The 13th Floor

Revisiting the Classic Horror PC Game THE 7TH GUEST

Old Man Stauf built a house and filled it with his toys.
Six Guests were invited one night, their screams the only noise.
Blood in the Library, blood right up the hall,
Dripping down the attic stairs, “Hey Guests!, try not to fall.”
Nobody came out that night. Not one was ever seen.
But Old Man Stauf is waiting there, crazy, sick, and mean.

I’m not exactly sure when the landscape shifted on mainstream video games, but I know it happened after I dropped out of playing. Evidently, sometime around 1998, video games — in the eyes of the playing public — went from being a mere pastime and enjoyable leisure activity to being an ultra-serious lifestyle built around an ever-advancing medium that was now suddenly considered a high art form. Those who played games began referring to themselves as “gamers” (a term that may well predate my encountering of it), and an entire subculture exploded into the mainstream. By that fateful year, however, this author had more or less fallen out of video games, so he was never able to get lost in the morass of gamer culture. It was a young man’s scene, and I was busy studying theater and film.

Up until that turning point, however, I was lost in the massive and enjoyable video game world for a full decade. I had been playing video games pretty constantly from 1985 until about 1996, and I gathered a good deal of mastery on platforms such as the NES, the Game Boy, and many of my favorite coin-operated games. In my mind, real video games need to be started with quarters.

Or, of one was really ambitious, one could get a CD-ROM video game for their home computer. Although PC gaming was perfectly common since even the early days of video games, to one who was raised on the NES, it was a separate, more complicated, more fascinating world. So imagine my thrill when a friend of mind purchased — and invited me to play — the 1993 classic horror game THE 7th GUEST.

Compared to the horror games of today, THE 7th GUEST is rudimentary. The graphics are a little sludgy; the “story,” such as it is, seems largely unclear; and some of the puzzles are of a level of difficulty that most games don’t even try for anymore. But the game, with its awesome music, weird atmosphere, and almost fairy-tale level of twisted myth was infinitely alluring. This was a game that was returned to again and again, late at night, to solve the mysteries and to solve the puzzles. It also gave me nightmares.

The game was set in a haunted house up on a hill. Within the myth of the game, the house once belonged to a creepy old man named Stauf. Old Man Stauf (and anagram of Faust) started his life as a homeless drifter, but began receiving visions of toys and dolls. He started making the toys out of driftwood, and they quickly became a hit among the children in town. He also started making puzzles and games for the people. After Stauf became wealthy, he built a mysterious mansion up on a bluff. It was then that the children who own Stauf toys began getting sick and dying. Stauf holed up in his mansion, and, over the years, became a boogieman for the local children.

Many years later, Stauf invited a group of six unconnected wealthy socialites to his house for a HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL-style “survive-the-night” game. The guests had to play Stauf’s games, solve puzzles, and avoid the eerie ghost-like presence that wafted through the house. The seventh guest was a young boy who had sneaked in through the window, and became part of the game unwittingly.

This is all revealed as you play the game, controlling a disembodied consciousness that is wandering through the Stauf mansion, solving the puzzles in the present day, eventually witnessing a smattering of scenes from the past as they are enacted by the ghosts of the six guests.

There is a dark fatalism to THE 7th GUEST that makes it immensely alluring. Even as you, the player, discover more and more layers of the mystery, it must be acknowledged that all the players are indeed dead. You are not seeking to save anyone, as is the assigned motivating factor in most video games, and you’re not even necessarily trying to save yourself (you may be a ghost too). You are simply trying to find out what happened. But in your investigating, you have to solve complicated and difficult puzzles, and become psychologically and fearfully ensconced in the overwhelming demonic weirdness of the setting.

The puzzles are the biggest contributing factor to the tone, as they are all classically constructed games that can be removed wholesale from THE 7th GUEST and still function as effective brainteasers. These are not games that need to be folded gracefully into any narrative — their own natural, autonomous, classical grace allows them to exist with ease inside any story. The puzzles are what elevate the story. For instance, one puzzle is an attempt to place eight Queens on a chessboard in such a fashion that none of them can overtake one another. Try it at home. It’s harder than it sounds. There is another notable word puzzle wherein you must spell out a sentence using no vowels.

Other puzzles include familiar things such as mazes, shifting letter games, and geometric analysis games. As far as I recall, none involve actual math.

The puzzles appear in unexpected places, too. One of the more frustrating aspects of the game is simply finding where some of the puzzles are hidden, and a good deal of the game can be winnowed away simply wandering the hallways, looking for a door that opens. Due to this frustrating gameplay construction, the ghostly apparitions/vignettes will appear to you in the order in which you find them. So if you want a straightforward tale, THE 7th GUEST will remain kind of oblique.

Of course, that obliqueness may be deliberate. This is a haunted house story, and its the house — a giant puzzle unto itself — is only half-remembering events of its past. Human memory is not chronological, and piecing together a story from the snippets you get may be a bigger thrill than simply getting cut scenes that explain as you go.

The second biggest contributing factor to the game is probably its music. If you’re like me, you often play video games with the sound off, so you can listen to your own music as you move forward (which is, according to the gamers I’ve talked to in recent years, a downright heretical practice). Although you likely wouldn’t, don’t turn the sound off for this one. The music, by The Fat Man (the pseudonym of George Sanger, who also worked on games like WING COMMANDER and the NES game MANIAC MANSION) is a series of spooky and hummable airs that drift through the game like a dream. Like all good video game music, it functions like a repeated music box. The end flows into the beginning, and, if done right, begins to take on a hypnotic effect. This, in many ways, is what a haunted house should sound like.

The music was so beloved by the game’s makers, that boxes of THE 7th GUEST came with its own audio CD featuring the game’s soundtrack — an utter novelty in 1993. The soundtrack was laid out in a single track, which was frustrating, but featured expanded versions of the game music (performed entirely on a keyboard rather than by a band or orchestra — but it was good enough). The CD also featured two original songs that pertained to the events of the game. One song, “The Game,” was a Muse-like rock anthem that detailed the game’s story, while the other, “Skeletons in My Closet,” was a sweet, jazzy lounge number about — well, bones and skeletons. It’s a great Halloween anthem.

Because the game is so primitive compared to modern games, it can now be downloaded, in its entirety, largely remastered, for PCs and telephones, for only five or six bucks. The remastered version likely cleaned up a lot of the stodgy image movements, but I trust the clunky 1993-era actor compositing remains squarey and weird; I like it that way.

THE 7th GUEST was one of the first real video game successes of the CD-ROM era, and helped carry the medium into more and more advanced planes. Eventually, horror video games would come to be a genre unto themselves, and, to this day, games meant to scare you do big business all over the world; just this last Halloween, I think I spied people dressed as the creepy animal characters from FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S.

Given the way modern horror games are shaped, I wonder if a modern gamer could go back and play something from 23 years ago with fresh eyes and enjoyment… I don’t know how modern gamers view the history of the medium, given that tech-heads tend to pooh-pooh anything that is even slightly out-of-date. As an old man who knows nothing about modern gaming techniques, I can only humbly recommend the game as something that may provide actual challenge, some great music, and a good deal of atmosphere.

Give it a shot. It might prove to be one of the better games you’ve played.