Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest, originally released in 1993, has always had a rather curious, mixed perception, both from a critical and a popular perspective.
On the one hand, it was regarded as a “killer app” for the then-new CD-ROM technology that home computers were just starting to get at the time. On the other, longstanding fans of adventure games felt that The 7th Guest’s focus on simple standalone puzzles rather than object manipulation that made sense in context of the narrative made it inferior to classic point-and click titles from companies like LucasArts and Sierra.
Looking back on it today, with how diverse today’s gaming landscape truly is, it’s somewhat easier to accept The 7th Guest for what it is — particularly because its distinctive structure of “narrative punctuated by unrelated puzzles” has been successfully adopted by a number of popular games since, with perhaps the most notable being Level-5’s Professor Layton series.
That and these days we’re collectively much more open to somewhat “experimental” games, rather than requiring that they be neatly pigeonholed into a genre.
If you’ve never encountered The 7th Guest before, the premise is that in the small American town of Harley-on-the-Hudson in 1935, an old man named Henry Stauf was having a bit of a rough time in life; he was living on the streets and mugging people for their money and food. But one night a vision of a doll came to him in a dream; he managed to collect the resources to make the doll and found that it made people like him. And from there, he managed to establish a successful toy business.
But all was not quite as it seemed, because the proud and delighted owners of Stauf Toys started dying, and Stauf seemed to be getting a little… unhinged. He invited a group of guests to a house that he had put together — a house designed to scare people — and challenged them to spend the night there. Only one would leave, he said, with their heart’s desire.
As the game begins, we’re placed in the role of a character known only as “Ego”. Ego remembers nothing about how he came to Stauf’s mansion, which now appears to be deserted, but almost immediately he starts seeing ghostly visions of the guests arriving and interacting with one another at the house.
In order to solve the mystery of what is really going on, Ego must travel from room to room, solve the puzzles left behind by Stauf, bear witness to the ghostly echoes of the past and figure out exactly why he’s there.
Interestingly, Ego’s nature isn’t made entirely clear at the outset of the game, and it’s easy to assume we’re playing a human character — but as the game progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Ego is more of a disembodied consciousness. He has the ability to travel in ways that no human could, for example — such as diving down a plughole or taking a shortcut through a billiard table, only to emerge in the kitchen’s oven — and is able to both witness and trigger supernatural occurrences.
Gameplay in The 7th Guest involves exploring the house from a selection of pre-rendered viewpoints, clicking on “hot spots” and finding things to interact with. Everything is shown to the player as either full-motion video or prerendered video; this allowed the game to be much more visually impressive than real-time 3D engines were capable of back in 1993.
It also means that Ego doesn’t have real freedom of movement; instead, passing from one part of a room to another occurs through a sort of “gliding” motion, giving the game something of a feeling akin to being on a haunted house ride in a theme park.
Interactive elements are indicated through the mouse cursor changing shape to one of various forms. Beckoning fingers mean that Ego can move in that direction; a skeleton with a bulging brain indicates a puzzle; drama masks indicate a scene that can be witnessed. The ultimate aim of the game is to see everything which occurred on the fateful night the guests arrived, and determine Ego’s role in everything.
The puzzles, as previously noted, are all self-contained, and feature a variety of different challenges. Some are simple tests of logic; others are word puzzles; there are even two chess-based puzzles in there, along with an infuriating maze sequence where map-making is all but essential. There are no punishments for “failing” the puzzles; most puzzles can be reset manually if you desire, or if you make an irreversible mistake, the puzzle will typically reset itself.
If you find yourself struggling, a book in the game’s library will provide clues for you. The first time you read it, it will provide the basic instructions for what you’re actually supposed to do; the second, it will give you a more detailed hint. The third time, however, it will simply solve the puzzle for you — but if you do this, you won’t witness the video scene that would have been triggered if you’d solved it legitimately, meaning you’ll miss out on some story.
The puzzles are, for the most part, very good — for many, they’re the main reason to play The 7th Guest. It’s easy to understand why traditional adventure game fans felt they were a little out of place in quite a few situations, but they provide some structure to the gameplay and a feeling that you’re actually accomplishing something. It’s also fitting that a trickster such as Stauf would place ridiculous, incongruous challenges around the place rather than simply leaving answers lying around — he is supposed to be a toymaker, remember.
While the full-motion video is of extremely grainy quality and the pre-rendered visuals have long since been outclassed by today’s real-time 3D engines, there’s still a wonderful sense of atmosphere to The 7th Guest. This is at least partly created by the excellent soundtrack from George “The Fat Man” Sanger, but in many ways the dated nature of the technology also works in the game’s favour.
The fact that all of the live actors are rather ill-defined on screen works well in the context of them being ghosts or memories of the past — and the rather campy, exaggerated acting coupled with some wonderfully excruciating puns gives a rather theatrical feel to the whole experience. The game was always heavily stylised — largely out of necessity at the time — but these days that’s precisely what makes it stand out. It’s not trying to be realistic, gritty, gory or super-scary — but it does have a distinctive atmosphere that is still a pleasure to experience.
The game was re-released a few years back in a 25th Anniversary Edition. This version plays nicely with modern machines without having to use DOSBOX, and adds some optional conveniences to the experience such as subtitles for the dialogue, proper widescreen support and alternative ways of interacting with the game.
You can also toggle various different “mixes” of the music, and whether or not the original visuals are filtered. Okay, they kind of ruined the drama of the initial intro with its spectacular live violin playing, but this is a minor hiccup — and if you’re that bothered about it, the “legacy version” is included with the new one, too.
If you’ve never played The 7th Guest before, now’s the time of year to do so — it’s a classic spooky season game with good reason, and still holds up very well today. In fact, I’d argue that in some ways, given the wider variety of games people are familiar with today, it’s a lot more palatable today than it was back in 1993 because people aren’t coming to it with particularly strict genre expectations any more — you can just enjoy it on its own merits.
If you want to give it a go for yourself, you can nab yourself a copy over on GOG.com for just £7.19. Bargain.
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