The 7th Guest is a graphical adventure game developed by Trilobyte and released in 1993 by Virgin. It was one of the first commercial games to ship only on CD-ROM, and certainly one of the first to really showcase the potential of the new storage medium. Trilobyte loaded the game with hundreds of megabytes worth of fully-rendered 3-D graphics, live-action video clips, and digitized audio, and topped it all off with some pretty clever puzzles and music by The Fat Man. Unfortunately, The 7th Guest is interesting now only from a historical perspective, the wizardry of its graphics and sound long overshadowed by newer PC technology.
It's probably impossible for us today to really appreciate the "wow factor" all this generated back in 1993, but it might help to consider that other games released in 1993 included Simon the Sorceror, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle, and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Although all of these games are still loved and played by many gamers today, they reveal the limitations of the floppy disk era: Lots of text, Low-resolution graphics, and cumbersome disk swapping (though, I should note that later editions of these games did take advantage of the CD-ROM). The CD-ROM opened up new opportunities for a more "cinematic" experience, such as voice recordings and digitized video. Unfortunately, even though the 7th Guest was an engineering marvel for its time, it has failed to foster the sort of cult following enjoyed by the other games released in 1993. The reason is pretty straightforward: It's a lousy game whose appeal relied almost exclusively on its tech wizardry. Now that that wizardry is commonplace (if not obsolete), it fails to measure up to games like Myst, which combines great graphics with a compelling story and better puzzles.
Nevertheless, The 7th Guest does some things right. The opening scenes of the game, which feature a magical book, are particularly impressive, and do a good job of catching the player's attention and getting her interested in the game. The intro is clearly a "remediation" of a children's storybook with television. Each page contains a grayscale image that later becomes a live-action video clip. These clips tell the story of one demented, Faustian-like character named "Stauf." Stauf has been having dreams of dolls and other objects, which he carves out of wood and sells to the locals. His dolls are particularly popular with children--until they start mysteriously dying. Stauf, however, has become filthy rich, and has built one last dream-inspired object: a mysterious house. There he has invited six guests (representing, more or less, the deadly sins), and promises to grant their deepest wishes if they can only solve all the puzzles and perform some secret task involving a seventh and uninvited guest. The instructions in the manual are fairly straightforward--you must solve all the puzzles to win the game. Each time you solve a puzzle, you will learn more of the story and uncover Stauf's evil plot. You will also learn the identity and purpose of the Seventh Guest.
All in all, it's not a bad setup for an adventure game. However, the execution is a bit weak. The brief, ghostly videoclips are too short and over-acted to really offer much in the way of dramatic tension. Likewise, the Fat Man's audio tracks, while certainly interesting and fun to listen to, are too chirpy and upbeat to inspire a feeling of dread or suspense. The characters are cardboard cutouts and left nearly completely undeveloped, and the ending seems far too pat. In short, there's not much in the way of story or character development here. Savor the introduction; the rest is pretty cut and dry.
Gameplay consists of solving a number of autonomous logic puzzles located in each room. By "autonomous," I mean that the puzzles aren't related to each other except that you must solve most of them in sequence. Several of the puzzles are really clever and very fun to play. They range from word-puzzles to chess to a notoriously difficult Othello-type puzzle. The developers were even kind enough to throw in an in-game hint system, and you can even skip one puzzle entirely if you're just plain stuck (I would advise saving this for the infamous germ puzzle). There's also a puzzle involving a piano that anyone who has played this game will probably shudder to recall. You must "follow the leader" through an 18-note sequence (with 18 total iterations). One note off, and you must start over. Even if you get it right the first time, it takes a long time to get through the puzzle.
All movement and manipulation is performed with the mouse and very intuitive. The game was designed to be accessible even to people who had never played a computer game before, and it shows. It's perhaps a bit ironic that the game is so incredibly difficult to play on modern machines; you need to be something of a computer hacker to play a game intended for folks who barely know how to turn a computer on!
Indeed, it's very instructive to browse the game's manual. The vast majority of this 30-page document is concerned with getting the game to run. It's easy to forget in 2006 just how painful things used to be before DirectX and OpenGL. There were dozens of sound and video cards on the market, and most of them were as incompatible as mayo and peanut butter. Likewise, most PCs didn't come equipped with CD-ROMs or enough memory to run the game. Indeed, in 1993, most PCs had no speakers, and few even had color monitors. Though flawed, The 7th Guest demonstrated that the PC could be a powerful gaming device, and that games were no longer limited to pixelated cartoons. The gap between television and computer games had just been transgressed. The upshot of all this was that many people upgraded their computers just to run this game--a development that paved the way for Cyan's Myst and other CD-ROM games.
In short, The 7th Guest is an interesting game mostly from a historical perspective. Trilobyte is clearly not on the same shelf as Cyan, LucasArts, or Sierra. Still, they were the CD-ROM pioneers and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for gaming on the PC. For that, I pay them homage.
I remember when Philips was demonstrating their re-commitment to their CD-i platform that the "7th Guest" was one of the games they were showcasing. With Philips' digital video add-on (which not only allowed full screen, full motion video at roughly VHS quality, but also provided extra system memory), which would soon become standard with new models, the CD-i was able to meet and exceed in most ways 7th Guest running on a high end PC of the time (which was a 486-level machine).
The "7th Guest" was a big seller for the era on PC, though it never reached the levels of "Myst", which itself was eventually far eclipsed by the runaway success of the very different "The Sims". The "11th Hour" sequel never matched anywhere near the popularity of its predecessor. Frankly, I was never a fan of games like the "7th Guest" or "Myst", though as a collector by default I have countless versions of the latter for a variety of platforms.
I forgot to mention in my review that there's an amazing feature on Trilobyte over at GameSpot: Haunted Glory. I read the piece and really admired its depth and clarity. I was reminded strongly of David Kushner's book Masters of Doom.
From what I see in the history of such things, typically what happens is a virtually unknown company steps up to the plate with a really innovative game which causes a "paradigm shift" in the industry. However, that initial game (or games) typically fade fast as more experienced developers learn the techniques and produce better quality games.
Trilobyte really got the CD-ROM thing going, but it was up to other companies to really make good titles for it. So far, id seems to be doing well with Doom and Quake, but it seems safe to say that Sierra On-Line's Half-Life series does them a step better. Of course, with Doom 3, id played yet another tech wizardry card, but again Sierra stepped in with a better game.
I'm just waiting for another Trilobyte to step into the GAG arena and bust the current paradigm.