Saturday, October 27, 2012

The 7th Guest For MS-DOS

You're alone and afraid, trapped in a dilapidated gothic mansion with no memory of who you are or how you got there. You wander its lonely, dusty halls in search of escape, all the while antagonized by the ghoulish, disembodied voice of its former owner. Suddenly a flash of movement registers in the corner of your eye. You whirl around and find yourself face to face with the most obscene horror imaginable: A game of Reversi! 

So anyway, The 7th Guest is a very early multimedia game for the PC, and the first on the platform to utilize full motion video. The game is set in a small town in upstate New York in the 1920s. A murderous drifter by the name of Henry Stauf had a vision of a beautiful doll one night. He carved his vision into a real doll, took it into town, and sold it to the local bartender. Word of Stauf's amazing dolls spread fast, and soon everyone in town wanted one. Stauf set up shop and quickly became rich off the sale of his unique dolls. Filthy with lucre and now the talk of the town, Stauf built an enormous, imposing mansion on a cliffside overlooking the small hamlet. But then, a strange disease swept through the town's children, killing all of them who owned Stauf's toys. Stauf dropped out of sight and the house fell quiet for years, until six guests received an invitation to spend the night, as well as the promise of winning their hearts' desires if they could solve the mansion's puzzle.

The game is played in a first-person perspective as you, an entity known only as Ego, travel from room to room in the mansion. Each room contains a puzzle that must be solved in order to advance the plot and unlock more rooms. As you progress, you learn the ultimate fate of each guest, told through FMV cutscenes featuring some of the hammiest, scene chewingest acting ever put to film. The acting is supremely cheesy, but in the context of the story, an old-fashioned gothic horror tale, it works well enough. The puzzles, on the other hand, just don't fit with the theme of the game at all. They're all very stylized and they look great, but despite The 7th Guest's best efforts, there is nothing inherently terrifying about solving a brain-teaser. There's no consequence for losing a puzzle, other than having to start it over, so there's really nothing at stake and no way to lose the game. The hardest puzzle, a You-vs-Stauf game of Ataxx played inside a microscope, can be completely skipped. Too many puzzles rely on tedious, boring repetition to draw out the length of the game. It's cool to see knights materialize out of the bathroom floor's tiles, but after an hour or more spent solving that puzzle, the novelty is long gone. There's not a whole lot of variety in the puzzles, either. Though a few are unique, too many are of the chess piece movement, card/coin flip and picture puzzle variety. There is a book in the library which provides hints, and ultimately solves most of the puzzles for you if you visit it enough. It's a convenient way to finish the game quickly, but it certainly kills the challenge. With long puzzles grinding the game to a halt, The 7th Guest never builds a sense of momentum, and since the rooms and cutscenes can be played out of sequence, the plot is sometimes hard to follow.

I found simply exploring the haunted Stauf mansion to be the most enjoyable aspect of the game. It's a beautifully-rendered building, and it feels at once fantastical and completely realistic. It has a classic Hollywood haunted house feel to it, where no lamp ever seems to radiate any light, and every hallway disappears into an inky blackness. It's easy to imagine a fake skeleton on a string hiding inside every closet and waiting to jump out at you at Stauf's place. Since you're presumably non-corporeal, you don't so much walk through it as glide, and smooth animations take you from one fixed location to another, like you're in a theme-park ride. You can even travel through secret passageways in the fireplace, behind the walls, or through the plumbing. Most locations have hotspots of spookiness that can be tripped by clicking on them or approaching them at the right moment. These moments, and the mixed feelings of curiosity and dread they engender, are much more entertaining than the puzzles.

Gameplay issues aside, The 7th Guest was a huge step forward in videogaming. Released to the PC nearly 20 years ago, it was one of the first games to fully exploit the nascent CD-ROM technology. It's an impressive-looking game by today's standards, and in 1993, it was jaw-dropping. There are no particularly horrifying moments in this horror game, (except for the clown in the game room--yeesh!) but the creepy jazz score, the dark hallways and the grainy, transparent videos make for a very atmospheric gaming experience. For a long time, The 7th Guest wasn't playable on a modern computer outside DOSBox, but now that Trilobyte Games is back from the dead, it's making appearances on iOS devices, in the Mac App Store and on Good Old Games.

Thanks for reading my review! Next time, it's Zaxxon 3D for Sega Master System.

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