Anyone who entered into a software store around 1993 has probably heard of, or vaguely remembers, The 7th Guest. Its hype and sales roughly equal those of Myst, and probably would have remained just as legendary, if it hadn’t turned into something of a one-hit-wonder. Otherwise, 7th and Myst stand together as the leaders of 1990s Nu-adventure – each of the two setting up a unique gameplay mechanic to replace aging text-based systems and take advantage of new graphical capabilities.
7th Guest tells the story of Henry Stauf, a penniless drifter who began to dream of toys that he was compelled to then build. The toys were loved by all and in enormous demand, despite many children falling ill soon after taking them. Now a millionaire, Stauf’s next dream instructs him to build an elaborate mansion and invite six 1930s personalities to stay the night. If they solve the riddles he has built, Stauf promises they will earn whatever it is they desire most. Who are these people? What is the mansion’s secret? Why is Stauf an anagram of Faust? You’ll have to play to find out…
While Myst was focused on exploring locations through the most advanced technology it could manage (which ended up being a point-and-click slideshow), 7th Guest is entirely a showcase of puzzles. You click to navigate the mansion and watch very choppy CG video take you to the next room, but while Myst would have had you examining many objects in that room, the rooms in 7th exist solely to hold one puzzle each. Solve all the puzzles in all of the rooms, and you win.
There’s also the six departed guests. Each time you enter a room, and again after you solve a puzzle, you’ll view ghostly FMVs of the six and learn a bit more about them. This doesn’t follow the tightest structure – a lot of these videos seem strange and out of context. The game also loves to throw deforming filters on both faces and voices, making it unclear what’s “real” and what’s not. But as these videos form both the drive to solve the puzzles and the reward for beating them, they’re pretty important to the game overall.
The puzzles, then, are the meat of the game, and you’ve probably seen every single one of these in some form before. All seem based off of classic brainteasers. You’ll need to dissect a 6×5 grid into equal pieces. You’ll have grids of connected objects where flipping one affects those directly adjacent. There are many challenges based on the rules of chess. There’s a few word puzzles using limited letters. A classic sliding blocks puzzle makes an appearance. There’s even a few good old-fashioned mazes to navigate.
All of these are given a coat of spooky paint. That 6×5 grid is a Halloween cake. You’ll flip coffin lids or move knives and spiders around. A photo puzzle of Stauf cycles through two demonic forms. It’s all meant in good fun, and it’s hard to call 7th Guest a scary game. The FMV sequences are a little more serious, with evil plots, demonic morphing, and on-screen deaths, but there’s no real gore. I’d liken the overall tone to a Tales From the Crypt episode. Some serious and horrifying things happen to our guests (the ghost who wakes up to find his brain removed!), but the overall atmosphere is pure camp.
When I first played, I really enjoyed the puzzle solving in the beginning, and went through the first few easy ones on my own. However, both myself and 7th were kidding ourselves. Everyone thinks they’re smart until frustration kicks in, and I am not always the most patient person. Even though you are never locked out of a puzzle, and you can easily reset them (or leave and come back), I didn’t have the willpower to tease out the majority of solutions. Especially when a lot of them are randomized every time, so you can never look up a true walkthrough.
This is where I discovered why 7th likely did so well. It’s a lot of fun playing with others. My mumblings or cursings attracted college roommates and guests, and on a few different nights we would put our heads together to come up with solutions. A brutal 18-note piano puzzle was an impossible game of Simon for me, but came easily to a music student who could see it as notes to play. Two more easily figured out the pattern to a letters puzzle that I just wasn’t seeing. One of my roommates took up scribbling notes and drawings, and I tacked his scratches up on the wall like a modern art gallery. If you can play 7th with other people, you absolutely should.
Some puzzles are just double tough though, and 7th really doesn’t pull any punches. Everything is visual with no real instructions aside from some bad rhymes from Stauf or mumbling from your character. Discovering the rules of a puzzle is one thing, but solving it is often another. Many of the art/block puzzles just felt like brute forcing our way to a solution. It can also be disappointing that solving puzzles unlocks doors in the mansion, so you can hit a point where you literally can’t proceed any further until you solve the puzzle standing in your way. You might think you’re hot shit, but I wouldn’t go into 7th expecting to actually beat it.
You get one concession, however, in the form of a hint book in the library. I don’t think it’s ever referenced within the game (thanks, instruction manual!) but using it twice will give two clues for the puzzle you’re working on. Using it a third time solves the puzzle for you. The manual claims there’s “a price” for using this, but I can’t tell what it is. The ending doesn’t seem to change, so maybe some of the more difficult puzzles aren’t required to beat the game.
7th’s trump card was, of course, its graphics. All of the screens making up the mansion are 3-D computer rendered, spat out in 640×480, 256 color. For 1993, especially in DOS, it looked like the future. Though exploration of the mansion or items in the rooms really was limited – you basically looked for the item that would start the next puzzle – there were still some impressive scenes. You cannot explore the mansion as you would expect in an adventure game, but the occasional item can be clicked for a weird animation or a shortcut to another room. The art direction was great as well, so not only did things look realistic, they were lavishly decorated and creepy as well.
Controls are basic enough, as they are all point and click without an inventory. Your default cursor is a skeleton hand wagging its finger, as if to say “why are you spending eight hours on this one puzzle?” The hand will turn into a sort of googly eyeball when you can interact with items. Chattering teeth seem to indicate a bonus animation, though that’s not consistent, and a drama mask lets you view or replay FMV scenes. That’s pretty much it. No instruction manual required. I especially love that a map in the main menu color codes rooms you’ve been in and rooms you’ve solved. It makes it easy to jump back in without losing your place.
Some great, slightly cheesy MIDI music accompanies the puzzles, while some more eerie tunes play over the mansion and FMV sections. I had some trouble making out speech, as the music seemed a touch too loud, or maybe the the voices a touch too scratchy. Stauf’s taunting can get annoying, especially since it makes the cursor disappear until he’s finished. You’ll be in the middle of solving something when your progress is frozen so he can talk shit.
Some of the puzzles feel needless frustrating, but it seems you can skip them, so I guess my biggest complaint is with FMV parts and the way the story is told. You might get more out of a second playthrough with a clearer idea of what’s going on, but on a first play, scenes appear out of order and with so little context that you’re left with a “what the hell was that?” feeling more than getting the next piece of the plot.
Similarly, the low resolution of the ghost videos make it sometimes difficult to follow what’s going on. If the six guests are not in their costumes, it’s hard to tell who they’re supposed to be. You can’t make out faces, let alone performances, and I get the feeling I missed a lot that I was supposed to pick up on. One great example is a clip where the magician turns a woman into a cheesily-overlaid skeleton. Who was that woman? What even just happened? It doesn’t get referenced again. Again, since these clips are supposed to be driving you to push through the next puzzle, it doesn’t help when you feel left out and scratching your head.
I went into 7th expecting an adventure game, but it really isn’t. 7th is more a collection of mini-games loosely tied together by a thin plot and confusing presentation. The developers could just as easily have included a “quick mode” where solving one puzzle immediately takes you to the next – it wouldn’t have been as flashy and impressive, but you would have missed very little. I say this to warn you against picking up 7th and expecting a typical adventure. Think of it more as a well-made and reasonably entertaining CG interactive riddle book and decide accordingly.
Beautiful 3-D mansion for 1993 with some of the best graphics DOS can buy, nice integration of interactive puzzles.
Puzzles are familiar math and logic teasers, definitely not easy. Videos don’t integrate quite as well, sometimes difficult to make out what’s going on.
Nobody came out that night
Not one was ever seen
But Old Man Stauf is waiting there,
crazy, sick, and MEAN!