Visual novels are a niche genre in the West. Not as many people play them as they do in Japan. That comes back to cultural differences — reading isn’t as valued or encouraged here as it is elsewhere, and many gamers in the U.S. prefer the fast action of headshots — shooting aliens, zombies, and wartime combatants in the face — over the slow pace of character-heavy experiences.
From the few visual novels I’ve played, I’ve found that many are very anime-centric as well. Games like Fate/Extra and Corpse Party: Book of Shadows depend too much on Japanese tropes. Maybe serious anime fans would disagree with me, but I don’t want to see two young girls flirt with each other for a half-hour and then share a bathtub in a lengthy, detailed scene. (And yes, you could make that illustration your background on the PlayStation Portable. Seriously. Don’t rush out to buy it too fast now.)
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (for Nintendo DS, 2010) from North American publisher Aksys Games and Japanese developer Chunsoft is different. Whatever hypersexuality it sneaks in is reduced to a few almost-hidden innuendos that actually feel more Westernized than most content in Japanese games. And as much as I support LGBT relationships, relating to heterosexual characters who are love interests is probably easier for American gamers than trying to follow two tween girls or two androgynous guys who are more than good friends.
That’s anime, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But not everyone cares for those drawn-out, “innocent”/perverted romantic focuses. I like that 999 keeps that stuff to a minimum and actually considers the audience playing it.
So that’s one concern to cross off the list. Another is the horror. 999 is more an intelligent and slightly supernatural mystery than it is a horror freak show — although a comparison to the Saw movies popped into my head early on, that’s not at all how the game is. I’d say that’s closer to Corpse Party than this. While 999 can be creepy — slowly creaking doors, an oppressive atmosphere — blood and gore comprise a very small part of the game. So in other words, you shouldn’t avoid it because you’re worried about being scared (it doesn’t happen).
You should play 999 because it has an interesting story, and I’m half-inclined to believe some of the things the characters tell me about weird psychic experiments because the game is actually coated in enough science that it sounds real. Sometimes you solve puzzles that involve chemical equations, for example, but most of it is number-oriented — and not in that ooky way that makes my brain turn off. 999 isn’t hard; aside from a few doozies, you should be able to suss most brainteasers out painlessly enough. And if you get stuck, the characters will drop hints one by one until they’re practically spelling the answer out for you.
So here’s the premise. You — Junpei — and eight others wake up on a cruise ship that’s about to sink. Each remembers being kidnapped by someone in a gas mask who calls himself Zero. He’s organized this social test — the Nonary game — to see whether or not you can survive by reaching a door with the number “9” on it. You have nine hours to work together and locate the exit, but you have to perform a series of mental calculations to succeed. Each person is wearing a modified watch with a single digit assigned to it; only three to five people whose numbers form a digital root* that equals the number painted on the door can pass through it. They also have to deactivate the timer on their watches by scanning their palms on a device on the other side before the countdown reaches zero and an ingested bomb inside their stomachs blows them to goopy bits.
(*A digital root is found by simply adding numbers together until you get a single-digit result. So you’d add the number in the tens place and the ones place together until you get a number between one and nine. Example: 1+9+2 = 12 = 1+2 = 3)
The game is all about following those rules and trying to figure out the identity and motives of your captor. Some murders happen along the way, which turns your attention to your fellow participants, who you know little about.
999 is all about seeing the world in numbers, and you start communicating with other characters that way, too. Instead of revealing your real names, each person makes up a code-name based on their watch’s number. So Person No. 4 is Clover, Person No. 8 is Lotus, and so forth. In a way, you become commodities — keys to doors, the means to escape. You need each other to survive, and you learn more about each character by understanding how your numbers affect the game.
That’s how you determine who the culprit(s) is, for instance.
Despite the numbers you hide behind, you start to care about one another. It’s not cool to leave your new friends behind to die, so you feel sad and angry when they wind up hacked to pieces. You find a way to connect even if it’s through nerdy math speak.
Story components are broken up with gameplay, where you have to point and tap the DS’s stylus on objects in the environment to find clues and items. The characters that accompany you will comment on just about everything, which makes the interaction a lot more engaging than you’d think. Narration like, “There’s a box here,” becomes a lot more interesting when other people add a little color to the conversation.
I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be good at games or even play them regularly to enjoy it. One of the most interesting parts (it’s a short game for one playthrough) is going back in after you’ve seen one of several possible endings, speeding through the text you’ve already read, and taking different paths to experience new scenarios and solve alternate puzzles. I’m still working through all of them to learn as much about the mystery as I can, but it’s definitely worth playing at least twice.
So now I’m hunting down a reasonably priced copy of the sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, which costs a bit more and is harder to find than 999, which was reprinted in 2012 with the Zero Escape logo.
Because I can’t get enough.
Letter from me to the future players of the Nonary Game:
Everyone, I know this Zero guy is scary, but you’ve got to stick 2gether. Help each other out. And don’t let someone wander off by himself. That never ends well, trust me.
I’m just going to leave this note here. You might have to bump heads and numbers to figure out what I’m talking about. But you’ll get there.
And remember 2 use the map. Make a note. Noting! Got it? Good.
But hopefully if we succeed, so will you. You won’t know how, or understand why, but maybe some of our knowledge will pass on. We’re ghosts on that ship now. We passed through there. I believe you can, 2.