Thursday, February 03, 2011

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys Games
Adventure - Nintendo DS
1 player
9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors

"Wanna play a game?"

Those words are iconic of the SAW film series, and are quite appropriate for 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors too. Both have masterminds who kidnap select groups of people for a forced game with strict rules. Violate them, and the reward is a messy death. Both are gruesome, although 999 mostly describes the details in text rather than explicit visualization. And both have their viewers wondering many questions before finally resolving them at the end.

I had no idea what 999 was until a friend asked me about it. When I saw the trailer, it just seemed like a generic Adventure game. That is... until someone gave me another tidbit: "It's by the guy who did Ever17". Ever17 completely blew me away, and singlehandedly changed my mind about the legitimacy of visual novels. It proved to me that the video game medium could be used for creative storytelling, and in fact, could surpass traditional books in some ways. I was completely captivated by how you only get pieces of the puzzle through various endings, and the final reveal required experiencing each of those pieces first. I knew that 999 would offer a similar experience.

It did. But what surprised me most about 999 wasn't its brilliant E17-ish story structure - it was the fact that it's not a visual novel. 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors is very much an adventure game. You investigate, find items, and solve puzzles. The way it works here is that you end up trapped in rooms as part of the Nonary Game, the game within the game. Scattered throughout the room are items and clues. You can hold one active item at a time while you investigate objects, so if you have a key and then select a locked door, you will be using the key on the door as opposed to just observing the locked door. Items can be combined with other items in your inventory. The actual puzzles in the rooms are actually quite interesting. Many involve math problems or lining things up or even piano playing. I thought there was a pretty good amount of variety to the puzzles and enjoyed how they fit in logically with the structure of the story.

As far as the story goes, it plays out sort of like a scifi murder mystery. People do end up dying. Depending on the types of decisions you make in the game, the story can diverge in different directions. But that's all part of the process. Just like Ever17, if you take a path through the game, then you only see the consequences of that specific path. But it's necessary, because you learn certain things about the overall story by following that mini-story. If you take a different path, the ending could be radically different, yet you would still learn some truths about the overall story. It's this type of story-telling that I think both Ever17 and 999 really excel in.

So this is a game in which you must play multiple times to get the most mileage out of. In fact, you pretty much have to play it multiple times to get ANY mileage out of it. If you're not willing to commit to that, you shouldn't even start. But see it through and you will be rewarded with a one-of-a-kind experience. The game does offer a fast-forward to speed through only the text you've seen before, so that comes in really handy as you do your next playthrough.

Complaints? The first thing anyone notices about the game is that the text speed moves slowly. It's less of an issue later on though, particularly because in subsequent playthroughs, you can fastforward through all of it anyway. And when the text suddenly slows down (due to choosing a new path), the slow scrolling of text can actually be exciting. The other thing that's a plus and a minus is that in replays, text can be fast-forwarded but puzzles can't be. I guess part of that is that there's some important dialog choices you make during puzzle sequences, so you can't just skip past them. But on the upside, you can quickly go through the puzzles since you already know the solutions. And if I'm honest, I liked the story in Ever17 much more. But that's just a personal preference. There's nothing really earth shattering here as far as downsides.

All in all, this game can pretty much be summed up with this: If you love the scenario writer of the similar KID games (Never7, Ever17, Remember11, etc), you'll love 999. If you've never experienced his work, 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors would be a perfect introduction to his style. It's got the same familiar feel and method of storytelling. I am so glad that Aksys translated this game into English, because the people behind it deserve a broader audience. The way they tell the full story through multiple playthroughs is unlike any other video game I've played. Make no mistake. 999 is without question one of the star gems of the DS library. Absolutely recommended.