Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors: An Equation of the Unknown Self
How this escape room visual novel remains unparalleled in character and story
999 is about trauma, inevitability, revenge, and salvation. It is a game that is about, at its core, people. It’s about an unchanging past and an unstoppable future. It’s about tackling the impossibilities of the unknown self.
A visual novel, 999 begins within dire circumstances. Waking up in an unfamiliar room, the protagonist Junpei must escape as water floods in through a broken window. As he looks around the room for a way out he realizes that it’s not as simple as stepping out the door — he must solve a series of obscure and unrelated puzzles scattered throughout the room in order to gain the key to his exit. Frantic, dizzy, and overwhelmed, Junpei is able to solve the puzzles in the nick of time and make his escape.
It’s here that things get interesting, as this is only a small taste of 999’s greater mystery.
Advancing the Visual Novel
Developed by Chunsoft, the existence of the Zero Escape series is almost as interesting as the games themselves. 999 was developed after writer Kotaro Uchikoshi joined Chunsoft in an effort to create a game that might appeal to a wide audience (which itself turned out to be ambitious for this type of visual novel). An M-rated Nintendo DS game, 999 sold poorly in Japan, but was a surprise hit in America where the entire Zero Escape series (as well as Uchikoshi’s other works) have flourished. Despite its relative obscurity based solely on the genre to which it belonged, 999 was a critical success and was praised for its unique presentation and strong storytelling. 999 is a game of mixed genres, employing psychological horror, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction to weave its energetic and multi-layered storyline.
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, is unsurprisingly about what its namesake describes, and this begins with the nine people involved. The characters, upon meeting in the foyer of the cruise ship they are trapped in, exchange names (code names, in most cases) and try and come to terms with their Saw-esque circumstances. Ace is a straight-laced older gentleman who feigns disinterest in the events. Snake is intelligent, and blind. Santa is young, hot-headed and clever. Clover, Snake’s brother, utilizes her youthfulness to break the guard of those that might think little of her. June, childhood friend of the protagonist Junpei, seems almost delicate. Seven, inflicted with amnesia, is a character hiding secrets against his own will. Lotus, a scantily-clad mother, is decisive and severe. The Ninth Man (who never gets a code name) seems of little import until much later in the story. Junpei, the protagonist, affords us a view of the characters and story with utmost naivete.
And then there is Zero, the mastermind behind the Nonary Game, the kidnapper, the one of unknown identity forcing these strangers to work together.
The Nonary Game
999 does a remarkable job establishing its setting quickly and gives enough personality to each character in order to flesh out their positives and negatives, with several characters immediately forming cohesion or friction. While the writing in the original Nintendo DS version was quite strong, the added voice acting of the remastered collection (released on Steam and PlayStation 4) strengthened both the characters and the flow of the story. Each character adheres to their desires, goals, and points of view with utmost clarity, and before the first play through is finished the player will have established their own list of likes and dislikes, though there are plenty of twists to be had as every single character is harboring a secret.
The gameplay of 999 is fairly plain but serves the narrative tremendously. Instead of simply existing as a click-through visual novel, 999 has the players engage in the events that have trapped them in this mysterious cruise ship. The Nonary Game works somewhat like a series of escape rooms, with each escape room gaining the characters a key or keycard for both the room’s exit and some door or elevator elsewhere on the ship. This enables the characters to work together not just in the confines of their personal escape rooms, but has them thinking laterally about what exactly they are doing on the ship and how they might make their final exit.
The Nonary Game itself is simple, but horrifying. Each of the nine characters involved within Zero’s schemes have a digital watch on their arm. That watch is digitally linked to a bomb that has been placed in each character’s stomach, which will detonate if they fail to follow the rules of the game. Each watch has a number in its digital face, from one to nine. Using their combined digital roots, a party of at minimum three characters must place their hands against the door switch (The RED) and then deactivate the ticking bomb once the door is closed (The DEAD). This ensures that all players enter the rooms together, and discourages any pesky thoughts of cheating.
999 makes no assumptions about its audience’s intelligence, and there are plenty of factors at hand that might have players scratching their heads at first. Two of the most important things to learn right away are Digital Roots and the Hexadecimal System. The digital root of any number is factored by adding the numbers together until you reach a number that does not reach the tens place. For example, if Ace (1), Junpei (5) and Lotus (8) wished to go through a door together, they would add their numbers 1+5+8=14, then add 1+4=5, which means that this pairing would be able to go through any marked 5 door in the Nonary Game. Since there are many numbered doors throughout the cruise ship and each requires a specific combination of numbered bracelets, only certain characters can ever pair up. Hexadecimal, used in tandem for puzzles alongside the digital root, is a base-10 and base-16 counting system that allows someone to read letters as numbers and is used to solve puzzles.
Confused yet? The most interesting aspect of 999 is how it utilizes so many ideas, from real to imagined, from science to pseudoscience, to weave its remarkable story. Once each character has a full understanding of the Nonary Game and they begin to work their way through the cruise ship, certain truths begin to unfold. It’s not as simple as solving the terrifying game and going home — each character reveals their secrets to one another, whether they were aware they were harboring them or not. The truth of the Nonary Game is not fixed on time or place, and involves the past, present and future.
Because this isn’t the first Nonary Game, and it won’t be the last.
One of the biggest (if not the biggest) facets of Zero Escape’s grander story is that of the morphogenetic field. A subject of intense pseudoscience, the morphogenetic field is a theory that establishes psychic resonance between affected persons across time and space. The theory believes that behavioral patterns and ideas can be shared by individuals who relate to each other in some strong way, and that the greater number of affected unknowns engaging in any individual pattern or activity will affect the knowns. While some of the morphogenetic field theory is based on what twins, siblings, or friends might unconsciously share with one another because of pain or trauma, it also establishes that there might be a deeper psychic connection between all humans, and that the behavior of many might affect the behavior of one.
A pharmaceutical company called Cradle decides that there must be some truth to the ideas presented by the morphogenetic field theory, and nine years prior to the beginning of 999, kidnapped a bunch of children and forced them to play an early version of the Nonary Game. It ended in tragedy, with one of the children dying and the others becoming traumatized. The Nonary Game that takes place during 999 is a response to that original game in some surprising ways, serving as both a point of healing, and vengeance.
What makes 999 so interesting (and serves as the crux of the core gameplay experience) is the Flow system presented in the main menu. While playing 999, it doesn’t matter what doors you initially choose or what path you take, because no matter what you are not going to see every combination or hear every conversation. Upon reaching the end (and seeing your first unsatisfactory ending), there is a prompt to begin the game again. This time you are not only armed with the knowledge of what happened before, but the Flow has altered to show you what you have already traversed and what rooms you have solved. The game also features a smart quality of life addition that lets you skip any already seen dialogue, but stops whenever new dialogue is reached. This enables to player to confidently replay the game for the additional endings.
It might seem like seeing the extra endings or even going after the “true” ending is an additional chore for diehard players, but replaying the game and manipulating the Flow is the core story of the game. The morphogenetic field is being tapped into by an esper, a person who is able to “remember” things they’ve experienced in other timelines. They can reach across this gulf to enable knowledge they shouldn’t have, which serves both to solve puzzles and conquer the greater mystery of 999. While the game itself is rife with interesting tidbits of both truth and fiction, the meta game that oversees the circumstances of why these nine characters ended up on this cruise ship in the first place is a mind-blowing bit of intense writing and editing across timelines and possibilities that I did not see again until I played 13 Sentinels some years later. 999 shines because of its intense ambition and constant plot twists.
Characters As The Heart Of The Story
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is a game about overcoming trauma and seeking revenge against an unjust world. Cradle Pharmaceuticals and its leaders preyed upon children because they thought they could get away with their experimentation sans consequence. They chose meek, meager humans and forced their wills against one another for an outcome of staggeringly low percentage. Morphogenetic field aside, the very real trauma suffered by the children of the original Nonary Game echoed through time, affecting their families, society, and themselves. Thankfully, 999 is a serviceable fiction where it’s not enough to just fix the past — it’s paramount to make villains pay for what they’ve done.
The truth of the Nonary Game at the heart of 999 is its ambition to heal trauma by weaponizing that same trauma. It is the ambition of Zero (whose identity remains a beautiful plot twist) to put everything on the line and hope that this carefully constructed game utilizing these (seemingly) random people might have some affect on the past, and change the future. This is what makes the Zero Escape series so endearing, because it believes that there is a future we can change, and that change can come from the efforts of real people. Whether it’s fixing global climate change, stopping some evil pharmaceutical execs or simply reuniting old and embittered friends, there is reason to try.
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors belongs to a unique subset of video games. Its narrative and writing are both ambitious, and it is unique in its presentation and by the standards set of its own genre. While it maybe wasn’t so well received on release, it has gained a new audience with its remastered and bundled editions, and has enjoyed a new perspective garnished by fans of the Danganronpa series and other visual novels such as The House in Fata Morgana. 999 lives alongside games such as Tacoma and Kentucky Route Zero, experiences who defining moments do not exist in some explosive technical wizardry but the sheer artistry of their stories.
Even if you are the sort of player that believe there is nothing for you in the visual novel genre, I implore you to give 999 a try. It’s an experience that can only exist in video games, and one whose scope of narrative and character will stay with you for years.
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