Living in the Past with… The 7th Guest

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.

7th Guest Cover

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…’

Stauf

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.’

7thguest Ghost Pot

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’.’

The Ensemble

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.’

The Greatest Living Englishmen, of a fictional persuasion.

In our long and proud history many heroic Englishmen have held the hopes of the nation proudly on their shoulders.

Warriors such as Nelson, Wellington, and Bader have inspired stories of incredible bravery and courage. Whereas politicians like Wilberforce and Churchill have secured their place in legend.

Fiction though has thrown up figures who embody many of the traits the English hold dear in their hearts – integrity, resourcefulness, and of course the ubiquitous stiff-upper-lip. Like many heroes they succeed where lesser mortals would falter, and create an image of how we would all like to be. Others have the ability to stoically endure the hardships and utter confusion of this life, something many of us struggle to emulate.

So here’s a list of my top five fictional Englishman…let me know if you think differently.

5) Jeeves

Where would lovable idiot Berty Wooster be without the redoubtable Jeeves? As the clueless toff bumbles his way through a series of adventures and close shaves it is his unshakable valet that acts as a rudder in his ship, directing him to calmer waters. All this while making sure his master’s dinner suit is prepared and a miracle cure for a hangover is at hand.

Right Ho, Jeeves!

The Inimitable Jeeves

4) Sherlock Holmes

When not ensconced in his Baker street abode, playing on his violin while feeding his cocaine habit, the consulting detective could be found using his stunning intellect, and not inconsiderable knowledge of tobacco, to solve some of the most fiendish cases of the day. He was even good enough to warrant an arch-nemesis in the guise of Professor Moriarty, whose intelligence was almost as formidable as the great detective himself. With his faithful friend Dr Watson by his side Holmes became the benchmark for the modern sleuth.

He’s been portrayed in countless film and television adaptations over the years, but I must say that to me the ultimate Holmes was the one of Basil Rathbone in the 1940s series of films. No one else could rock the Deerstalker like that man!

Basil Rathbone - The Ultimate Holmes

3) John Steed

Now I know what you’re all thinking, surely James Bond was the perfect gentleman spy? Well, no. Bond, at least the literary version, was a fascinating and flawed character with a penchant for exotic cocktails, scrambled eggs, sausages, and getting himself beaten up on most of his missions. I LOVE the books, which are a far more interesting venture than the majority of the films, most of which have plot holes big enough to build a secret underground lair in. But for sheer class, grace under fire, and the ability to wear a bowler hat without looking like a complete idiot, John Steed (played by Patrick MacNee) is the chairman of the board.

More reliant on wit and intelligence than brute force and snazzy gadgets, John Steed regularly saved the world with a smile on his face. Plus the sexual tension and sense of repression between him and the rather delightful Mrs Peel served to illustrate another trait of English culture. All this during the swinging sixties – now there’s a man of quite inexhaustible self-control.

Just make sure you forget that the film version with Ralph Fiennes ever happened and everything will be ok…

Classy and Deadly - John Steed

2) Number 6

When Patrick McGoohan’s character resigns from his role as a British secret agent he suddenly finds himself kidnapped and imprisoned in the surreal setting of ‘The Village’. Here he is subjected to a series of attempts to get him to divulge the reasons for his sudden career change, each more stranger than the last. From village elections to virtual Westerns, Number 6 maintains a particularly English persona of word-play, polite manners, and subtle scheming. Let’s face it, any man who can finish a series by riding a rocking horse, presiding over the weirdest court case in history, then dancing on the back of a fake house loaded on the back of a lorry, and arrive at Westminster as if everything’s normal has got to be one of the most regal of all men.

Be seeing you…

He's not a number...he's a free man!

1) Arthur Dent

Sure, there are more capable men, more heroic men, more interesting men, but if this is truly about the great Englishmen then Arthur Dent is the only sensible choice to head the list. You see Arthur is one of us. Steed, Number 6 – these are men of incredible fortitude and bravery. Holmes and Jeeves have phenomenal minds that they use to great results. Arthur, though, gives hope to us ordinary men. Faced with the fate of the universe in the balance, the destruction of his world, and worst of all losing the lady of his dreams to the double-headed sex god that is Zaphod Beeblebrox, Arthur responds in the only authentic way a true Englishman should – he tries to find a really good cup of tea.

He may be descended from a hotch-potch collection of telephone sanitizers and advertising executives, but despite this he prevails and gets to see more than any other man in the whole of history. Arthur is the ultimate under-dog, and there’s nothing the English love and respect more than that.

The Greatest Fictional Englishman - Arthur Dent