Trilobyte Games’ The 7th Guest is the relic of a time when CD-Rom technology was the newest thing, offering developers the space to include full-motion video (FMV) and thus creating the genre of interactive movie. But is it also an example of more creativity?
The 7th Guest (PC)
(USA 1993, developer: Trilobyte Games, publisher: Virgin Interactive (defunct), platforms: PC, CD-i, iOS)
After children who are given toymaker Henry Stauf’s weirdly alluring products as presents suffer a mysterious illness and he himself is murdered, his mansion is visited by 6 guests with their own agendas, the 7th being an even greater mystery and maybe the only hope to lift the curse and find out what really happened to the eccentric owner.
Telling and showing a weird tale
The story is first told in the pages of a book and then with scenes set in the house which play out after solving certain puzzles. The first works quite well and gives the game a sense of scary ghost story one reads late at night in bed or tell at the campfire. The second narrative technique is interesting in so far that the interaction between characters is seen as events from the past by a character in the present, therefore creating a distance between the two worlds. There’s also a disruption in the chronological order, making the player fill in the gaps. It’s not the most complicated story, the characters are mostly clichés and presented too superficially to be really memorable. But Stauf himself comes across as a very eccentric and creepy person whose sudden bursts of laughter when confronting the player with a conundrum he or she can’t seem to solve make him even more of an interesting personality, especially when he teases him with a condescending “Back for more?” after one starts the game or when he screams “Come back!” when one exits it. Ghostly encounters are not only presented by scenes of the past with the people who visited the house, but also by changes in the environment which are random but can also be activated when clicking on certain objects. In this way, it creates the illusion not simply to watch endless video sequences but actively investigating the mansion.
Acting, like in so many FMVs, isn’t the greatest and there aren’t any recognizable names from Hollywood to be found here, but in a strange way, the overacting with wild gestures and grimaces works quite well in the context of the game which combines horror and twisted humor. Extravagant characters need this sort of ridiculousness, which is why the superficial characterizations and slow movement of the plot aren’t that obvious when one has the feeling of watching a B or rather C-movie. Still, there are quite a few bloody scenes. They’re not really gory, but there are still enough shocking moments, not least because of some genuinely twisted ideas which despite the ageing technology still send chills up the player’s spine. Music and sound design are of a higher quality than the acting due to catchy tunes, orchestral setpieces and creepy distortion effects, adding to the often oppressive atmosphere of the mansion, even though one cannot die in the game or fail in any other way. It also has to be said that the backgrounds are lovingly rendered with lots of neat details to look at, creating the illusion of walking through the halls of a real mansion.
A puzzle book
Of course, there’s also a game behind all the video sequences and special effects, although to be frank, it isn’t much more than a compilation of puzzles one would find in those small puzzle magazines in a newsagent store. There are differently colored chess pieces which have to moved so that they change position, a spider has to cross each point in a geometrical shape, or an anagram has to be solved in multiple ways. Sure, the presentation usually has a horror theme, but this doesn’t hide the fact that the conundrums Stauf wants the player (and the other six guests) to solve, aren’t that original in their execution and some even repeat themselves. They also vary in their difficulty. While some can be solved fairly quickly, others demand a lot of patience, especially when it comes to parts in which an AI has to be played against. As it becomes stronger the more processing power the user’s PC has, it’s nearly unwinnable, compared to when the game was released. Luckily, there’s a book in the library which does not only give hints, but which can also solve the puzzles. Hints are actually what the player is in desperate need of at times, because the cryptic statements of the protagonist and Stauf’s word plays don’t help much when trying to find out what one is supposed to do. It would also have been nice to have the hint system in the menu, other than going back to a location which can be far from the current room one is in.
Finding a way around problems and floors
Another issue is navigation and where to go next. The idea of having rooms which are unlocked after solving certain puzzles is fine by itself, but when no hint whatsoever is given where that specific room or door leading to it (sometimes even being a hidden one) is, frustration sets in. It doesn’t help that the map is nearly useless, as it doesn’t allow the player to jump directly to the locations. There are rather tedious video sequences to endure each time one moves through the mansion which can’t be skipped. It quickly becomes questionable why one has to solve a puzzle which hasn’t anything to do with story progression, turning the game into a find-the-next-room routine which gets boring and annoying pretty fast.
A classic case of gameplay-presentation discrepancy
It’s telling that even after so many years, some video sequences (despite their low resolution) in The 7th Guest are effective enough to scare and disgust the modern player who seems to have seen it all in various kinds of media. This has more to do with the developer’s imagination than the actual technology available at the time. The game is still creepy in its presentation, but the gameplay hasn’t aged that well. Sure, today, there’s the Professor Layton series which can also be criticized for relying on the same old little puzzle design of magazines. But the series is more accessible and actually offers an engaging story, something Trilobyte Games’ title lacks. Progression is slow, puzzles are deviously difficult at times and almost impossible to solve against an AI opponent, while there’s simply not a lot to do in the house except for moving from one to the next room. So what remains is a collection of logic and at times cryptic puzzles which are framed by a fragmented movie with a B-quality plot and C-grade acting.
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