Friday, March 18, 2011

Number nine. Number nine. Number nine.

How long till my soul gets it right? Can any human being ever reached that kind of light?
Indigo Girls, "Galileo"

I have just finished playing 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, an interactive novel/adventure horror game. I knew that it was my kind of game when one of the characters used the phrase "saponification." For those who don't feel like Googling it, saponification is the the process through which fat is transformed into wax or soap. In the conversation the characters were having, they were talking about it happening in to a human corpse, which keeps it from decaying.  (Wikipedia tells me this form of saponification is known as adipocere, but the game doesn't get into that level of distinction). Later in the game was another esoteric word, which I can't mention without giving away a major plot point. I bet that sort of conversation never crops up in Kirby, Pokemon or your typical DS game. 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors is a horror game, and it does have some gruesome imagery and blood, but it's also got existentialism, strange conspiracy theories, shout outs to Kurt Vonnegut, and some beautiful literate imagery.

For those unfamiliar with the game genres, an interactive novel is something like a choose your own adventure series on a computer, with pictures, sound and some minimal animation to go with the words. You go through a story, and at certain points you have to make a decision, which will both affect which future decisions you have to make, and the ending of the story. Because of this, they have a fair amount of replay value. Adventure games, strangely, don't involve adventuring. They involve solving puzzles. 999 weaves these together.

If you want a demo, you can go to the game's website. That "M" on the box means the game is meant for adults, so if you're under18 you'll need to lie to play it. The demo is somewhat different than the real game, but gives you some of the flavor of the introduction.

The story is told from the point of view of Junpei, a young college student. One day, he comes home to his apartment and finds a mysterious man in a gas mask, who quickly tranquilizes him. Junpei wakes up in the crew quarters of a ship, with a locked door, with a bracelet with the number '5' locked on his wrist. Then the window breaks, and the room starts filling up wirh water. He must figure out how to get out of the room, solving a series of puzzles to do so. (Don't worry, you can't die during the puzzle solving sections.)

Once Junpei escapes the room, he discovers eight other people on the ship, each wearing a bracelet with a different number. One of them is a girl he went to grade school with, and hasn't seen for years, but discovers he still has a crush on. The others include a giant man with amnesia, a woman in her 40s who is wearing far too little clothing, a blind man and his pink-haired sister, and several others.

The group hears over a loud speaker that they were brought here by Zero, to play the Nonary Game. Different rooms on this ship have different numbers, and there are rules for how the group must go through.
If they can find the correct door, they can escape. If they can't the ship will flood. The group needs to figure out what to do. But quickly someone dies, and the tension ratchets up. Why were they brought here? Who is Zero and what does he want with them? Can they escape with their lives?

As I said, each play-through gives a totally different experience.

The first time I played it, I was in a game filled with conspiracy theories -- about whether the Titanic ever really sank, about whether a mummy could exist, if scientists had perfected the Ice-9 that Vonnegut wrote about (ice which doesn't melt until it's 96 degrees). There were several other out-there theories. When I played that version, I didn't like the one character who struck me as cold, manipulating, and possibly in on the conspiracy. Also, I died rather horribly at the end.

Fortunately, I could play it again, armed with what I had learned the first time. (The game lets you fast forward through text you've already seen, but not puzzles, so if you play it several times, you'll need to keep escaping from the same rooms.) It let me correct a few choices I'd made before. And I learned something about the character I didn't like which made me now think of them as a poor victim, clearly not part of the mystery. Plus, this ending was different, with multiple people dying horribly in totally different circumstances.

I played it a couple of more times, trying to build on what I had learned. (One of the times I died, I said to myself "so that's what that puzzle represented.") Then, I looked up how to get the "good" endings, with the best possible solutions.

I don't want to spoil it for anyone who's planning to check it out. I found the ending very satisfying. Strange, but effective.

Sometimes you need to read a book multiple times to appreciate the details. In this case, you see different parts of the book each time you play the game. I like the effect.