Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Horrible Delight: The 7th Guest

Disclaimer: I spoil 7th Guest pretty hard in this article.

Trilobyte's The 7th Guest is a game that routinely makes top ten lists for 'Scariest Games of All Time'. I wonder, though, if they've played through the game recently or just place it on these lists out of a sense of respect and history. Certainly, it is a PC gaming's milestone. It's clear that Trilobyte made 7th Guest with the very goal of being a technology pioneer that would awe its players with a cutting edge multimedia event. That was exceeded beyond their wildest imaginations; it's just too bad that making a great game wasn't as important to them.

7th Guest's place in the annals of computer lore is well-deserved. The leap to integrate full motion video with rendered 3D graphics is an inspired one. Its CD only format pushed computing into the CD-ROM age and gave designers the freedom to make a game that was like a movie, with sweeping camera movements, actors, and a soundtrack. Graeme Devine, one of the founders of Trilobyte and one of 7th Guest’s visionaries, was the first to ever compress digital video and designed the tools to do so from scratch (if you ever find yourself streaming low quality video from Starz Play on Netflix, you know who to thank). Graeme, along with Trilobyte’s co-founder Rob Landeros, developed the story to go along with the dream of a next generation multimedia experience, though their ambitions to become a weaver of tales might have outmatched their talents.

The story revolves around a diabolical toy master named Henry Stauf. Though not spelled out, I gather from the Faust anagram that Stauf sold his soul for wealth and ended up with more than he bargained. Your character, who is nameless in the game but is supposedly called Ego, wakes up at the front door with amnesia (sigh) and the game begins! Throughout the game, you're treated to full motion video flashbacks of a dinner party thrown by Stauf (although he doesn't actually attend) where he asks the six guests to solve the grand puzzle of his mansion. The winner of Stauf's game is granted his or hers greatest desire. As the game progresses by solving puzzles and watching vignettes, you discover that Stauf is manipulating the guests in order to harvest the soul of a young boy who broke in the house on a dare, the 7th guest. You see, Stauf's toys actually steal the souls of children and he needs just one more childsoul to bring his evil mansion to life (or something, it's pretty vague). You spend the whole game discovering this basic back story with no real arcs for various guests or Ego. After you complete the last, best puzzle, there's a painfully obvious twist that you are the child, the 7th guest, that Stauf was hunting in all the cutscenes. Then Stauf explodes in a burst of holy light for absolutely no reason and the game is over.

The story was further developed from the initial concept by a professional writer, something I will credit them. Still, the full motion video segments are hurt by shoddy characters, low production value, and creative talent overmatched by challenges presented using the new technology. At the time, it was forgivable because there was nothing else to compare it to, but looked upon with a critical eye in a modern context, it’s a bit baffling. If you’re going to innovate with video, why not make it the best you possibly can instead of treating like a chore and an afterthought? When they set up Trilobyte in a quiet Oregon town, I’m sure it seemed like a great idea but it was ultimately a selfish one. I have no doubt it was a more pleasant to live in west Oregon than southern California but Oregon just isn’t going to have the resources that would benefit what amounts to an experimental film shoot. Inexperienced actors and silly costumes hamper a promising but hackeneyed story. Now, it’s not like I expect the 7th Guest to be written with the same level of complexity and depth as literature, but the emotional experience of the game leaves me little else to focus on.

Gameplay in 7th Guest, outside of the exploration of the house and story, boils down to puzzles. The puzzles are a mixed bag and, while plentiful and varied, left me wanting. Their lack of innovation is a major felony here, Halloween party versions of the most common brain teasers or word games. I enjoy a good chess challenge but they go overboard here and the knight-switching puzzle is one of the most awful and tedious puzzles that’s ever been forced upon me. A few of the puzzles make absolutely no sense unless you check out the clue book in the den (which will actually solve puzzles for you, I discovered way too late). There were puzzles I enjoyed, especially the insanely difficult game of Ataxx versus Stauf on a microscopic level (which took me longer to beat than the rest of the game combined), and I appreciated the level of polish to the puzzles. A lot about the puzzles can be forgiven with the limitations imposed by the game design. For a reason I don’t understand but accept, they could only have one button to interact with the world and I imagine that posed a challenge when creating unique puzzles. Still, what I can’t get past are the haphazard nature of the puzzles. Why are we solving them? To what end? Why does solving all of them make Henry Stauf explode into purity dust? They try to explain, at the start, that the puzzles are created by Henry Stauf for the six guests to solve as part of his dinner party game but they drop that after the first few rooms and don’t connect it to the story. Since there’s never anything to threaten your life and the puzzles are abstract filler, the only emotional draw is the full motion video segments, which, as I’ve already said, are less than compelling.

Part of me hates to harp on all of this, it is clear Trilobyte spent a ton of time and effort on the game and it’s one of the few PC games that transcend the world of your usual gamers. The house looks fantastic, seventeen years later, and even if the technology has moved on, the artistry has not. The music and sound design are, frankly, outstanding and shoulders most of the responsibility for creating an effective mood. Every guest has their own little theme that is woven into the overall music that adds more to their story than anything that appears on screen—it's clever and I'd put it on iPod if I could only figure out how. Even a cursory glance at the game shows they weren’t myopic programmers interested only in lines of code, there’s a real love there for the game and a real passion to tell its story. The problem lies in a deeper cognitive dissonance.

Graeme Devine stated that he wanted 7th Guest to be a family game, which is strange considering the content. There’s nothing outright offensive but it’s still a horror game with a brutal stabbing, Stauf’s weird demon tongue, lascivious sex moans, a strangling, and the stealing of children’s soul by their own toys--it’s not exactly a Pixar movie. It explains the silly Halloween party nature of most of the horror, though: the cake with cartoon skulls and gravestones, a painting that grows fangs, the relentless and degrading use of puns throughout the experience, it’s all haphazard and seems the product of an ADHD “Wouldn’t it be cool if...” style of game design. There doesn’t seem to be any real love for horror or at least an attempt to understand the genre. It’s like a Scooby Doo episode that lasts hours and hours, except Fred pulls off Stauf’s mask at the beginning to discover a hissing lizard demon and Shaggy spends the whole time hilariously weeping with terror as he tries to spell six different words with no vowels. The demonic presence that holds sway over Stauf isn't even addressed, really. Sure it can give Stauf a really long tongue to impotently lash at people but they don't try to have any perceptible rules to its power or any mystery to its existence—it's just a means to an end. There’s a powerful vision for a game but it’s just not very well thought out. In my opinion, Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros were men of vision. It’s just that the vision seemed to be more about the glory of making a great game than it was about making the great game.

The 7th Guest is a truly innovative and remarkable game that deserves its place in history but, at the end of the day, it’s not good. After 7th Guest was released, the company spent a long time spiraling down into financial oblivion and I think the cracks are already showing in their touchstone product. The truth of Trilobyte seems to be a story of aimless projects costing millions and infighting between a stressed Devine and a disgusted Landeros. It.sounds exactly like the problems in the 7th Guest: unfocused and at war with itself. I think the issue of implementing a game’s vision is one of the most primal struggles when making a game. What is it that makes a game fun? What is it that makes a game inspirational? It isn’t number of units sold or the groundbreaking technology used to make the game. The only game I think think of that tries to ape 7th Guest is Shivers (a game that is superior in every way) but mostly games took the technology and went their own way before full motion video died a quick death. Making a game is difficult and it takes a special talent to make a good one. It requires patience and a willingness to adapt to the problems at hand. There’s just no guarantee that the game will turn out, so the more thought you put into your game before you put the money into it, the better off you’ll be.

7th Guest is a victim of poor planning. Dazzled by the tech and what could be, Graeme and Rob didn’t consider the journey. They relocated to the idyllic Oregon coast where there were few actors, fewer programmers, and certainly no one familiar with new technology of digital video. Graeme and Rob’s vision went unquestioned, by all accounts they seemed men of large egos and the writer they hired to flesh out the story didn’t do a good job at challenging them. The tone and game design are muddled, relying on the wow factor that certainly delivered at the time. Shock and awe is cheap and immediate, though, and it’s a terrible foundation for game design. 7th Guest could have been the Nosferatu of video games, something future generations could look at and appreciate as an important work in the art and history of video games. Instead, it's more of a footnote, the game that opened the door for better games to walk through. A cohesive and compelling game experience is the key lesson of game design that separates a great game from a good game and a good game from a bad game. Themes aren't just for books and movies, kids, they’re for any story, regardless of format. Something like Castle Crashers, one of the most ridiculous games ever made, resonates so deeply because its wild and silly tone is demonstrated in every aspect of the game, most especially the gameplay. I'd argue that themes are harder to implement in a video game than in any other medium because they have to be felt in the gameplay as well in the story and art direction. Left 4 Dead isn't just about shooting zombies, it's about the balance of four people fighting the zombie horde—the co-operative gameplay reinforces and elevates the feelings of isolation and horror exquisitely. 7th Guest just didn't get it, in the end, and that's too bad. How much more could it have inspired if it had? How many more lifelong gamers would it have left behind?


I tried to play 7th Guest’s sequel, the 11th Hour, for a follow up article but the game keeps crashing and I’m tired of troubleshooting it just to play a more polished version of the 7th Guest. Apparently it’s not a new problem; the joke is that the greatest puzzle in 11th Hour is getting the game to run. It’s too bad, because the game looks even better and the video elements have a fun Twin Peaks vibe (by that I mean they’re basically ripping off Twin Peaks but it’s still a good thing for this series) that I wished was present in the original. The puzzles I did play were better designed and, from what I understand, had a lot of AI involved that was cutting edge at the time. The look and feel of the game is more coherent as a whole, spookier and less stupid. It’s just too bad they released an MS DOS game in a world that had switched over to Windows 95. Technical failures are always worse than conceptual ones and, coming from a game company that redefined computing, are unforgivable.

I recommend checking out this article about the history of Trilobyte. It’s a cautionary tale of game design that I hope every developer keeps in mind when they build a game experience. Most importantly, it is a fascinating story and a great read.

The Rise and Fall of Trilobyte

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