When picking something to write about and feature for the RetroGameGeeks Game Of The Month part of the website an awful lot of discussion usually ensues between the staff. With each member having specific tendencies regarding companies such as Sega, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft it’s often quite difficult to narrow the choice down to a specific game. Multi-format games often come along that help reduce the amount of cake thrown around the room as discussions intensify, #Cakewaste, and every so often a title is mentioned that sort of gives everyone that forehead slap moment. With the internet being more and more focused on fashions or trends it’s natural to allow yourself to fall into that trap of mundane thought for no other reasons than a lot of the heavily spoken about games are spoken about for very good reasons… I.e, they are awesome!
At RGG however we like to focus on things that have their hands in numerous pies when it comes to our monthly feature. From games launched in the month in question, titles celebrating specific anniversaries and video games that often get overlooked it’s nice to pick something to write about who’s background is way more than just whether or not it was great to play.
If there’s one thing about the games industry that is fundamentally true it’s how it has been built on the back of creative people and risk takers pushing the envelope. One could easily point to key moments where this would absolutely be a correct assumption or statement, for example the 1970’s where Atari helped start the ball rolling with it’s aggressive and exceptionally risky belief that people wanted interchangeable game cartridges for systems in their own home, regardless of the initial expense. Nintendo fans can highlight how their company were also taking enormous risks by self launching the Nintendo Entertainment System in a market place completely flattened by Atari’s demise during the mid 1980’s by essentially placing their faith in how consumers loved toys, especially robots… thanks ROB!
The systems we have now, the games we get to interact with today all trace whatever points of excellence backwards, innovation and evolution are the words of now, however at one point in time revolution was what people strove to achieve. With the concepts of creativity, innovation, revolution and excellence and with the month of October here with it’s popular event of Halloween and it’s associated horror themes this month’s choice was clear. Without any further ado it’s time to pull up a chair, light a nice warm fire, grab your beverage of choice and drift back to the magical period of the early 1990’s and check into our memory hotel, after all we love having guests… and you’re number 7. Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys & Girls and everyone who loves dark nights and candy it’s time to wake up in a mansion, it’s time for The 7th Guest!
Initially a PC game, The 7th Guest was the culmination of a concept by Rob Landeros and Graeme Devine. Rob was a game designer and graphic artist and Graeme was a programmer who worked at Virgin Mastertronic. After presenting their idea to the bigwigs at the company they were effectively let go from the company in order to allow them to create, with Virgin’s financial help, their own self contained studio that would be come to be known as Trilobyte. Virgin were so impressed by the initial idea that they were positive about the project’s success, however with an already emerging and growing company profile of excellence they were now completely convinced to publish it internally. By allowing Rob and Graeme to create their own development studio any negative press or failure could easily be directly avoided. It was a strange set of circumstances to be sure however as history has shown, it turned out to be a master stroke of genius.
Behind the idea of The 7th guest is essentially a combination of the classic board game, Clue, mystery novels, horror themes and the promise of emerging technologies in the video game industry of the time. From the 1970’s through the early portion of the 1990’s games were mostly created and sold on systems that took cartridges, cassettes or floppy discs of some shape and size. At the turn of the decade both consumers and game designers craved more, people wanted bigger and more graphically impressive worlds to lose themselves in and game designers wanted to be the first, or among the first to deliver that with completely new and innovative systems Whilst gaming consoles were very much the global king, computers were starting to make a comeback due to the notion that adding additions to them was easier and more cost effective than just releasing a new system ever few years. Formats such as the Amiga had proved hugely popular in regions such as Europe and the PC was very much back in the public conciousness as a truly serious platform to play video games on.
As much as phrases like ‘Download’ and ‘Season Passes’ are now very much the buzz-words of now, in the early 1990’s the hype train was firmly centred around the promise of a huge technology leap forward thanks to the advent of the CD-ROM. Whilst cartridges could hold decent amounts of data with near immediate loading times and disks were cheap to produce and allowed larger games to be split up into multiple individual diskettes the hardware technology of the era was absolutely limited by it’s storage media. The Compact Disc however completely re-wrote all the rules and both allowed for then vastly cheaper than cartridge manufacturing and hugely larger than floppy disc data allowance, the CD-ROM format was the future.
Rob and Graeme knew this having already helped create other projects and so the initial pitch to Virgin was to create a game that allowed them to do what no other game in it’s genre could not. This new title would allow gamers to absolutely become immersed into it’s world in ways that would not only impress but change how presentation aspects and gameplay would occur. The first design aspect was to use actual video footage recorded on a real life set of an actual mansion due to the sheer amount of data a single CD-ROM could hold. Unfortunately however the filming process and associated costs of this method were deemed far too costly and so in 1991 Robert Stein III joined the newly formed company and a new method became the game’s final design choice. With graphics technology now zooming ahead on the Personal Computer format and with the use of the CD-ROM media 3D pre-rendered graphic backdrops would be used to bring the games locations to life.
Wanting to still make use of the video aspect Trilobyte centred character models and interactions around the use of full motion video using real life actors. This video would then be played over the top of the pre-rendered graphics to create a more immerse and impressive visual experience. The CD-ROM format would also allow for super high quality stereo sound for both music and sound effects. Up until this point CD-ROM technology was still very new, not even remotely embedded into gaming culture on a global scale, expensive and effectively unproven commercially. Everything about this new game was both ambitious to the extreme and financially risky. Would it work? Would gamers react well to the look and gameplay feel of a game that combined storytelling with puzzles all moving at a slower pace with a focus on the cerebral? Short answer… yes, but more on that later.
The story of The 7th Guest begins with an FMV (Full Motion Video) intro that sets up the backdrop to the adventure you are about to embark on. In 1935, in a small town known as Harley-on-the-Hudson, a drifter, named Henry Stauf, kills a woman in order to obtain her purse which sets in motion a series of deplorable acts. One night he has a vision of a doll that upon waking he begins to carve and later trades at a local establishment for food, drink and a place to stay. He continues to have numerous visions, each time showing him more and more wonderful objects that upon returning to conciousness he sculpts and each one sells to more people. Over a short period of time he becomes very successful with this enterprise, especially with creating toys for children and he finds financial security of exceptional means.
With his amassed fortune Henry builds a large mansion on the edge of town and during this time several children in the area who have each been presented with one of his toys, become very ill and pass away. Henry Stauf then retreats to his mansion and removes himself from the public completely.
Your adventure then begins with you waking in the main hall of the Stauf mansion with no memory of why you are there or indeed how you came to be there in the first place. Your name is Ego and you are aware that there is a very clear reason for you being in this house although for this precise moment it escapes you. As you move around the mansion you come to experience visions of events that happened at an unspecified time after the events of the towns dead children. These visions manifest in ghostly apparitions of 6 guests who were invited to stay in the Stauf Mansion. You, as the player, see these instances played out as you move around the property and interact with objects and puzzles. The purpose of the game is to solve the whereabouts of these guests, the reasons why the children passed away and the circumstances involving a boy named Tad. Tad previously entered the mansion on a dare from other children who had come to fear the Stauf Mansion, to the point where a nursery rhyme of sorts was created to warm them away from the area.
A superb mixture of mystery, suspense, scares and shock, The 7th Guest spins a wonderful tale that for it’s time took horror games to a completely new level of interaction and immersion. It’s core mechanic is that of a puzzle game and it requires you, as the player, to discover these tasks, figure out how they connected to the mansions original 6 guests and decipher their solutions now in order to progress. Gameplay consists of moving the mouse (original PC version) around the static screen to highlight objects and areas to either interact with or to move to. Fans of games like Myst or Riven will be right at home here as those games also used a similar control mechanic.
After selecting something to see or move to the screen will move to show you walking to that area or the results of you touching the object, everything is played out in a first person POV (Point Of View) perspective. Thanks to the CD-ROM technology this loads quickly and also allows the game world to be large in scope. Initially the mansion feels very small, almost claustrophobic in nature, and with the game’s outstanding use of shadows and colour everything feels suitably eerie. It is almost immediately obvious that terrible events have occurred here and with the mansion being completely deserted at the time of your entry into it’s interior the feeling of danger and isolation is quite intense, to the point of overwhelming. Gameplay is very slow moving which also adds to the tension although for some this could also be seen as frustrating as none of the movement or interaction sequences can be skipped, turn the wrong way, repeat an action and you will have to see it all move or react in the same way again. For those with a deeper appreciation for how old games worked due to limitations of the era this won’t factor in however and will merely add to the core feeling of cautiously moving around a scary building.
The meat of the players experience with it’s world revolves around solving puzzles, these are almost always visual and cerebral in nature that involve you selecting things to move to form a sequence or create a pattern etc. In the early 1990’s when this game was conceived they were quite difficult at times to solve, fast forward to now where modern gamers are used to everything being done for them and this will stop most in their tracks. The 7th Guest is not an easy game to beat… correctly! For those who seek to see the story through to it’s conclusion the designers included a quite brilliant aspect to the proceedings. Should you come across a puzzle that’s just too tricky you can visit the mansions library and read a book that will give you a hint to it’s solving. Read the same book more than twice and the puzzle will solve itself allowing further progress. This may seem silly to some but it’s merely an indicator from the games designers that they knew this was hard and in a world before the internet and walkthrough videos some gamers may need a helping hand. At RGG we would go one step further by saying that it was a genius move to ensure future generations would never have a ‘brick wall’ placed in front of them that would stop them experiencing the story.
For those wondering if this game moves too slowly or has no real impact moments it’s here that we direct you to another star of the show, the FMV sequences. Anyone who even has the remotest memory of the early 1990’s will remember how at one point in time almost every game had some form of full motion video aspect to it. I can clarify this statement by the fact that early Electronic Arts games on the Mega-CD had video of the sports you were about to play in their intro sequences. FMV was very much an ‘in’ thing of the era. Fast forward to now and a whole host of Youtubers, Podcasters, Writers and other associated people not aware enough of how things work/evolve will tell you that it was all rubbish, those people are wrong, FMV was cool as hell then and still has solid foundations today. One could argue, successfully, that FMV lead to animated game intros that exploded during the 32-Bit era and still exist today.
In The 7th Guest the Full Motion Video is used to show the 6 guests previously invited to the mansion and to convey their personalities and actions in ways that simple written dialogue could never do, it also allows for genuine moments of laugh out loud entertainment. In true early 90’s manner the acting on display is just atrocious with character traits exaggerated way past the point of normality. Think of the best B-Movie you have ever seen then double it and multiply by any instalment in the ‘Sharknado’ series of films and you are about halfway there. For some this will be too cheesy but for those who genuinely appreciate the importance of using real life actors in games and the FMV technology this will make you smile from ear to ear. It’s absolutely correct to state that The 7th Guest could never be done in any other way and after seeing it in action you wouldn’t even want them to try. It works, it just works! With the visual graphics clarity and the use of FMV this game also benefits from some pretty cool music and sound effects. The 7th Guest is so large that it doesn't just fill up one CD-ROM, it fills up two!
Released initially for the PC DOS format in 1993 The 7th Guest also holds the honour of being among the first wave of games to be exclusively released on CD-ROM format only. Virgin Mastertronic who went on to publish the game did ask for a floppy disc version, however this was rendered completely impractical and financially non-viable during the games development period. Later in the same year the game would also be released for the Phillips CD-I format which was positioned as being the dawn of the changeover from cartridge based home console games to the CD-ROM format. A flagship title for the machine it would impress anyone in a shop looking at it however due to the costs of the machine it would fail to help push the title or the format. Thankfully PC owners flocked to it in their droves.
The 7th Guest initially sold more than 450,000 copies in it’s first year on sale which helped make Trilobyte and Virgin over $15 million Dollars. With this reception and these numbers of sales it both drove the sale of the CD-ROM technology and also convinced other developers and publishers to sit up and take real notice of the format. The 7th Guest is rightly considered as one of the key factors as to the emergence, success and adoption of the CD-ROM format. This is not just a great game to play, it’s historically important… and that matters. Later versions for MAC OS and Windows PC would see overall sales of this game surpass 2 million copies by the year 2000. Myst, which many cite as being the benchmark of this style of game was both released after this game and sold less at time of original release.
In 1995 the sequel to The 7th Guest, called The 11th Hour, was released by Trilobyte however this failed to live up to expectations both critically and financially and it’s here where the franchise came to an effective end. Trilobyte began work on more sequels however the company folded and these never materialised, a shame for sure. Planned ports of The 7th guest and The 11th Hour were mooted for systems such as the 3DO but also never came to fruition. For a while The 7th guest entered into history and was often completely overlooked when people talked about adventure games until 2010 when people could suddenly fall back in love with the game or experience it for the first time on their mobile phone. The iOS version was a superb achievement that really jumped out at you from the small screen, later years would also a Linux and Android release.
When you look back to the 1990’s it’s often hard to look past the golden era console war between Sega and Nintendo. The systems and games from those companies dominated the news, the school playgrounds and drove retail sales, but is that it? Is that where we always have to train our focus as gaming historians? If so then the sheer number of classic games that would be lost to time would be enough to put anyone to shame. The 1990’s was more than Mario and Sonic, it was so much more. Those character based franchises may have brought millions more into the scene but games like 7th Guest are what drove every other important aspect of gaming forward. Without it so many things of now would have either never come to pass or taken years longer. An example of this was in how long it took people like Nintendo to even consider CD-ROM as the main media format for their machines, hell even now, in 2018, their current systems have gone back to cartridge!
From our perspective the choice of The 7th Guest as the October 2018 Game Of the Month speaks for itself and should need no more explanation or validation but in order to finish the article off here’s why it’s here. Innovation, creativity and risk taking built this industry. Sales drive business but nothing can exist without creation. The 7th Guest took storytelling in new directions, expanded on already existing practices, effectively sold a brand new and expensive technology to people without an existing reason to put their hands in their pockets and delivered a game that due to it’s pacing perfectly stands the test of time. More than 25 years after it’s first release this game still retains a huge amount of it’s charm for both older fans and people new to it’s charms. Is it perfect? Nope, is it the best game in it’s genre? Nope, does it have to be either to be important or fun to play… hell no!
This Halloween why not turn the lights off, load up your PC, turn the sound right up and see what walking around a creepy mansion really feels like… years before games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill even bothered to show up for work!