When The 7th Guest was released in 1993, its designers—Rob Landeros and Graeme Devine, who co-founded the Trilobyte studio—found their dreams coming true. But over time, Guest became a nightmare. The groundbreaking CD-ROM game put players in a haunted house filled with fiendish puzzles created by an evil toymaker named Henry Stauf, and it was a commercial and critical hit from the moment it hit shelves. Thanks to a huge amount of well-deserved hype, Landeros and Devine (who’s pictured with Landeros in the 1994 photo above left) began work on a sequel before it even had a chance to go on sale. But internal struggles at Trilobyte led to several delays for the sequel, The 11th Hour, at the same time that the games industry was shifting toward titles that focused less on stories. This all resulted in a relatively tame reception for The 11th Hour and doomed Trilobyte’s chances of continuing Stauf’s story in a third game.
The fan’s faith in the series didn’t fade, though. A few amateurs even set to work on their own sequel, and the rest got to relive the scares of the original when the newly reformed Trilobyte, helmed by Landeros, re-released The 7th Guest on PC, Mac, and iOS. Now, two decades since The 7th Guest’s original release, Trilobyte wants to pick up where they left off by producing a third game with the help of some Kickstarter supporters. The Gameological Society spoke to Landeros about the inspirations and designs of the first two games and the surprises he has in mind for the third.
The Gameological Society: I remembering reading, when The 7th Guest came out, that the initial idea was to make a Twin Peaks game.
Rob Landeros: It was on the air at the time, and the question on everybody’s mind was, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” So it was definitely in our minds when we conceived the idea of the story. Not a lot of that whole David Lynch-ian element made it into it— almost none at all. [Laughs.] But we did want to make it into some kind of mystery. Instead, it turned into, “Who was the seventh guest, and what happened to him or her?”
Gameological: So how did you end up with a haunted house story?
Landeros: I think we wanted to make a game with a closed environment, as we call it, and like movies like Die Hard that all take place in an office building, you can’t get out. It was nice that you can’t go wandering about because we knew we wanted to wander about an environment, but we didn’t want it open-ended. So we thought, “Okay, we’ve got to close ourselves into an environment,” whether that be on a ship or some other vehicle, or a house, a haunted house. That is, I suppose, why we decided to make a haunted house story. Plus, The Shining was big at that time, too, and another big influence. So everything fell into place in terms of—I don’t remember the conscious decision, but I think as we talked things through it, it kind of evolved that way.
Graeme and I wrote up a proposal, and we came up with a name. We called it “Guest” [Laughs.] because we were thinking of “Ghost”—you know, like the movie—so we called it “guest.” The early draft of our game design had no real story elements defined. It wasn’t until we got the contract with Virgin and moved up to Oregon to start our company. It was up there, Graeme one night wrote up a one-and-a-half, double-spaced, pager outlining this idea about a toymaker who somehow made a pact with the dark forces, and children started dying because of these evil toys and dolls and such, and so on. And that was it.
At that time, we were just gathering up the team and one of the first guys we called was Matthew Costello. He had already been writing horror, and designing games, so he was knowledgeable. He seemed like just the right guy. We just sent him that treatment, and lo and behold, he comes back with the story of The 7th Guest and so on. So we hardly had to do anything after that initial treatment.
He just said, “Yes. Approved.”
Graeme was a programmer, and I was an artist. We had some game ideas and a game design, but we were venturing into uncharted territory not only for gaming and the media but for ourselves personally. When we decided we were going to fill up a CD-ROM disc with video and audio and such, well, I’ve been used to pushing pixels and creating little animations with sprites. Making video and movies, that was something I had no experience with. So we just had to find people who knew how to do this stuff. So we handed over a lot of creative control, just kind of tossed it over to Matthew Costello. He came back and he actually added more, kind of blocking out the game flow and coming up with puzzle ideas and so on. So he deserves a lot of credit for the creation of the game.
This was one of those things where we wrote up a treatment of our initial game design and some thoughts on how we could do it and gave it to Martin [Alper, the president of Virgin Interactive] in the morning. He came back around 45 minutes later having read it and said, “Let’s go out to lunch.” Then when we went out to lunch, he just said, “Yes. Approved.” [Laughs.]
Gameological: Would that be possible today?
Landeros: It’s almost unimaginable. I mean, it’s kind of like that old story where they discovered Lana Turner sitting in an old soda fountain. It doesn’t happen.
Gameological: Did you realize at the time that you were working on a really ambitious project?
Landeros: I was either stupid or just naïve. [Laughs.] I just believed in this, that we could do it because we said we’re going to form our own company. We quit our jobs, so where do we set up? At the time, Virgin was in Irvine, California, in the heart of Orange County, which is a fine place. The weather is beautiful, but it was a metropolitan area with traffic and all that stuff. We can go anywhere in the world—well, let’s keep to the United States—and we’ve got fax machines and internet and email. So we chose a very unlikely spot. We told our wives, “We’re moving to Southern Oregon. Pack your bags. Quit your jobs.” [Laughs.] We got a contract. It was just crazy, but we did it, and my wife was a little skeptical, to say the least.
Gameological: Why was it important that you not just separate from the main operation but also move to another state and set up your own office?
Landeros: We knew it was going to be a large project, and experience told me that if you have an in-house team in a publishing or development house, that it can lead to where everyone else is excluded from it. It can lead to bad feelings, paranoia and thoughts like, “Why are those guys so special?” That kind of thing. So we didn’t want office politics to get in the way.
Gameological: Was there anything about being in Oregon that helped with the game? For instance, were there Victorian houses in that area that served as a good inspiration?
Landeros: There was only one house that really fit that bill. It’s called the Jeremiah Nunan House. It’s a very striking house. It’s even more striking now that they’ve renovated it. It’s a historical site because it’s a mail-order house from the Victorian era. They shipped all the parts and put it together right there on the spot.
Gameological: So you handled the art, Graeme handled the programming, and Matt handled the story and the puzzles.
Landeros: I would say I handled the majority of the puzzles. I came up with most of the puzzles and adapted them. I would make just classic, pen-and-paper logic puzzles and adapt them into the game. So I’m kind of happy and proud of that.
Gameological: Were you just drawing from puzzles that you enjoyed?
Landeros: I just did a lot of research. I was a big puzzle fan and loved Games Magazine, a monthly publication that had all of these cool puzzles. I came to appreciate how you could take a puzzle and put a theme to it. If it’s a maze, it’s not just a bunch of squiggly lines. It’s a dungeon or something, and there’s a dragon and a fair maiden to be rescued at the center of the maze. Just a simple theme like that—and some of them were very clever. I think that’s where the art comes in.
At least for me, I’m not that logical of a thinker, but I do appreciate logic and people who create those things—because I don’t actually create the puzzles. I take ideas and adapt them. Like, there’s a paper puzzle of a three-by-three grid of squares and you have to move the pieces according to the rules. Then instead, we’ll make those into nine billiard balls racked up into a diamond shape, and then the balls are numbered and have to go into a certain order. That kind of thing. You take something that had no theme like this kind of grid, and you made an eight-ball game out of it, a pool game. That was a puzzle in The 11th Hour.
The other thing that I’m proud of and happy with—and prefer as a designer—is a simple interface. I don’t like to play games with a lot of buttons and control sticks and joysticks. It was just point-and-click, and we devised the system with the icons.
Gameological: That was pretty big. The throbbing skull and skeleton hands, the animated icons—I don’t think anybody had done that before you guys. Why go to that trouble just for the icons?
Landeros: We wanted to make it simple point-and-click, and we wanted to give enough clues so you wouldn’t have text messages. We didn’t want to clutter it up with inventories or messages or things like that. It was a natural evolution.
We didn’t have 3D software when we started this thing.
Of course, I also like the fact that we didn’t want to create clutter when you’re playing a puzzle. Stauf would interject clues, and a lot of people enjoyed that. They loved him and hated him for interrupting and calling them stupid, but he would give hints, audio hints, if he would sense you were taking a long time to figure things out.
Speaking of challenges, and bringing it back to your question of if I knew it was going to be a difficult or overly ambitious project—we didn’t really know exactly how we were going to do everything. For instance, that whole 3D and the navigation of the 3D environment was not part of the original plan. We didn’t have 3D software when we started this thing. Autodesk 3D software came out right when we were a few months into development. What we intended to do was take a large mansion and take a camera and just do these 360-degree panoramic turn-arounds using photographs of the interior and enhancing it. We also didn’t have Photoshop at that point. So we were on the cusp of all these tools becoming available. In that way, we were just fortunate that there [were] affordable 3D programs available.
I remember the day when Robert Stein, one of our artists, had purchased 3D software. He said, “I created this room, a real simple room with a fireplace, a table, and a chair.” It was really blocky, but then he animated it. [Laughs.] And [he] had the chair floating around and spinning. So it was like, wow. I mean, I knew he could do that, but to actually see it—and the fact that Robert did it right there in our own offices. I was very skeptical to have to create an entire mansion with all this furniture in 3D—that seemed ambitious—but once I saw it in action, I thought, “Yeah, we got it. That’s the way we’ve got to do it.” That was a huge revelation.
Gameological: Was the live-action video always part of the pitch?
Landeros: Yeah, I think that was always part of it, live actors and live action. That was, again, new. We shot against a blue screen, and it was terrible. We hired two guys, and that’s all they did for about four months was clean up everything, frame by frame. So there was a lot of things that didn’t go right. [Laughs.] I always say that we were lucky that we chose ghosts because it was okay that they were screwed up and pixelated and see-through. That was fortuitous. We did a much better job with The 11th Hour because we learned something by then.
Gameological: I remember also from the “Making Of” video that came with the game, the video director was saying that the actors had to emote more because the video quality wasn’t as good as film. Are you saying you were disappointed with the acting?
Landeros: Yeah, slightly embarrassed. I wouldn’t have done it that way. Some would say, “Well, we had to overact. He had to chew up the furniture.” That’s true of the stage more than, I think, of movies or video. That sounds like a poor excuse to me. [Laughs.] In fact, we just had a production meeting for shooting our next video, and I said there’s going to be none of this stuff where we creep around like a cartoon villain from a Warner Bros. cartoon.
Gameological: Yeah, Stauf is a bit cartoony now that I think of it.
Landeros: Yeah, he can chew it up with the best of them, but he’s a serious actor. I guess he was doing what he was told or what he thought he should do because they all did it, all the actors. Somebody told them to overact. [Laughs.] But they didn’t need to.
Gameological: When you finished the game and released it, do you remember the first time you played it?
Landeros: I’ve never played it from beginning to end. [Laughs.]
Gameological: I guess you were tired of looking at it after two years of 20-hour days.
People started crowding around, five deep, six deep, eight deep.
Landeros: I’m very familiar with it without having played through it. I guess that’s like those actors who don’t watch their own movies because they don’t like to look at themselves, but that’s not why. I just don’t have the time, I guess. I’m not much of a game player. I look at games, and I play them partially through, and I see what the challenges are. I see what the art is like and the interface. I learn what I need to know or what I want to know, what interests me. It’s not the challenge necessarily. I do play some games all the way through.
Gameological: Was there one point when you realized that The 7th Guest could be something big?
Landeros: Yes, and I have told this story before, so it’s not an exclusive. It was our trip to the Consumer Electronics Expo in Las Vegas in 1992, where we had not planned to demo the game to the public. But Virgin had a booth, and Graeme was showing the people at Virgin with what we had come up with—the latest stuff, the latest build. There was a computer available out on the floor, and we popped it in. We’re showing Martin Alper, and some other people saw it. Without even trying, people started crowding around, and they were five deep, then six deep, and then eight deep. I wasn’t there at that time. I [arrived] at the convention and even before I got to the doors, I’d run into people, and they go, “Hey Rob, congratulations. You’re a big hit.” I’d go, “Really? Why?” [Laughs.] “Yeah, check out the booth, man. Everyone’s talking about The 7th Guest.” I think about three or four people said that to me before I even made it to the booth.
Gameological: Back then, playing from a first-person perspective in a game was a new thing, especially for adventure gaming. Now, it’s so commonplace that you don’t think about it.
Landeros: I know, that’s why I feel so old talking about it, reminding people back in those days that the point-of-view game was amazing. People would say stuff like that. “I remember the first time I was in the foyer, and I went up the stairs and I almost fell out of my chair. This is so real.” And then people were afraid and scared because it was immersive, and they got absorbed into the haunted thing. Especially young kids. I would hear all the time, “That game of yours scared me shitless.”
Gameological: I still remember when I first saw those hands coming out of the painting in the hallway. I had a dream about that. It wasn’t pretty.
Gameological: What was the effect that it had on you personally and on Trilobyte?
Landeros: It was good. We realized that it was successful and in those days, if you had a hit game, you’d probably go on to make a million dollars. And that’s what we tried to, but—well, we made a lot of money, but after The 7th Guest was released, a few things started to go downhill. Even before it was released, we knew it was going to be big, and we had to make a sequel ASAP. So I started working on The 11th Hour while Graeme was still finishing up The 7th Guest. He was feeling left out and resentful because he had to work on this stuff, and I was getting to do all the fun stuff making the new game. That went on for a while.
So some negative feelings germinated there at that point, and I don’t know what it was exactly—I never talked to him about it, but he seemed to drag his feet on getting the whole thing out there. By the time [The 11th Hour] was released, he was sick of the whole 7th Guest and 11th Hour thing. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it. He wanted to do his thing and be creative and create games, and I was doing my thing, and it just made this split in the company. That’s the short version. I think it’s documented pretty well online.
I liken it to people who win the lottery and how their lives turn to shit after they won. You always hear those stories. Success can ruin you sometimes. I think there was a lot of business reasons that Trilobyte didn’t succeed, but I think it was mainly a matter of mixing personal with business because, you know, Graeme was a young man and idealistic, and I loved him for that. He’s still that way, very personable. That’s his good quality, but my approach is, I believe in being friendly but not friends with everybody. I like to keep things on a professional level for the most part, and I think he took things more personally. Business was a personal thing to him, and I think that wasn’t good.
Gameological: Was The 11th Hour harder to do than The 7th Guest?
Landeros: We had a lot of things going on, but The 11th Hour went fairly quickly. In terms of art, puzzles, and video, it just went like clockwork, and we were finished with the assets long before it was released, long before. There was a lot of this downtime where we’re waiting for it to come out. I think Graeme felt he needed to create better video, and it may be true that it required better compression, but I think we finished a year or year-and-a-half before Graeme finally finished just the programming. That really kind of tore things, too, because Graeme was being very unfriendly and reclusive and non-involved. We tried to get him involved in creative meetings. When he did sit in, he wouldn’t say a damn word, purposely. [Laughs.]
Gameological: Was there a point when you did sit him down and ask what was going on?
Landeros: I think people were going, “Well, we’re going crazy here, man. I’m going crazy. Everybody’s going crazy.”
Gameological: Did you ever talk about that with him?
You know how programmers are.
Landeros: You know how programmers are, Danny. [Laughs.] Or do you? I hate to stereotype, but they can be very temperamental, and they don’t like deadlines. They don’t like to commit to things as a general rule. It’s part of the story and I think there are human reasons for it. Fortunately and unfortunately, we’re human, but that’s part of the story, and it’s an interesting part of the story because I went through this big success and made a lot of money immediately followed by the downturn. We lost a lot of money and met with a lot of failure, and the board decided to vote me out of the company, which is another thing I think is interesting and am kind of proud that it goes on my résumé.
Gameological: But it still must have hurt.
Landeros: Sure, because I felt I was being the adult, being vice president and CEO, managing people, and managing the business, and working on a creative project. Actually, the main project I was focused on in the last several months was Tender Loving Care. It was an interactive movie that was very different from what was going on at the time, which is another part of the story of our downfall, I think. The general direction of the industry was going towards first person shoot-em-ups such as [Wolfenstein 3D] and Doom, and online play. It was the complete opposite of what we were doing and what I was interested in doing.
Gameological: You were more interested in games that were driven by the story.
Landeros: Exactly. I remember [Doom lead programmer John Carmack] took pride in saying, “Our games are totally devoid of story. We don’t want stories.”
Gameological: Why, in your opinion, does not having a story make a game worse or lower quality?
Landeros: Well, I appreciate their point of view because in a way, every game does have a story. Wolfenstein has a castle and Nazis—that’s a story. Then it was interesting to see how those games evolved, and pretty soon, they were spending actually millions of dollars to create a backstory and cutscenes. So they didn’t remain pure to that ideology.
Gameological: Was the aborted game, The 7th Guest Part III: The Collector, going to be a direct sequel or a spinoff? I remember there was a trailer for it.
Landeros: It took place in a museum in Europe somewhere, and Stauf was the curator of this museum of historical oddities. So, not a bad idea for an original game, but people thought it should be in the mansion. Stauf has to be Stauf.
Gameological: How different is that from the new game that you want to work on?
Landeros: After much consideration and thinking and re-thinking about what I would want to do for a 7th Guest III, I finally came to the conclusion that I cannot stray too far from the original. I’ve resigned myself, and I’m okay with it that basically, I’m going to do The 7th Guest again with a slightly different spin, but it’s going to stay fairly true to the original. We’ll revisit characters. The same cast of characters will reappear. We’ll improve the drama. It’ll tell a cohesive story. A lot of the questions about the story that were unclear, that were ambiguous from the first go-round, they will be addressed and hopefully clarify and enhance it.
You know what, again, artists will often paint the same scene over and over again and do variations. And a lot of them are just called “Variation No. 5” or “Variation No. 57.” This is kind of my opportunity to do this again. It’s not going to be a repeat. I’m going to correct a lot of things that we should have done in the first place, all things being equal.
Our main conceit of the story is that the house was destroyed in Harley-on-the-Hudson in upper New York state, and that Stauf was a famous toymaker known worldwide and locally. He was very much a local hero and historic figure, and when his house was destroyed, it sat there for years. Then a stranger came into town, and nobody knows exactly who it was. He bought the property, applied for a historical landmark status and rebuilt the mansion from the ground up. So it’s a complete remodel and restoration job. It’s also, taking kind of an idea from The Collector, been turned into a sort of museum dedicated to the legacy of Henry Stauf. The house is still mysterious in terms of what’s in there. Our protagonist does gain entry and starts exploring and finds he’s trapped. Again, the same kind of thing, he has to get out by solving a series of puzzles.
Gameological: So how do you make a 7th Guest for the modern audience? Do you feel like you have to reinvent the game or do you give fans the central game with a few tweaks?
It went AWOL for a decade, and that’s ridiculous.
Landeros: Again, I’ve listened to those people, and I know they are invested in the character of Stauf. They love him, and they hate him, and I know why, so he will be the main guy. Surprisingly, they are more knowledgeable about the story than I ever could have guessed. They actually made sense out of it and have their own ideas about what went on—more than I do, because I thought it was confusing. [Laughs.] By the way, that was part of the concept of the time—this non-linear-ness to stories that you see in movies where time shifts. Things like Pulp Fiction, for instance, with different stories going on at once. Again, going back to some original influences when we first started was the laserdisc technology. Graeme and I, being techno-geeks and big movie fans, had laserdiscs, and it had random access, and it was cool. You could actually program a laserdisc to play certain chapters in whatever sequence you wanted. If a movie came with a couple of endings, like…
Landeros: Clue, yeah, and that one with Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas, Basic Instinct. So with random access, you could tell a story and mix up the movie however you want because—[like] Pulp Fiction—you could tell a story in any sequence and it will still come out kind of interesting since each scene was cool and told a story in its own right.
Gameological: Why do you think this game series has such a strong fanbase that sustained itself for so long and pushed you to do a third game?
Landeros: I think partially nostalgia for people who remember it from their youth. I think it’s a classic game that’s well known, and people who have never played may have heard of it. It was a groundbreaking game, which carries a little bit of weight.
There was a middle part of the story that I didn’t get to tell. After I kind of quit the industry after Aftermath, I just went back to being a graphic artist, and it felt good just to be working on my own. Then the iPad and the iPhone came along, and the touchscreen technology, and it occurred to me that The 7th Guest should be on these devices. Most successful franchises, you have a big success like, say, SimCity, and if it’s successful, you make SimCity 2 and 3 and all kinds of Sims. After The 11th Hour, we didn’t do that. None of that happened with The 7th Guest. So it went missing, AWOL for a decade, and I thought that was ridiculous. So I secured the rights and ownership of the game and decided I wanted to come back—not only to reintroduce The 7th Guest to a whole new audience and an old audience once again. The whole purpose was not only to reproduce these games but to make it possible to work on a new one.
Gameological: So why do you think that fans want to continue experiencing this story or is that the question you’re hoping to explore or answer with the new game?
Landeros: I guess we’ll see if fans want it because we’ll be starting to this new Kickstarter campaign, and we’ll see if there’s enough demand for it. If not, then I guess that answers the question, and we’ll think of something else. I’m not an optimistic guy, but I’m hopeful.