The 7th Guest Retrospective

Before 1993, CD-ROMS were having a difficult time staking their claim in the computer gaming market, which through the 1980s was dominated by the floppy disk. While CDs hold more information and could boast improved sounds and graphics, a CD-ROM drive was expensive. Additionally, most computer games appearing on CD-ROMS at the time were ports of older titles, or games that focused entirely on the graphics and sound at the expense of gameplay. Few gamers were willing to commit to the pricy technology without a convincing reason. In an article for Computer Gaming World titled They’re Here!, CGW staff writes, 

“Why the proliferation of shovelware titles and “enhanced” CD-ROM version(s) of existing games? . . . All the major players are watching and waiting and reaching out into an unknown market with sensitive antennae. They are afraid to commit resources to new CD-ROM products before the market has proven itself worthy of an investment.” 

Everything changed in 1993 with the release of The 7th Guest from Trilobyte. A horror-themed puzzle adventure game, The 7th Guest was designed from the ground up as a CD-ROM game by Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros and was hailed as one of three “app killer games” that blew open the door for CD-ROM gaming on PCs. In its Landmark Games section, Next Generation magazine states, “Seventh Guest, More than any other game . . . finally convinced PC gamers en masse that a CD-ROM drive was a necessity, and not simply an expensive luxury.” 

Two Friends with a Mission

Before co-founding Trilobyte and creating The 7th Guest, Devine and Landeros met while working for Virgin Games (formerly Mastertronic). Landeros was the head of the art department, while Devine was the head of the programming department. They hit it off immediately, bonding over movies and Landeros’s comics. Before long, unenthused by the licensed properties that Virgin Games worked on, the two named themselves heads of “research and technology” and began investigating what a CD-ROM game might look like. In the article Horror Story: An Oral History of the 7th Guest by Ben Reeves for Game Informer, Landeros recalls, “We’d have our boss pick up our ticket and hotel room, and we’d jet off to Chicago, New York, L.A. – wherever they were holding a convention.” 

Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros, circa 1993 from mobygames

As they sat through conference after conference, they repeatedly saw that no one was exploiting CD-ROMS to their full potential. In fact, it seemed as if very few people were interested in developing computer games for CDs at all. Realizing the missed opportunity, they put their heads together and wrote up a 20-page document outlining a game design, story, and puzzles. Speaking animatedly on The Making of The 7th Guest VHS, Devine states, 

“There was a big new medium out there which involved CD-ROM, and this big new medium, CD-Rom, needed a definitive product . . . The 7th Guest seemed to fit into that. We need something with power and passion and drama and story and animation and graphics and multimedia and sound overlays and we were the people to do that.”

Devine and Landeros initially conceptualized The 7th Guest as a blend between the tv show Twin Peaks, which they both enjoyed, and the board game Clue, which Virgin Games had the rights to. The setting of a haunted house came from their love of the horror films, House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting

The Birth of Trilobyte and The 7th Guest

When Devine and Landeros approached Martin Alper, the president of Virgin Games, with their game proposal, he took them out to dinner, then promptly fired them. In the article Haunted Glory: The Rise and Fall of Trilobyte by Geoff Keighley, Alper remembers, “what I wanted them to do was work off-site on the project”. He was worried about the project distracting from other work at Virgin Games, stating that, “No one would want to work on any of the mundane bread-and-butter games”. Furthermore, Alper was unconvinced that The 7th Guest was even possible. What Devine and Landeros envisioned was unheard of. However, if they wanted to develop The 7th Guest as free agents, he would offer them a contract and Virgin would publish it. 

In Horror Story: An Oral History of the 7th Guest by Ben Reeves for Game Informer, Devine recalls, “We didn’t know of anyone else doing what we were doing. People on the board said, “The 7th Guest is impossible! It’s entirely impossible to have animation come off a CD-ROM with any kind of quality.” . . . The general thinking was that we were doing a fool’s errand.” 

Ignoring all the warnings, Devine and Landeros founded the company Trilobyte in 1990, and the development of The 7th Guest was underway.

The plot of The 7th Guest involves the thief turned evil toymaker, Henry Stauf, whose popular creations begin to kill the children who own them. You spend the game exploring Stauf’s mansion, finding it empty but for wandering ghosts and strange puzzles. As you solve the puzzles, more rooms of the mansion become accessible. Through this progression and by watching the spirits reenact their final living moments, the full story of the abandoned Stauf mansion reveals itself.

Navigation in The 7th Guest, as well as the scenes enacted by ghosts, plays out as full FMV (full motion video) sequences, which was revolutionary for the time. In the article The Making of The 7th Guest by Martyn Casserly and the Retro Gamer Team for Games Radar, Devine recalls, “There had been the Sherlock Holmes games which had tiny 160×100 videos . . . but no one had tried full screen and certainly not in SVGA. A lot of people thought what we were doing was impossible and that our demos were smoke and mirrors.”

The actors of The 7th Guest were a hired Shakespeare Society, and their scenes were shot over just two days for $24,000. Because of the cheap blue screen they filmed against, a fuzzy halo effect surrounds their characters in the game, which only adds to their ghostly appearance.

The Launch of an App Killer

When The 7th Guest was released in April of 1993, it was late and wildly over budget. The original six-month schedule had stretched to two years, and for the final few months before release, Devine and Landeros took no salary. The game shipped on two CDs, and Virgin Games set its price at $100. This was a costly ask when you consider they created it to take advantage of computer hardware that few gamers had bought into. Despite the expensive prerequisites, The 7th Guest quickly sold out overnight across the country. Within its first year, it sold 450,000 copies and grossed over $15 million. The graphics, animations, and audio were stunning, and critics raved. Writing for Computer Gaming World magazine, Chuck Miller states,

“When the player travels through the 32 rooms of this mansion, movement is realistically represented just as it would appear in a movie from a first-person perspective. So much so, that it seems difficult to believe that this house exists only within the computer . . . The 7th Guest is a special treat for fans of Gothic horror, setting new standards for graphic and audio quality in computer games. It is a stunning product.”

In his book The Ultimate History of Video Games, Steven Kent names The 7th Guest as one of three “killer applications” that proved the future of CD-ROM gaming, stating, “As a showcase for the technology, The 7th Guest was a masterpiece.” Alongside Myst and Doom, The 7th Guest transformed the PC gaming landscape by demonstrating what CD-ROMS were capable of. In the article The Rise and Fall of Trilobyte by Geoff Keighley for Gamespot, producer David Bishop recalls, “When the game was released, some CD-ROM manufacturers registered up to a 300 percent increase in sales for CD-ROM drives”

Unfortunately, despite its innovation and success, The 7th Guest is remembered less fondly than either Doom or Myst, and Trilobyte has largely faded from consciousness. What no one would have guessed was that the fall of Trilobyte began even before its success. The descent started with The 11th Hour.

The End Looms

Many issues plagued the development of The 7th Guest’s sequel, The 11th Hour. Work on it began even before The 7th Guest was completed, leaving Trilobyte with a smaller-than-reasonable budget for filming. Devine joined the project late because he was finishing work on The 7th Guest, and he and Landeros would come to disagree heatedly about the direction of the sequel. Problems continued to pile up and Devine and Landeros’s relationship continued to strain. By the time The 11th Hour was finally ready to ship in 1995, it seemed the damage to their friendship was irreversible.

In The Rise and Fall of Trilobyte by Geoff Keighley for Gamespot, producer Greg Goodrich recalls, 

“There were only a few hours each day when Graeme and Rob were in the office at the same time . . . During this extremely volatile and unsettling time, I usually went to lunch.”  Further on, he states,“I spent two years training to become a Secret Service agent during college, but jumping in front of an assassin’s bullet seemed more appealing to me than my final days at Trilobyte [in 1995].”

There are many reasons for the fall of Trilobyte and the tragic fracture of Devine and Landeros’s friendship, but it is beyond the scope of this article. If you want to understand the full complications, I urge you to read the excellent Haunted Glory: The Rise and Fall of Trilobyte by Geoff Keighley. More than anything, however, let’s remember The 7th Guest and Trilobyte for how they changed the landscape and helped usher in a new era of PC gaming.

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