The 7th Guest Retrospective

Halloween Retro Gaming
October 31, 2016
It's funny to think that back in 1993, CDs and disc media was still considered a novelty and an optional luxury in the PC and home console gaming business. Floppy disks and cartridges still dominated in their respective formats, and while CDs held a lot of promise, programmers just couldn't figure out how to use them successfully in a game format that could be accepted by all players. Most CD software of the time were ports of disk and cartridge games with added video and sound features, multimedia "interactive" educational software where you could look up video clips and information on historical events, and games that usually hindered gameplay by showing really badly done movie clips performed by bad actors. 1993 was the year that changed all that, thanks in no small part to Virgin Interactive's The 7th Guest, a game that not only truly showed what CD games could truly do, but also helped boost the sales of CD ROM hardware.

The 7th Guest was quite a revolutionary game for its time. It was the first game to use fully rendered 3D graphics to bring the game's world to life. It further immersed the player by combining live actors with the rendered backgrounds, using the game itself almost as a virtual set. Yes, it's hopelessly dated and primitive today, and the acting in the game is just as awful as a lot of early CD ROM software. But back then, this game blew people's minds. It also got a lot of attention due to its dark horror theme, twisted story line concerning hundreds of children being killed by a mysterious demonic plague, and mind-boggling puzzles that were placed throughout the game. For the first time, here was an interactive movie experience that was truly interactive. It was the first time movie-style production values, gameplay, and immersive story line had been combined in such a complete package. The 7th Guest was truly ahead of its time.

Henry Stauf sees the vision of the doll that kicks off the twisted tale...

The story centers around the twisted tale of Henry Stauf, a lowly con man who was faced with hard times. He wandered from town to town, drifting about and stealing only what he needed to survive, although he was not below killing someone for money. One night while sleeping, he had a vision of a beautiful doll that was so real and so vivid, he felt like he could almost touch it. When he awoke, the vision burned so clearly in his mind that he wanted to actually recreate the doll exactly as it was in his dream. When the doll was completed, he showed it to a local bartender who had a young daughter. The bartender knew his daughter would love the doll, and offered him money and shelter in exchange. As Stauf settled into his new room and fell asleep, another toy appeared to him in a vision, this one of a puzzle game. Once again, the vision was so vivid that Stauf felt compelled to create an exact hand-carved replica. More visions came to him each night, and over time, word spread of Stauf's remarkable creations. Eventually, Henry Stauf the street thief had become famous for his unique toys and puzzles, and he was able to start his own legitimate business, his toys becoming the big sensation of all the children in the town.

Yep, looks like the typical home of a toy maker and friend to children everywhere to me...

At the height of Stauf's success, things started to go wrong. A mysterious illness swept over all the children of the town, and they started to die one-by-one. They all died clutching their precious Stauf toys, refusing to let go. As for Stauf himself, he slowly slipped into madness as his visions and dreams became much more elaborate and twisted. Eventually, his visions told him to build a sprawling gothic mansion for himself. Stauf, as usual, created an exact replica of the house in his dreams. It was no ordinary mansion, as it was filled with giant elaborate puzzles designed by the man himself. Stauf disappeared into his dark house, never to be heard from again, until one day, he unexpectedly sent out invitations to six people in the local area. He invited them to come to his mansion and participate in a "game" where the guests would have to solve various riddles and puzzles found throughout the house. If they succeeded, they would be granted their heart's desire. The guests arrived that night one after another, and included a woman who wished for the good life, an elderly married couple facing financial troubles, an aging alcoholic who longs for the days of her youth, a sour man haunted by the death of his brother, and a washed up magician who wishes to know if real magic exists in the world. There was an unexpected seventh guest that night as well, a young boy named Tad who had snuck into the mansion on a dare by some friends. No one knows what happened that night, since none of the guests ever came out the next day.

This is where you come in. You are a man whom the game's instruction manual describes simply as "Ego". You find yourself inside Stauf's mansion, but have no idea what you are doing here or even who you are. Despite the fact that you have no memories, you seem to find the mansion strangely familiar. As you explore the mansion, you will be forced to relive the night of the ill-fated "dinner party" as ghosts of the doomed guests appear before you, and re-enact the night in question, just as they have been forced to do every night since they entered Stauf's house. You must make your way through the house, solving Stauf's various puzzles and riddles, and ultimately solve the largest riddles - Namely, what happened to everyone that night, and what is your connection to all this?

When this game came out in 1993, I was entirely a console gamer. I was all about Nintendo and Sega, and never really gave much thought as to what was going on in the PC gaming world. That all changed the night I went to a friend's house, and saw him playing this game. The 7th Guest was truly unlike any game available at the time, and for the first time ever, I was jealous of PC gamers. Here was a game that revolved around supernatural horror themes, and had a complex and involving storyline involving murder and sacrifice. Needless to say, stuff like horror, murder, and children dying were not exactly themes I was accustomed to in my console games. The 7th Guest was a pretty ambitious game in that it was one of the first games that was released CD-only, and not only that, it was so large it had to be put on two CDs. It was also the first game I experienced that truly blended gameplay and interactive film so well. Usually, in past CD games of the type, the game itself would stop, and you'd be shown a grainy low-budget movie clip. Here, the actors and the movie sequences themselves were part of the game, so you were never taken out of the action. While it's true a lot of the acting in the game was groaningly awful, the storyline grabbed your attention so that you really didn't care. It was one of the first games I played through because I wanted, no HAD to know how the story ended. Let's just say, I never had that feeling playing Super Mario Bros.

More than the original and dark story, it was the graphics and gameplay that drew me in. The graphics were unlike anything anyone had seen at the time. The programmers completely rendered all of Stauf's mansion, giving the various rooms you explored an eerily life-like quality using computer generated backdrops. There were hundreds of little details, such as individual books on the shelves, and various items scattered about that you would expect to find in the current room you were in. While the gameplay was your standard "point and click" adventure format that had been used for years (you clicked on an item to investigate it, initiate a puzzle, or watch a short cinema clip), the overall design and attention to detail really made everything seem fresh, and made you want to actually explore every nook and cranny of Stauf's house. And then there were the puzzles...Oh dear God, the puzzles. The storyline describes Stauf as creating some fiendishly clever toys and puzzles, and the gameplay certainly lives up to that description with a vengeance. This is one of those games where the optional official strategy guide was almost a necessity if you wanted to see the end, as some of the puzzles the game expected you to solve in order to advance were quite literally maddening. There were a large variety of puzzles as well. Everything from dividing slices of a cake up evenly for a certain number of people, to word puzzles, to sliding tile puzzles, various kinds of mazes, and other forms of tricks. The puzzles never repeated themselves, so you always had something new to challenge you. The way that Stauf himself would verbally taunt you if you were having trouble made it all the more infuriating. Of course, it would also make your victory all the more sweet when you would hear Stauf's anguished cries when you finally succeeded. This was a truly immersive game. The story, the haunted house atmosphere, the fiendishly difficult puzzles and traps that you had to solve...Everything came together.

Looking at the game with 2016 eyes, The 7th Guest has not aged well, although I still hold a lot of respect for it. The design seems rather simplistic now, as it is merely nothing more than a string of mini games and puzzles connected by a gothic story line. The house exists simply to move the story along, and show off the unbelievable graphics for its time. There are no enemies, and never really any threats or danger. You simply move from room to room, looking for things to interact with that will either lead to a cinema to advance the plot, or a new puzzle to test yourself with. That's really all there is to The 7th Guest. At the time, it seemed quite fun and atmospheric, but today, the game seems overly leisurely paced. It certainly doesn't help that the game gives you all the time in the world. You're never really penalized in any way during the game. You have an unlimited amount of time to solve every puzzle, and even if you screw up, you just start over again. For all of its technical wizardry and atmosphere, the game is very simple and basic underneath. I'm not saying it's a bad game at all. Like I said, it was way ahead of its time, and I can still see why it appealed to me and a whole lot of other gamers 23 years ago. Some things are better left off to nostalgia.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't have a legacy! This is a game that is still remembered fondly to this day by most gamers, and can even be downloaded on mobile devices if you're inclined to revisit it. The game even received an official sequel a couple years later, The 11th Hour. I have not played this game, and word from those who have say that it's not as memorable as the first. Supposedly, the game had a very troubled history, and never quite came together behind the scenes like the first game did. The developer behind the two games disbanded after 11th Hour ended up being somewhat of a disappointment to critics and fans, but there have been fan sequels made over the years in the hopes that the franchise will be revived.

Another element of The 7th Guest that will always live on is also the incredible music provided by George Alistair Sanger, also known as "the Fat Man". He was able to mix spooky and atmospheric tunes that fit just about every scene, as well as slip in some memorably bluesy tracks that worked wonderfully with the setting. I remember early copies of the game came with a CD soundtrack. The first time I went to my friend's house and saw the game, he was playing the music on his stereo while he was playing the game. The song featured in the video above, "Skeletons in My Closet" was playing at the time, and I remember just falling in love with the music as much as I did the game.

With all the attention this game got, you would think it would have been ported to the major consoles, especially since CD gaming was starting to catch on, due to the recent launch of the Sega CD at the time. Actually, Nintendo did buy the rights to the 7th Guest, and planned to release it for their CD add on to the SNES that was in the works at the time. However, since the add on never materialized, neither did The 7th Guest. It's kind of funny to think of a company like Nintendo, given their family friendly reputation, buying the rights to a CD game that featured elements of horror, and a story revolving around a madman stealing the souls of children. However, the popular rumor is they mainly wanted it so that Sega could never release it for their add on. There was a port released at the time for the largely forgotten console, the CD-I. But, just like the console itself, it's not really remembered to this day.

Even with its flaws, The 7th Guest remains a true milestone in the world of gaming, and will always be remembered as a true trailblazer in the industry. It showed what cinematic storytelling could truly do to games, and not only revitalized the PC gaming market, but at the time was seen as a glimpse of the future. Even now, it's fondly remembered. Hopefully the long-rumored revival or sequel will one day come. We're long overdue for another visit to Stauf's twisted world.
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