You ever play an old game called The 7th Guest? It was a haunted-house-themed "CD-ROM game" back when "CD-ROM" was a shiny, brand-spanking-new concept. It was a multimedia game, even. (Until then, games had only been able to employ one media.) It was truly the dawn of a new era -- an era of Microsoft Encarta articles about tapirs whenever you wanted.
A lot of people remember the game a little... less than fondly. This may or may not be because, in some respects, the game was terrible. And yet, I love the game. I still love it even after all these years. It has a weird grip on me that I've been trying to explain. I'm certain a fair chunk of it is nostalgia, but I strongly suspect that there's something more there. And I think modern games could actually benefit from studying it ... in certain respects.
I am perfectly willing to grant you that the game was flawed - the acting in the full-motion video left everything to be desired, the puzzles were often brutally frustrating, and the storyline was random and confusing, if it could even be called a storyline at all. What's more, the puzzles - arguably the central "game" of The 7th Guest, were all isolated experiences seemingly divorced from any larger story or purpose. This seemed to annoy a lot of people.
Some folks will defend The 7th Guest in spite of these things - they'll say it had an excellent, excellent soundtrack by The Fat Man (which is true), and that the house itself was creepy and well-designed (which is true). However, I would like to take a different tack and defend it on the basis of some of the very reasons that so many people disdain it. Hear me out on this.
Since The 7th Guest, I've tried a number of horror-themed puzzle games (mostly on mobile and web platforms, where this sort of genre seems to thrive) and they all bore me to tears. They all have a suitably dark, creepy haunted house to explore, with lots of old artifacts to pick up and play with, and generally lots of old letters and books to read, with the idea that by reading a bunch of dimly-lit text, you will uncover the mystery behind the moderately scary house you're trapped in for whatever reason. These games typically have a more reasonable, even believable, storyline, and all the puzzles are nicely integrated into the environment and story. I've seen one game go through a lot of trouble to justify why the builder of the house saw fit to require three different statue pieces to unlock a door, etc etc.
The thing that annoys me is that, (for me at least) that kind of thing profoundly doesn't matter. I don't need my storylines to make a lick of real sense. I need them to make emotional sense, to carry me along on a wave of feelings - I don't need anything "explained." I don't want to read any text to explain the storyline. That's boring. Heck, that's almost as boring as zombies.
The 7th Guest, by contrast, was especially threatening to me as a kid precisely because it made no sense. The lack of sense, whether intentional or not, created a real sense of mystery. The storyline was presented in chunks in no particular order, some of which seemed to contradict the events in other chunks. As a kid, I was certain I was missing something, and that vague, oblique style of storytelling worked very well - mostly by preventing me from ever feeling like I really knew what was going on. Knowledge is power, after all, and in a horror game you really want your user to feel powerless. Explanations, logic, reasonableness, internal consistency - all these things are the enemy of suspense, mystery, horror, and emotional manipulation. Don't play by the player's mental rules - threaten them at every turn! Especially when you're making a horror game.
The 7th Guest was an excellent mood game as well. Virtually the entire game is presented as one continual tracking shot - a deliberate design decision that means the reality of the game is never broken. Camera cuts are comforting because they remind you there's an editor between you and the thing you're watching - it's a distancing device. Remove all cuts, and there you are - just you, all alone, in this empty house.
The lack of ability to directly control your POV helped as well - you could give direction with the animated, beckoning skeletal hand, but once you clicked, the house seemed to kind of take you wherever it wanted you to go, at whatever random speed it wanted, through whatever object it wanted. You didn't even know who or what you were supposed to be yourself. The environment was threatening in a surreal, quiet kind of way - dark, cavernous reaches of rooms you were unable to explore, strange color palettes, that big, strange, sweeping staircase in the foyer, etc. You were never really afraid something was going to jump out at you, but you were never allowed to feel settled. You were at the game's mercy in a way that inventory-collecting, weapon-firing games can simply never achieve by their very nature.
The randomness of the game helped create the feeling that you were in a world where magic and ghosts reigned - there were no rules that you had any power over. Hands could reach at you through a painting, dishes could fly around for no reason, a doll could suffocate a baby that you're not sure whether it ever was a real baby or not... You could travel down a drain or through a telescope - whatever the game wanted. No reasons, no explanations.
The music was also very well done (it's one of my favorite game soundtracks), but sometimes the most effective thing about the music was its bizarre absence for long stretches, or its continuation past when it "should" have ended. The voice of Stauf, the evil toymaker whose spirit rules the house, is always very clearly in control. The puzzles might seem isolated and random, but as a kid, I never had any doubt that they were all part of some sick game being played on me. His voice, more than anything else, helped blur the line between reality and fantasy for me as a kid. He always knew where I was, watching me play. There was no indication that his power was in any way limited or defeatable, making him an excellent villain. It made the game awesomely unsettling without the use of jump scares, gore, or depressing elements.
I imagine that if you've played this game for the first time as an adult rather than a kid, it wouldn't affect you the way it affected me. In fact, you'll probably react the way many of my friends reacted when I showed it to them as adults - you'll get really frustrated at the puzzles and laugh at the cheesy ghost acting. And there are probably more effectively unsettling non-jump-scare/non-gore horror games out in the modern era that I haven't played (if you have a recommendation let me know!). But in spite of it all, I still have a soft spot for The 7th Guest. And I probably always will.