Anyone who owned a PC with a CD-ROM drive in 1993 was the envy of their friends; compared with the archaic floppy disks PC gamers had been familiar with, a CD drive seemed so futuristic it was almost like alien technology. This new era promised huge games, orchestral soundtracks, and even (whisper it) full motion video (still known as FMV).
With any new video gaming hardware, a successful product relies upon early platform-shifting ‘must have’ software; only a couple of years previously a certain blue hedgehog had helped to launch Sega’s Mega Drive (or Genesis for any readers outside Europe) into the stratosphere. In this case, it fell to a peculiar little puzzle game called The 7th Guest to encourage people to splash out on a CD-ROM. Developed by Trilobyte and published by Virgin Interactive Entertainment, the game was released to much fanfare, leaning on its use of live action video clips as well as its adult themes and content. Although amusingly tame today, the game really did seem genuinely dark and disturbing at the time, a much more cerebral and chilling proposal than the comedy cartoon gore we’d been drenched in by the likes of Mortal Kombat.
Despite its psychological horror trappings, the game was a simple puzzle affair, with the player taking on the role of an amnesiac trapped in a haunted house. Only by solving a series of brainteasers could they learn the truth of their identity and make their escape. The puzzles themselves were apparently lifted straight from 19th century puzzle books to avoid copyright issues, and although they were cleverly worked into the game’s themes and a bizarre storyline about a demented toymaker (more on him later…) they were hardly revolutionary from a gameplay standpoint. Despite these shortcomings, The 7th Guest video game sold a staggering two million copies, with Bill Gates calling it ‘the new standard in interactive entertainment’.
I first played it at a friend’s house (my parents hadn’t yet caved into my demands for a high-spec PC) and was hooked straight from the introduction – follow this link to relive the (dark) magic!
In this sequence, the game’s ground-breaking graphics were showcased via a 3D-rendered story book, whose pages flipped over to present short video clips. An ominous lullaby plays in the background as a deadpan narrator sets the scene, detailing the fall and rise of a certain Henry Stauf, a toymaker whose creations made him rich and famous… that is, until the children that bought his toys begin to die of a mysterious disease, and Stauf retreats into self-imposed incarceration inside his greatest plaything of all, a sinister and imposing mansion at the top of a hill. Six guests find themselves invited to the house, each baffled but intrigued by the mysterious letter they have received from the enigmatic entrepreneur.
Each visitor is then introduced via a short clip; the acting on display is serviceable at best, but such is the quality of Robert Hirschboek’s performance as the dastardly Stauf that the game’s ludicrous plot and grainy cutscenes are genuinely engrossing. Stauf taunts you at every turn, laughing at your attempts to solve his fiendish puzzles, shrieking in exasperation when you do, and revealing himself to be a master Machiavellian manipulator as he gleefully turns the guests against each other. Follow the link below for a poem that perhaps best sums up the character’s cruel, sadistic and at times downright frightening portrayal – I honestly could listen to Hirschboeck’s maniacal ramblings all day long.
Mention should also be made of the game’s soundtrack, which took full advantage of the new CD technology to bring us an array of truly dread-inducing tracks – indeed, the game’s second disc was almost entirely taken up by the music, which could be played in a normal CD player. Check out the link below for a near-perfect half hour of dark ambience, which I use as a nice change from Akira Yamaoka whenever I’m writing something eerie.
The 7th Guest was a flawed but delightful horror masterpiece, and like all successful video games it spawned a sequel. The 11th Hour game is a real curiosity – released in 1995, it did little to advance upon the mechanics of the original, and its storyline ventures into utterly preposterous territory – you can watch a compilation of all of its cut scenes below if you want to attempt to decipher the preposterous, often unintentionally hilarious goings-on. Personally, I don’t rate it very highly, despite the best efforts of Hirschboeck, who reprises his role as the nefarious Stauf.
And that was it: two games, two major commercial successes, and then the franchise faded into obscurity as CDs became the default platform for video games for the next three decades.
In 2019, a fan-made and crowd-funded follow-up to The 7th Guest was released, disregarding the events of The 11th Hour and taking us back to Stauf’s mansion. I contributed to The 13th Doll’s Kickstarter campaign and was absolutely overjoyed to receive a short video message from Stauf himself, after the development team managed to get Hirschboeck board for the project! I was worried that the ageing actor might not be able to make a large contribution to the final product, but my fears were completely unfounded – Stauf is in fine form, sounding like he’s enjoying his devilish schemes more than ever! (There is very little information about Hirschboeck online, although it’s worth checking out his official website at the link below, if only because it hasn’t been updated for so long that it’s a fascinating relic of the internet’s early days… I can feel myself tearing up as I recall the rough and ready Myspace era!) http://rhstauf.tripod.com/main.html
The game itself is far from perfect, but it’s an admirable attempt to recreate the style and gameplay of the original, and I had a great time with it. The puzzles are very well-crafted, and the soundtrack manages to perfectly recapture the feel of the first game; sadly, though, the storyline is pretty porous, and aside from Hirschboeck himself the acting is of a uniformly mediocre standard. Still, to nit-pick is to miss the point – this is not some big budget production but a fan-made labour of love, and the development team’s affection for the original comes through in every dark corridor, creaking door and diabolical riddle.
I would thoroughly recommend The 13th Doll, especially if you fondly remember creeping around Stauf’s mansion back in 1993.
Just remember: only he knows the rules…
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If you did, you can find more of my ramblings on my blog, which can be found along with my horror and crime thriller novels at www.jon-richter.com. I’d be honored if you’d visit the site and sign up for my mailing list, as I have a couple of new novels out later this year that I think might be right up your (dark) alley…
Thanks for reading!