What if I told you that you actually didn’t know all that much about some of your old favorite games? Why it resonated with you so much or perhaps even what made them so great in the first place? What if there were some aspects in those very games that you took for granted, when in actuality they were flashes of brilliance in game design?
That is exactly what I’m telling you right now.
Don’t believe me? Read on and welcome to “Brilliance in Gaming.”
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
Let’s say that it’s tomorrow morning and you woke up today.
Would you do things differently?
Knowing everything about the events that are going to happen for the rest of the day, you would have an opportunity to do things anew, hopefully for a more favorable result.
Maybe you wouldn’t eat that bean burrito at the Seven-Eleven knowing the stomach ache it would cause. Perhaps you would leave twenty minutes early to your first date with that cute receptionist you’ve had a crush on for weeks because you know how bad the traffic will be. Most definitely, you would warn and make certain your best friend doesn’t take his motorcycle out for a joyride this night knowing that he would not survive the accident.
Having that knowledge of what’s to come changes everything.
However, in a video game where events are set in stone, knowing what’s going to happen changes nothing.
It doesn’t matter if you know that Sephiroth kills Aerith in the Forgotten City. It doesn’t matter if you know John Marston is going to be backstabbed by lawmen and killed in front of the barn. Things will play out that way each and every single time because that’s just how it is.
Of course, there are instances in other games where choices are presented that changes the outcome of a situation in rather dramatic fashion but there’s no narrative connection between why you as the player would know something the character doesn’t to make him/her act in a certain way.
It’s an unavoidable situation with any game after the completion of the initial play through. As much as we would love to be able to forget something just so we could experience it again for the first time, that’s not really possible without risking major head trauma. Every play through after the first would be tainted in a certain way and the first would remain the “true” experience.
In the face of that reality, a little known DS game by the name of Nine Hours, Nine Doors, Nine Persons came along and shattered that notion to a million pieces.
Disclaimer – To portray what the title manages to accomplish, I need to go deep into specifics and consequently, revelations and spoilers present within the game. If you wish to play through the game yourself, please stop reading and go do that immediately.
999 follows the standard visual novel formula in which there are pages and pages of dialogue coupled with a myriad of dialogue choices that determine the overall course of the story. The choices in the game range from obviously significant to simple niceties that end up having a massive butterfly effect in the end.
This is to put emphasis on the idea that the choices in the game aren’t as simple as the ones found at the end of Mass Effect 3 or Deus Ex: Human Revolution where you get to pick whichever ending you want regardless of the choices you’ve made in the past. In 999, it’s a culmination of a lot of little to big decisions that ultimately determine the ending.
While this is undoubtedly the proper way to do a story filled with meaningful choices, it has its downsides. Unlike most other games, the initial play through of 999 can only result in a bad ending. This means that no matter what the player does, they are doomed to fail. It feels unfair at first and the prospect of going back in to hopefully manage a more satisfying conclusion is rather daunting. However, it’s within its subsequent play throughs that the title begins showing its true nature.
Early on in the game, this picture is shown to the player.
What that is isn’t important but I’ll leave the answer hidden in this article so if you’re so inclined, check the “assigned row.”.
The picture was used to demonstrate the idea of morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields. In the scenario presented, the picture was first shown to a large group of people and most were not able to correctly identify what it was. Then, the picture was shown on television and the answer was given away to a large audience of people all around the world. The test was done again to a large group who has obviously not been exposed to the picture and the correct answer but the results showed that now the percentage of people who were able to tell what was in the picture shot up dramatically. The idea is that there is a certain resonance of memory and the more people knew the answer to a certain question, others would be able to tap into those memories unconsciously and simply know the solution to the question at hand.
This theory is not one made for the game but rather comes from reality, from the mind of one Rupert Sheldrake who has done many studies based on the idea that there is a sort of field of memory that can’t be perceived normally that connects the memories and experiences of living things. It’s a fascinating idea for sure but it’s passed off as an interesting talking topic and nothing more. They also touch on the idea of Locke’s socks based on the Ship of Theseus which asks the question, “if all the parts of the whole are replaced with patches and other fabrics after years of use and mending, is it still the same sock?”. Then there is the mention of Ice-9 from the novel “The Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut and many more abstract, fictional ideas. All these side conversations serve to plant the seed of an idea- a possibility that might blossom into plausibility and ultimately bear the fruit of belief.
In fact, something odd begins to happen during the subsequent play throughs. Just as the player would know the events that happened previously in the other bad endings, so did Junpei.
Like hazy forgotten memories, they would resurface to Junpei allowing him to act in different ways than he did previously. Given that 999 is predominantly a puzzle game, Junpei becomes able to solve puzzles without looking at hints or piece together information he has no right knowing and begins doubting and trusting the right people looking past their impeccable facades.
As helpful as this might be, there’s no real explanation to this phenomenon initially. It’s obvious that the player would know these things simply because they went through those bad endings to learn all this information the hard way but it makes Junpei ask to himself a simple and unavoidable question for someone in his situation.
It seemingly breaks the fourth wall representing the possibility that Junpei is nothing more than a catalyst for the player so there is no other explanation that would be necessary.
However, in the true ending (canon for those uninitiated) route of the game, the player learns that the morphic resonance was real and that Junpei’s childhood friend Akane who had gone through the same kind of situation was able reach into Junpei’s memories through the perceived possibilities of his previous choices and had been witness to everything that he had gone through. In turn, she was able to give him information through the same morphogenetic field to guide him to the path where he could ultimately save her.
It’s a rather difficult idea to wrap one’s mind around but basically Junpei was meticulously put in the exact same situation as Akane was many years ago because the key components “epiphany” and “danger” were required to access to morphogenetic fields. Also, it became apparent that morphogenetic fields did not see time as a linear thing but rather as something that’s happening all at the same time.
So just as Junpei was a catalyst for the player to have his/her role, the player too became a conduit in which information between the Akane and Junpei could pass freely.
What comes at the end is the culmination of all the knowledge gained through the multiple play throughs. Junpei is able to simply know just exactly who the true villain is and what he needs to do to save Akane who is trapped in an incineration room and doomed to perish without his help.
In the end, Junpei who is older and wiser now than the twelve year old Akane solves the puzzle in front of himself relaying the solution to Akane using the morphogenetic field, saving her life and removing her from a state of paradoxical existence.
Traditionally, visual novels are known for being a hassle to play for the second or third time to get a different ending due to its narrative dissonance with the player choices. After all, whatever you would’ve chosen from the selection, you did so the first time around. Unfortunately, It often boils down to choosing something different for the sake of seeing more of what the game has to offer and nothing else. What 999 did was not only craft a masterful story with twists and turns no one would be able to see coming but rather turn one of the weakest aspects of the genre of visual novels and integrated it in itself as a pillar of strength.
It manages to intertwine the role of the player not only directly through choices he/she makes but as an abstract figure who becomes the conduit to make the whole thing possible. It completely shatters the notion that privy information that the player holds can’t be recognized for what it is in the context of the game itself.
Oh and it’s a hell of a puzzle game, too.
Fun Tidbit: The story and events of the game were highly condescended for the sake of the article here for obvious reasons so if you still wish to play 999 after reading this, I recommend that you do!