[Wandrell] In 1992, the European Computer Trade Show let people take a look into the future of the game industry. While most of these games would seem to be a clear evolution of what already existed, a few decided to take advantage of the new technologies creating what, for some years, would be seen as the future: CD-ROM games. And among the very first was the mind challenging The 7th Guest.
[Mr Creosote] What we have to remind ourselves of here is that at that time, almost no computer was equipped with a CD drive at all. Many did not even have a hard disk. Compared to a floppy disk, a CD could store about 500 times as much data.
So, a CD would, in those days, seem to offer 'unlimited' storage capacity. That, however, was not everything, because filling it was not trivial. Videos were the obvious choice, but with them, most computers ran against their limits of processing power.
The arrival of CD and FMV
[Wandrell] Yes, I was a kid back then but I recall that when CD-ROMs appeared, the main idea was "At last we will be able to watch films on a computer". I still have some films and documentaries around which came for free with magazines, and the video quality was awful. Still, which better way to show that your game went beyond what diskettes could offer? To convince that this new game would push your computer to its limits?
[Mr Creosote] Basically, there were two kinds of film techniques on CDs back then: uncompressed video shown in thumbnail size (because uncompressed video would fill even a CD up quickly) or MPEG (the first MPEG standard, that is, not these much more advanced and current ones) compressed video for which you would need a special video decoder card in your computer. Which was very expensive, but the only way to play compressed video at all as the general purpose CPUs of the time were not able to do so in real time.
[Wandrell] A similar thing happened with audio. The smaller MIDI, which depended too much on the sound card, could be replaced with better audio, the Redbook Standard usually, which may offer better quality but wasn't perfect, having such problems as the sudden silence when changing tracks.
But this increase of quality was related to two other things: giving the buyer the feeling that they were getting a higher quality game (as sometimes it was just an enhanced version of an existing game), and of course stopping piracy thanks to what at the moment was a nearly impossible to copy medium.
[Mr Creosote] Of course, you can see all of these problems in action on this very site: Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective has these tiny, grainy videos, for example. Psycho Killer had to run on a 7 MHz CPU and therefore tinted all its moving pictures in one colour (as was also common practice in the early film industry).
[Wandrell] There are some examples of better faring games, sadly not that they were much better. Dragon's Lair was a LaserDisc game designed to be an arcade cabinet game, it's fast, pretty and famous, but incredibly confusing. Still it was a game that would create a school of arcades, up to games like Los Justicieros. Even the SEGA console/expansion which was the first to try to make use of this new medium, the SEGA-CD, rarely got away from the trap of making such "quick decision" games.
[Mr Creosote] So, on all computer and video game systems, CD-ROM was clearly the emerging medium. What it still lacked was the so-called 'killer application' which was so good, deemed so desirable that people would buy such a drive (which, again, would cost several hundred dollars at the time) just to play this one game. Three games are often cited to have succeeded in this role: Star Wars: Rebel Assault, Myst and The 7th Guest, the last of which we are discussing today.
[Wandrell] Rebel Assault games have still been made until recently, even if they changed the name to things such as Rogue Squadron. These on-rail shooters would become another of the big CD-ROM genres, even if it wasn't actually new it would be games such as Panzer Dragoon where it would get its fame.
On the other hand, Myst got a huge reputation. I never understood why, as it's about puzzles without any apparent logic and lacking any charm. Still, it would cast its shadow over CD games for years, even on its predecessors, as happens with the game we are discussing. The popularity of Myst went as far as it spawning a series of comics and books, don't ask me what meat they could get from such a game.
[Mr Creosote] Obviously, companies were testing new ground at the time. What sold well would be imitated and expanded upon, making games bigger and bigger. Many sequels would just offer 'more of the same' and even be advertised as such. That, too, quickly approached the space limits of the new medium, though.
[Wandrell] Taking a quick look at CD games you can easily notice this. In a certain way they were making an experiment, an attempt to renovate the industry. Not that it was a bright one, just they suddenly found themselves that their games could be a lot bigger and went for the obvious path. More hours of game and new interesting gameplay mechanics? No, fancy visuals. A trend that increased as memory limitations were dissappearing.
[Mr Creosote] You mentioned many of these games being 'on-rails' before. That was in fact a technological limitation which made these games possible in the first place – including 7th Guest. In spite of impressive breakthroughs in compression technology which this game brought, the CPUs would obviously still not be able to render a full-blown three-dimensional environment of this visual quality in real time. So what the game studios did instead was, they pre-rendered the scenes and restricted the freedom of movement to these available paths which would then just be played back to the player.
[Wandrell] Real 3D, and with that I mean something that looks like it was filmed, was a dream back then, just like it still is nowadays. But while modern games manage to feel as if they were on a three dimensional world with ease, back then they had to develop a series of tricks for this.
Doom, updating on the Wolfenstein 3D engine, managed to make 2D look like 3D. For each crosspoint in the X and Y axis you could have a Z value, in exchange for not having more than one object at that position. More advanced games, such Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, would let you walk above and below platforms, but still had some weird visual glitches related to free movement.
It's just that creating a smooth looking, and working, 3D world requires a lot of power. But they found a way to get partly over this problem: doing all the rendering job beforehand. Years later this technique would still be used on games such as Resident Evil and its backgrounds.
[Mr Creosote] 7th Guest takes the approach of having this completely artificial environment with pre-rendered movement paths, but they combine it with the other 'holy grail' technology of the time, that being the video clips we've been talking about. They get around one of the problems of the latter technology by having the plot dictate that basically everything played out as video shows ghosts, not real people. Which would explain a distinct lack of sharpness in the pictures. The overlaying of the three-dimensional rendered backgrounds with semi-transparent video clips really works surprisingly well, though. Combining these two worlds in a technical way which does not make them look disjointed is hardly trivial, but the results were really impressive here.
The plot in the video
[Wandrell] Getting into these videos, first I want to comment a thing. I suppose this is part of the sound format, Redbook, but there is no way to control the intensity of the music, so it tends to overlap what people are saying. Something to take into consideration when playing the game.
Still, it doesn't cause much damage, as the plot is given in such a way that missing one or two things won't matter. You receive it drop by drop, it's mostly your prize for achieving goals and it will arrive in a non-linear fashion. This isn't a new trick, giving pieces of the story at an apparent random pattern only increases the suspense, because what you have in front of you is a strange and eerie tale.
[Mr Creosote] For the record, same sound issue here: the music tends to drone out the voices. Before you even start the game, though, you should drop back to low-tech means, because the video intro does not really tell the whole story; much of it is laid out only in the accompanying 'Stauf Files' manual which gives some background about the characters and the situation.
[Wandrell] The funny thing is that if you got a re-release, just like me, you wouldn't get any of that. Again, in a certain way, this is another anti-piracy measure and an incentive to buy the game, but re-releases used to miss the point for this, in exchange of being cheap. Luckily this time you wouldn't miss much, except for some background story and knowing exactly who these guests are.
[Mr Creosote] So the plot goes roughly like this: A rich and obviously evil toymaker once invited six guests to his mansion, promising each of them the fulfillment of their greatest wish if they survived. Obviously playing them against each other, sowing distrust among them. One major factor in this uncertainty being that there have been obvious preparations of an as-of-yet unknown seventh guest. So far, so good – just that the protagonist/player doesn't really want to fit into the picture from a storytelling perspective.
[Wandrell] Actually the player is just a witness. It's never clear why exactly he is there, thanks to the background docs we can guess he is one of the mysterious disappearances that happen in the area near the mansion who is now taking part in the games the deceased creator of the mansion made.
[Mr Creosote] Well, the mystery of the player's identity is solved at the very end, but it still does not seem to make all that much sense. The things which happened in the mansion, the arrival of the six guests, happened years if not decades ago. The player finds himself in the deserted mansion with amnesia. A weak premise for a story is there ever was one!
[Wandrell] Still, this is excusable because the plot feels like a secondary part of the game. As said, you are just watching it all unfold in front of you. The characters that matter are the ones you see, and you have no actual impact on the story, it's all being driven in a single direction, no matter what you do. After all, this is a story of ghost reliving what was an important event in their lives.
[Mr Creosote] Although I would not agree that the plot is secondary to the game, it is true that it unfolds in a completely non-interactive fashion. That is truly a pity, because although I strongly disliked the initial stupid amnesia setting, as it actually unfolded in these little snippets or puzzle pieces, I found it to be a classic tale of a pact with evil, temptation and conscience which wasn't even badly acted. Apart from the kid, that is.
[Wandrell] It's true that good acting, even decent acting was missing in a lot of the FMV games. And being as important as it is for the mood, a bad group of actors could destroy the game.
[Mr Creosote] Another issue, caused by a decision I understand, but nevertheless dislike, is the costuming. Of course, with the grainy quality, the characters still have to be distinguishable, but is that really a reason to have some characters running around in clown costumes?
[Wandrell] I suppose you mean the "wizard". He is wearing a topical indian looking attire for a stage magician, and the others keep with the typical, or topical, 30s look: an old woman which seems to have just fled from a speakeasy, the mysterious man, the old couple and the femme fatale.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, there was really no reason for that magician to wear his stage attire. Anyway, those are minor gripes. I was actually very positively surprised by the plot and the way it was carried out when I played it this time around. It was much better than I remembered. Which can't be said about the weakly embedded gameplay, unfortunately.
The gameplay outside the plot
[Wandrell] For my part it was mostly how I recalled, it was not the first time I replayed this game. I like the mood and I like the puzzles, of which there are a lot, most are mathematically based ones (lots of matrixes and graphs here), but there are a few others that can get you with your guard low.
[Mr Creosote] Perhaps the fiercest problems of this 'multimedia game' genre strikes to its extremes in this game: Between all the glitzy presentation, they forgot to make a game to accompany it. So you get puzzles… but not puzzles in the adventure genre sense, but completely disjointed challenges which have virtually nothing to do with the plot. Supposedly, they are deadly traps set by the evil mastermind behind it all in order to have his fun with his guests, but that's a rather weak link. Especially since no single video shows any of the guests being killed trying to solve one of the puzzles; they all either kill each other off or are caught in completely unrelated traps which the player never encounters. In fact, it is never explained why these puzzles are there and especially why the player is trying to solve them – there is no incentive to other the fact that they are there.
[Wandrell] I always expected some short of deadly trick somewhere, but it never appears. They feel more like challenges the bad guy leaves for his own amusement. And they vary a lot in difficulty and originality. Actually most of the puzzles are famous ones, including the chess queens, or dividing a surface and its resources in an even way. So it's probable you have played lots of them already somewhere else.
[Mr Creosote] Exactly. In theory, there are 22 puzzles in the game. This is already not a lot. However, you have to understand that already a whole three of them take place on a chess board. Similarly, there are three sliding puzzles (yes, the kind I used to solve as a kid). Many, as you said, are either well-known anyway, so you will know the answer straight away or they are completely trivial (the blood flow 'labyrinth' or the annoying repetition of this melody while the regular music just won't stop playing).
[Wandrell] And a bunch of others as I said are based on matrixes and graphs. This means that once you know the trick for one, you know the trick for most of them, because they are based on the same general ideas, like the two puzzles based on choosing a path which creates a phrase, which are incredibly easy.
[Mr Creosote] Or flipping the coins and cards in the right order – it just doesn't matter whether it's coins or playing cards, it's the same puzzle! Of course, there are a few which are virtually impossible as well. The one with the knights, for example; it's mathematically incredibly complex and I doubt many people have solved this in the days before readily available solutions on the Internet!
[Wandrell] My problem is with the cans. I always forget what it is about. In part because it's a weird English based puzzle, in part because you get so used to mechanical puzzles that you expect it to be about colors and numbers.
[Mr Creosote] In the case of the cans, you're supposed to form an English sentence with given letters – not a single of which is a vowel. Good luck even if you are a native speaker. Once you figure out the sentence, the mechanics of the puzzle are trivial, though.
[Wandrell] On the good side of thing, there is no arcane and impossible to understand one. Luckily, because the hints you can get in the library are not too useful.
[Mr Creosote] Not useful? They will automatically solve almost every puzzle for you if you want to!
[Wandrell] They can? Didn't know that, going there is too much of a punishment. There is no drawback for their use?
[Mr Creosote] If you consult the hint book in the library for the third time about the same puzzle, it will automatically be solved, but you will not get to see the video clip intended to be shown after solving that particular puzzle. Still, I think it's the one saving grace considering that pretty much everybody would be completely stuck sooner or later.
So the puzzles are pretty much all repeatable logic puzzles; solve them once, you can solve them again. The one exception is the microscope puzzle which is actually a small game played against the computer. Also not a new game, of course: It's just Virgin's own Infection/Ataxx.
[Wandrell] Actually, they released it last year for iPad as a game of the The 7th Guest series. I suppose it sells more than the original name.
[Mr Creosote] For those who don't know it, it's a variant of Reversi/Othello which, as I said, Virgin had already made as a standalone game a couple of years earlier. It's quite a fun game, I must admit! Why anyone would put the 7th Guest CD in their drive just to play this instead of the standalone version (which even offers randomised and editable boards for more variation), I have no idea, though.
[Wandrell] We have covered most of the puzzles, but there is one nobody on his right mind would dare to try: a labyrinth. Yes, you have to traverse it with this clumsy movement interface, and when you first get to it there is nothing telling you what point you want to reach.
I think we mentioned there are voices when you are solving the puzzles. Not only do they stop the game, not letting you keep going with the puzzle, but they always repeat at the same intervals each time you restart the puzzle.
Just look at the sliding pieces one, which is really easy. Just that after a few moves you hear the bad guy saying "Finding this puzzle a bit grrrrrrrating?". After a few more moves, your character, showing he can achieve as much as the ghost says "To get around this puzzle… I must get a round!". Yes, the objective is getting a round shape to cross the grate, how clever you are, kid.
And this repeats with all the puzzles. No exception. Sometimes it's fun having the bad ghost trying to get on your nerves, but this is finally too distracting.
[Mr Creosote] Considering this is mostly meant to be serious horror, I found this extremely inappropriate and very annoying. Especially because these interjections indeed begin long before even the bare minimum of turns you would need for the optimum solution – OK, taunt me when I'm really stuck, but not when I'm on the perfect track!
[Wandrell] It's clearly made so you have to hear them all. And no way of skipping, you have to listen to them fully.
[Mr Creosote] Talking about annoyances, there is a map to the labyrinth in one of the rooms, but of course, that one is only unlocked after you've gone through the thing already. Ah, yes, we should mention that the game enforces a not quite, but nevertheless existing linearity by seemingly randomly unlocking rooms in the course of the game. Which means you're constantly forced to traverse the whole mansion again and again, searching for doors which might have been unlocked in the meantime.
[Wandrell] They truly did some things just to make you hate the game. Moving around the mansion is one of these things. I can't stand the slow interaction. Everything is slow. You move slowly, you choose options slowly, you solve puzzles slowly, the voices and scenes load slowly…
With slowly I mean there is always some kind of lag, sometimes it's just the animations themselves, which end being painfully repetitive, but others it's just that suddenly a voice starts and you can't do anything until it finishes, or a video that is going to play and freezes everything else. Or my favorite, suddenly finding a one-way secret path, that forces you to walk through half to mansion to get back to the room you want to be in.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, those one-way connections are definitely a pain! And, of course, you have the typical problem of those early technology wonders: They will play their animations whether you want it or not. You cannot skip the intro or any of the walking animations (which, I should add, don't look like someone walking at all, but rather like gliding, but that was common at the time). The nature of the pre-rendered walking sequences also implies that your character will often take quite big detours to get somewhere, just because a more direct connection has not been rendered.
[Wandrell] They could have made a map. Wait a moment. They did implement a map! Just that it's not only slow to reach: you open the menu, select the map option, wait for the map to show and then to load, and after that you can change levels and see it load again…
But to make it worse you can't use it to travel anywhere. There is a cheat panel allowing you to teleport to any room, so this shouldn't have been a problem.
[Mr Creosote] Saving and loading the game is also a bit of a problem as after restoring, you will not find yourself where you thought you had left the game, but you will always 'respawn' at fixed places, forcing you to walk to the place of your actual next challenge again.
[Wandrell] It's all really boring and cumbersome. But moving around is not what the game is about, but the puzzles you are trying to reach. Which will annoyingly and unnecessarily make you slide halfway through the mansion again and again.
[Mr Creosote] They are just too proud of the animations they produced there. Which pretty much sums the game up. Without a doubt, it was a technical sensation and it actually does hold up pretty well technically even these days. The prouction values (including the acting) leave the good impression of being a serious pioneer work as opposed to a quick cash-in only counting on foolish early adopters of new technology blindly buying everything.
However, the game… where is the game? The puzzles are mostly completely uninteresting and they have obviously been added as an afterthought. Just take a couple of standard logic challenges from textbooks and that's it. No connection to what's going on in the game, as we pointed out is great detail. That is not experimental gameplay as probably often found in a new medium, but an experiment of how little they can get away with and still be called a game. Insulting!
[Wandrell] Actually I think the game has some sort of charm, not that I managed to finish it ever, it ends tiring me before that, but as one of the first FMV games I played, it has a place in my memory.
Also I must comment that to me the game got a weird release. I know magazines had talked about the game, gave it publicity and the usual, so it baffles me that the game was never translated, not even subtitled, and in the early nineties few could get any sense out of spoken English outside of the countries where it is the native language. What a way to sink your marketing campaign, trying to sell a game that nobody would understand.
And this contradiction carries to the game, is just like they give you half, and expect you to fix the other half for yourself. And this would stay true for this genre of FMV games, the puzzle ones, where they expected strong visuals to make up for any design mistake. Surprisingly it worked for some, such as Myst, but in the case of The 7th Guest the series reached the second game, but never the planned third.
On the long run, nothing big was lost, still the puzzles are fun if you play for the first time, and the game, thanks in part to the videos, manages to get a nice mood. Not all is bad here.
[Mr Creosote] The big difference, I would say (although I dislike Myst much more strongly than this one), is that Myst's puzzles somewhat organically originate from the world, while they are completely disjointed entities in The 7th Guest. Nevertheless, and in spite of the language barrier you mentioned, the formula worked – millions of copies were sold! And that in spite of a price tag which was more than twice what other new games were sold for at the time. Yes, folks, it's not just an urban legend! I scanned the receipt, it actually says 199 DM, at a time when other new games would be sold for 70 or 80 DM max!
[Wandrell] I suppose it was in the right place in the right moment. Nobody was in the crest of the CD-ROM wave and they took that place.
[Mr Creosote] Absolutely. And, well, it was good enough. We named many other early CD games in the course of the review. If you look at those which came before this, they were mostly really bad. Psycho Killer anyone? The 7th Guest is at least worth seeing, even if the fun is very limited.
[Wandrell] I think the same. If you want to see how the CD-ROM age started this is one of the games to check.