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We all have those games. You know, the ones you played growing up that you absolutely loved and defended fanatically, only to find out years later that the game you cherished when you were younger wasn’t actually that good? It’s probably not the way you’d want to start off talking about Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest, 30 years after its release. After all, unlike some games today that have been totally obscured by nostalgia, The 7th Guest is a landmark title. The game was one of the first to help usher in the CD format, which subsequently unleashed the era of FMV-based games that still has entries being released today. But even with that noteworthy achievement, just how kind has time been to The 7th Guest after all this time?
The 7th Guest‘s story begins in 1935, in the town of Harley-on-the-Hudson. A man named Henry Stauf kills a woman and steals her purse. That night, Stauf has a vision of a doll so beautiful that he had to make it for himself, and the next day begins carving it. He trades the finished doll at a local tavern for food and a place to stay. Stauf subsequently has other visions of dolls and toys, which he also crafts and sells, becoming a successful toymaker and ultimately building a mansion for himself at the edge of town. One night, he invites six guests to his mansion for a night of games and puzzles, but along with Stauf, they are never seen again. Flash forward to the present, and you play as a man named “Ego”, an amnesiac who awakens in the Stauf mansion. You must now find a way out of Stauf’s mansion, while also uncovering the truth behind Stauf.
Pegged as a “killer app” for CD-ROMs on its release, the graphics for The 7th Guest obviously show their age today, but still have a certain charm to them. Clunky and primitive as they are, the pre-rendered CG graphics still have some great lighting to them, which helps achieve the intended eerie atmosphere. You can literally just spend the beginning of the game wandering around the mansion, which despite the now-primitive CG, has that liminal space vibe going for it that evokes those unsettling vibes not unlike the hallways in Resident Evil‘s Spencer Mansion. There are obvious moments where that unsettling vibe is broken by the goofy CG (the hands in pressing through the painting, for example), but hey, it was of its time.
As for The 7th Guest‘s interface, the skeletal-themed cursors match up with the goofy spookiness of the game’s graphics, and admittedly are cumbersome now, but it still does the job. It’s all context-sensitive, so you’ll wave your mouse around until it changes for you to move in that direction or perform a certain action. Tying things together is the game’s score, which was performed by George Sanger, aka “The Fat Man”. All the guests have their own musical themes, which are played every time they’re on screen or referenced. It’s again all appropriately spooky and atmospheric, with Sanger even getting in some jazz for the ending credits theme, “Skeletons in My Closet”. Sanger would later go on to compose the soundtrack for other horror games such as Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and The 7th Guest‘s sequel, The 11th Hour.
If you weren’t aware already, the main gameplay component of The 7th Guest is its puzzles, which appear in every room of the mansion. You’re required to solve the puzzles in order to proceed, while also watching the FMV cutscenes of the now-ghostly guests that reveal the game’s story. The puzzles vary in terms of their difficulty. Apart from a few that will have you pulling your hair out in frustration, the majority aren’t too hard to figure out. If, for whatever reason, you still can’t figure them out even after getting the clues to solve them, you can always visit the library and use the book from the introductory FMV for hints. The first time you use the book, you’ll be given a hint and transported back to the puzzle. Using the book the second time, and the puzzle’s mechanics are further explained. If you still can’t get it, using the book the third time will solve the puzzle for you, but you’ll miss the ghost cutscene that usually plays after each puzzle is solved, which again is where you get the majority of The 7th Guest‘s story.
Speaking of the story, it likewise doesn’t quite hold up as well today as it did 30 years ago. True, you can see how Trilobyte had “Twin Peaks” on the brain when it came to the story, but it doesn’t quite have the same impact as David Lynch’s baby. Much like the rest of the game, the exaggerated performances come off as more goofy than surreal, and don’t lend themselves too well to sympathy for those victims trapped in Stauf’s mansion. In much the same vein, Stauf himself comes across as a cartoonish villain with his taunting of the player for failing to solve the puzzles. Those expecting a more serious effort will be left wanting, but given the tone of the rest of the game, it’s understandable why there’s more of a “lightness” to the story and acting.
What criticism that can’t be waved away with The 7th Guest is age, if you haven’t already guessed. Unlike the games from 30 years ago that can still hang with modern titles, The 7th Guest has no such luxury. It’s understandably dated, particularly with the aspect that’s centred on by the gameplay. The puzzle-focused mechanics will undoubtedly put off a large chunk of modern players who probably don’t have the patience for some of the more difficult ones. This would have been balanced by when it was released by the “mystique” of the CG graphics and FMV (along with the dearth of PC games), but now it can seemingly act as a deterrent for some. To top it off, the puzzle mechanic becomes superfluous if you’re reliant on the library book to solve them, which ends up defeating the purpose of even trying to figure them out.
Despite all that, The 7th Guest is an important title for games, regardless of genre. Without that “killer app” status, the FMV craze wouldn’t have taken off. Meaning, we wouldn’t have gotten titles such as Phantasmagoria, Harvester, Night Trap and other horror games. The FMV genre, despite having its allure worn off for several decades now, is still going today with a few titles coming out so often. The importance of The 7th Guest didn’t go unnoticed by Trilobyte, who released an updated version of the game in 2019 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Featuring a completely reworked control system, a new map, and the ability to skip scenes, the game also had its graphics upscaled. It also featured a bevy of extras, including deleted scenes and audio, the game’s soundtrack, novelization and script, and a “The Making of” featurette.
While it might not hold up as well as some games from that era, The 7th Guest is obviously an important title in horror gaming that deserves recognition. It has a certain charm to it that will no doubt hit the nostalgia button for those who played it back then, and can still serve as a quaint reminder for modern gamers who weren’t around for the early days of CD technology. It isn’t going to match the horror of modern titles, but The 7th Guest retains a mix of spookiness and cheese that can still entertain even today if you stick with it.