My name is Martyn Darkly and I’m a gamer.
It’s been over thirty years since my first frantic battle on a Binatone version of Pong and I’m still addicted to the wondrous world of computer games. Along the way I’ve been, among others, a barbarian warrior, heroic space adventurer, confused visitor to a haunted town, a hobbit, a professional athlete, Arthur Dent, Bruce Lee, Paul McCartney, and a monster that felt an uncontrollable desire to engage in winter sports. You can see the attraction.
Throughout this journey there have been certain games that stood out more than others. Either they were the most fun, the most challenging, the weirdest, or just technically amazing. In a new series entitled ‘Living in the Past…’ I intend to revisit some of these classics and try to divine what made them special and the stories behind their creation. To begin with we must travel back to the early nineties, where Rob Landeros and Graham Devine had an idea to scare gamers witless with a mysterious invite to a haunted mansion.
The 7th Guest is like the Kennedy assassination, in that most people remember where they were when they first played it. From the beautifully animated 3D mansion to the groundbreaking full motion videos of ghostly apparitions, Trilobyte’s spooky puzzler introduced players to what could be achieved with ingenuity, imagination, and a new thing called a CD-ROM.
‘Rob and I were really into the old TV show Twin Peaks,’ says co-creator Graeme Devine, ‘and the company we worked for, Virgin Games, had the rights to the board game Clue. So our initial thinking was that we would make a version of Clue with a Twin Peaks feeling to it. We also loved the old movies House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting, so slowly the idea morphed into a haunted house.’
The house became the home of Henry Stauf, an evil toymaker whose creations claim the lives of several children through a strange virus. As the game begins the player enters the mansion to find it populated with bizarre puzzles to solve and ghosts roaming the halls playing out a tragic story.
‘Initially his name was Henry Steeple,’ Graeme admits, ‘Matthew Costello came up with Henry Stauf because he thought it was good to have his last name be an acronym of Faust. I think we just wanted to find the creepy angle, toy maker, creepy…’
The bulk of the puzzle design was on the shoulders of co-creator Rob Landeros, a long time fan of pen and paper brainteasers.
‘I think my main inspiration was a little game called The Fool’s Errand.’ Rob states. ‘It was a series of puzzles of various types with a tarot card related story and theme. Every time you solved a puzzle, you would get a piece of a map that would lead you to the final goal – that’s how we structured 7th Guest. Most of the house is inaccessible to start, but each time you solve a puzzle or solve a riddle, another part of the house is opened to you.’
Players had to contend with an impressive array of logic puzzles involving slicing up cakes, word play, mazes, classic board games like Reversi and chess, and deciphering patterns. But the real star of the show was the lusciously animated mansion itself. From the stained glass window in the entrance hall, to the iconic staircase that dominated the lower floor, every location was an impressive artistic feat and a world away from the typically blocky graphics of the time.
‘Our original idea was to find a mansion,’ says Rob, ‘take a camera in there, set it up on a tripod in the middle of the room, then scan 360 degrees and use that. So we found the largest house in Oregon…but there are no mansions here that have 100ft art galleries. They’re very claustrophobic and it wasn’t working. Then one of our artists, Robert Stein, played with 3D Studio and put together a room, animated it, and had furniture floating around eerily. It was kind of a revelation at that point and we said yeah, we’re gonna do it that way.’
The introduction of the ghostly video scenes that the player encounters was also something truly revolutionary.
‘There had been the Sherlock Holmes games which had tiny 160×100 videos,’ Graeme remembers, ‘but no one had tried full screen and certainly not in SVGA. A lot of people thought what we were doing was impossible and that our demos were smoke and mirrors.’
Assembling a cast from Oregon’s thriving acting community the team set about capturing the spectres that would inhabit the house and reveal the terrible story of Stauf.
‘We filmed for two days on SVHS’ says Graeme, ‘against a blue screen that wasn’t really blue (we got it at an art supply store) and that we broke (one of the actors fell through it), then repaired with blue painting tape. All in all, that’s not the best way to film ghosts. We left the halo around the actors in place because we couldn’t clean it, and made it into a ‘ghostly aura’.’
A game of the 7th Guest’s size and ambition required huge amounts of storage and advanced multimedia capabilities. Something made possible by the arrival of the CD-ROM.
‘It was timing.’ states Rob. ‘That tool was there and we were one of the first to use it. Only a handful of people had CD-ROM drives in their computers when we first started looking into them. People were still thinking of doing things the old fashioned way pixel by pixel and building up graphics. The debate was how do you fill up a CD-ROM? And even if you did how can you screen video? Those were the questions…and we solved them.’
The game was released on the Mac and PC in 1993 and sold over two million copies. Even Bill Gates became an advocate when he called it ‘the new standard in interactive entertainment’. The game also spawned a sequel ‘The 11th Hour’, and was re-released on iOS in 2010.
‘We were expecting some success,’ admits Graeme, ‘but we didn’t expect people to rush out and buy CD-ROM drives just so they could play a game. We were blown away by the reaction. I think it was something magical you could buy and play for the first time. Moving real 3D that looked nice. The puzzles were fun and the story, while a bit goofy, held your attention. More than that it was a game you could sit down as a family and play. It wasn’t Doom. There was a lot of people who wrote saying they took turns with the mouse to play the game, and while a lot of the game was spooky, it was scooby doo spooky, which you can easily sit through with a family. That said…a lot of people did seem to get really scared playing the game alone in the dark.’