A Blast from the Past review
Little FBT visits uncle Stauf's mansion, and has a tantrum.
What I remember best about The 11th Hour was that it stomped on everything that made The 7Th Guest awesome – none of the classic horror tone or style, it was a mini-movie with puzzles, set in present-day melodrama instead of goth camp. It was smutty, sleazy and a bit unpleasant – it had more in common with the other infamous FMV game from the nineties, Night Trap instead of The 7th Guest's classic House on Haunted Hill groove - that drew from the best of horror literature and film; tragedy, regret and ghosties. The 11th Hour is prime Tommy Wiseau.
When T11H was released, it was long overdue and past it’s prime. Gaming had already moved on and the dodgy plotting, am-dram movie and bizarre ending turned T11H into a curiosity rather than classic. Briefly though, developers Trilobyte were the intellectual id; they helped PC gaming shift from Floppy Disks to CD-Rom, popularised FMV and the interactive movie genre. T11H can’t be as bad as I remember. I loved The 7th Guest. I can love The 11th Hour.
Still a Blast?
It’s now the 90s, and unlike The 7th Guest, we know who we’re playing – TV Presenter, Idiot and Bad Actor Carl Denning, who hosts an unexplained mysteries tv show.
Robin, his producer and lover, loses both jobs when Carl decides on an unexplained whim to dump her. Robin, seeing something in Carl that we can’t, decides to prove both her love and professional worth by solving the biggest unexplained case yet; Stauf Mansion. And promptly disappears. Carl moodily moods about until her PDA turns up containing a video of Robin begging for help, trapped in the Mansion. Oh-ho. Carl moods some more then moodily rocks up to the mansion and becomes trapped inside, forced to solve puzzles to unlock the secret of Robin’s fate and what Stauf’s been up to in the intervening years.
At first, the old mansion is a welcoming sight. It’s the same layout but past it’s prime, decrepit and falling apart. As we wander, there’s various nods to the original’s puzzles and moments and that old 7th Guest magic starts to creep in. And then creeps back out, apologising for what’s about to happen.
T11H is shockingly bad. Worse than I remembered. First, the house has lost that subtle eerie charm in favour of a dark, dank, rotten look; that could be good, but it’s so dingy and dull it’s no fun to click around and while T7G kept the interaction to a minimum, in T11H almost everything can be clicked on which reveals nothing but a chance for Stauf to make some terrible joke. Here we go.
In T7G Stauf was always a test of the gamer’s patience, but at least he had a good line in black humour. This time, Stauf is just an end-of-the-pier comedian. Zingers like ‘I took a picture of your brain … but it hasn’t developed yet’ might be good but it’s not exactly a creepy, disembodied voice drawing you to your doom - It’s like being followed about by the ghost of Groucho Marx. It stops you clicking on anything because the game freezes, like it’s pausing for laughter, while you listen to his stupid puns. It’s not scary and this is supposed to be scary, right? He’s evil isn’t he? It just gets worse and worse, and he repeats them endlessly, ruining the moment until … You know the film Clue, where Madeline Khan attempts to explain why she murdered someone but is so frustrated she can't properly express the rage; “I hated her so much, it ... flames, flames, on the sides of my face, breathing … breathless, heaping …” that’s how I feel about Stauf. I just can’t properly explain how much it annoys me, how ruinous it is, how moment spoiling, aggravating ... Flames, flames at the side of my face.
But, much of Stauf’s idiocy is drowned out by our old friend, the score. The Fatman’s music is fine in moderation but it’s relentless and becomes a trainers-on-gym-floor, fork-across-plate, nails-down-blackboard, screaming-baby, Go-Compare, pro-Brexit-argument in synth form. It’s so insistent you can’t block it out, refusing to let you concentrate as it fights for space with Stauf; shut up, just shut up the both of you and let me enjoy the atmosphere.
Except there is no atmosphere. The house is lit mostly by Carl’s torch and very little happens as you explore, it’s as scary as fumbling around the attic looking for the Christmas decorations. T7G didn’t demand you hunt around, but you did anyway because you wanted to find cutscenes that explored the history, you wanted to find the ghostly moments and new puzzles. That house was bright but oddly silent like the Marie Celeste; food and drinks, cigars still lit. Creepy. I have to remind myself T11H is creepy. There’s nothing scary about it and when we do find a puzzle, while they’re suitability macabre and gothy (and insanely difficult) they're made insufferable by the Cannon & Ball jokes of Stauf (who comments after every move and taunts after every mistake) and The Fatman’s infuriating Richard Stilgoe impression.
T11H can’t let us have nice things, and it even mucks up the satisfaction of beating a puzzle. Carl solves a puzzle, but that then provides a riddle. Solve that, then go looking for the relevant object and that unlocks a cutscene. That means dragging Carl around the house looking for the object, and each click triggers a Stauf joke you've heard a million times, and you can’t start another puzzle until it’s found. The entire game is padding, nothing happens in the house, you’re just unlocking cutscenes but rather than have them appear as ghostly shapes like in T7G, you go to the PDA and watch a mini-movie from Robin's investigation. And then things get really bad.
The cutscenes reveal the backstory that led us here; Starting with Robin investigating two girls who were raped by Stauf when they ventured into the house. Nice. One had her hand ripped off while escaping for no reason other than gore, and because two girls being raped isn’t enough horror, one girl gave birth and the child grew into a murderer - or so Robin thinks. We're basically watching a terrible soap opera trying to be Twin Peaks as Robin uncovers the town's secrets, and at over an hour long, it's a slog to sit through something this cheap and cheesy, especially when it could have been wrapped up in a single cutscene like T7G's original opener. A criticism of T7G was we do puzzles to unlock a story we have no involvement in, but that’s turned all the way up to 12 in The 11th Hour ruining the horror-coolness of the puzzles and most of it takes place outside the house in brightly lit locations; it’s completely removed from the house.
When Carl does find an in-house cutscene, he's often there too, ruining it by pulling gurning reaction faces to events he clearly can't see or imagine; T7G worked well by keeping the in-game cutscenes POV and voyeuristic - adding Carl into the set for them to react to ruins the mood, especially when he just blunders about asking ghosts if they've seen Robin.
Eventually, Carl runs out of puzzles and Stauf pops up to end this. It’s as distasteful as it is disjointed; We know that Stauf’s power is his Faustian promise to provide your greatest desire - I should be worried; Robin’s desire was Carl and here we are, trapped – are we part of Stauf’s biggest puzzle yet? Naa not even close. That would have been something but instead we get that ending.
The 7th Guest featured babies being sacrificed, children’s souls trapped in dolls and murders all over the place and it still worked - it took Shirley Jackson as inspiration but T11H aspires to nothing and it's deeply misogynistic – it's rape (and mutilation) recalls the worst of exploitation films, as does the uneasy idea that the product of rape grows to be a murderer - The other victim suffers a backstreet abortion that leaves her wheelchair-bound. But the ending tops all that by having Carl choose which woman he saves; ex-lover, murderess or victim, based on what Carl's learned from the cutscenes, but he's learnt nothing so it's largely pot-luck; only one ending is the 'good' ending which makes no sense at all, and we don’t even get to avenge the girls or punish Stauf at all. There’s no resolution, just a one in three chance Carl survives as if he's all that matters. The 11th Hour's ending always appears on those 'top ten weirdest endings' lists, but it's not weird it's unforgivably offensive and crass.
The puzzles are great looking and mind-crackingly difficult, but they're ruined by Stauf's dad-jokes and the game's slow pauses to trigger them. It's like form of torture. If I hadn't finished it out of some sort of sadomasochistic fury, I would have Rage Quit T11H but I wanted to see how far it would go. It went there. I hoped my rediscovered love for T7G would carry into T11H and allow me to forgive its eccentricities. But it's not eccentric it's despicable. Flames, flames at the side of my face.
1995 | Developer Trilobyte | Publisher Virgin Interactive Entertainment / Night Dive
platforms; PC, iOS/Android