“It was probably the first time I every felt true emotion in a game,” says programmer Ryan HoltKamp. “It really captured my imagination.”
HoltKamp is talking about The 7th Guest, a cult classic of the horror video game genre – revolutionary for the time – which was based almost entirely around full-motion video sequences. Notable for its ‘interactive movie’ feel and gripping plot, it moved Bill Gates to dub it “the new standard in interactive entertainment”.
“The characters were all seeking something,” muses HoltKamp. “They wanted wealth, youth, and knowledge, and I think that concept is easy to identify with. I think we all have a dream, and it was interesting to watch those character stoop to lower and lower levels to see those dreams realized.
“They literally made a deal with the devil.”
These days the 1993 title, a brooding mystery about a group of strangers stranded in an eerie mansion, is largely forgotten by the mainstream masses; a mere footnote in the history of a genre more fixated on the influence of titles such as Alone In The Dark, Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
And yet its legacy remains a powerful inspiration to many fans and developers. Now, one dedicated group of enthusiasts are determined to introduce its rich atmosphere and enthralling story to a whole new generation of horror gamers.
HoltKamp is lead developer of The 13th Doll, an officially endorsed sequel and spiritual successor to The 7th Guest, which is currently attracting funding via Kickstarter.
It’s an ambitious and intriguing project – looking to fully embrace the wondrous new world of VR to boot.
“First and foremost, we’re pretty excited to release a virtual reality version of the game.
“It’s going to be great to experience the mansion on an Oculus Rift, and we’re hoping to release a Rift version as soon as possible.”
The team have taken steps to modernise that ‘interactive movie’ approach all round, while also attempting to stay as true to its mood and themes as possible.
“The original games were traditional point and click games,” explains HoltKamp, “whereas The 13th Doll is a real-time 3D, free roaming adventure. You’ll be able to explore the mansion and other environments like never before.
“We still have the Stauf Mansion. It’s such a spooky, iconic environment, that we had to bring it back for our game. Also, our music is in a similar vein of The Fat Man’s original 7th Guest soundtrack. We can’t use those original tracks, but I think fans will love the score our composers have created for the game.
“Also, our puzzles often have a throwback to the original games. For instance, the dining room puzzle is a cake topped with cemetery stones – aesthetically similar to The 7th Guest’s cake puzzle, but a completely different challenge for the player. We’ve got a few similar references to the original scattered throughout.
“Our game is a more serious drama, with some campiness thrown in for good measure. We’re hoping our story and characters really resonate with the audience; we want you to care what happens to them.
“By the end of the game, there are a few choices the player will have to make that will decide the fate of these characters. We really hope that those decisions are difficult to make, both logically, and emotionally. That’s why it’s good we’re fully funded on Kickstarter; we can afford to use better equipment and find better acting talent, so we can really immerse the player in the story and characters throughout the game.”
Fan remakes or reboots of established properties are nothing new. But this is that rare occasion where HoltKamp and his team, Attic Door Productions, have the official endorsement of the original company. And it could open up all kinds of doors for the amateur programmers.
When 7th Guest developers Trilobyte were reforming they knew of the project, and HoltKamp and his fellow fans signed a limited deal that allowed them to create The 13th Doll as a nonprofit game, with a few other limitations.
Over the years, Attic Door periodically touched base with Trilobyte, usually about pragmatic questions – how they placed lights to set the mood in the original games, and so on.
Then, when they posted an update of The 13th Doll’s progress on Facebook earlier this year, it got a lot of traction, and piqued Trilobyte’s attention. Knowing the franchise was dormant, and could stay that way for a while, Trilobyte tossed out the idea of licensing rights.
“We’d have been crazy not to jump at the opportunity,” says HoltKamp. “We made a deal that aligns with our original goals for The 13th Doll. We want to prove that there is life in the franchise, and we want to bring that audience back together so an official Trilobyte 7th Guest game will be made.
“We want our studio Attic Door Productions to thrive as a new company – able to make subsequent games and projects in the future. It’s really an amazing opportunity we have before us.”
So where is the game at currently – and have Attic Door encountered any major issues to date?
“The biggest challenges, by far, are the external factors that keep us from working on the game. This has been a passion project that we’ve done in our spare time. Careers, family, illnesses, and life in general has crept in to distract us and delay progress.
“That said, we’ve completed a first draft of the entire mansion, over 20 programmed puzzles, and added full navigation to the game engine since January, so we’re making really good progress.”
Kickstarter has provided a platform for many belated sequels and spiritual follow-ups to fondly remembered games, and the drive of nostalgia is a compelling one.
HoltKamp acknowledges that the support of existing fans of The 7th Guest is of course crucial to The 13th Doll’s success, but insists they’re aiming to make it relevant for the uninitiated too.
“We definitely are receiving the benefits from an existing fanbase for The 7th Guest series. I can’t really put into words how incredible that can be – we often hear the stories of fans who played the games back in the day. Lots of families bonded while playing the game on their old 486 PC. We get requests from players wanting us to add the names of their lost loved ones in the game credits. It’s amazing and inspiring to hear things like that; it’s humbling to see how much a video game can mean to people, and what fond memories it can create.
“But we want to create a game that’s both nostalgic for old players, as well as inviting for new players. The game should revere the past and be familiar enough to please existing fans of the franchise, but also attract a new audience to the franchise. It’s a tough balance.”
In an indie landscape dominated by viral horror hits and creepy crowdfunded experiences, HoltKamp is emboldened by the re-emergence of atmospheric adventure-style horror in recent years, and sees the current trend as emboldening The 13th Doll and giving it incentive to do something even more alternative, rather than worrying about the competition.
“I think the quality of recent horror games speaks for itself. The Slender games, Five Nights at Freddy’s and P.T. have all been incredibly successful at scaring the crap out of players.
“But I think our story has a lot of depth and substance to it. Superficially it’s about good versus evil, but below the surface there are a lot of undertones and themes going on. There’s some ambiguity in the motives of characters, and I think our audience will be debating that for some time after playing.
“The indie game scene is really inspiring to watch. I love games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, The Unfinished Swan, and it’s amazing to be in a time where video games are transcending the connotations of just being a child’s plaything.
“There’s definitely a place for gaming nostalgia, and I’m happy to be revering that. But I’m also glad that games can now mean so many different things to different people, and there’s such an emergence of diversity in video games. It’s a good time to be a gamer.”