Everything Is Scary

Be responsible, contemplate the void.

They're Alive! They're Alive! - Full Motion Video and The 7th Guest

Nostalgia and Other Trips Through Time

Arcade (noun)

1.  Architecture.

  1. a series of arches supported on piers or columns.
  2. an arched, roofed-in gallery.

2.

an arched or covered passageway, usually with shops on each side.

3.

an establishment, public area, etc., containing games of a mechanical and electronic type, as pinball and video games, that can be played by a customer for a fee.

4.

an ornamental carving, as on a piece of furniture, in the form of a rowof arches.

(from Dictionary.com)

I remember with great fondness the arcades that once proliferated not only as independent establishments, but also in theatres, at amusement parks, even in lounges and bars.  There are still some arcades, but their time in the spotlight has definitely come to an end.  But I'll always cherish the times I could go into a place like Laserquest to find games like Arm Champs IISunset Riders, or, perhaps most thrillingly, Time Traveller.

For those who don't fall into the age range of roughly 25-45, or didn't have the fortune to this holographic wonder, that screenshot is, in fact, a video game.  You'd better believe this blew our tiny minds when we saw it in the arcade.  Sure, graphics had already gone into 3D by the time Time Traveller rolled around, and we even had Full Motion Video arcade games like Dragon's Lair for years.  But with games like Time Traveller, the ante had been upped.  Now, you were controlling real, live, PEOPLE.

Video games are all about the power rush, and I can think of no greater power rush than placing "live" humans in the hands of maniacal children.

And boy, did the 90s try to capitalize on this gimmick.  With CD-roms becoming the new standard method for shipping home video games, both on consoles and on computers, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to load up on live action video.  This quickly got of hand, to the point where you would see games shipping on massive booklets of two, then four, then six, then - I swear I am not making this up because it actually happened with Black Dahlia - EIGHT CDs.

Thankfully, the game I'll be talking about today was not quite this ambitious, as it was, in fact, one of the very first titles to ship solely on CD-ROM.

And Now, the Game

The 7th Guest is a horror/puzzle game from Trilobyte, a studio basically known for nothing else.  This is not necessarily an indictment of the abilities of the people who worked for it, but rather an indicator of the impact of The 7th Guest.  This game sold BIG, and, depending on how you view the subsequent torrent/plague of FMV titles, deserves credit/blame for the proliferation of CD-ROM drives and software.

The plot to The 7th Guest is established through an opening cutscene framed as a storybook narration.  It tells of a wicked drifter, Henry Stauf, murdering a women in the town of Harley-in-the-Hudson for her purse.  After fleeing with the stolen goods, Stauf curls up for a nap, as drifters do, and has a vision of a magnificent toy doll.  Stauf carves the doll exactly as he sees it in his vision, and successfully trades it for room and board.  Shortly after, he has more visions of other toys, and becomes a famous toymaker.  All the people of Harley-in-the-Hudson want his creations, as "A Stauf toy is a toy for life."

You know, until the children who own them all start dying of a mysterious illness.

Of course, nothing ties Stauf back to this illness, and he moves on to build a huge mansion on the edge of town, again, based on a vision in his dreams.  For a while, nobody hears a peep from the mysterious toymaker.  And then one day, abruptly, he decides to host a party, to which he invites six guests (Interestingly, their names are only mentioned briefly (if at all), so I had to rely on Wikipedia to find them out):

"Martine Burden, a former singer; Edward and Elinor Knox, a dissatisfied middle-aged couple; Julia Heine, a bank worker who reminisces of her youth; Brian Dutton, a fellow shop owner; and Hamilton Temple, a stage magician." via wikipedia

So you might think that you, naturally, take on the role of the titular 7th guest, and, eventually, you do...but actually from the get-go you are given basically no info and no motivation to go on.  You explore the house, and as you go, you witness the events of the party and the interactions of the six guests, but it is all in visions.  What's more, the events are told non-linear, so you are essentially piecing together what exactly transpired that fateful evening.

This is, unfortunately, a major flaw in the game's storytelling department, and it also affects the game's scare factor considerably.  I'll come to the latter point in a moment.  With storytelling, the problem is that you don't really know why you're doing what you're doing, and that means that even in gameplay terms knowing where to go next is a constant struggle.  Even identifying that a puzzle is right in front of you can be something of a challenge.  Usually you'll end up sweeping your mouse over the screen to see the icon transform into the skull that means a puzzle is present.

The puzzles themselves are quite engaging and are frequently adaptations of classic brain teasers.  There are plenty of mazes, some word puzzles, a couple of slider puzzles, a take on the "x"-pointed star puzzle...the list goes on.  A lot of them are chess-based, requiring you to move pieces in a certain fashion, or assemble a board in a certain way.  In fact, I'd go as far as saying too many of them are chess-based, to the point that it becomes tiresome to go into a room only to see a tell-tale check pattern on the floor.

The real problem, though, is that most of the puzzles are are utterly lacking in context.  Supposedly these puzzles you're solving are some sort of booby traps or clues to finding a "prize" promised by Stauf to the guests of the party.  The thing is, there's no penalty for failure.  You just try and try and try again until you get it right.  And when you get it right, it usually triggers a FMV scene, instead of opening a room or giving you an item, which is the traditional adventure-game formula.  Well, that's not entirely true.  Solving a puzzle DOES allow access to another puzzle, but there's no cue, auditory or visually, to let you know that anything has happened.  You just get a scene, unrelated to where you're supposed to go next, and based on that you then aimlessly drift through the house to another puzzle.

Indeed, most rooms are inexplicably inaccessible, and you'll return to them after solving puzzles to find they are now just as inexplicably accessible.  It's without rhyme or reason.  And don't tell me that it's because Stauf is insane, because fuck you.  An insane antagonist is no excuse for bad storytelling.  It's why there are good Batman comics with the Joker, and bad Batman comic books with the Joker.

OK, But Is It Scary?

WEEEEELLLLL...No.  Not really.  There are some decent atmospheric effects, and though the acting is ATROCIOUS, it's understandable.  Early blue-screen effects (yes, blue, not green) gave everything this weird afterglow, and the film quality was understandably shite due to the data compression of fitting the game on two CDs.  The game designers wisely decided to incorporate this into the story by making the FMV sequences into "visions," and this part of the story DOES work.  The acting itself had to be hammy, because subtle wouldn't cut it.  You could hardly make out the facial expressions of the actors in most scenes, barring a few closeups, so broad gestures and booming voices were the standard M.O.  And yes, the lack of context for your puzzle-solving and removal of imminent threats on you, the player, make this game significantly less scary than it could have been.  It's a shame, really, because the story does turn INCREDIBLY dark towards the end.

It turns out that Stauf's success and fame are due to a deal he made with some kind of demon, and the price for his riches are the souls of the town's children.  You eventually find a room full of dolls inhabited by the little tykes, and they scream pitifully at you as you pass through.  It's pretty effed up.  But if that's not enough, you also get this goddamn nightmare fuel:

Yes, that is a vision of one such doll literally coming to life to smother an INFANT.  You get to watch as the helpless baby's face turns blue and it stops moving entirely.  I mean, JESUS.  Child-murder is a pretty taboo subject at the best of times, and you can bet that modern censors would have something to say about this now.

So, The 7th Guest is...OK.  It's not scary so much as disturbing, but I forgive it a lot because it was trying new things and being inventive about how it incorporated new technology.  The trend of home FMV titles resulted in a LOT of dreck, but it did also lead to some genuinely great games, including the absolutely effed up Phantasmagoria.  Ultimately though, the lesson here is that simply putting live people in your video games does not necessarily mean it will be scarier. 

It does mean, however, that people like me will wistfully remember the days of our youth, when we got to control various community theatre actors as they murdered other community theatre actors.  Ahhh...good times.

Darkness follows.