Monday, June 1, 2015

Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors

You know what kinds of video games just don't really do well?

Okay, besides those, wise guy.

Mystery games.  For a very brief time in the 90's, I remember when there was a small surge in interactive storytelling involving murder mysteries or large crimes.  You'd start to play, and the game would randomly assign who the perpetrator was to a character, and reorganize the clues and dialogue accordingly.  You'd have to investigate, but since most games trying this were on CDs and cheap attempts at video capture were all the rage, you wound up with games like Ripper where you had Christopher Walken screaming at you and Karen Allen acting nowhere near as awesome as she does in Indiana Jones movies.

Plus, once you pick up on what changed in the story, it's usually pretty easy to figure out who the bad guy is.

More modern games have tried to do larger stories with a mystery reaching through, but once you play those games once, there's little replay value in doing it all over again.  Examples of this are Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire.

So when I found a Nintendo DS game called Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors (or 999 for short), I was intrigued.  A mystery with multiple endings based off the choices you make, and while I was hesitant about the game just randomly changing who the bad guy was based off of stuff I picked (looking at you, Ripper), I figured that it was an obscure Japanese game, there must be some hook to it.

Twenty minutes in, I was hooked.

Allow me to set the scene for you.

You wake up on a ship, in a third class cabin.  The door is locked, a large red number painted across it.  A strange machine is hooked to it.  The porthole cracks, and then a spray of water crashes in, flooding the small room.  You have to search the area around you for the tools you need to survive, and only once you escape and get to the next floor up, do you meet eight other people, all trapped like you.

You're all wearing bracelets with a distinctive number on them, one through nine.  There are other doors with numbers painted on them, one through nine.  A door with a nine on it leads to freedom.  You can only go through doors in groups of three through five, and the numbers of the people going through each door have to add up completely to the number on the door (example: 2+6+9 = 17, 1 + 7 = 8, those three can go through a door labelled "8").  If you break the rules, you die.  Quickly.  Messily.  No mercy, no exceptions.

You don't know who the people trapped with you are.  You don't know if you can trust them.  You don't know if any of them would happily sacrifice you if it meant they could get out faster.  You don't know if one of them isn't the person behind this whole thing.  You have nine hours to escape the ship, or...well, you can figure it out.

Oh, but there is one thing.  You do know one of these people on board.  You knew her growing up.  She was your best friend.

Playing the game, I immediately got hooked in with the characters you interact with and the puzzles you face.  The game is more of an interactive novel than a "game," since you tend to just read a lot of text and then tap around on a screen looking for clues and ways to solve puzzles, but sometimes that's really enough.  The personalities of the characters you interact with are all unique, and each one carries a strong distrust of everybody else in the group.  You wind up an unofficial "leader" due to you being one of the few trustworthy characters ("June" helps with this), but there's a heavy sense of pressure as everybody around you wonders who's going to die next, or if everybody's going to die.

There are multiple endings, but a large number of them lead to what can only be described as a "bad end."  Namely, you die.  You don't learn who's behind anything, you don't discover any of the major secrets about what happened.  You either die from making a bad decision, or the path you took and people you paired up with just ended rather horribly, and one of your teammates (or someone else) decided to take you out of the contest.

Spoiler alert: This doesn't end well for you.
I was determined from the first time I died and got a "so sad, too bad" ending that I was going to beat this game.  Fortunately, the game lets you start again while still saving your "memories" of everything that happened before, allowing you to dig back through your notes for something strange someone said the first time you tried something.  Trying different doors with different teams lets you learn bits and pieces about each of your partners, allowing you to put together the mystery of just how everybody is connected and why they might all be there.  You find traces of deeper conspiracies and plots as you realize just what lengths the responsible party must have gone through to bring you all together.

In other words, you solve a mystery.  It just usually takes you several tries to get it all right.

The music of the game is extremely well-crafted, setting a dark mood that lingers with you even when you stop playing.  The text is written by someone who loved to tell a good story, and while it can get rather long and eye-rolling at certain points (one plot thread involves morphic resonance experiments, and while it's interesting at first, they feel the need to explain EVERYTHING), when it kicks the drama into high gear, the narrative weaves an expertly crafted spell around you and you find yourself panicking as it plays with your mind.  You start believing in time limits that might not actually exist, or risks that the game never presented as possible.

An extremely well-crafted game, this was later released on iDevices with some additional content mixed in (another "not good" ending, for one), so it's still possible to try it.  If you want a fun game that doesn't require too much button (or screen) mashing, I genuinely recommend picking it up.  It's an absolute blast, and you'll want to figure out the secrets of everybody on that ship soon after you meet them.

Pictured: a group of completely innocent, ordinary people.

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