999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is what Japanese folks call a “visual novel.” The story’s major incidents, its characters’ emotions and background, and much of the game’s tone comes through text and light animation; a character portrait will blush, an explosion will shake the screen, etc. Time not spent reading is devoted to solving environmental and logic puzzles in contained rooms, where you must discern the use of items to escape. It succeeds as a game thanks to an impressive thriller plot, a deceptively deep choice array, excellent pacing, and actual logical puzzles.
You fill the shoes of Junpei, a college student who wakes up locked in a bare room on a cruise ship with a strange digital watch secured to his wrist. When the room begins to flood, he finds the only route out is a locked door with the number 5 scrawled on it in red paint, the same number as on his digital watch. You have to find keycards that open the door, and these introduce a recurring puzzle-type and theme central to 999—many of the game’s challenges are concerned with number manipulation, requiring you to use multiple numbered items to find a specific digital root, the single digit sum of multiple numerals.
The digital-root theme also drives the plot. After Junpei escapes his room, he finds that he and eight other people were kidnapped by a person named Zero and trapped aboard a ship that may be an exact replica of the Titanic. They are there to play The Nonary Game, a classier, less-preachy version of the ironic-punishment obstacle courses from the Saw films. The abductees have nine hours to find a door with a “9” on it to escape, or bombs in their stomachs will explode. In order to progress, they have to work through doors 1 through 8 (though not in order) and each door and its attendant puzzle-laced, booby-trapped rooms have to be navigated by three to five members of the group whose digital watch-shackles have a digital root of the corresponding room number.
The convoluted setup and eerily mundane setting helps make the cast of clichés—anime brat, slutty hacker, calm patriarch, dopey bruiser, superstitious everygirl, etc.—both memorable and likeable, while the digital-root structure creates a number of moments where players fundamentally alter the plot’s flow. Depending on the routes you choose, you only get access to a portion of the game’s puzzles, and only certain characters get screen time, so multiple playthroughs are essential. Thankfully, the game is structured so unraveling the story and seeing all six endings is both possible and enjoyable. Your initial run will last seven to eight hours, but the second lets you fast-forward the text portions from previous playthroughs. 999’s writing is blunt but capable, an effective translation that sometimes lacks subtlety and forgets the visual element. (We know Akane likes Junpei, because she’s blushing; you don’t need to tell us.) But it makes the game’s scarce scenes of violence and danger much more troubling than if we actually saw them onscreen. Aksys should be applauded for making the effort to reconstruct this game for English speakers, and Chunsoft deserves congratulations for making such accessible, capable interactive fiction.