9 Hours, 9 persons, 9 doors
Genevieve Cyrus '22
Have you ever had the feeling of a lightbulb going off in your head? This sinking feeling you get when the pieces of the puzzle finally come together, and you realize how much deeper, and darker, something really goes? That is exactly what I felt while playing Zero Escape: 999. Created by Kotaro Uchikoshi and originally released in 2009 for the Nintendo DS, and later remastered to other platforms, 999 holds up perfectly as a psychological horror, even 12 years after its release.
It begins with the main character, Junpei, waking up in an unknown location, seemingly a boat’s sleeping quarters, and forced into an “escape room” situation. A window breaks in his room and water begins to seep in. This introduces the first style of gameplay in this game, puzzle solving. They start off fairly simple, with the first one being generally straightforward, and they slowly become more elaborate as the story progresses.
After completing the puzzle, Junpei successfully escapes, and realizes that he is indeed on a boat, and it looks strikingly similar to the Titanic. He eventually finds eight others, and then a voice comes on over the intercom, announcing that the nine of them are indeed trapped on the boat, and that they need to navigate their way through several puzzles in nine hours to escape.
Everyone gives their introductions: Ace, Snake, Santa, Clover, June, Seven, Lotus, and a 9th man whose name was never decided. This leaves Junpei as number 5, although he never receives a nickname. This begins to reveal the second half of the gameplay, reading. Reading to understand the story, or at least try to understand what is happening with the given information. As the player, you are connected to Junpei, the main character. You are playing as him, but you aren’t actually him, he is his own character. To further the idea you are progressing through the game via Junpei’s feelings and experiences, 999 doesn’t give you any advantage as the player, you have the same amount of information as Junpei, and seemingly everyone else onboard. You have very little knowledge of the surroundings, and some pieces will be revealed to you due to Junpei experiencing the information first hand, but some things are kept hidden. Interactions with characters without Junpei, how characters navigate through escape rooms when Junpei isn't present, and the others' internal feelings, aren't revealed to you initially.
The game will progress in a way where information is given to you slowly, and exponentially increases as you move further through the game. By the end, so much is thrown at you that you have to not only process what you were just told, but also what it means in retrospect. A lot of parts will tie into things that you already knew from the beginning, but you didn’t know what it really meant.
999 takes advantage of the visual novel platform and uses it to create an edge. There are a lot of visual novels that use a similar style, such as Ace Attorney or Higurashi: When They Cry, and these games use less visuals and more storytelling. With all the information being given through word, it gives the impression that you are missing a large piece of the puzzle, what is happening around you. The puzzle gameplay also can get fairly difficult, and requires you to think harder while playing, and makes it so it isn’t the equivalent of reading a full length novel. Although being released in 2009, 999 holds up as a game that could be played years after its release, and creates a lasting impression on the player. I personally remember when one of the larger twists very vividly, where I was and what I was doing at the time, because of how intense it was. It gave me this deep pang in my chest when I finally realized what everything meant, and I felt fear while playing for the rest of the night. Zero Escape: 999 left a long lasting impression on me, one that I’m not sure can be compared to many other games I have played.