September 26, 2007 12:03 AM |
["Beyond Tetris" is a no-longer-dormant column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment examines the high-budget puzzle collections The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour.]
It's been a while since I wrote one of these; a lot's happened in the past few months. Most importantly I've moved, with my fiancee, into the heart of Hollywood. (Not for any particular hey-let's-break-into-films reason, just because it's a nice neighborhood.) As I've been settling down to live my everyday life in an area that's idealized and vilified from around the world, I've had a lot of time to think about style and substance, puzzle and presentation. So I think it's appropriate that I restart this column with the blockbuster popcorn movie of computer puzzle games, The 7th Guest.
In 1990, Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros, two employees of Virgin Games, were thinking about Laura Palmer, viz. who killed her. They were also thinking about the board game Clue (the rights to which Virgin had acquired). But most importantly, they were thinking about CD-ROMs. Music CDs had taken over vinyl, and console manufacturers were just starting to release systems like the FM Towns Marty and the TurboGrafx CD that used CD-ROMs to hold game information. But on the PC, the CD-ROM was still mostly used for massive data storage for programs like the Microsoft Bookshelf. Landeros and Devine wanted to get ahead of the PC-gaming curve and use the power of the CD-ROM to give gamers a mystery to equal David Lynch's bizzarro serial.
Though inspired by the promise of multimedia, the pair were also keenly aware of its limitations; they didn't want to promise more than they could deliver. Landeros explained, "People get disappointed when they can't do something. Because it seems that you're saying there are endless possiblities, yet you're so restricted. So we wanted to restrict things—restrict the environment from the start." So instead of offering a wide-open puzzle space, they decided to focus on small discrete puzzles which would serve as the backbone for a mystery shown in video, music and animation. In the design spec for Guest, Devine and Landeros described a game with a structure similar to Cliff Johnson's The Fool's Errand, but with a plot that was "very strong, intricate, and full of dramatic content."
Devine and Landeros were amicably "fired" from Virgin to form their own company, Trilobyte, which would develop the game for Virgin to publish. It became The 7th Guest—and a major success. It sold more than two million copies and is credited with helping to push sales of CD-ROM drives for PCs. Today, it's hard to watch the videos without cringing at both the acting and the blocky video. But while the acting is probably the same as it ever was, the video and the 3-D pictures and animation were state-of-the-art in the early '90s. And what the game lacked in thespianism, it made up in grotesque imagery. The mansion of the demented toymaker Stauf was a playground of interactive horror. Even jaded techies wanted the game, if only to show off the Super VGA visuals.
But so far I've only talked about the "Hollywood" side of the game—the video, special effects, sales. What about the puzzles?
This Old (Haunted) House
Though Devine and Landeros used the The Fool's Errand as a source of structure, their game lacked the creativity of Johnson's idiosyncratic puzzles. Instead, Trilobyte implemented puzzles that had mostly been around for quite a while. I've already mentioned that the crypt puzzle was based on Merlin, a predecessor of Lights Out. But other puzzles are much older. One of the first puzzles in the game, seen through the telescope in the library, is copied from Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia. The "eight queens" problem, familiar to computer programmers and chess players alike, appears in the game room. In fact, Google puzzlesmith Wei-Hwa Huang once claimed that he had documented prior versions of all of 7th Guest's puzzles except for two.
In at least one case, the puzzle poach wasn't just conceptual, it was code-related as well! Among all the solitaire puzzles of the mansion, there's one two-player game that must be played against Stauf. Looking under a microscope in the laboratory, you find a game called "Show of Infection." This game uses the same rules as the strategy game Ataxx. For the AI, Trilobyte used the same code that Devine had used for the 7up-branded Ataxx clone Spot.
But while the slick presentation of puzzle chestnuts were generally enough to capture the attention of the hardcore puzzlers, there were some problems. One puzzle in the game, "Flipping Out" in the doll room, is randomly generated in such a way that the puzzle may be impossible. Prima's Official Strategy Guide seems to know about the problem, but not really understand how it works. It cautions, "It appears to be impossible to solve this puzzle if only 1 square is incorrect." So what do you do with an impossible setup? You reset the puzzle until you get a setup that you hope is good. As Scott Purdy said in a proposed rec.puzzles walkthrough, "The problem is that this puzzle, depending upon the starting position, is either trivial or impossible."
[Spinal Tap Cliché Redacted]
There was so much anticipation for The 7th Guest that production for its sequel, The 11th Hour, began before the first game was finished. But internal struggles over creative direction and the technical implementation of that direction (a shot of a flashlight prompted a last-minute shift from 8-bit to 16-bit color) caused the game to ship over a year late. And by the winter of 1995, the relaxed exploration of Myst had found a wider audience than The 7th Guest. What's more, while the game was delayed, Microsoft launched Windows 95, and many of the fans who picked up the game when it premiered were unable to get its MS-DOS based programming to work with their new OS.
Puzzle-wise the sequel features much of the same fare as the original: chess, sliding blocks, anagrams, etc. But The 11th Hour introduces two new aspects of the game. For one, you must play various puzzle-like strategy games against an AI Stauf. In addition to a hexagonal variant of Ataxx from the first game, The 11th Hour features Pente, Connect Four, and Y. The AI remains strong throughout the games, though the player often gains a great advantage with the first move.
The 11th Guest also featured a "scavenger hunt." To progress to the puzzle and game set pieces, you had to first solve a clue. These clues generally followed the style of the clues found in cryptic or "puns and anagrams" crosswords. Once you unraveled the clue, you had to locate the item somewhere in the house. While it was an admirable attempt at bringing this kind of word puzzle to a wider audience, its implementation was definitely flawed. Take, for example, this clue: "22233642-736846873". First, you needed to decode it using the letters on your telephone to get "Academic penthouse." Then, you have to realize that the decoded clue refers to the phrase "ivory tower." And then, you have to realize that the phrase referred to by the decoded clue actually means you need to find the white rook on the chessboard in the game room. Many gamers felt the pain wasn't worth the reward.
The 11th Guest sold well enough for a PC game, but it fell short of the expected sales for a blockbuster sequel. Devine and Landeros were starting to pull Trilobyte apart, and the company's next two games reflected the schism. Clandestiny was another puzzle game, this time aimed for kids and featuring cartoony cel animation instead of horrific full-motion video. Tender Loving Care dropped the puzzles and focused on the media. Starring John Hurt, it was a psychosexual thriller punctuated by invasive psychological questions that shaped the outcome of the story. (The screenshot to the left is from TLC; calling the Aberrant Gamer!) By 1996, the company was floundering. To help increase funds, the company self-published Uncle Henry's Playhouse, a plotless showcase of the puzzles from The 7th Guest, The 11th Hour, and Clandestiny. It sold 127 copies worldwide.
In 1999 Trilobyte was no more. The self-destruction of the company is told in harrowing detail in "Haunted Glory," a feature by Geoff Keighley for Gamespot. In an e-mail sent to the remaining Trilobyte employees, Graeme Devine lamented, "In the end, I never outran the shadow of The 7th Guest. . . . Trilobyte will always be remembered for those games and none other." And despite a DVD release for Tender Loving Care, he's pretty much right. Still, they are remembered well for those two games. So much so that the rumor of a third Stauf game seems to be ubiquitous. Legend Entertainment created a prototype of a real-time 3-D game called "The 13th Soul" in 1998, but the project was scrapped. In 2003, Rob Landeros was developing The Collector, but the announcements later disappeared without a trace. Now a group of fans hopes to take up the mantle with The 13th Doll.
And if the puzzles were really so forgettable, why the such fond memories? Well, sometimes the multimedia is the message. With a few unfortunate exceptions, the 7th Guest games repackaged the best of the classic puzzles. And unlike many others who have done the same, Devine and Landeros brought these brainteasers to life in a way that most players couldn't imagine at the time. The 3-D imagery may have been superfluous to the puzzle, but for millions of gamers, it was just the right amount of sugar to help the medicine go down. A few months ago, I was ready to slam these games as derivative, unoriginal and needlessly overbuget. But I'm part of Hollywood now—I pass by the Capitol Records building on my way to the pharmacy, and I tramp down the Walk of Fame to get to the library. And sometimes, secretly, I like a bit of pageantry with my puzzles.
[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. He may also have a new videogame blog soon.]
Categories: Column: Beyond Tetris