JPgamer: In Search of Door Number 9

In this week's JPgamer, Pete delves into his backlog to explore one of the most interesting games on the Nintendo DS: Chunsoft's visual novel-cum-room escape adventure Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.

Article by Pete Davison, .

I have a problem, dear reader, and I'm sure it's one to which many of you can relate: a sizeable backlog.

I'm making a point of getting through it a tiny bit at a time, though -- particularly now the new consoles are here -- and, as I expected I would, I'm discovering some real gems in the process, one of which I'd like to talk about today.

The game in question is Chunsoft's Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, or 999 to its friends. It's a Nintendo DS game that originally came out back in 2010 (2009 in Japan), and I got a copy for Christmas two years ago which has been sitting unopened on my shelf ever since -- it's one of those boxes that I'd see occasionally and think "oh yeah, I really should play that," and then go and get absorbed in some ridiculous candy-colored JRPG for a hundred hours instead. We've all been there. Right? Right?

But no, this time around I decided I was going to start it, I was going to play it and dammit, I was going to finish it. And indeed I have. Pleasingly, it didn't take all that long, either, which kind of makes me wish I'd tried it a bit sooner, but, well, you can't turn back the clock, and at least now I have its sequel Virtue's Last Reward to look forward to.

But what of 999 itself? Well, read on. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum for those who haven't played it.

In 999, you're cast in the role of Junpei, a young man who finds himself locked in a cabin on a boat. After escaping from his cabin, he comes across eight other individuals who have been brought aboard at the behest of the mysterious "Zero" to partake in an activity known as the "Nonary Game." The Nonary game is simple: all nine participants have nine hours to discover a door marked with a number 9, which provides them with their route to escape. Their route to door 9 is blocked by numbered doors, each of which can accommodate between three and five people, and the only way to open a numbered door is for the participants to use their numbered bracelets to "verify" and make a digital root equal to the number on the door. (Don't worry about the math side of things; it's largely taken care of for you, with the exception of a few explicit puzzles.)

999 blends visual novel storytelling sequences with room escape adventure sequences, making it an extremely Japanese game in terms of game mechanics. You'll spend about 80% of your time in the game reading reams of text, and the other 20% finding bizarre items and using them to get out of whatever room you've been locked in this time.

The visual novel sequences make excellent use of the DS' two screens for effective presentation, eschewing the usual "stuff happens on the top screen, interface is on the bottom" approach adopted by similar games such as the Ace Attorney series. Instead, 999 uses the top screen to present dialogue, characters and event images, while the bottom screen is reserved for narration.

Interestingly, 999's narration doesn't take the usual visual novel approach of narrating everything from the first-person perspective of the protagonist Junpei. Instead, the narration unfolds from a third-person perspective, though remains constantly focused on Junpei rather than the other characters involved. Junpei has his own internal monologue that shows up on the top screen while he's working out how to solve the room escape sequences -- or rather, you are -- but for the most part the narration is more like that you'd find in a conventional third-person, past-tense novel rather than the first-person present tense usually seen in other visual novels.

There is a fascinating reason for this interesting stylistic choice -- and a few other events that are otherwise unexplained -- that is only revealed in the game's true ending, and getting to that point is something of an ordeal, albeit an enjoyable one. 999 has six endings, you see, three of which involve most, if not all, of the main cast dying horribly, one of which ends with a cliffhanger that is only resolved in the true ending and one of which is a prerequisite to seeing the aforementioned true ending. Technically all of the non-true endings are "bad" to some degree or another, but 999 adopts a common approach seen in many visual novels, in that "bad" doesn't necessarily mean "undesirable."

In fact, the routes that lead up to 999's various endings each impart to you different pieces of the complete story, and it's only by following all the possible combinations of routes through the game that you can get a complete picture of what is really going on -- play through the game once and you may see an ending, sure, but it won't be a "good" one; you'll have to play through at least twice in total to get the truth, and preferably six times altogether to see absolutely everything.

This is an interesting approach, and one that relies on the player having a degree of self-discipline as well as sufficient curiosity to go back and replay the game. Fortunately, a single playthrough doesn't take all that long and the game provides a "fast forward" function allowing you to skip text you've already seen, so while you do have to repeat some material a couple of times, it's a relatively painless experience.

One of the main reasons this is interesting, though, is that it's an expression of trust between developer -- or, perhaps more accurately, writer -- and player. In other words, not everything is presented on a plate to the player, and it's entirely possible to reach the end without being able to come to any firm conclusions as to what happened; the writer is trusting the player to seek out the additional knowledge they need by playing the game again. This is something that Western developers often shy away from; with the exception of titles from BioWare, it's relatively rare for a Western game to have multiple endings and expect the player to piece together the complete story from the fragments presented by each distinct conclusion. Conversely, it's rather common in Japanese media, with the majority of visual novels having multiple routes through the story, each of which are markedly different from one another, and many RPGs having a variety of different possible conclusions, too.

In 999's case, it doesn't take long for it to become clear that taking alternative routes at the game's relatively few important decision points will have a major impact on how the story unfolds, though it isn't at all apparent when you first play which options are the "right" ones. Part of the joy of the game is in discovering where each of the paths lead you, and which characters this allows you to spend more time with and consequently learn more about.

Speaking of characters, 999's cast is a fascinating bunch that eschews common visual novel stereotypes in favor of a diverse selection from all walks of life. These characters frequently defy the expectations and prejudices you might have towards them based solely on their visual appearance, too; it's rare that all is as it seems with each of the cast members, and indeed this is a key theme of the story as a whole. In fact, such is the degree of mystery surrounding each character that you spend a significant proportion of the game trying to work out exactly who these people are, and who -- if anyone -- might be a threat to the group's escape attempt as a whole.

Multi-ending visual novels are often structured in such a way that regardless of plot and theme, their narrative paths tend to coincide with pursuing a particular character romantically -- Sweet Fuse is a good example -- but 999 again eschews this approach in favor of each path simply exploring the narrative as a whole in greater depth. In some paths, you'll get more information on the specific characters' backgrounds; in others, there's broader exploration of the background to the game's overall plot. While you can see the game's true ending after just two playthroughs, it's actually desirable to seek out the alternative pathways through the game, even if they end in horrible bloody death, because each new piece of story reveals a piece of the greater puzzle.

In short, then, if you're a fan of story-based gaming and you're yet to play your way through 999, I strongly recommend setting aside 10-15 hours or so and working your way through its compelling, multi-layered narrative. I can't speak for the quality of its sequel Virtue's Last Reward as yet -- after finishing 999 today, that's next in the queue -- but 999 is certainly a fine example of the video games medium being used effectively to tell an interesting and unusual story in a rather unconventional manner, and it's an experience well worth having.

JPgamer is USgamer's regular round-up of topics regarding Japanese games, published every Wednesday. You can read previous installments here.

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Comments 19

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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #1 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    999 is a fantastic game, and I dare say that the sequel is the superior visual novel, so far. I think you will love it to bits. If you play it on the 3DS, though, just be sure to never save on a puzzle room or near the PEC room (that will make sense then), because it has a save corrupting bug, but other than that, it's smooth sailing.

    Also, I'd recommend visiting the 999 official site and reading up the Q&A with the author, for some clarifications and curiosities about his writing process.

    As I'm finishing up the special episode on the Ace Attorney Dual Destinies, I'd ask (both Pete and my fellow readers): is there another visual novel/adventure game on the DS or 3DS that you would recommend to people who enjoyed 999/VLR? I'm searching for new options to play on my commute / trying not to buy Pokemon and go insane with the metagame.

    Eager to see what you have to write about VLR!Edited November 2013 by renatocosta90
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  • Avatar for Terpiscorei #2 Terpiscorei 4 years ago
    @renatocosta90 It's not a visual novel in the sense of 999/VLR or Phoenix Wright, but if you haven't played Ghost Trick, go buy it immediately. It's got a fantastic sense of style, some pretty good writing, and a lot of really enjoyable puzzles. I think it's a no-brainer if you like 999 and VLR.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #3 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    Always good to watch someone's reaction to Uchikoshi's MINDBLOWINGEDNESS.

    The VLR one should be even better.
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #4 Godots17thCup 4 years ago
    I'll always second a recommendation to play Ghost Trick. There's more actual "gameplay" to it than the Ace Attorney series, but the puzzles are fun and clever, the animation is truly a sight to behold, it's stuffed with colorful, charming, funny characters and it has a compelling, touching story.

    Which shouldn't be surprising, since Ghost Trick was written and created by the same man (Shu Takumi) that was the brains behind the first four Ace Attorney games.

    Also, Missile the Pomeranian might just be the greatest video game character ever. Or at least my favorite.
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #5 Godots17thCup 4 years ago
    999 and VRL are classics, and both are probably my favorite games for their respective systems (which is really saying something in 999's case, since I love the DS' library so much).

    While I still prefer 999's plot and cast slightly more (only slightly!), VRL was significantly more player-friendly. In particular, the player's ability to jump to almost any key point in the story was a freaking godsend; I put somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 hours into Virtue's Last Reward trying to see all of the endings, and very little of that time was spent re-reading/skipping through text.Edited November 2013 by Godots17thCup
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #6 pjedavison 4 years ago
    Thanks for your comments! I've started VLR and I'm super-impressed so far. (Playing on Vita, for those curious.) Thoughts to follow... though I get the impression from what@Godots17thCup is saying that it'll be a while yet :)
    @renatocosta90 If you're looking for more visual novel goodness on Nintendo handhelds, Hotel Dusk is excellent, and its sequel Lost Window is supposed to be good, too, but I haven't got to that yet. Ghost Trick is also excellent, as has already been said, and that has a top-notch iOS port, too -- looks great on iPad. I also really enjoyed Lifesigns: Surgical Unit (also known as Lifesigns: Hospital Affairs in some territories) -- that was an excellent medical drama visual novel; the surgery sequences and other minigames weren't particularly polished, but the story and characterization throughout more than made up for that.
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #7 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    @Terpiscorei Done and Done :D. I'm finishing up the 3DS Ace Attorney, and have already played through the previous games (even Miles Edgeworth Investigations) and, of couse, Ghost Trick. That is a game that should be obligatory to every DS/3DS/iOS owner and/or pomeranian admirers
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #8 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    @pjedavison Nice, will inform myself about Hotel Dusk and Lifesigns, thanks! Hope you enjoy VLR as much as pretty much everyone else over on this thread did!

    Also, thanks for the recommendations@Godots17thCup and@Terpiscorei!
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #9 Godots17thCup 4 years ago
    It's not strictly a visual novel, but Trauma Team is also worth checking out for anyone with an interest in the genre. It's part of the Trauma Center series, so there's quite a bit of "surgery simulation" gameplay - and it's a Wii game, so there are IR pointer and motion controls involved. I thought they were implemented well (simple, responsive and even a bit immersive), but I know there are people out there that are wary of anything motion control-related, so, ya know, fair warning.

    2 of the 6 gameplay sections/stories (Forensics and Diagnosis) basically are really enjoyable, if a bit short, visual novels, and the other four sections still feature quite a bit plot around the surgeries.Edited November 2013 by Godots17thCup
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  • Avatar for Suzusiiro #10 Suzusiiro 4 years ago
    VLR also does the "you have to do all the bad endings to unlock the true ending" thing, to a much greater extent than 999.

    If you liked both of those I'd also recommend hunting down Ever17 (which I don't believe can be found legally anymore.) It's by the same author and uses a lot of the same tricks that the Zero Escape series does.
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  • Avatar for Vasenor #11 Vasenor 4 years ago
    I'd second the recommendations for both Ghost Trick and Ever 17. Both are excellent. Ghost Trick is more of a traditional puzzle game in many ways and some of the Rube Goldberg stuff that goes on is simply wonderful. Ever 17 is much more of a traditional VN and has essentially no puzzle elements (with a couple of pivotal exceptions).

    I haven't thought of Hotel Dusk in ages... I really should finish it. I can't remember why I didn't now. It was rather good.

    Talking about multiple endings and piecing bits together. devil Survivor has quite a bit of that with certain things only being made clear when you complete certain routes. Again with certain characters being actively misleading/not telling the whole truth.Edited November 2013 by Vasenor
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  • Avatar for Knurek #12 Knurek 4 years ago
    I'm not sure why people have problems with choosing the correct doors for two main game routes in 999 - the door numbers you need to go into are shown in the opening movies. :)
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  • Avatar for Terpiscorei #13 Terpiscorei 4 years ago
    @renatocosta90 It just occurred to me -- there was a DS game some years ago called Time Hollow that I enjoyed quite a bit. It's related to the PS2 adventure game Shadow of Memories. I recommend it if you can track down a copy.
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #14 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    @Godots17thCup I don`t have a Wii, though I have a behemot of a PC that I built recently, so maybe it`s time to fire it up over on Dolphin (yar). Thanks for the tip
    @Suzusiiro Ever17 is for the PC, right? I`ll see what I can find about it!
    @Vasenor played Devil Survivor to bits when it originally came out (Atlus fanboy). This ended up preventing me from picking up the overclocked edition on 3ds because I don`t think I could play that game anymore.
    @Terpiscorei Wow, I never knew that got a sequel! I remember playing like halfway through and never finishing Shadow of Memories, but I will take that into consideration, thanks!
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #15 pjedavison 4 years ago
    Re: Trauma Team -- (It's okay to plug your own articles on the website you work for, right?)
    @Terpiscorei There's a spinoff of Shadow of Memories (aka Shadow of Destiny)? Awesome. That was the first PS2 game I ever bought, and a fascinating game in its own right.
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #16 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @Knurek No way. Really? Now I feel like a fool. :)
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  • Avatar for Banandango #17 Banandango 4 years ago
    I played 999 back when it released and had my mind blown. Some time later, I played Ever17 and had my mind blown ten times over. Seriously, if you've played 999 but not Ever17 you have NO idea how deep the rabbit hole goes. Play Ever17 immediately. :)
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #18 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    I remember first playing 999 and going in with zero expectations other than that story was supposed to be really good, and was totally blown away by it.

    Shamefully, I haven't put nearly as much time into Virtue's Last Reward. It's partly because it's definitely more intense than 999, so I can only play a little of it at a time.

    I do need to eventually crack open my import copy of Last Window at some point and looking into emulation for Another Code: R.
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