999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors – still a visual novel masterpiece

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I haven’t played 999 for probably a good ten years or so, and last time I played it, it was in its original Nintendo DS incarnation. With that in mind, after greatly enjoying World’s End Club, AI: The Somnium Files and its follow-up, I was keen to revisit its PlayStation 4 reimagining as part of The Nonary Games: a double-pack that includes both a remastered version of 999 and its follow-up Virtue’s Last Reward, also available on Vita, Xbox and PC.

After all, while it wasn’t his first game, 999 was the title that put gaming auteur Kotaro Uchikoshi on the map for a lot of people, particularly here in the west. And in many ways, it’s the title that helped to set expectations for what was to follow — expectations that Uchikoshi often subverts, it must be said, as seen in the opening to World’s End Club — as well as one of several titles on the DS that really opened up the visual novel medium of interactive storytelling to a broader audience.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is a visual novel in which you take on the role of Junpei, a young man and notable vest-wearer who, along with eight other people, has been kidnapped and taken to a ship to play “The Nonary Game”. The perpetrator is a mysterious, gas mask-clad figure known as “Zero”, and it’s clear from the outset that he’s not messing around; he’s planted a bomb in everyone’s stomach, and any breach of The Nonary Game’s most important rules will result in the untimely destruction of the offender.

Not only that, but the ship the players are on is sinking; they have just nine hours to complete their mission, which sounds simple: seek out a door with a number 9 printed on it, and pass through it. Of course, it is anything but simple, primarily due to those aforementioned rules.

Everyone in The Nonary Game is wearing a bracelet numbered between 1 and 9, you see, and this helps determine who can pass through which door. The rules state that only between three and five people can pass through a door, at which point it becomes “engaged” and cannot be passed through again until those within emerge from the unknown challenges awaiting them.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

Not only that, but the three to five people who wish to pass through the door must have a “digital root” that equals the door number: the digital root, as the game explains, is calculated by adding up the values of all the bracelets to reach a total, and if that total is two digits or more, continue adding the individual digits until you arrive at a single-digit number. For example, if numbers 1, 4 and 5 wished to pass through a door, it would have to be number 1: 1+4+5 equals 10, and 1+0 equals 1.

A bit of a spanner is thrown in the works almost immediately by virtue of the fact that a participant known only as “The 9th Man” almost immediately gets himself killed by breaking these rules. You see, once a group of numbers has passed through a door, they have to authenticate at a device on the other side of the door to deactivate the detonator in their bracelet. And if all the people who opened the door don’t authenticate in this way, everyone breaking the rules will find themselves blown to smithereens.

The almost immediate death of The 9th Man demonstrates that Zero is absolutely serious about this game — though he perhaps didn’t intend for one of the participants to be eliminated so soon, he was more than willing to punish those who, for whatever reason, didn’t stick to the clearly defined rules that had been laid out for them. And thus for the remainder of the story, the cast takes great care to ensure that they do things as “by the book” as they can wherever possible, even if it means playing into Zero’s hands.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

The interesting thing about 999 is that Zero’s motivation for bringing everyone together like this isn’t immediately clear, but as you progress through the game, you start picking up little nuggets of information here and there that give you an idea of “the big picture”.

And, in true visual novel tradition, one route through the game doesn’t provide all the answers; in fact, while there’s technically only one route required to unlock the true ending, there’s interesting information buried in all the “bad” endings also, so they’re worth pursuing in their own right — even if they end up in various degrees of disaster for Junpei and his comrades.

This is textbook Uchikoshi; we see a lot of this in AI: The Somnium Files, and Virtue’s Last Reward makes a major structural mechanic out of it. But it’s also nothing unusual for the visual novel genre; in fact, it’s quite common for a visual novel to require you to read all routes in order to fully understand the story, rather than simply picking a favourite waifu/husbando and focusing exclusively on them. The difference in Uchikoshi titles is that the characters, to a certain extent, are aware of how this works to varying degrees, even if they can’t quite explain where or why they acquired certain pieces of information.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

The joy of 999 is discovering its narrative’s many twists and turns, so we’ll refrain from spoiling those here for now. But it is worth noting that it’s one of many examples of how Uchikoshi explores interesting scientific, metaphysical, religious, spiritual and philosophical concepts through his games.

In 999’s case, one of the core principles is British author Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of the “morphogenetic field”, which is a means of things being able to silently and instantly communicate without direct physical or social interaction. Along the way, the game also takes in concepts such as the nine personality types of the Enneagram of Personality, the story of the Titanic and its supposed sister ship the Gigantic, the fictional compound ice-9 from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, and the parapsychological Ganzfeld experiments to test for extrasensory perception and telepathy.

A common theme in Uchikoshi games is characters breaking to explain these concepts in detail, often in surprisingly unexpected or, some might argue, inappropriate circumstances. Somehow it never ends up feeling forced, though; more often than not, it allows us to see an interesting other side to various characters that we might not have considered before, helping us to look beyond first impressions and consider that every single human being is a lot more complex than they might initially appear to be.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

The other particularly noteworthy aspect of 999 — and one which helped it reach beyond the typically niche audience that visual novels had enjoyed prior to its release — was its interactive room escape component. Uchikoshi himself was a fan of browser-based room escape games, and felt they would be more interesting if they were placed within the context of a larger story.

Indeed, while the room escape sequences make up the bulk of what can be described as “gameplay” in 999, Uchikoshi certainly isn’t afraid to have characters stop mid-investigation for an in-depth philosophical discussion about something. Rather than being annoying and breaking the flow, however, it helps the two segments of the game feel more tightly integrated with one another — even bearing in mind the fact that there are no character voices during the investigative sequences themselves, but there are in the novel scenes.

The room escape puzzles are fun, but they will present little difficulty to those who are experienced in adventure game logic — and, in a few cases, those who have a pen and paper to hand to help them calculate things. There is an in-game calculator — complete with automatic digital root function — but there are still a few “secret code” sequences where it’s handy to scribble things down rather than put everything together in your head. In other words, it’s unlikely you’ll get stuck on an escape sequence for long, which helps keep the plot flowing along nicely.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

They are a worthwhile inclusion, though, and help emphasise the fact that the cast aren’t just running around opening doors for nine hours; they’re actually solving puzzles and uncovering pieces of evidence for themselves, too. As previously noted, Zero absolutely does have a reason for everyone involved being there, even if it’s not immediately apparent — and the escape room sequences are just one means through which Uchikoshi gradually reveals the truth of what’s actually going on.

But as I say, to discuss that too much would be to spoil the experience for anyone who still hasn’t played 999, so we’ll leave that there.

The Nonary Games on PS4, Xbox, Vita and PC isn’t the first time 999 has been remastered and rereleased. In 2013, it was ported to iOS as 999: The Novel; this version featured high resolution graphics and a flowchart to help explore all the available narrative paths, but for some bizarre reason completely eliminated the interactive room escape sequences that were such an iconic part of the original Nintendo DS version. This version has subsequently been delisted, so it’s not readily available any more.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

The Nonary Games bundle is arguably the definitive way to experience 999 these days, since although it lacks the extra ending that was included in 999: The Novel, it does feature most of the other enhancements, as well as dual-audio voice acting in both English and Japanese. The English dub is actually surprisingly excellent, so I encourage even those of you who typically plump straight for Japanese voices — I am one such person — to at least give the dub a go for a bit, as you might be pleasantly surprised how well it works. Evan Smith’s performance as Junpei is a particular highlight.

The only slight hesitation I have in recommending it is the fact that a sequence towards the conclusion of the game’s true route made absolutely masterful use of the DS’ two screens in its original incarnation, and this section loses a little impact when viewed on a single screen. But this is ultimately a minor issue, and if you’ve never played the game before it’s not something you’ll even be aware of, in all likelihood; it’s handled perfectly competently on a single screen here, it’s just not quite as clever.

Suffice to say, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors remains a classic with good reason. If you’re not an experienced visual novel reader, its relatively brief length (by comparison to some other titles) makes it quite accessible, and its interactive room escape sequences help break things up with some actual “gameplay”. And if you’re a visual novel veteran, you owe it to yourself to check out a true masterwork of the medium; a wonderful example of how the interactive elements of visual novels can very much distinguish them from traditional linear media.

And when you’re done with that, it’s on to Virtue’s Last Reward, of course…

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is available for Nintendo DS, or The Nonary Games is available for PS4 (physical and digital), Xbox platforms (including via Game Pass) and Windows PC via Steam.

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Pete Davison
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