If you grew up on the Internet during the early-to-mid aughts, you almost certainly remember escape-the-room games. These were an absolute staple of early Flash gaming, with titles like The Mystery of Time and Space, Don’t Escape, and (perhaps the one most deeply resonant for me, with its screens well and truly burned into my brain) Crimson Room. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, these functioned as a kind of inheritor to old-school adventure games. The premise was simple – you’re plonked down in a room filled with gubbins and you have to examine, poke, prod, and flail wildly about with everything you could get your hands on in order to solve whatever puzzle was keeping the door out locked. I suppose then that something like Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors was inevitable: a full-length and properly budgeted and supported release which hearkens back to those halcyon games.
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (DS [reviewed], iOS, PC, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One)
Released Dec 2009 | Developed: Chunsoft | Published: Spike
Genre: Adventure, VN | HLTB: 10 hours
Given what I’ve just told you about escape-the-room games, it totally makes sense that 999 is a visual novel; it seems the obvious way to add in some plot around solving escape-room puzzles. Our main character is the hapless Junpei, a young chap who wakes in a grim, cold bunk-room onboard a ship and then must scramble to solve the puzzle locking the door as the porthole bursts and starts flooding his cell. Once out he runs into 8 other similarly unlucky people, all of whom recount the same stories of how they came to be there: each one remembers being abducted by a strange man in a gas mask, getting drugged by sleeping gas and waking up in a flooding room.
I know this is only because it’s a relatively recent thing, but while playing the thing I was constantly reminded of was Squid Game, Netflix’s Korean thriller series about a bunch of people abducted and forced to play deadly games for their freedom. In 999, our 9 participants find themselves trapped in the Nonary Game. Their captor, Zero, warns them that they have 9 hours to find door #9 from amongst a bevy other numbered doors; failure to do so will result in their deaths. That’s not the only threat facing the team, as each has a numbered bracelet attached to their arm which will trigger a bomb placed in each of them if they fail to adhere to Zero’s game rules. Behind each numbered door is a series of rooms, the puzzles in which they must solve in order to progress deeper into the ship and closer to their goal.
999 is a masterclass in crafting tension as the various personalities playing the Nonary Game begin to fray and clash, with hurried alliances made to calm conflicts, panic attacks setting in as new problems rear their heads, and trust and patience ebbing away with each new development. I found myself genuinely impressed at the number of times I felt my shoulders tighten and started feeling anxious. Many of the locations in the game feel sinister, especially because they don’t seem to have any reason to exist on a ship, such as a laboratory in which a dummy lies on a metal slab, wired up with electrodes attached to its head, or the cluttered cargo room with its scattered pictures of the cast and a coffin sitting high up on a pile of boxes.
However, despite the expertly-built eerie atmosphere, 999 also breaks that tension in ways that feel amateurish and silly. Sometimes it’s done in a way that I can only describe as animesque, with the main character getting doe-eyed over his romantic interest, but there’s nothing believable about it. They haven’t seen each other since elementary school and now suddenly when they’re in a death game they immediately go all gooey for one another; they even do the obnoxious “person falls on top of the other” meeting trope. Other times it delves into pseudo-scientific waffle about morphogenic fields or predictions and destiny or other such stuff – that’s fine but the way it does it is by losing itself in pages of dense prose and that is honestly a deeply boring way to explore this otherwise interesting topic. Still, you force yourself to try and take it all in because if the game is taking its time to try and explain a complicated idea it’s obvious that it’ll show up at some point in the narrative, but trying to pay attention enough to internalize it all and also be aware of it enough when it finally crops up runs the risk of creating a heavy sense of fatigue in its audience.
I also don’t always believe the characters’ developments as the narrative unfolds. Take Lotus, for example. Her design is that of a slender stunner dressed like an exotic dancer, and the game definitely expects you to come to the conclusion that she’s a bit of an airhead and will be a liability in your puzzle-solving exploits, and the realization that instead she is a hot-tempered and sharp-tongued woman who seems to struggle with working together with others is a perfectly reasonable one. But, the game also tries to give her hidden depths but I don’t always think it plays out well. In one room, a computer winds up being an obstacle as it’s locked with a password; suddenly up jumps Lotus, who turns out to be a master hacker, and quickly (somehow) compiles a program to brute force the machine’s password. Now this would be brilliant character development if it ever came up again, but it doesn’t, leaving her moment in the room just a straightforward example of deus ex machina in narrative writing.
It’s also a game which both expects and demands patience from its players, particularly when it comes to revealing anything about its characters. It struck me that, during my 4th run of the game, after having reached 3 different bad endings, that I still knew very little about most of the cast, and I was largely still guessing at who I thought these people were and what their roles in the story would go on to be. While there are endings which add in tons of backstory and fill in all the blanks (at least one of which is a bad ending that you are required to get before the game will let you achieve the true ending), I still had a sense of fatigue from being kept in the dark so much. This is probably quite subjective and depends on what order you achieve the endings; I hit all the bad endings first, so that sense of tiredness I felt might not be anything like what other players experience.
Still, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t all come together in an incredible way. I started playing 999 because it’s a DS game which comes extremely highly recommended. I don’t know if I would have picked it up otherwise; while I’ve played a couple of visual novels, I’m not sure it’s a genre I love enough to delve into without knowing anything. Most visual novels I’ve played for the blog have either been simple, cheery indie games like Dungeons & Lesbians and One Night Stand, or major franchises with mass market appeal like Professor Layton and Ace Attorney. Those latter two are probably the most relevant comparisons I have, given they were also released on contemporary systems, but they take quite a different approach to both their gameplay and their writing. Both Professor Layton and Ace Attorney’s writing is much less tense and hectic, and is clearly aimed at a much wider audience than 999, as evidenced by the clear and simple prose. The gameplay of those games is also more mainstream-friendly, from Layton’s easygoing puzzling to Ace Attorney’s exciting courtroom battles.
In contrast, 999 feels like a harder sell; the prose is, at times, very dense and difficult to parse, and it’s also often delivered in very lengthy chunks with only the occasional dialogue choice to be made to direct your progress through the ship. The actual gameplay, such as it is, limits itself to a very basic form; in essence it’s a point-and-click as Junpei and his allies find themselves sealed in a series of rooms and you have to start clicking on anything you think looks odd in the hopes that it’s a clue or puzzle piece. As a rule, 999 avoids the trap of some similar games where objects you can interact with are clearly distinct from the background, so you do generally need to poke at most stuff just in case it isn’t part of the background. Items that you can pick up are added to your inventory, where you can check them out further by manipulating each object in 3D, in case there’s anything useful hidden out of initial sight. I don’t think quite enough is done with this, to be honest; I can’t remember it being a necessary part of puzzle-solving more than a bare handful of times, which feels like a waste. In contrast to the type of puzzles that series like Layton and Ace Attorney throw at players, 999’s challenges are sometimes a little more obtuse, and definitely take themselves more seriously. Most follow an identifiable thread of logic, but at times there’s a little bit of the old adventure game problem of clicking stuff randomly trying to make stuff work. You also have to be at least a little bit into maths; it’s not that there’s a ton of mathematics puzzles, but there’s certainly a little stronger emphasis on solving straight-up maths brainteasers than I might have wanted.
Although available on a plethora of systems, I feel like 999 is probably best enjoyed on systems like the DS. For a start, you get the benefit of the touchscreen, which gives the point-and-click gameplay a little more tactility, but on top of that it’s also a game which genuinely makes use of the system it was built for. All too often, games made for systems with gimmicks can run afoul of messing about with the features of a system and fail to effectively integrate them into the game itself; take, say, The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass for a great example of this, where movement was taken away from the d-pad and replaced with dragging Link around via the stylus for no discernable reason, and at cost to the game feel. 999, however, really understands how to use some of the features of the DS in an extremely creative way; in fact, to try and describe just what the game does is, without hyperbole, a full-on spoiler, so I shan’t say more, but suffice it to say some stuff happens that completely flipped the game and my expectations of it, and how it interacts with the system itself, on its head and left me stunned and impressed. The thing is, I don’t see how any other system could manage that – without it, if you’re playing on the PS4 or something, I think you’re going to be robbing yourself off of one of the coolest tricks I’ve ever seen a game pull on me.
That trick the game has up its sleeve is but one of a few reasons people are so complimentary of 999. I don’t know that I’ve ever been someone for whom one exceptional thing can override the rest of the experience, but 999 has come very close, and I have to respect it for that. It is by no means a perfect game, or even an experience that I could rank among my favourites; the repetition of the playthroughs, the lack of effective ways to skip past already completed challenges resulting in replays being longer than necessary, and the degree of obfuscation and lack of resolution that comes with a solid three-quarters of the endings made 999 a tough game to keep going with. However, when it all came together in those final playthroughs, when I earned the true ending and the run-in to it, the experience was utterly profound. If you have the patience to stick through with Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, I think you’ll find an absolute gem.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.