You wake up on a boat, unsure of where you are or how you got there. You are locked in a room with a giant, metal door that has a red “5” spraypainted on it. A window cracks behind you once, twice, three times … then WHOOSH! Water starts flowing into the room. You frantically search the room for a way out, and thankfully you escape. Where are you? Who did this to you? Who are the other eight people standing in front of you? All of these questions are answered through the brilliant storytelling in 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.
- TL;DR: A game that is 98% text/reading, and that’s a good thing
- Platform: DS
- Score: 8.8
- Hours Played: 13
- What I Played: Main story enough to get the true ending
- Recommended: If you don’t mind a game that is nearly 100% text narration, then definitely
In 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, you play as Junpei, one of nine people kidnapped and put on a boat by the mysterious Zero to play the “Nonary Game”. Each of these nine people has a bracelet with a display reading one through nine. You quickly learn that the nine of you have nine hours to escape the ship you are on before it sinks. To do so, you must find the door with a red “9” spray painted on it.
Of course, it’s not as simple as running around the ship and finding a door. Zero tells you early on that the Nonary Game is a game where you “put your life on the line”. Each door has a different number painted on it and a computerized lock on it which only allows three to five people to pass through it. To open a door, the digital root of the people entering must match the number on the door. The digital root of a number is the end result of summing each number until only one digit remains. For example, the digital root of 39 is 3 because 3+9 = 12 –> 1+2 = 3. So, to open a door with a three on it, the bracelets of the people entering must have a digital root of three. “Why not just have everyone run through the door once it’s opened?”, you may ask. Well, each person also has a detonator in their stomach tied to their bracelet which will be triggered 81 (9×9) seconds after walking through a door and only disabled if they helped open the door and find the matching deactivator past the door.
So, it’s clear that the nine people on the ship have no choice but to play by Zero’s rules. Most, if not all, of the story in 999 is revealed through text, making the game play out more like a book than anything else. The story is incredibly descriptive — “it was a bed. A three level bunk bed, with uncomfortably thin mattress pads” — that keeps you hooked and wanting more. Text can’t be auto-completed like in most games, so if someone is talking, you have to wait for them to get the words out. It’s a small tweak, but increases just how badly you want to keep playing and learning. There are no forced save points or mission/chapter breaks, either — just a continuous story.
The few instances when 999 isn’t pure storytelling is when you do go through a numbered door and have to solve a puzzle. The puzzles remind me of Myst — you have set locations in the room you can move to, and have to examine objects in the room to pick up clues. Items you pick up can be used in other places in the room or combined with other items, like combining a screw driver and a picture frame to get the picture out of the frame. The puzzles are challenging, but not too difficult. I had to look at a walkthrough a few times, but felt really stupid after doing so for not realizing the answer.
Junpei has a few tools at his disposal, but none of them really come in handy until the very end of the game. You have a calculator, which would be helpful for digital roots, but adding single-digit numbers to each other isn’t really a daunting task. There is also have a list of “files”, which act as a codex, but I never had to refer to it until the last few puzzles.
Each of the characters in 999 feels like a real person instead of a generic video game character. Characters yell and scream and curse, just like I’d expect people in this horrible situation to react. It’s decided early on to use code names instead of real names as to not give Zero any more information than he already has. Since there is no voice audio or actual moving action, the code names are easier to remember than the real names would have been since most of them refer to a physical trait. Talk of backstabbing and possible moles also comes up, adding to the tension in an already impossible situation.
The writing in 999 is wonderful. You can really feel the tension and desperation in the voices of the characters, even without hearing their voices. The story really draws you in and completely catches you off guard the few times you actually do see some violence. It may be pixellated and still, but the rare occurrence of blood really is surprising and disturbing. Since there are no voices and little music, the sound effects play a huge role in 999. Creaky doors, the beeps of the bracelets, a key opening a lock — each helps make you feel like you’re really in the story.
My one main gripe with 999 is with hand-holding that can happen during the narration of puzzle sections. The amount of times I ended up reading that object X “is not very important” or there was “nothing interesting about it” got me to rolling my eyes by the end of the game. Also, when you’re scouring a room for the third or fourth time for that last clue that you just can’t seem to find, it would be nice to be able to skip the text that you’ve already seen a few times before.
Pro tip: To get the “true” ending in 999, you have to play through the game at least twice. I ended up choosing what would have been the “true” ending had I completed the other required ending before it. I was so excited to see the end that I went looking for what to do and, in doing so, spoiled the end for myself. I won’t say it directly here, but if you want to know exactly what sequence you need to get the real ending, check out the first answer to this post on Giant Bomb. It’s deliberately vague, so it’s safe. Don’t go searching around and ruin it for yourself like I did.
999 is a completely unique experience. It’s told almost exclusively through text, with no action sequences or even character voices. The puzzles left by Zero for you to solve aren’t exceedingly difficult, but challenging enough to make you rack your brain a bit. It’s a true whodunnit with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the very end. If you’re looking for a change-up from traditional storytelling in games, then 999 is for you.