A Blast from the Past review
FBT revisits Stauf's mansion and relives his greatest fear - game music you can't turn off.
I intensely disliked Myst. It was a vacant slideshow of a game. But Myst had an evil twin; The 7th Guest - it was weird, messed up, with a disembodied villain who taunted you, soul-sucking dolls and dead children all within a house straight out of The Haunting filled with insane puzzles made out of gravestone-decorated cakes, skulls, blood and spiders, while you got to the bottom of a disturbing story that nicked it’s subplot from House on Haunted Hill before going batshit crazy at the end - Who was Tad, what are all those folks up to, where are they now, why am I here? I’m still not sure, but T7G was a macabre, goth-great.
T7G was also watershed moment in gaming; besides being set in a realistic, pre-rendered 3D world, it was one of the first to be released on CD-Rom (a what?) and one of the few games of 1993 not be eclipsed by Doom. It’s the polar opposite of Doom; slow, considered, out of your control. But to me it was a perfect companion – just as dark and innovative, and filled with adult content as its plots unfolded through awesomely cheesy FMV drama while we figured out the kind of puzzles critics like to call ‘fiendish’.
I played it loads but only finished it once. Those puzzles were murder, especially that goddamn microscope. But I just enjoyed being in the house, soaking up the atmosphere and style of it - There was no other game that so perfectly captured the old Hollywood horror feel. It should have been in B&W and narrated by Vincent Price. I’m looking forward to playing T7G again, especially as it’s my retro fave in my bio. I hope it stays there, given my shocking lack of patience and complete idiocy when it comes to even the most basic puzzles - this Blast from the Past may become a Rage Quit…
Still a Blast?
Man that cutscene was long. A drifter called Stauf sees a vision of a doll and is compelled to carve it. He gains a reputation as a toymaker and continues to make his visions, eventually becoming rich and famous until the kids who begged for a Stauf Toy start to get ill and die.
Years later, various folks get invitations to his home and told the puzzles he’s left will lead one of them to their greatest desire.
While it was retro-great to watch, less great to listen to; the music by renowned game composer The Fatman plays consistently through the game, and just hearing it brings back conflicted memories. I suddenly remember staring at puzzles for hours while it played repeatedly, slowly wearing me down like the Barney theme being played endlessly to break terrorists. I still have my original T7G disc and the entire soundtrack is on it.
Continuing the audio torture is our antagonist. Stauf, the now disembodied botherer, is constantly on at you as you explore the mansion. Goading, teasing, mumbling some dad joke every time you do something – anything. He only has one or two comments per puzzle or event so they lose their charm very quickly, and “We'll all be dead by the time you solve this" every time you get a puzzle wrong becomes a wish not a threat. At first his ghostly voice gives the house an ominous personality but his constant jeering, commenting, cackling as you try to make sense of things gets infuriating. Meanwhile, you’ve got The Fatman going do-do-do, do-do-doddododo do ... do do do do. This isn’t a puzzler it’s a test of my patience. I ended up, via some clever chap’s mod, managing to disable the music but Stauf just got louder. ‘feeeeeeeeeling lonelyyyyyyyyyyyyy?’ No, but I wish I was; even I won't shut up, my character also has some glib comments on the state of play - it’s sometimes a hint but every time I or Stauf crack wise, I lose control until the quote is over – and some aren’t exactly pithy. I thought haunted houses were supposed to be silent and whispery, this is like an episode of Loose Women.
Audio mood spoilers aside, The 7th Guest looks really good – not just good for it's age, it’s a great looking game, period. The CGI is 90s MTV but it’s solid and shadowy, and the mansion’s layout is great - it’s not a haunted house at the end of the pier, it’s just creepy, eerie and while there’s standard spider webs, blood and ghosts, it’s clear of scare-jumps and rug-pulls, relying instead on corner of the eye movement and interactions with warping pictures and things moving. It’s a classic ghost story as much in the tradition of Blithe Spirit or Dead of Night as The Haunting, almost a love poem to the classic era before CGI and jittery editors forced you to jump. But it’s not all warm and cuddly. You know the folks trapped here turned on each other, is that what’s in store for us? Are we alone? There’s one scene where a Guest picks up a doll and it starts crying for it’s mum … but not in that Chatty Cathy way, it’s a real girl’s voice, really crying for her mother. Shivers. This is a house filled with restless spirits and unease and it has an oppressiveness, you’re trapped there and being toyed with – the game doesn’t pull you out of the moment with a typical cut scene; instead, you wander into a Stone Tape style replay of some horror or event that the house never forgot; FMV fades in over the CGI room and while it’s not very well rendered, it’s effective and a great little story unfolds as each of Stauf’s guests fall victim to their desires and each other. It’s a little ham-acted but that just adds to the ghost-story charm.
While it’s easy to get lost in the game and the story, you’re rarely lost in the house; the layout isn’t maze-like (apart from a maze puzzle) and there’s a map, and unlike most puzzle games, there’s no inventory or random things that become critical later; you’re purely solving Stauf’s conundrums to unlock the secrets. It could be disconnecting, like you're unlocking a straight-to-video movie, but you never know what’ll happen when the shot glides around and it feels like you’re being drawn further in and become part of it. As a puzzle game, it’s clean and effective; you’re not missing a tiny clue because your character is standing on it or stuck trying to get past a goat. The cursor changes to flag cinematics or puzzles which keeps you focused as you walk the corridors and discover previously locked doors now open … The mansion is split across two main floors for the most part, with a brief journey into the cellar before ascending to the attic for the finale, discovering your own connection to the house and who the 7th Guest is before it all goes FMV-meets-WTF crazy.
The 7th Guest is a real accomplishment; many critics complained it was either a puzzle game with cut-scene filler or a ghost story constantly interrupted by puzzles, but I see it as the puzzles -like Stauf’s toys- were possessed and as the guests played they became corrupted, and lost themselves to the games, so unlocking them revealed the character’s fate and in turn, revealed our own. One, the toy bricks in the playroom, reveals Stauf’s plan - I thought it worked perfectly then, and still do now. It feels aged but not old and just like Doom, playing it now, decades later you feel a sense of achievement, that this is something special – it’s not a flash in the pan or of its time, The 7th Guest is a classic and still packs a punch (to the ear).
For all of T7G’s innovations and progress, its inventors Trilobyte never capitalised. The sequel, 11th Hour was as overdue as it was bad, and they closed in 1999. Good old Night Dive helped Trilobyte resurrect Stauf and his bants though, including an iOS release - which is great and works even better than on PC; mostly because the microscope puzzle is missing - not even Apple could solve it.
Over the years various reboots and second sequels have been rumoured, but nothing’s come of them. It’s a shame but then, a modern-day 7th Guest wouldn’t have the original’s charm or invention. It would be like a crappy modern day shlock-scare, missing the class of a good old horror movie. Sure they’re old, a bit silly in places, but they’re great and The 7th Guest is the gamer’s equivalent. The end ...
What? Oh yeah, the puzzles. Okay, I admit I might have, on occasion, used YouTube and The Book Of Secrets, a hint app released alongside the iOS version to beat the puzzles. But I had a lot of fun trying. The puzzles work well, you know they’re beatable if you could just concentrate and the Horror-Halloween design makes them interesting, as does the 3D CGI rendering. Once you figure them out they’re satisfying to beat, while others I just blundered into the solution and quickly saved before the game realised I’d got lucky. The cake puzzle, one of the first you encounter is a great warm-up brain-tickler, while others (the Coffins) nearly caused a rage quit. But I stuck with it. There is a cheat; in the sitting room a book will give hints and if used enough the puzzle will be solved although you’ll be denied the cut scene. I never knew what cut-scene happens after solving the Microscope puzzle, and I don’t care. No cutscene is worth that horror but overall I think I did myself proud. It’s a testament to the game that the puzzles rarely drag; infuriate yes (I’m looking at you, piano puzzle, like we needed more noise in this game) but they follow a logic and you know the answer’s there. Do-do-do, do-do-doddododo do ... do do do damnit.
1993 | Developer Trilobyte | Publisher Virgin Interactive / Night Dive
platforms; PC | iOS/Android