Players, Characters, and Telepathy in 999

Junpei

You know that scene at the end of The Dark Knight, where Joker is threatening to blow up the two boats, and he sets up that whole gambit where each ship has the other ship’s detonator? And how everyone who watched that movie thought “oh snap, they actually have the detonator to their own ship! Joker’s gonna make them look like suckers! Dead suckers!” and then that didn’t actually happen, and we all felt kind of silly? You know what drives me crazy about that scene? On the civilian’s ship, they decide to hold a vote to see whether or not they’ll blow up the prisoner’s ship. They accomplish this by passing around ballots, telling everyone on board to write their vote down and put their ballot in a hat, after which the authorities on the ship count the votes. The whole process takes ages! They had a very explicit time limit, and they decided to spend it faffing about with paper ballots when at any moment the guys on the next boat could have blown them to hell. Voter confidentiality aside, why not just do a show of hands? This dedication to mulling over options and indulging in the democratic process even in the face of certain death would have seemed perfectly natural, though, to the cast and crew of Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors.

Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors is the story of nine strangers who are abducted by a mysterious chap called Zero and deposited in an early 20th Century luxury liner rigged with traps and puzzles, and told to solve their way out. 999 is widely considered one of the all time great NIntendo DS games, a narrative-driven potboiler in which you can trust nobody but are forced to rely on everybody, all the while exploring a unique location and solving puzzles ranging from the classic adventure style “rub these two inventory items together” to the less popular type requiring you to solve demanding math problems in your head and convert base-10 numericals into hexadecimals on the fly. It’s got a great hook, a compelling central mystery, a diverse cast of unusual characters, and features a string of “escape the room” style self contained puzzles, which I’ve always adored. It is also, though, almost unbearably wordy, glacially paced (particularly in the earliest parts of the game), often confusingly designed, and thinks you’re an idiot. What I’m saying is, this game has problems.

Its characters, before they can really grow into themselves, behave like barely human automatons and make the kind of insanely illogical choices that characters in these stories tend to make-like the ballot happy civilians at the climax of The Dark Knight. Usually when someone writes a story with this kind of hooky, mystery driven premise, the characters have to bend over backwards to deliberately not share perfectly useful information they have only the most painfully contrived reasons to hide, and in this game the characters go so far as to refuse to use their real names- not least of all because if everyone properly introduced themselves right away, the plot’s central mystery would probably resolve itself within ten minutes of the main characters meeting. Characters often bend your ear with occasionally interesting, but mostly pointless spiels about whatever Wikipedia article they read last, often at the least opportune moment (including, in an especially bizarre example, while the characters are freezing to death in a meat locker.)

The game also goes to great lengths to mention pretty frequently that time is running out, but never really viscerally imparting that sense on the player. The characters are given nine hours to make their escape, but the lot of them are so indecisive and unconcerned that it never really feels like anyone’s life is on the line. In the earliest moments of the game, the characters spend 90 minutes standing around getting their bearings, trying to force open locked doors, and pointedly not telling each other their names. At one point a character goes missing, and the remaining lot unanimously decide to spend a full hour- a precious 11% of their total allotted time- searching for him. In the context of the game there’s a reason it would be advantageous to have as many members of their party as possible going forwards, but the point is that these characters cavalierly throw their remaining time away despite not really knowing how much time they’re going to need to ration to complete their ordeal. This is true on a micro as well as a macro level- the game’s very first puzzle ostensibly features the game’s main character Junpei trying to escape a flooding room, but he’s in no real danger of drowning. A game with a premise like this needs a strong sense of momentum and danger hanging over it at every step, but these characters have no problem whatsoever wasting huge amounts of time having dead end conversations and going over the same pieces of information multiple times until you’re sick of hearing it. For a game whose premise hangs on every second counting, the characters act like they’re under no time constraints whatsoever. It kills the atmosphere.

But despite all the game’s shortcomings, and– oh wait, one more thing: why the HELL is Lotus dressed like that? As the game went on, I kept expecting to learn that Lotus was like an exotic dancer who was abducted by Zero at the end of her shift, or something. When she started going on about Sheldrake and morphogenetic resonance, I thought it was pretty interesting that this character who made ends meet by basically stripping could be so well educated, and it made me curious about what sort of life she had led, what circumstances had brought her to where she was, etc. But then later you find out that she’s an unemployed computer programmer? Why is she dressed like this, it just doesn’t make any sense! Anyway–

Lotus

But despite the game’s shortcomings, and it has its fair share of them, Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors also has some of the most elegant video game storytelling I’ve ever experienced, and has some very fascinating things to say about the unique relationship between the player and the character in a video game. And since my goal here at Game Theory is to focus on the things that make gaming uniquely strong as a storytelling medium, I decided it would be irresponsible of me not to discuss 999’s redeeming storytelling features.

What follows, then, is a spoilerific analysis of the ways in which 999 uses the language and mechanics of gaming to tell a story in such a way that it would be impossible to tell in any other medium. I’ve taken for granted here that a reader will already be familiar with the plot and characters of 999, so I won’t be introducing any person or concept that is adequately explained in the game itself (and this game frequently busies itself with over explaining everything, so there shouldn’t be much confusion if you’ve already played the game.) For this reason, the following article will make very close to zero sense if you haven’t already played 999, and will indeed probably ruin the experience for you if you’re planning on playing the game in the future. I wouldn’t say I love 999, but I do find it fascinating. If you’re a casual gamer, or prefer your games to have a high level of interactivity, or you hate games that hold your hand, or you have no patience for visual novels or the tropes of Japanese storytelling, I can’t say that I whole heartedly endorse 999. But, if you love puzzle/adventure games (and the “escape the room” subgenre especially), or you love a mystery story with a hooky premise, or if like me you just love games and want to explore the various ways in which the medium can achieve its truest potential, then give 999 a go. It’s not ever what I would call “good” without qualifications, but the things it gets right it gets WAY right, and from an academic standpoint (like the one taken here), it’s invaluable as a piece of uniquely “gamey” storytelling.

So consider that your warning: spoilers ahead, abandon all hope ye who enter here. Let’s see how a game whose surface level writing is so overwrought could utilize the storytelling options unique to gaming to beautifully well.

Snake

I’m going to jump right into it with a very specific example, and use this first example as a foundation for the particularly strong stuff ahead. In the laboratory, through door 8, Lotus waxes theoretical with Junpei. While whipping up a code to brute force a solution to a password, she begins getting philosophical about wireless monitors of all things. She explains to him that a wireless monitor is just that: a device for displaying information, and nothing more. The monitor performs no calculations, it is running no programs, it is executing no computational functions whatsoever. All the computery stuff is being handled by the CPU, which is totally physically unconnected to the monitor, and communicates with it wirelessly. Lotus imagines a person utterly unfamiliar with technology encountering a wireless monitor for the first time. From their perspective, it would appear as though the monitor were performing the functions of the CPU. After all, how could the CPU be performing all the computations when it isn’t even connected to the monitor? For someone with no knowledge of how wireless technology works, it would seem perfectly natural that the wireless monitor was performing its own functions independently of the CPU.

Junpei takes all this in stride, so Lotus ups the ante. She posits that the human brain could be, hypothetically, like a wirelessly networked monitor, capable of communicating with its central processing unit despite being physically unconnected to it. She explains that we assume the brain is performing all the functions associated with the human experience- everything from regulating breathing to storing memories and executing higher thought processes- but that it may in fact merely be the “monitor” that accesses these functions. Essentially, she is theorizing that everything that makes us human is totally disconnected from our physical bodies, and that our brains are invisibly connected to our “CPUs”- some unseen, unknown force that contains within it everything we thought our brains were responsible for.

Even Lotus eventually dismisses this idea as nothing more than a philosophical thought experiment. Instant communication across great distances is one of the driving thematic and narrative purposes of the game, so having a character rhapsodize about a seemingly benign object in that way makes this game’s version of sense. Without realizing it though, Lotus is actually providing a clue about how the game’s narrative will unfold, in addition to providing a theory about the metatextual relationship between Junpei and the player.

Lotus’ theory, basically, is that the human brain is not where human thought processes take place- it’s merely the conduit by which human beings access their thoughts and memories and higher functions, which are stored and performed elsewhere, and communicate instantly and invisibly with the human brain. Within the game, we’re never given any idea of what this thing is, or where it might be. But you and I, we know better: if Junpei’s brain is just a wireless monitor, the player is the CPU.

Junpei is the game’s player character, and as such, his major decisions are guided by the player. Whatever Junpei thinks is what we the player are thinking, Junpei is able to solve the Nonary Game’s puzzles because we the player are solving them for him. We, the player, represent Junpei’s higher brain functions, his memories, his thought processes. During the time that the player is playing 999, we cease to be ourselves, and instead become Junpei- not only controlling his actions as a character, but wholly and truly and taking over the role of his consciousness. Junpei’s brain is the conduit by which he accesses his higher functions, performed by the player, physically unconnected to Junpei but communicating with him instantly and invisibly. Wirelessly, if you like.

Wireless Communication/Morphogenetic Telepathy

But that’s not the whole truth, is it? Junpei and the player are not the only elements in the equation. You can’t open a door with only two participants, after all, and this whole telepathic/morphogenetic hoedown has a third partner: Akane. Specifically, Akane as she exists during the Nonary Game that took place nine years ago. Specifically specifically, Akane right before her own death.

See, Cradle Pharmaceuticals, the conglomerate who devised and hosted the Nonary Game, were testing the viability of creating telepathic links between persons across a great deal of space. What they didn’t count on was that the telepathic link between Akane and her brother Aoi would be relatively weak, and handicapped by their both being included on the Gigantic instead of Akane being placed in Building Q. However, Akane’s telepathic link with Junpei was so strong that it traversed not only space, but time. During the first Nonary Game, Akane was able to form a psychic link with Junpei during his experiences in the second Nonary Game- a game which Akane herself orchestrated with the help of her brother Aoi. (Yeah, it’s complicated.)

The second Nonary Game was devised to be identical to the setup of the first. Akane, who had already experienced the lion’s share of the Nonary Game, was able to telepathically transmit her experiences of the Nonary Game and its solutions to the player, that is to say to Junpei’s higher brain functions, and Junpei was able to access those experiences with his brain. That “epiphany” that the player experiences when he or she solves a puzzle? That “Eureka!” moment? That is one of the necessary catalysts of telepathic communication according to the game’s lore (“epiphany” and “danger” are both required for ideal telepathy strength.) So, whenever the player solves one of the Nonary Game’s puzzles, he or she is actually receiving a telepathic communication from Akane. That little “aha!” moment that accompanies the solving of a puzzle, the reason it feels so alien and bizarre and obvious all at once- it’s because you aren’t having the idea yourself, the idea is being inserted into your head by Akane. You- the player, representative of Junpei’s higher brain functions- receive the solution from Akane telepathically, which is how Junpei is able to solve the puzzles of the Nonary Game.

Telepathy

This relay, from Akane to the player to Junpei, is the successful result of the Nonary Game, which was after all developed to test the viability of telepathic communication. Keep this daisy chain of psychic communication in mind, because it’s the foundation of the game’s more cerebral storytelling elements we’re about to get into.

Akane

It isn’t exactly this game’s style to artfully under explain something, but there’s something really high minded going on in this game’s plot that’s only hinted at for once.

Why is the second Nonary Game happening? Why is the plot of 999 happening at all? Because Akane and Aoi are attempting to save Akane’s life nine years in the past. Akane- June- who is a perfectly solid and entirely alive character for the duration of the game, is attempting to save her own life from nearly a decade earlier. On the face of it, you’d think this was a problem that came pre-solved. Akane participates in the second Nonary Game with very little difficulty, so surely she survived all those years ago, right? Surely her survival, even if it does hinge on Junpei’s success in the second Nonary Game, is a foregone conclusion, since here she stands, right? Well, no.

Cast your mind back to the events of the “safe” ending. After all that happens between Snake and Ace in the incinerator, Junpei takes the elevator up to collect Santa and June from the hospital room. But, the two of them are nowhere to be found. Junpei instead finds June, collapsed, in the chapel with the two 9 doors. While Junpei consoles her, he hears a voice: Zero’s. Zero explains that the game has been a failure, and clarifies that it isn’t Junpei who has lost- Zero personally has lost the Nonary Game. After a minor distraction, Junpei finds that June’s body has vanished, and it’s credits. Keep in mind that in order to access the game’s true ending, the player MUST experience this ending first- making a beeline straight for the true ending will just leave you struggling to open a locked coffin, and you’ll get a big fat “to be continued.”

Now, follow me again to the “true” ending this time. Once Junpei, Clover, Seven, and Snake have explored the library and the study, they travel again to the incinerator, and find that Ace has taken the revolver from Santa, and is using it to hold Lotus hostage. Junpei busies himself comforting the collapsed June while Seven pounds Ace into mush. After Ace and Santa take turns explaining some of the final unanswered questions surrounding the Nonary Game, June vanishes from under everyone’s noses. It is around this time that the player first becomes aware of Akane in the past, and her connection to the second Nonary Game and the events of 999.

So, just what in God’s name is going on here? Well, if I were a character in 999, I would probably take this opportunity to have an interminable and one-sided discussion about Schrodinger’s Cat and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. I’ll assume you’re vaguely familiar with Schrodinger’s thought experiment, but the gist of the Copenhagen interpretation is that reality is only set in stone by the process of observing or measuring it. An experiment being conducted in an impenetrable box could be said to be yielding multiple results, even strictly contradictory results, simultaneously, and that the act of finally observing the results is what causes them to conform concretely to only one of the many possible outcomes. If you’ve ever heard of the idea of “wavelengths being collapsed”, that’s what’s going on here: the cat could be alive, or could be dead, but it isn’t one thing or the other until the cat is observed. The observation collapses the wavelength, and the cat is locked into being either alive or dead, but not both. (It’s important to note here that Erwin Schrodinger’s “cat” example was originally intended to be a criticism of the Copenhagen interpretation, but it’s such an elegant and useful description of the theoretical process that it’s often used as a shorthand description of the Copenhagen interpretation anyway.)

So, do you see what’s happening here? Throughout 999, Akane is Schrodinger’s love interest. Akane’s surviving the original Nonary Game is dependant on Junpei’s successful completion of the second Nonary Game. As his success becomes more likely, June is able to participate in the second Nonary Game with no problems. As Junpei strays from the path that will result in her surviving the first Nonary Game, though, June becomes sickly and weak (for example, choosing to go through door 6 to the engine room in order to stay with her will result in her becoming faint, since taking this path cannot result in Junpei winning the Nonary Game), and if you stray into “bad end” territory, she could even die, or vanish from the timeline altogether. Remember, in the safe end, Zero loses, and June vanishes. Zero is Akane- she “loses” because her survival hinged on Junpei finishing the Nonary Game, and in the safe ending he fails so catastrophically that Akane dies nine years ago.

But remember, from Akane’s perspective, the second Nonary Game is the future. During the events of the true ending, Akane explains that time (and information) flow like a river. From the past to the future, time can flow in many directions, and travel along many branching paths, but the people who exist on the various “branches” are unaware of the events happening on other branches. Since Akane is telepathically linked to Junpei, she is able to experience the various potential outcomes of the future, and she is able to transmit that information to Junpei through the player. It’s why you need to have played the safe ending to unlock the true ending- Akane must have experienced that potential outcome in order to know about the code for unlocking the coffin. She can then transmit that knowledge to Junpei through the player, even though Junpei himself has no reason to know the combination on this “branch” (and indeed struggles with his own knowledge of these events).

Time is a river

In other words, the reason you have to play the game multiple times in order to unlock the true ending is because the wavelength hasn’t collapsed yet- each one of the game’s six potential paths contains information that Akane needs in order to transmit that information to Junpei during the game’s true path. Think of your every playthrough of the game as occurring simultaneously, as “branches” parallel to one another on the river of time, all of which Akane can experience from her position nine years in the past through her telepathic link with Junpei.

(Incidentally, this whole wavelength business is probably the reason Seven has lost his memories for most of the duration of the game. Although many of the characters were present for the first Nonary Game- specifically Seven, Ace, June, Santa, Snake, and Clover- only Seven would have difficulty reconciling the two potential outcomes of the event nine years ago. Ace wouldn’t recognize any of the other participants because he is unable to distinguish between human faces, Snake wouldn’t recognize June because of his blindness, Clover spent the first Nonary Game in Building Q and never met Akane, and Santa and June are knowing participants in the timeline fuckery. Only Seven, who was present at the climax of the first Nonary Game, would have trouble reconciling his memories with the events that actually occurred, because “what occurred” is dependant on Junpei’s actions during the final leg of the game’s true path. In other words, Seven can’t remember what happened because the outcome of those events hasn’t been determined yet.)

Clover

This leads me to one of my favourite parts of this game, and something that I really do think represents a very profound and artful piece of storytelling. I’ve definitely been critical of this game, but I really do believe that this part of the game represents video game storytelling at its best, as it used the language of games generally, and the Nintendo DS hardware specifically, to tell a story in a way that would be impossible not only in other mediums, but even on another platform. I think the hallmark of good game storytelling- or storytelling in any medium really- is to ask yourself “could this story be told in any other format?” If a story uses the language and the mechanics of film, or literature, or poetry, in the distribution of its narrative or themes, if a story adheres so perfectly to the contours of its medium that it would be impossible to repurpose it as anything else, that’s when you know you’ve found a masterful piece of medium-specific storytelling. And the final moments of 999 just would not be as effective if they were non-interactive- in fact, the final leg of 999 contains narrative elements that could only be expressed on the Nintendo DS.

Throughout the game, the dialogue between characters has taken place on the DS’ top screen, while Junpei’s inner monologue has appeared on the touch screen below. During the climax of the game’s true path, in the incinerator, this dialogue above/monologue below dichotomy is radically altered when Akane reveals herself to the player. The game’s running Junpei-centric third person narration is replaced instead with Akane’s first person narration of the events occurring both in her present (the first Nonary Game) and her future (the second Nonary Game- our present). From this point on, the top screen depicts events happening in the second Nonary Game, while the bottom screen is used for Akane’s experiences during the first Nonary Game.

Or rather, this is when the top-present/bottom-past dichotomy becomes explicit. Throughout the game, the bottom screen, the game’s narration, has been Akane’s narration of the events of the second Nonary Game. Riddle me this: what else has been consistently happening on the game’s touch sensitive bottom screen? Solving the game’s puzzles. Remember- you, the player, are not solving the game’s puzzles, your epiphanies are being telepathically transmitted to you from Akane. The puzzles occupy the bottom screen because the bottom screen is associated with Akane, and the only reason Junpei or indeed the player can solve the Nonary Game’s puzzles is because Akane has already found their solutions and is transmitting them to Junpei through the player.

This system is turned upside-down, literally, for the game’s final puzzle. Remember: the second Nonary Game was staged as an attempt to save Akane from her death nine years ago during the first Nonary Game. Akane’s survival depends on Junpei being able to solve the game’s final puzzle, the one that Akane fatally failed to solve. While the entire game up to this point has consisted of Junpei receiving puzzle solutions from Akane, in order for Akane to survive her ordeal, in the midnight hour, Junpei has to transmit the solution of this puzzle backwards through time to Akane. In order to symbolize this reversal of the flow of information, the touch screen needs to be on top, to symbolize that rather than Akane broadcasting to Junpei, this time Junpei is solving the puzzle on his own and is telepathically broadcasting its solution to Akane. For the first and only time in the game, Junpei and the player are genuinely solving a puzzle without receiving an epiphany from Akane. Instead the roles- and for that reason, the system- are reversed: the player and Junpei’s solution become Akane’s epiphany in the past.

Telepathy

All academics aside, I simply adored this little narrative flourish. Games that use their mechanics to support their story, or games whose narrative is delivered exclusively through mechanical play, or games that use their mechanics to explore themes not explicitly addressed in the narrative tend to make me a little giddy. So finding a game that uses not only the conventions of gameplay, but the system’s physical hardware to quietly communicate subtleties of the story that would be impossible to divulge otherwise really do it for me. I’ve seen the DS especially used to great effect in this way before, mostly in the form of games having the player close the system to progress (as in Hotel Dusk, for example, another game that experimented with players holding the hardware in an unusual way), or games that derive narrative use from the separation of the system’s two screens (as in The World Ends With You, which drives a symbolic wedge between the game’s partners by at once forcing them to rely on each other to survive and then segregating them to completely different planes of reality as represented by the top and bottom screen). But 999’s forcing the player to uniquely manipulate the hardware of the Nintendo DS to make a narrative point is, to my mind, one of the giddy heights of mechanical storytelling in gameplay, up there with switching the controller to port 2 in order to defeat Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid.

Santa

When I first started playing Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors, I was skeptical. Several reliable sources and a number of personal friends with trustworthy taste had insisted I play the game, that it was one of the all time great DS titles. My early exhilaration during Junpei’s escape from the flooding staff quarters was promising, but as the game bogged itself down in indulgent monologuing, a heel-dragging pace, and characters flapping their jaws interminably over every minute detail, my excitement over the game began to curdle.

When I “beat” the game for the first time- getting knifed in the back by a mystery attacker- my curiosity was piqued again, and it was enough to carry me through the experience to its “true” ending. Although it was sometimes a drag, I’m genuinely glad I got myself to the end. Although I can remember the parts of the game that bored or frustrated me, I can already feel those memories beginning to recede, being replaced by the forgiving aura of nostalgia. I can feel already that I’m beginning to remember the game being better than it objectively is- and maybe that’s a good thing. After all, I like to like things. In fact, in spite of my more curmudgeonly opinions on the game, that final leg of the story alone is causing me to understand why this game is considered one of the DS’ all time greats. And for what it’s worth, after playing 999, I’m absolutely gagging for a chance to play Virtue’s Last Reward. Maybe I liked this game more than I realize- the more I think about it, the more I only remember the parts I enjoyed…

Now that’s an epiphany for you. See you folks next time.