I’m a coward when it comes to horror games. But that doesn’t mean I’ve not played them: although I’m never going to be brave enough to face an action-adventure or survival on my own, I’ve managed to force myself through a few scary point-and-clicks over the years.
One of these was Shivers by Sierra Online back when it was released in November 1995. Picking it up again last year reminded me of just how much it had frightened me then, and I felt that familiar fear sink its teeth in even though the cartoon spirits are laughable now. A lot of this feeling was to do with the soundtrack; many studies have documented the ability of songs to recall previous events and emotions, and hearing The Theatre and The Secret Hall returned me to being a scared teenager.
Before this though was The 7th Guest in January 1993. Like with Shivers, it seems strange now that it was a game I bought as its promise of a ‘long-abandoned mansion’ filed with ‘eerie lights and the terrible sing-song rhymes of children’ should have really put me off. I remember playing it on the PC in my parents’ conservatory during the evenings after school while they were in the lounge, the lights and sound of the television from the other room making me brave enough to continue.
After meeting Darkshoxx in October last year, I watched several of his streams where he attempted to speedrun Trilobyte Games’ release. We then had the pleasure of seeing him move on to sequel The 11th Hour as part of a charity marathon one Friday evening. Seeing these games being played again made me want to return to The 7th Guest myself so, after receiving the 25th Anniversary Edition as a Christmas gift from Ellen from Ace Asunder and then working through a section for our GameBlast21 marathon stream, I decided it was time for a proper playthrough.
This isn’t your typical horror. Instead of grabbing your gun to fight off the monsters or hiding from ghosts in cupboards, the action takes place in the form of 22 puzzles dotted around the mansion and solving these opens further rooms. They range in type and difficulty, and there are some spooky happenings as you progress: you may hear a random scream coming from upstairs, see hands trying to push through a painting on the wall or get sucked into a secret passage which transports you to a different area.
The room I remember most from my first playthrough was the kitchen for two reasons. First, the puzzle was one which had me stumped for a while: your objective is to rearrange tin-cans with letters on them to form a sentence, but you must make do with only Ys as no vowels are provided. I spent days working on anagrams in a notepad and it was through this that I learnt the word ‘tryst’. Luckily I recalled this memory and was able to solve the challenge the second time around with little difficulty.
The second reason is the soup incident. As mentioned above, strange things happen at certain points in the game and if you click on the stove in the kitchen, you’ll be treated to a full-motion video (FMV) clip where a liquid face comes out of a pot. I remember this one frightening me the most as a teenager. The 7th Guest’s story is told through similar FMV scenes, although their sequence is dependent upon the how you tackle the rooms and so they may not necessarily be shown in order.
This made me wonder how well the plot is communicated to today’s audience. Storytelling methods in video games have progressed far beyond what was available to players back when this title was released and so I can see how elements of The 7th Guest could be viewed as confusing and out-dated. Indeed, I asked the friends who had joined us in Twitch chat whether they understood what was going on – and most of them admitted to not knowing what was happening.
I carried on progressing through the rooms, hoping that the ending would make the narrative clearer for viewers. The bishop puzzle in one of the bedrooms upstairs almost stopped us though and trying to move two sets of chess pieces to the opposite side of the board was just as difficult as I remembered it to be. Thankfully, we had both Darkshoxx and Die4Ever2011 – the person who holds the world record for completing the game in the fastest possible time – to give us several hints which got us through it.
So did the final cutscene make the narrative any clearer for those in Twitch chat after over ten hours of gameplay? The answer on one hand is yes because they now understood the plot-twist; but the other it’s no, because there were several friends who asked: ‘Is that it?’. There are certainly a few holes and unanswered questions when I look at the story through older eyes now. But playing it as a teenager in 1993, I seemed to overlook all those problems and lose myself in the atmosphere of the mansion.
To be quite honest though, I’m not sure the title has aged entirely well. The FMV sections were technically ground-breaking at the time of release and I remember being amazed by them but now, they just look incredibly fuzzy; and the ghostly moments are more cliched and comical than terrifying. Whereas Shivers managed to still scare me thanks to its creepy soundtrack and mysterious museum setting, I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the effects and acting throughout The 7th Guest.
But this is what makes it what it is. It’s nostalgic and brings back what you remember of gaming in the 1990s. It wouldn’t be the same title without the bad FMV cutscenes, weird villain and cheesy lines and a remake just wouldn’t be able to capture what made it special. I can see why many players still look at this classic fondly, and it has been a pleasure getting to know several members of the speedrunning community who continue to hold it in high regard.
During our streams, Attagoat suggested we next move on to The 11th Hour. It’s something I’d like to do one day because I bought it when it was released but never finished it. First though, I think I’m going to immerse myself in the world of FMV a little deeper as The 7th Guest has reminded me why I love these games so much.