999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

How do you write a review of the best game you’ve ever played?

Excuse me, that was a little melodramatic — but how do you write a review of one of the best games you’ve ever played?

How do you even begin to describe the combination of an incredible storyline, fantastic pacing, and solid gameplay, all mixed into what is easily one of my favourite games of all time?

999 is one of those things I wish I could forget. Not because it’s bad, no, exactly the opposite: it’s so good that I want to be able to experience it all over again. I want to play it again, but it just won’t have the same impact as it did the first time around.

But where are my manners? I haven’t even told you about the game, and here I am, already singing its praises like it’s the best game I’ve ever played.

So we’ll start at the start.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is a visual novel. It’s similar to games like Ghost Trick and more recently The Walking Dead in that the entire thing is completely story-driven. There’s parts where you actually play the game and make decisions that have some kind of impact on what happens, to be sure, but for the most part, you’re just along for the ride, wondering where it will take you.

999 doesn’t have any kind of spoken dialogue. It means the game comes of as rather text heavy, but that’s par for the course with these kinds of visual novels/interactive stories. The Walking Dead has endless cutscenes, and 999 has text. Lots and lots of text, seeing as that’s kind of the only way it can tell you what’s going on and how the story is progressing. It comes of as text-heavy at the best of times, but it works well — the text isn’t something that ever becomes overburdening at any point, is what I’m saying. The delivery of text is near-perfect, and you never feel like you’re being swamped with information.

When you’re not progressing the story through these semi-cutscenes (which can include the odd decision here or there), you’re playing the other part of the game. You see, gameplay in 999 can be broken into two parts: there’s the story-based cutscenes, if we can call them that, and then there’s the escape sequences. During these escape sequences you’re tasked with escaping from whatever room you’ve found yourself trapped in, and the sequences themselves play out a little like some kind of point-and-click adventure game. In most cases, you find objects, combine them with other objects, and then use them to escape the room — somehow. Sometimes your companions will give you hints on how to use the items you’ve collected, or hints on what you’re supposed to be doing to escape the room, but for the most part, you’re just left to explore rooms on your own.

Yes, you’re not the only one in this story. As the title might suggest, along for the ride are eight other individuals. There’s a few other characters that play minor roles, but for the most part, the eight characters and you are the only ones that really matter — when you meet the other characters for the first time, you’re not really sure who they are, what backgrounds they have, or why they’re with you. All you know is, something out of the ordinary is going on, and it’s up to you to find out what and why.

Actually, that’s not entirely true: the Nonary Game and associated rules are revealed pretty early into the piece by one of the so-called “bad guys”, and it soon becomes clear you’re just a pawn involved in some kind of game. A game where you have to find answers to questions such as: why were you chosen for the game? Why were the others chosen for the game? And perhaps the question with the most elusive answer of all: what is the purpose of the game?

The puzzles you’ll encounter as you play the game are fairly simplistic, for the most part. Usually you’ll be able to solve puzzles by combining objects, using objects with the environment and using some lateral thinking to work out how to escape out of the current room. No puzzle is impossible, although you might find yourself scratching your head on occasion when you just can’t figure out the answer. Random guessing will ocassionally reveal the answer, but some answers simply can’t be obtained by guessing every combination, and indeed, there are cases where doing so would take quite a lengthy time indeed.

Quite a few puzzles involve numbers and the concept of a “digital root”, as that’s one of the key concepts the Nonary Game is itself based around. The digital root is just the digits of any number added until only a single digit remains: for example, the digital root of 5, 7, and 3 would be: 5 + 7 + 3 = 15 = 1 + 5 = 6. Over the course of the game you’ll be using these digital roots to solve puzzles and progress though the Nonary Game; just try not to think about how the numbers do or don’t add up at any given time — there’s enough on your plate as it is without adding that kind of stress.

Solve the puzzles, make the right decisions, and maybe you’ll get to the end of the game.

But that’s just where it all begins.

You see, 999 is one of those games that requires multiple play-throughs. But wait, before you place your palm on your forehead and say “not this shit again”, hang on a second — unlike Diablo III or Borderlands 2, each play-through in 999 means you can choose a different path exploring a different part of the game, experience varied escape sequences, and find more questions than answers. Borderlands 2 and Diablo III make you play the game again (and in Diablo III’s case, again and again) for the sake of “completion”, but they’re both lazy games, in my opinion. By forcing you to play though the exact same game multiple times, with the only difference in subsequent play-throughs being a higher level and better gear, they’re showing how lazy the developers were. It’s as if someone on the development team said: “hey, instead of making more content so the game actually allows players to hit the level cap in one playthough, let’s just let them play the exact same game again.” I ask you: where the fun in that?

No, 999 makes you play the game again because you want to: because you want to find out more about the Nonary Game, why you and your fellow participants are there, and what the true purpose of the game actually is. Because you’ve got more questions than answers, and because, well, the ending you were given the first time around (probably) wasn’t to your satisfaction.

That’s right: there are multiple endings in 999. You can’t even get the “good” ending if you only play the game once, something I had to find out the hard way. All in all, there are six possible endings. You might be asking yourself: “wait, with six possible endings, doesn’t that mean you have to play through the same content more than once to see all the possible endings?” Well, yeah, it does. “Doesn’t that mean I’ll potentially play through the same puzzles, read the same dialogue, and experience the same sequence of events”? Well, yeah, you will, but here’s the rub: playing through parts that you’ve already played is easy, because you can fast-forward through dialogue you’ve already read in previous play-throughs. And if you’ve already solved an escape sequence once, doing it the second time around should be a piece of cake, right?

Truth be told, you’ll have to play through the same escape sequences and read the same dialogues a number of times if you’re aiming to complete every ending. But that’s okay, because each ending building up to the “true end” reveals a little more of the story, answers a few more unanswered questions, and enriches your experience of 999 in some way. Trust me, it’s worth playing though all of the endings — some are more eye-opening than others in terms of what they reveal about the game, but they all contribute to the overarching story of the Nonary Game and why you’re playing it.

And that’s perhaps one of the best things about the story-based aspect of 999. It starts out by sucking you into a clouded world of confusion and deceit and then weaves a web of intricate secrecy around you. It’s up to you to solve the puzzles, yes, but perhaps the more pressing task is finding out exactly where the story takes you — it’s compelling in every sense of the word, combined with a sense of urgency and the chance of a misstep at every stage of the game. Each play-through of 999 reveals a little more about the story and the origins of the Nonary Game, and if you play them all you’ll experience a few different endings, each telling a little more of the story, or maybe a different perspective on how things played out during that particular play-through. But it isn’t until you get to the true end that you realise how you can use all the little pieces of information you’ve received, how you can put together the pieces. Of course, the game still spells things out for you in the final hours, as if to clarify what exactly happened during the course of the game.

“He could have helper her, but he hadn’t, and now she was dead.”

Transmitter and receivers. The Ship of Theseus and Locke’s Socks. Morphogenetic fields and morphic resonance. The Ganzfeld experiment. Ice 9. A floating coffin. Ethylene Diamine Tartrate. Allice.

What does it all mean? How are they all connected? How do you even begin to unravel the secrecy and confusion that surrounds the Nonary Game, its participants, and your role in the whole thing?

Multiple play-throughs are the only way you’ll get access to the ‘big picture”. It’s during the course of these play-throughs that you’ll learn things about certain individuals, and it’s during these play-throughs that certain characters will reveal critical pieces of information to you — information you likely didn’t have the first time around, but information that makes all the difference when it comes to answering unanswered questions and gradually beginning to piece together the puzzle of the Nonary Game in your own mind.

There’s one play-through where you reach one section of the game and just… stop. You stop because you have no way to continue going on, and it isn’t until you play through a different sequence of events that you understand the steps you need to do to continue. 999 plays games with you. It forces you to play through multiple times in order to get the answers to puzzles, and yet, it forces you to remember what you did the last time around. Sure, you could guess the right answer, but it’s infinitely easier to play through the right chain of events in order to get the final clue.

The story-based aspect of 999 is undoubtedly the game’s strongest suit, and is also the one which could just as easily have become its downfall, either by poor execution or the wrong audience. I know that story-based games aren’t for a lot of games, and judging by the recent controversy on shooters which tell a story (here’s looking at you, Warfighter), people don’t like it when games branch out of their comfort zones and attempt to do something different. Thankfully, 999 succumbed to neither of these issues, and what we’re left is one of the most gripping games of 2010.

At the end of the day 999 is, and continues to be, one of the best games I’ve ever played and one of my favourite games of all time. It’s right up there with greats such as Ghost Trick, The Walking Dead, and even other role-playing games such as Fallout 3 and New Vegas. It’s an incredibly good visual novel, and as a game it sucks you right in and makes you want to play it more in order to get the bigger picture. Puzzle-solving gameplay is varied enough so I didn’t get bored with the puzzles, but even the more nefarious puzzles played second fiddle to the main attraction: the storyline. And what a storyline it is, with some of the most complex twists and turns I’ve ever experienced in any game of this kind.

There is no higher praise I can give: we need more games like 999.

Which is perfect, considering its sequel was just released for the 3DS and PS Vita. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

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