Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999 for short) is a visual novel/adventure game first released for the Nintendo DS way back in 2009. It enjoyed enough success to spawn two sequels, and has been ported to numerous platforms: the 3DS and the Vita, and in 2016 to the PlayStation 4, when it was bundled with its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, in a package titled Zero Escape: The Nonary Games.
It’s perhaps fitting that 999 has such a complicated naming and release history, as the game boasts one of the most unusual and distinctive narrative structures I’ve ever encountered. The player experiences the game from the point of view of Junpei, a young man who has been kidnapped and inserted into a sadistic game on a sinking cruise liner by a mysterious, masked individual known only as “Zero”. Along with a group of eight other people, Junpei must complete a series of puzzles to escape from the ship before it sinks. It’s a scenario that owes something to the Saw franchise; and even if this isn’t a horror game, it has a decidely dark tone, and there’s some disturbing content (though what violence there is largely takes place off-screen).
The puzzles are each framed as individual “escape rooms”, and provide the main opportunity for the player to interact with the game world: even then, your options are limited to pointing, clicking, and superficial examination of objects. Apart from these “gameplay” sequences, and a few narrative branches where you’re called upon to make a decision, 999 consists entirely of pressing the X button to scroll through text. I remember at least one half-hour session where I did nothing more demanding than press the X button. It’s not exactly Bloodborne.
It’s a good job, then, that the story is compelling enough to keep your interest. The motley and rather unlikely band of characters are forced to co-operate to solve Zero’s puzzles in order to survive. In the course of doing so, they gradually uncover what the hell is going on, and why Zero put the sadistic game together in the first place. While some of the plot twists are telegraphed in advance, I was consistently surprised at the complexity of the story and how carefully it was put together.
I was sceptical about 999 at first: partly due to the limited nature of the gameplay; and partly due to the underwhelming production values. This is a game that started life on a handheld almost ten years ago, after all, and although it’s been spruced up for this PS4 iteration, the backgrounds and environments are still decidedly basic. But 999 gradually won me over. The character drawings are large, bold, and colourful, successfully conveying personality and emotion. Moreover, almost the entire script is fully voice-acted, featuring a number of fairly well-known JRPG and anime voice actors like Wendee Lee. I do think the voice acting adds something, particularly when playing the game on a TV rather than a handheld: it makes it feel like a more fleshed-out experience. That said, while the story and characterization is generally good, the localization of the script is uneven. It’s especially grating, for instance, once you notice how often the characters say “What the hell?”, a phrase which must recur hundreds of times during the game.
Many of the puzzles revolve around the number nine, which is the game’s leitmotif. It’s invoked in all manner of ways: some are obvious, but some are ingenious examples of fridge brilliance. It’s rare, but refreshing, to see mathematics deployed so naturally and pivotally in a game’s story. The maths-based puzzles are consistently engaging, and only occasionally frustrating. It can even be tempting to consider the ramifications of the game’s numerology when you’re not playing: certain plot twists can actually be predicted if you study the numbers closely enough. But it’s not just maths: 999 invokes literary, historical, and metaphysical themes throughout, and the end result is an unusually sophisticated and thought-provoking video game.
Initially, I found 999’s use of metaphysical speculation to be somewhat irritating, particularly given the script’s procilivity for pop psychology and conspiracy theories. However, in an example of the aforementioned fridge brilliance, it eventually becomes clear that 999’s very narrative structure evokes the metaphysical subjects discussed by the characters. 999 is somewhat unusual in that it requires multiple playthroughs to get the “correct” ending. This might sound annoying – and I was displeased when I completed the game for the first time only to be greeted with a “To be continued” screen – but, if you give it a chance, it all makes sense in the end.
I also liked the fact that there was a genuine incentive to replay the game, beyond the pointless acquisition of knick-knacks. Here, re-playing scenarios (and making different decisions) is an integral part of the experience, and the consequences really could not be much more significant. This kind of approach would not suit every game, but 999 should be recognized for experimenting with narrative form in a way that relates meaningfully both to the medium and to its subject matter. That said, I’m glad the PS4 version allows you to skip to any part of the game’s branching narrative during subsequent playthroughs: the original DS game made you start at the beginning each time, which is something I certainly would not have been prepared to do.
999 is the first visual novel I’ve played, and it’s a good advertisement for the genre. Anyone remotely interested in the format should check this out. While first impressions might be underwhelming, if you stick with it then you’ll be rewarded with an unusually thoughtful experience, and a moving and memorable story.