Handling Multiple Playthroughs – 999 Zero Escape
– Spoiler Warning for 999 –
The Zero Escape series is one of those always-on-your-list-but-never-quite-getting-around-to-actually-playing-them type of affairs. Recently, I finally played through the entirety of the first title 999 (9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors) and was left with a generally amazing feeling. One of the best parts, however, was the handling of multiple playthroughs, especially in a puzzle game, something seemingly dull the second time around. That is why today’s essay is about the construction of branching narratives within multiple playthroughs.
For those unfamiliar with the game, but still interested in the details of this essay, here is a quick overview of the plot. Protagonist man Junpei awakes in a locked, unfamiliar room one day with only the memory of a gas-masked figure knockout-gassing him before. He and 8 other people he soon meets are part of the Nonary game orchestrated by the mysterious Zero. They are trapped on a cruise ship and have to find a door with the number 9 on it. Each of them wears a bracelet with a number from 1 to 9 on it. To enter a numbered door, a mathematical process known as digital roots is used to determine who can enter. This restricts the number of people that can enter, as well as the combination of teams possible. The branching narrative is determined by the doors chosen by the player and one of several endings will occur by the end. The true ending is locked behind another ending which needs to be achieved beforehand. Most endings stop abruptly with Junpei’s death and a hint at the culprit with the Safe Ending revealing his identity. This is mandatory to unlocking the True End. The game incorporates a theory known as morphogenetic fields in the plot as well as the game design. This field is an intangible means of communication only open to individuals with a strong connection. The game is a building of the field with Akane, Junpei’s childhood friend and constant element in the game. So far for the basic plot set up.
– If you think this looks like a generic anime cast, you will probably reconsider this after the game. –
The game is divided in primarily three choices which coincide with the choosing of a numbered door to reach the end. However, this is not a labyrinth case where one door can only lead to another, rather a door is picked and the riddles inside solved, then the different groups meet once again for the next choice of door. This does not mark a reset, since the combination of people that go through a specific door largely determines the ending. With each ending, a little more is revealed, such as the location of the last door, the bracelets taken from other people and thus the player may very well grasp who the killer is early on, leading to the Safe Ending. This ending focuses primarily on the killer and less on the overall Nonary game portion. This is done in great detail, with an explanation of the actions, the motive behind, and a tear-jerking final confrontation. The actual main plot remains unresolved, however, with a hint at the true identity of Zero. Afterwards the True Ending can be achieved. In this, the killer explanation is largely skipped over, as the player has knowledge of this and even Junpei does. And this is where the morphogenetic field on plot and game design level show most prominently. By skipping over the arduous explanation this time around by basically referring to “he just knew how to do it and everything else, lol” the game implies a morphogenetic field between player and Junpei on the game design level. The player has prior knowledge of the events and thus Junpei has as well. However, since this would make for a huge plot hole, the game smartly avoids this with Akane. Throughout the game, the younger Akane forms a connection with Junpei and functions as a stand-in for the player. In fact, the player is playing as her being connected to Junpei the entire time. The two separated but still connected DS screens underline this design choice. The upper screen in Junpei’s perception of the world and the events that occur. The bottom screen represents young Akane, her thoughts and influences.
– One has to respect the aesthetic choice of setting up this entire game, but then being really sloppy with the numbers. –
999 tells a fragmented story not in the way of perception, but of experience. Akane has seen an outcome she wishes to create and the way there is the primary focus of the game. Small hints are dropped when false choices are made to ensure a better outcome the next time around. The game demands the player attention to details and the overall plot and door combinations, assuming one is trying to do this without an internet guide, which you should, since it is more fun. While the player may grow used to seeing Junpei die by the end and thus losing some emotional connection, the final reveal of Akane’s life actually being the focus brings back the emotional weight. This is already hinted at, during the Safe Ending by her disappearing in the end.
– Sure, the plot has some problems. But an overall consistency in tone and pacing saves the game. –
But back to the actual topic. Multiple playthroughs are usually tough since most games lack new content upon a second viewing. More often than not, the numbers are increased and it simply exists to grant better gear or the feeling of an overpowered badass ploughing through the first bosses. Game’s with a choice aspect, e.g. The Witcher 3, allow for slightly different experiences but the general course of the plot is already familiar. As a result, the next playthrough might be dictated by mashing buttons to skip dialogue one has already read before. 999 avoids this by letting the player fast forward through dialogue with an automatic stop when a new line of dialogue is reached. Riddles cannot be skipped, but are considerably easier when completed before. This makes sense both on the game design level as well as the plot level. Akane is familiar with certain exchanges due to her trying to achieve the outcome she desires. Puzzles are easier as she has already solved them multiple times before, as has the player. The game constantly intertwines the player and Akane in a way that blurs the lines between plot and game design. With the design choices of repeated playthroughs, the game can eliminate most of the tedium that usually comes with such a second/third/millionth viewing and keep the pace going steadily.
– Take a moment to appreciate this simple yet elegant main villain design. Minimalistic yet effective. –
While the game sometimes still holds the player’s hand and makes some of the deductions and keeps repeating certain things, the general design is still outstanding. The fragmented story of characters and the overall plot fits well with the morphogenetic field idea. The True Ending even utilises a fourth wall break of the special kind to drive the point home and going to this length truly cements the achievement of game design. 999 thus serves as quite the landmark of video game storytelling especially with regard to repeated playthroughs and how to make them not only enjoyable but also mandatory without feeling tedious. Elegantly fusing plot elements and design choice in such a successful way, while at the same time delivering a compelling narrative with rounded characters, makes 999 a game everybody (gamer and designer) should experience. By the way, a similar design philosophy can be seen in NieR and NieR Automata with their multiple endings structure. Now it is time for me to get a hold of Virtue’s Last Reward. Until next time.
Image sources in order of appearance:
https://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/ninehourspersonsdoors/images/b/b6/999_%282%29.png/revision/20140311202219 (Last date of access: 01.05.2017)
https://lparchive.org/999-Nine-Hours-Nine-Persons-Nine-Doors/Update%2065/60-037.png (Last date of access: 01.05.2017)
https://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/ninehourspersonsdoors/images/2/2e/Sudoku_5.png/revision/latest?cb=20160402225550 (Last date of access: 01.05.2017)
https://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/ninehourspersonsdoors/images/0/0b/ZeroArt.png/revision/latest?cb=20150629052251 (Last date of access: 01.05.2017)