Although this is mostly a game review, I’m going to stick a little introduction here at the beginning. I’m Brian Vacek, a guest-contributer for Grump Factory and associate by way of friendship and my own film blog: The Film Walrus. You won’t see any of my film reviews here, although you’ll likely see some cinematic repartee between Tim, John and myself. I’ll be doing the odd game review and other pop culture commentary to help the factory meet its quarterly grump quota. To continue an analogy made in John’s introduction, if Tim is the bad cop and John the good cop, I guess I’m the grim third cop behind the one-way mirror, analyzing the suspect’s expression and hurriedly scratching down some notes.
So what game will I be reviewing as my debut? The 7th Guest. Yup. The one on the PC from 1992. I know some of you know what I’m talking about because more than 2 million people bought the game. Well I just got around to playing it. Don’t ask, but it involves E-bay and my girlfriend.
The 7th Guest is a horror-adventure-puzzle game with ray-traced graphics (!), full-motion video (!!) and CD-ROM format!!! It’s tough to believe, but back in 1993 these were all jaw-dropping developments that had people descending upon game stores in droves. CD-ROM sales tripled due to this popular release, and many credit The 7th Guest for making the CD format a rapidly-accepted computer industry standard.
If you stop and don your historical-context hat (do so now), you can see why fans were so amazed. The game’s rendered 3D imagery supported lighting effects, shadows, texture mapping, reflective mirrors and even some distortion effects like melty ghost-hands pressing out from behind a painting. The puzzles involved tiny animation sequences and the cut-scenes had integrated FMV with actors and a real script. The most amazing thing is that almost all the work (graphics engine, video compression, story, puzzles, modeling, etc.) was done by two men: lead programmer Graeme Divine and art director Rob Landeros.
The plot involves six mysterious guests who all arrive at a haunted mansion owned by former toymaker Henry Stauf (note the “Faust” anagram). Stauf was a killer-turned-toy-design-genius (like any other) whose evil dolls caused a local plague. The tormented madman locked himself in his house, which he architected as the ultimate puzzle playground. As the bevy of disparate guests arrives they learn that their most secret desires will be granted if they can solve the mansion’s enigma. However, only the winner will leave alive and the mysterious 7th guest must first appear.
The game begins as the nameless, imageless protagonist appears in the entrance. The audio has you mumble something along the lines of, “Why am I here? I can remember nothing.” You must explore the house and solve puzzles to progress. Along the way you are treated to unskippable FMV plot excerpts from the fateful night when the original six guests arrived.
The exploration of the house if fairly rapid and arbitrary. You can’t collect items (like, for instance, keys) so doors just won’t open until you’ve done an unrelated puzzle somewhere else in the house. Mostly the point of having one puzzle per room instead of just a menu is to be to show off the graphics and make room for the cut-scenes to be activated.
There were at least two innovations that were pretty good for the era. A map on the main menu thankfully keeps track of which rooms are open and which puzzles have been solved. There’s also a library with a book that provides increasingly useful hints for the puzzles you are working on. A neat touch that many hard puzzle games could benefit from.
The meat and potatoes of the game are the 23 puzzles. Many of these are quite brilliant and have reached near-classic standing, including one where you divide up a cake so that everyone has an equal number of skulls and tombstones (it’s that type of cake) and another where you toggle valves to get blood to flow from a heart. The challenge level varies from ridiculously easy to outrageously hard, and players were expected to put in some real time and effort (even a little math and wordplay) to solve them all.
The creators must have really loved chess, because three chess based puzzles show up in the game: one in which you have switch the positions of 8 bishops, a similar one with about 48 knights and one where you have to place 8 queens on a board without any being able to kill each other. While I liked all three of these brainteasers and found them delightfully challenging, they demonstrate several problems with the game’s puzzles:
1) Lack of integration. Only one of these chess puzzles is even related to a chess board and the chess board is extremely loosely connected to the plot. The other two involve you staring at the ground while the chess pieces rise out of nowhere. The knight puzzle took place on the floor of a bathroom for god’s sake (obligatory cut-scene of naked woman in bathtub included). In general, few of the puzzles have any logical relationship to the game or room they take place in.
2) Lack of originality. The queen puzzle has been around for more than a century while the knight puzzle is a variation on the age-old knight’s tour problem. Several of the puzzles are minor variations on games many puzzle enthusiasts were already aware of. Not a bad thing for newbies or for old fans looking to revisit the classics, but nothing to get excited about or which might spawn imitators of its own.
3) Repetition: Borrowing pieces from chess is not a terrible crime, but three times? This isn’t the only puzzle format that repeats; four other game ideas appear twice with essentially the same rules and/or trick for winning.
Many tiny complaints about the puzzles make me sound like a whiner, but I would argue that they are evidence of a general lack of polish. After every few moves in each puzzle, the controls lock up while you are forced to listen to one of a set of two or three voice clips that make fun of you are spout bad puns. Also slowing down the player are tiny animations that must finish playing out before you can make your next move. GET OVER YOUR GRAPHICS! Advice that many developers could use.
The difficulty curve looks like a sine wave with a high coefficient (wow, that was nerdy) and I’m not sure if I was more frustrated by the very easy ones or the very hard ones. The one that earns my most poisonous venom, is a play-back-the-tune piano “puzzle,” which wasn’t creative even in 1993. I swear that I’ve played this tedious, uninspired minigame about fifteen times before, but rarely did I have to do it for a sequence 18 notes long. Oh, and of course you only progress by one new note per round and you have to restart from 1 if you mess up. Hmmm… I wonder if I’ll just write down the notes as opposed to trying to memorize them. YES I WILL. Oh, and if you really like memorization (read: copying things down on paper), you’ll enjoy sketching a picture of a rather large maze that you’ll find yourself in later.
The games that probably belong in the ring of hell reserved for ludicrously difficult puzzles include one where you compete against an AI to spread a virus and take over your opponent’s cells. The AI is incredibly good, and most players simply bypassed the puzzle (it can be skipped by using the book in the library enough times), but I spent several hours locked in mortal combat and won my last game 25-24. Ugh.
The final puzzle is so confusing that most players, myself included, simply beat it by doing guess and check on the rather small number of available moves. Eventually you’ll solve it, but with no satisfaction. Driven by my compulsive puzzle love, I returned after beating the game and spent about an hour trying to figure out how it was meant to work. I finally did (hint: the rules change every time you play) and for anyone else who figured out the technique and posts it in the comments section, they’ll get a special smiley/surprised face from me.
Some of you who haven’t played The 7th Guest are probably wondering, “Why don’t you just look up the rules in the instruction guide.” Well the game made the “very special” (to put it kindly) decision not to include instructions for any of the games. Part of the challenge was figuring out how to play and what the goal is. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it involves leaps of intuition and sometimes it involves utter nonsense. One stumper involves making a 33 letter sentence with no vowels, but neither the puzzle nor the answer makes much sense.
Not making sense, interestingly, is also the theme of the game’s plot. While ambitious and clever in theory, the result that the player ends up with is a nightmare of non-linear babble. Non-linear, you say? Won’t that be like a retro Eternal Darkness? Couldn’t that be like “Memento” with ghosts? NO. It’s just confusing in this case, hampered by a script that didn’t get entirely filmed, so key scenes are totally missing and the story never really coheres. Many of the scenes we are forced to view are just arbitrarily creepy, as when an evil clown appears or toy soldiers smothers a baby. The FMV footage is hokey and stilted, with acting that is painfully over-the-top and only one mildly interesting character: a magician desperate to learn real magic.
Ultimately, The 7th Guest has aged quite poorly. The once eye-popping visuals now look dated and ugly, especially the ill-considered FMV. The lack of integration between the plot, setting and puzzles is fatally damaging and only a few of the puzzles are memorable enough to keep the gameplay passable. I can’t recommend it as a revisit for others. Some similar games from the same era survive much better today, such as the clumsy horror series Alone in the Dark (1992) (retrospectively more prescient), the adventure game Sam & Max Hit the Road (1993) (whose comedy and creativity defies its age) and the puzzle-adventure Myst (1993) (a far more sophisticated and atmospheric game).
The company that made the 7th Guest, Trilobyte, had all the makings of an on-the-rise win factory. The makers had been inspired by the TV show “Twin Peaks” and were excited to use material based on everything from H.P. Lovecraft to William Gibson. At one time they were offered the rights to make the “Blade Runner” game but turned it down to concentrate on their own material!
This was only the first of a non-stop wrong-decision parade. The sequel, The 11th Hour, was a carbon copy of the same formula, but with more infuriating AI-based puzzles and with a three year release delay. When the game came out in late 1995 it was a total failure, zombie fodder to be shotgunned in the head by the direction horror games had taken in the meantime. It turned out that Alone in the Dark had left the more lasting legacy, and the 1996 release of Resident Evil thoroughly trounced the rotting corpse of 11th Hour.
Art director Rob Landeros made an even costlier blunder when he banked everything ($2 million+) on the popularity of studio-filmed FMV technology (in hindsight, about the equivalent of betting your life-savings that Fraggle Rock would be dictating fashion trends ten years down the road) and created the woefully unsuccessful interactive soft-core porn “psychology game” titled Tender Loving Care.
Lame attempts to revive interest with more 7th Guest sequels just kept hemorrhaging money and failing to excite the public. Within a few years, the founders of Trilobyte had a falling out and the company went bankrupt.
The sad story of Trilobyte is chronicled in a 23-page story available at Gamespot, here. It’s strangely mirrored by Cyan Worlds, the company started by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller. Cyan scored a megahit with Myst in 1993, but the oft-delayed, poorly-received sequel Riven in 1997 easily became one of my least favorite puzzle games of all time. The brothers split ways and the company gradually fell from grace. Much like Trilobyte, Cyan Worlds has yet to escape the shadow of its original hit.