999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is a perfect game. Gameplay-wise 999 makes not a single misstep. And if that wasn't high enough praise, 999 also tells one of the tightest, most coherent, most thematically resonant video games stories, which is especially notable considering how complex it is. The purpose of this article is to give a light overview on the design (story and gameplay) of 999 without spoiling the game.
999 is classified as a graphic adventure [touch and point] triller. The graphic adventure genre stems from the text based adventure genre. And adventure games are typically composed of puzzles and riddles of various kinds. Compared to a game like Professor Layton that goes heavy on the puzzle, 999 does the opposite and goes heavy on the story telling. The core gameplay of 999 involves escaping elaborate room "dungeons" filled with clues, locks, keys, and other elements; hence the Japanese name "extreme escape." Like the "escape the room" games (Crimson Room, Viridian Room, etc.), 999 trap the player inside various rooms. By navigating these rooms and investigating the objects within, the player can seek a way out.
The entire game is composed of 16 of escape room puzzle challenges. In my experience, I solved almost all of the rooms with little trouble. With that said, most of my time was spent in the story scenes presented in between the escape room challenges. Text box after text box; scene after scene, the story plays out at its own pace without inserting gameplay into the mix for any reason other than what makes sense for the story. Not a mini game, QTE, fetch quest, or challenge is put into the game to "artificially lengthening the game." For the record, I don't believe there are "artificial" elements in games because video games are by nature abstractions and artifices. It also helps that 999 is most like an adventure/puzzle game, so there wouldn't typically be any QTEs or mini games of the sort. The point I want to make is that every aspect of 999's gameplay is built to work clearly with the story making 999 a shining example of quality game design regardless of its heavy story focus.
As typical of many DS games, 999 features mostly touch screen controls with optional button controls. Players must touch objects in view to investigate them. In 999 a couple of brilliant design decisions become apparent as soon as you touch an object. First, the object is highlighted in a yellow outline. This outline reveals the hitbox of the object you just touched. With this feedback design you don't have to wonder if there are multiple clickable spaces on the same object. And you can better see if there is something on top of the object you clicked. In the Crimson Room I remember getting stuck and repeatedly clicking on all the objects multiple times looking for my next clue. It turned out I just needed to click on the space between the head of the bed and the mattress instead of clicking either the bed frame or the mattress (see solution here). While the Crimson Room features riddle like puzzle challenges that have to be solved with lots of trial-and-error, 999's highlighting keeps the investigative gameplay clean.
After touching an object that requires further investigation, the bottom screen will zoom onto the object or the area while the top screen remains fixed at the wide camera view. This is a brilliant use of the dual screens because as you zoom in close to investigate, you'll always keep your bearings within the room. And if you get disoriented for any reason, you can hit the X button to change the top screen to a top down view of the room including where your character is standing and which direction he's facing (see image right).
With the touch screen all the interactions are straightforward, intuitive, and direct. Throughout the game you'll turn over objects, punch in numbers, pull levers, and more. All of these actions are operated by touch. To be thorough, the game provides instructions for each case. It also stores these instructions in the menus that can be accessed at any time. Touch any distinct object and the game delivers a few lines of text. Sometimes the text is the internal dialog of the player character Junpei. Other times nearby characters pop in and comment. This text serves two main purposes. One, it describes the object under investigation framing its role or lack of a role; i.e. a light hint. Two, it's a simple yet effective tool for characterization. You never know who's going to talk or what they might say. So as you pick up clues seeking a way out of the room you also allow characters to interact as the game sees fit. And if you get desperate for more clues repeatedly investigating an object or talking to other characters will result in stronger and stronger hints. I find this dialog based hint system clever and highly engaging. At times the other characters would practically tell me what to do and that I should hurry up. At other times, my companions were at a complete loss to the solution leaving the job to me.
With the above design elements, players have everything they need to focus on solving the puzzles. Gameplay-wise, with a little patience and some clever thinking you'll seek a way out of each room and advance into the intercalary story segments. The scenario Jupei and the rest of the 9 persons find themselves in is twisted. Without giving away too much, the lives of all the characters are at stake in what is called the Nonary game. To convey the complex story from start to finish, 999 uses a wide array of story telling mediums and techniques. The text is the main medium for dialog and other expository descriptions. Sometimes only sound is used like a radio drama. Video is used sparingly, but it's still effective. And as you may expect, players explore the settings through their gameplay interactions.
999 features 16 escape room challenges, but you only play about 4 per playthrough. What 999 does very well is throw the player into a triller and gives him/her a choice on how to proceed. Put simply, you must make choices on which direction to take which ultimately determines who's in what group. Let go of any concern about choosing the "wrong" path. 999 is a game that is designed to be played multiple times in search of the true ending. Honestly, the search for the truth was the most compelling part for me. I couldn't put the game down until I got some real answers.
I reached my first ending in about 7 hours. I completed my next play through in 3. And it only got faster until I navigated to the "true" ending. To cut down on the time spent moving through repeated playthroughs, 999 lets player skip through all text that has been experience before at lightening speed. And at any point where a decision needs to be made all previously picked choices are grayed out so you don't have to keep notes of your previous actions. On top of this, whenever you encounter any new content the game reverts back to normal speed.
In 999, your choices have grave consequences. At first it seems like with every move you make the mystery multiplies. It's only when you near the "true" ending that everything begins to fall into place. And I do mean everything. Every room. Every scene. Every word of dialog. Every emergent possibility and branched story path is woven so tightly back into the core narrative that I was shocked. Coherent complex stories are hard to come by. It seems that as a story grows in complexity it gets easier for details to work against each other (read more here). And when they don't work against each other, often there are many fringe details that do little to add up to the core actions and themes of the story. Call it entropy. Call it chaos. 999 doesn't suffer from this curse of complexity. At the same time the story comes together, so too does the gameplay and the player's experience playing the game. The thematic resonance between the story, gameplay, and overall player experience is on a scale that borders on ridiculous, in a good way. It's all carefully thought out and put together. Even something as meta as the spoiler effect of puzzle solutions is explained and supported by the story. I can't go into any more detail without spoiling everything.
In the end I put 20 hours into 999 and I earned 5 of 6 endings. Though the story does reach pretty extreme levels of scifi happenings and plot twists, I'm used to dense plots because of animes like Ghost In The Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion. I don't completely understand everything that happens in 999, but I look forward to studying the game in the future. If you're looking for a game that has solid puzzle gameplay and a thorough and thoughtful story with no luddonarrative dissonance and a game with an end experience that no other medium could create, then "you've found it."