.

You might think that seven riddles is not so bad. You might even think that this game will go by quickly. That's because this interface is a lying liar, and there are actually multiple tiers of riddles and answers, and as soon as these first seven are answered, a ghost is going to laugh at you. You can still enjoy the fact that when you put the wrong answer in, though, goofy cartoon failure music plays to mock you.

 

There is a ton of evidence in this game that we keep just barely missing the Phantom. There's a cup of tea so fresh it's still steaming in this office; later we'll run across still-smoking cigarette butts and obviously-hastily abandoned objects, not to mention things like the running feet. This is nice and creepy, although after having finished the game it feels kind of like a fakeout. (Because, here's the spoiler: we will never actually see him.)

This particular office also has another of the game-long conventions, and it's a super weird one. I thought it was some kind of bizarre radio first - it's a tiny grey screen attached to a bunch of unmarked buttons, and fiddling with it just produces static and then lets it go dead again. Little did I know that it was actually some kind of old-timey security camera, and that tiny screen will turn on and show areas in the opera house... but only when you've finished a tier of riddle-solving, which the game valiantly tries to pretend is definitely a coincidence. 

This introduces the game-long question of when the hell we are, because I have no idea what kind of time period we're looking at here. There's a this thing, and later we'll see a tube television set, some pretty advanced-looking security cameras, and a goddamn photocopier; the last one wasn't really available commercially until the 1960s, so it has to be at least that late, but other aspects of the building seem comically old-fashioned, like the ancient boiler and the all-by-hand backstage areas and shops. It's definitely not meant to be futuristic, so we're looking at somewhere between the 1960s and 1990s, and I'm guessing 70s/80s from the aesthetics and technology. But I don't know, because this game won't tell me.

Speaking of things this game won't tell me, why is the Phantom playing "first violine" what he's taunting me with here? Is this orchestral slang I am not aware of? Is he outing himself as a member of the violin section or just trying to annoy us, and why is it a "tragedy" - is he bad at the violin? And why did he spell out "haw haw" like he's at a barn dance? This is not the last time something will make no sense and just have to be glossed past.

 

Yes, I am actually carrying around a mouse, and no, it's not a toy, it's real. I found it running around in a drawer and, for reasons mysterious to me, put it in my pocket. You make weird decisions when you're stressed out about your professional career.

After managing to get the manager's safe open but only taking a single franc out of it, because I am not in this for the money but rather because of my artistic reputation, I figure the thing to do is definitely to go in through the unmarked concrete door with the Do Not Enter sign on it. I was immediately rewarded by a terrifying musical sting alerting me to DANGER... which then did not materialize. Like all the musical stings in this game, it will recur every time you walk into this hallway, and I'll give you another spoiler: there will never be danger in this hallway, of any kind whatsoever. You'll just have to hear the equivalent of someone screaming in MIDI whenever you open the door to pass through on your way to somewhere else until the game is done, because this hallway is the Hallway of Menace.

It definitely looks menacing, all unadorned brick in a long empty hallway with two doors at the end, one of which has bars on it because apparently this opera house doubles as overflow for the Bastille. (No, that's not a clue that we're in France - as far as I can tell, there is no more information about where the game is set than when. Choose your favorite nebulously European city.) I can look through the bars on the door to the scary dark shapes beyond, but not open it, although the suspense of what might be back there is pretty nice.

Next door to it is apparently instrument storage.

 

Ah, yes, I, too, like to store my delicate wooden instruments in a dank basement, propped at artistic angles against various pieces of furniture and unprotected by any sort of case. It keeps them fresh and on their toes.

You can poke at all the instruments to make a single toot or twinge of their sound, which is cute, but there actually isn't much you can do in here; it's an in-game portal to the instrument information panel that you can also find in your Settings menu, though, which is cute. The Music Library, Music History, and Music Theory areas are also represented in-game as bookshelves and areas of the managers' office, and you can click on them to access those parts of the game - not strictly necessary, since you can go in through Settings no matter where you are, but cute, and it helps tie the game's environment to the extras and encourage players to use them.

The music-themed puzzles are really great, which I feel like I might be in danger of saying too often, so I'll try to contain it. Whether it's figuring out how to open a safe by playing notes properly on a staff or learning dynamics notation to get past a door, the game really makes it a critical part of play. There aren't too many "edutainment" games out there that really manage to blend teaching with gameplay well, but this one does.

For example, I love this puzzle:

 

Upon encountering a fuse box, you might notice a picture of a young man on the outside. If you're up on your historical music figures, you might recognize it as a young Mozart; if you're not, you'll get to check out the music history library, because the fuses inside the box have letters on them, and when you assemble them to spell MOZART, you can get the electricity turned back on. Once you do, the nearby radio has power, and turning it on causes it to play some of the famous soprano aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" from Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte, and you get the note above, which requires you to recognize the aria you're hearing, know the plot of the opera, and name the character involved - and if you don't, that's okay, because not only was Mozart's face over there a clue to this puzzle, too, you've got a library of recordings to help you find the piece and all the information you could need about who wrote it and what's happening in the story.

That's just really nice puzzle-craft, y'all, and it's especially nice in a Phantom-themed game to see classical music front and center and integral to the plot. (Of course, Leroux's Erik didn't really care for Mozart much, but like him, the rest of us can't really get away from the dude if we want to talk about popular opera, either.)

The interface continues to let down the puzzles, though. Early on, there are repeated areas where a door is locked and won't allow access to an area. This is pretty normal in adventure games, but what isn't normal is that often you can still get to the room through a second route - for example, climbing up through a hole in the floor from below or discovering a connecting door from a completely different room when the hall door is locked - but the locked door remains locked, so you have to use that circuitous go-around route every single time. This is frustrating when there's a door right fucking there that you could be going through, especially because you could presumably just unlock it from the inside now that you're there. It turns out that in several of these cases, you will be able to unlock those doors later, which means that navigating the opera house gets easier over time; I honestly can't decide if how cool it is that your exploration lets you slowly remove permanent obstacles makes up for how annoying those obstacles being in the way for too long is in the first place.

Reading my notes as I got closer and closer to finishing the seven answers is like rewatching a horror movie when you already know exactly how badly the protagonist's positivity is about to go for them. I was wondering whether I'd get to actually see the Phantom when I finished the seventh one. Oh, me.

I had also forgotten that there's a pizza delivery menu in one room, which definitely makes it likely that the time period is in the 1970s or later.

 

This moment, when the little security viewer thing activated and I saw that I had answered seven questions and managed to light up only ONE out of SIX buttons, was the moment when I knew despair. It's not that the game is too long; it's actually a good length for a solo adventure game, and not really meant to be played in a single sitting the way I did. It was just a little deflating to realize that not only was that not a triumph, it wasn't even close.

As we can see, a pair of ominous double doors in the instrument storage room are showing open on the screen... and they definitely weren't when I went down there before. Another of this game's strengths is the creepiness of the atmosphere; I've definitely played scarier games, but this one makes good use of the limited tools it has, lacking complex music or animation. The sheer blank, silent emptiness of the place gets on the player's nerves after a while, and once every great while there'll be footsteps or a still-warm pipe, just enough to remind you that no matter how alone you feel, you aren't. Things never move onscreen, only when you aren't looking, and the overall effect is definitely eerie.

The double doors lead into what appears to be the orchestra pit, full of music stands and chairs, which is distressing because it's very dark and we get another TERROR STING upon entry that then doesn't appear to have any actual motivator. You can't keep doing that to me, soundtrack!

 

I see someone is just a big jerk, aren't they.

The most important thing about the orchestra pit is that it connects to an under-backstage hallway, which turns out to be on the other side of the barred door that I was afraid of looking through. (No, the barred door will not open for a while and we'll have to climb over fifteen music stands any time we want to come in or out. I said it was obnoxious.) The best part of that is that upon first entering the hallway, we finally get our first glimpse of the Phantom: a shadow on the far wall, wearing what looks like a cloak and a hat, immediately whisking away only a second after entry so that no details are forthcoming. The hat and cloak are reminiscent of both the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, especially since it also made a lot of use of shadows on walls, and the original costuming for the Lloyd Webber musical.

The questions for the music trivia puzzles also get harder as you go along, which both gives a player a nice sense of increasing difficulty as you near the end of the game and a student a feeling that they've mastered easy material and moved on to more difficult.

 

These are definitely some very safe doors to go through, my friends.

Actually, that's the stage elevator, and it's a giant pain in my ass. It doesn't work, the puzzles to get it to work are like sixfold, and it takes so long to fix it that the player ends up just climbing up and down between floors using access ladders and secret tubes and whatnot and by the time it does work, I don't care anymore and would refuse to use it on principle if there were any other way to get to the stage proper at the end of the game.

After learning some about French composer Ravel and trying to follow where the mysterious shadow went, which gives me a very uneasy feeling, it's time for... space?

 

Yes, obviously this is supposed to be props storage, but I need to know which opera is being performed that involves a full-sized flying saucer (which is definitely powered on, by the way; the lights change color and flash if you sit and watch it), because that is an opera I would like to attend. Is the Phantom lurking behind a performance of Blomdahl's Aniara or something? This would be a novel way to work in his interest in forward-thinking musical modes and sciences.

(Not to mention a weird but fun route to go when it comes to why he's ostractized from society. Oh, we've had that one short story, there's A Monster in Paris, but really, writers, the potential for Erik to be a literal alien is just right there.)

 

I am not as sanguine about this giant spider prop. It may or may not be attached to a bell of some kind; it made an incredibly alarming noise when I touched it, so thereafter I didn't touch it anymore and thankfully it wasn't necessary to completing the game.

Okay, now we're going to embark on a quick mystery within a mystery, everyone. Take a look at this note I found haphazardly stuck in the back of the understage area:

It obviously looks like the others, down to the suspicious red smears and droplets and bizarre handwriting, but it's scribbled out and clearly not useful. My question to all of you is: what is this for? Because for the life of me, I have no idea.

The handwriting is a bizarre hodgepodge, but so is the handwriting on every other note (seriously, what was the art department's plan with these? half of them have like five different distinct handwritings for the same letter on the same note). The words are scratched out, but also still mostly readable, except that they're not in English - that looks like scratched-out German, which was the game's original language. We see a scratched-out "frage" at the top, the German word for "question", and a sentence that looks along the lines of "Wie rennt man den..." which would translate roughly to "As one runs..." or "When one runs..." Then we have an arrow pointing to a pair of notes from what looks like the word "mich", meaning "me", and some word below it with eszett below it, so maybe it instead says "ich weiß," which means "I know"? The notes aren't decodable because there's no staff in spite of the treble clef next to them. What about the crossed-out bit - "wie all"? "Wow all"? The number 47 is just as meaningless, as there aren't that many questions even in the game.

I feel like there's a good chance that this is some kind of easter egg from the game's development team, maybe a signature for one of the artists or just something they put in to intentionally harass players trying to figure it out. The only other theory I can think of is that either the game was originally intended to have more notes/questions and some were cut, but the designers left this one in as a sort of homage to what might have been, or the game has more notes/questions in the German version, but they were removed from the English one and this one somehow accidentally stayed in just to cause me heartache.

I also have questions about the red smears on many of the letters. So... is that blood? Is the Phantom bleeding for some reason? Did he get hurt, and if so, how? Pursuing that train of thought made me realize that we literally have no information whatsoever about this dude other than that he stole the opera's score and appears to want to educate me, the dingus maestro who should ideally already know what dynamic markings mean. I'm hours into this game and I don't know why it's even happening - what is the Phantom's motive? Never even mind asking who he is, why is he even doing this? There's no surrounding story to tell me! There are no other people here! I, the maestro, don't even seem to think about it!

As if in answer to my complaints that I don't know anything about our riddle-asking stalker, the game let me into the Phantom's lair after I repaired some busted wiring to get into the sub-basement, and I immediately regret opening my mouth.

 

So, that's super creepy and also sad. Apparently the Phantom is just a squatter who lives in the basement, ekeing out an existence in the dark behind the scenes, with a single mattress and apparently no personal possessions besides a television and a pair of socks. There's another still-smoking cigar here, so whatever else I know, I know the guy smokes like a chimney and probably is not an opera singer himself. Being down here is also terrifying because occasionally I can hear his footsteps - on the ceiling above me, meaning oh dear god I'm in his space and he could come back at any moment. DO NOT WANT.

The truly creepy part isn't the sadness den, though. It's the fact that if you peek at the television, you can see that it's playing silent static toward the bed. This is frankly bad enough, since I've seen movies and I know that means some kind of godforsaken poltergeist activity is probably about to come out of a screen to murder me, but if you try to change the channels, you can actually get a steady picture... of someone's dressing room. There's no one in there right now, but we've finally arrived at the part of the story where the Phantom is clearly stalking Christine and can creepily observe her without her knowledge.

But that brings us to our next big question: where IS Christine?

Seriously. We have not heard a single word about her or anyone else. The main character, searching for the missing score, has not mentioned any performers of any kind, let alone one that might have a connection to the Phantom. Furthermore, where is everyone? The premiere is tomorrow, but the entire place looks like this:

 

You need to throw me a bone, game. Is it 4 am? Is everyone else out on the streets also looking for the missing score? Did the Phantom kidnap everyone and hold them hostage somewhere? Some explanation of why apparently every other living thing except for the mouse I found in the drawer has vanished off the face of the earth would really help here, because I have no idea what's happening in this story. Where is everyone, and where's Christine, and who is Christine, and why is the Phantom stalking her, and why did he steal the score? Was she not cast in Fidelio, or is it that he just doesn't want her showcased in Beethoven?

I guess that is sort of simulating the experience of being the conductor in most adaptations of the Phantom story, a character that has no idea what's going on and is stressed out about it, but I'm not sure if it's the right choice for your average game-player.

 

It turns out that the Phantom's little lair is in the conductor's pit, with a little defunct elevator nearby to help them go up to the orchestra pit. That's an interesting thing to think about, whether or not it indicates that he thinks of himself as the true conductor or maestro of the opera instead of, you know, me, which might explain why he's stolen the music and is taunting me about it. Then again, he doesn't seem to be making any effort to actually become the conductor, just piss the current one off.

Also, that just begs the question... how have I never heard of him before? Or have I, and I just don't know about it because the game didn't give me any information to start with? How am I the conductor of this opera house, but I didn't know there was literally a secret stalker squatting six yards away in the corner of the conductor's pit? How are there all these cameras and surveillance devices around the place that I don't know anything about and have never seen before? Did I fly in today or something, and if so, once again, where the hell is everyone else?

In case things were not yet The Shining-esque enough, I now have to do maintenance on this ancient, creepily grumbling boiler that seems to be the only thing keeping the entire place running. There are already too many long hallways and unnecessary horror stings in this place without also making me literally retread the steps of Jack Torrance, folks. I did fix it by turning the spigots so that the escaping steam plays a major triad, which is just painfully something the Phantom would make someone do to amuse him, though.

 

Welcome to the wig room, which is beyond weird, like it fell out of a different genre of game and they just decided to use it anyway since it was already there. It's by far the most interactive room, allowing you to play with all the wigs, jewelry, and items scattered around on the shelves, although touching them has nothing to do with game progress and is just for entertainment value. The actual puzzle asks what form this piece of music is... and then the wig stands come to life and sing it to give you the audio clue, which is exactly as uncanny valley and out of left field as it looks in the screenshot above. (This is also the only time something blatantly magical happens for the clues and will NOTHING IN THIS GAME EXPLAIN ITSELF?)

In case you were wondering, it's Handel's Messiah and the busts sing the famous Hallelujah chorus, so please take a second to bask in the surreality of a bunch of faceless busts suddenly growing mouths to belt that out and then go quiescent again.

I finally manage to find the "lead dressing room", which is also the one that the Phantom was spying on - so this must be Christine's dressing room, then!

 

Unfortunately, she isn't here, and there still isn't even a hint of her story to be found. There is a little photograph of a brunette person on the mirror which could be an homage to one of the many Christine actresses from other adaptations, especially Mary Philbin from the 1925 film or Sarah Brightman from the Lloyd Webber musical, both of which may have been referenced before, but it's too small and the graphics quality is too poor to be sure.

You might even think that maybe there is no Christine in this game or its version of the story - after all, everything seems to be centered around the theft of the score and the intellectual battle between the Phantom and the opera's maestro. But if that's the case, then why is the Phantom surveilling this room, something the game took pains to let us know? Whose is it and why else would he be watching it? It certainly belongs to a performer, and he's certainly interested enough in them to bother with doing some very shady shit to watch them in their private moments. This game doesn't make ANY SENSE.

I do appreciate the Degas painting on the wall, though - Degas and his paintings of ballerinas often pop up in Phantom-related works, since he was a contemporary of the story and the ballet dancers are characters in the original novel, and it might even be a nod to the 1993 adventure game Return of the Phantom, which came out a few years before this one and featured Degas as an incidental character.

 

I should note here that, weirdly enough, some rooms once in a while do have an ongoing soundtrack; this dressing room is one of them, which again makes it seem like there's something important about this particular place and the absent opera star who normally inhabits it.

I go on to find a note that says that the electricity for the stage lights has been all fucked up for weeks and needs to be fixed, which just offends me. This is my big opening night and the lights don't work? I'm fixing it on principle, even if I didn't have to in order to continue looking for this missing solo copy of the score. This production is in desperate need of a competent technical director, dear lord.

In the upstairs hallway where the doors to the boxes are, there are giant oil painting portraits of famous composers, which is a nice bit of color; only one of them has a clue, but the others continue the theme of educating the player by giving them some historical information about the opera world. They're also hilarious, because clicking on them gives you a brief flash of an animation - Liszt and Haydn wink at you, Mendelssohn makes a kissy face, Handel changes colors and waves, Beethoven grimaces, and Brahms whistles at you. The only two who don't do anything are Bach and Schubert, apparently because they're spoilsports. My favorite might be Debussy:

 

He does look a bit like Spock with that rakish grin and pointy ear, doesn't he? One of the game designers must also have been a sci-fi fan.

All the balcony boxes are open and can be investigated, but sadly they're all dark and empty and there's nothing interesting in them. Except, of course, for one, which is locked. There are no numbers on the boxes, but you gotta assume.

I FINALLY manage to find where I'm supposed to set my little mouse buddy free; I was starting to assume that I was just carrying her around to comfort myself that I wasn't the last living being on the entire planet. But she escapes into a mousehole in the costume shop, and is nice enough to leave behind a clue for me. Thanks, little friend. I'll try not to succumb to the pressure of inhabiting a completely solitary universe in your absence.

 

This is the dining salon for patrons of the opera, which has characteristically less than inspiring art and too much experimentation with 3D styles, and also really continues the feeling of the entire opera house being a post-apocalyptic setting. Doesn't it look like some calamity happened and everyone just disappeared? If the place is open, where are the people who should be here? If it's closed, why did no one clear away the cups and plates, many of which still have food on them? The actual creepiness of the setting is not so much in the elements that the designers intentionally include, like the footsteps and music hits, but rather just in the yawning emptiness of it all. I legitimately got more creeped out the further along we went from just the sheer pressure of it.

I mostly included this screenshot, though, to point out the little picture on the wall. Does that not look like the Phantom, probably from the Lloyd Webber musical's costume design, maybe with Christine or a candle? Again, it's too small to tell and there's no way to increase the image quality, but it feels like it can't be coincidental. The game's designers were absolutely including an homage here.

 

I'd just like to say that the opera house naming its cake varieties after famous opera heroes is delightful, and fully 100% something that every theater I've ever been at would do.

Again, everything here is so weird. The cafe is open, the kitchen is active, and there's semi-fresh food sitting around, drying out on plates, apparently just made in the kitchen. There is no staff of any kind nor any sign of people in the area, but everything is in working order as if they expect to arrive at any moment or were just here a second ago. The plumbing and electricity seem to be broken in every other area, but the performance is supposed to be imminent?

In addition to an active kitchen, we also have Ye Olde Snack Barre:

 

It's more hilarious that this is an accurate representation of the weird shit gets built into opera houses and theaters and then hangs out for decades after it's out of style. I can't argue with it. I have seen this snack bar in the wild.

Do y'all see this one helium balloon, bobbing lonely at the corner table? This is exactly the feeling of everyone on the planet suddenly vanishing that I'm talking about.

 

The next note. I had to have a mouse find an old ticket with this precise seat number from inside a wall and then remove the seat entirely, not to mention navigating maybe the worst directional system in the game so far to get up and down the aisles, to find this one. I'd like to cordially invite you to bite me.

There are times when it is hard to tell if the game glitched and froze or if the interface is just so bad that I can't get it to behave, and that's a really bad thing to deal with in a game. The game actually never did freeze, which is nice - this was a notoriously buggy period for games - but unfortunately that just means we have to look at the UI itself to lay all our frustrated blame.

 

The vending machines don't really help us fix a time period, since they've been around a surprisingly long time, although their design again says early 1980s to me. I do want to note, however, that the Phantom is sabotaging the shit out of these machines, which is just aggravating for the staff. What if I work here, and I just want a Sprite without having to remember which compositional time period saw the rise of bitonality, huh?

I don't have a screenshot of the photocopier, somehow, but it's some kind of steampunk copier - like, it's so old-looking I don't even know about the time period again. I don't really have time to worry about it, because I have to repair the elevator wiring - I'd like to apologize for every time I have ever been annoyed about an elevator being out of service, because it was obnoxious and I had to climb up a terrifying shaft and I have seen that horror movie - and then I finally get to the backstage proper area, instead of the one beneath the stage or above in the audience.

And that's a moment, because as I come down the dark hallway, I hear someone playing the piano... the piano I just walked past around the corner, and know no one was at. It's a deliciously creepy moment, both because it suggests the Phantom is right there around the corner, only yards away, and also because it's almost hopeful, a sign of life when the rest of the game has involved literally no signs of any other human being.

You know what's weird, though, is that the song being played (it's Schumann, by the way) devolves into a discordant, unmelodic version of itself only a few seconds in. It sounds creepy as well, as though the player is intentionally twisting the melody... but then again, it almost sounds like they're actually making mistakes and playing poorly, which is a surprise from a Phantom. This is semi-confirmed by the fact that a later note mentions that I heard the piece being "practiced"; and while it's weird for a Phantom who is a genius composer and singer, it might be less weird out of one who is a stalker hiding in the basement and trying to find a way to fit into or take over a place he isn't familiar with.

Trying to catch the piano-player doesn't work; as soon as I take a few steps in that direction, there's a discordant smash of keys and running footsteps, and by the time I round the corner, the piano is just standing abandoned in the hallway again. The note left on it burns to a crisp after reading, which definitely ramps up the intensity and also is more supernatural than anything else the Phantom has ever done.

Finally, after the fifth set of questions, I have answered everything! Which definitely means everything is done now and I have earned the return of my score, right?

 

Man, you gold-plated douchebag. I don't know why I'm surprised about this, or by the fact that when I finally make it onto the stage, the last place I haven't looked yet, I immediately get dropped through a trap door back down into the Phantom's lair.

At this point, I have no items left except for a giant awl/mallet I found, which I imagine I'm carrying around in a frenzy of adrenaline-induced fear at this point, and I'm about to go through the last unlocked door left in the game, and I realize that I still have no clue what the plot is. I am right there with the character who has no concept of why the Phantom is doing all this and only vague hints due to the dressing room surveillance and weird notes. Who is this and what are they doing? Help.

Only one way to find out. Into the maw I go, only to hilariously discover that what awaited beyond the last door was in fact not a final confrontation but instead a bathroom. I had to instead search the area and recognize that some bricks on the wall were discolored, then break through the wall, and THEN finally find a secret terrifying hidden study inside the opera house walls, which has no lighting and I have to pick through with a flashlight.

 

THIS IS FINE.

The flashlight effect is nice and also pretty modern for the time period; it didn't really become common until the mid 2000s in the hidden-object genre. This only slightly makes up for the fact that the soundtrack has chosen this moment to suddenly kick on and add MOANING and LOUD HEARTBEAT THUMPING to this situation.

As if the creepy writing desk in the blackness wasn't enough, I then discover a WELL INTO BLACKNESS, and literally no premiere is worth this (oh my god, why is there only one copy of the score, there is literally a copy machine IN THE BASEMENT), but this is where the game gives up on realism and suddenly instruments and sheets of music and the faces of composers are flying up out of the well at me like some kind of out-of-control acid trip, and then...

...I wake up. In my bed at home, on the morning of the premiere, with the morning sunlight streaming in.

Yes, this game just pulled the IT WAS ALL A DREAM trope on us.  The score is right there next to me and everything.

 

Oh my GOD. I mean, it explains everything - why there were no other people there, why so many weird puzzles and blocks and broken things were around to conveniently vex me, why the Phantom had no discernible motives and never appeared onscreen and other elements of the story, like any coherent idea of Christine, were absent. It's just a dream, audience! It doesn't HAVE to make sense! It's in someone's subconscious!

On the one hand, that does cover it. On the other, I'm kind of pissed off. This trope is hard to pull off for an audience; they have to want the relief of realizing these things didn't happen more than they want the satisfaction of having been along for the ride, and they have to be glad for a return to the status quo, ideally with an additional benefit of having learned something about the people involved. It almost always works better in longform or serialized stories because of this - it's hard to invest an audience in a status quo if you don't have time to build one - and here, it's especially aggravating because since you are a direct participant in events as a player, the story is telling you none of those struggles mattered or, indeed, even happened.

Obviously, you still get the fun of playing the game in a meta context, and you still get to learn music theory and history you might not otherwise have known, but it's still a narrative move that I don't think works especially well in this context.

No wonder most of the Phantom content was in reference and homage; the game wasn't actually trying to retell the story so much as use its tropes. But it's still got a lot of good points and tries a lot of neat things for its time period, and it was not a bad way to spend a day in screaming frustration!

 

All content © 2007-2020 Anne Myers

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