Mixing the visual novel with the escape-the-room genre, 999 is a game that works in ways you would have never imagined. The basic premise suggests something from the most macabre horror movies. Nine characters are locked in a sinking ship and told they must play a deadly game. Explosives have been planted inside their bodies. They can only proceed through doors which require certain combinations related to numbers on their bracelets. When one player races ahead in a mad frenzy and gets himself blown up, their situation becomes clear. Despite sounding like the video game version of Saw II, 999 transcends this to somehow become one of gaming’s most compelling narratives.
The doorways are an ingenious way of including seemingly innocuous choices. Each door has a number from one to nine. To enter a door, the characters must add up their bracelets together to reach that number; if they go above ten, they instead add the digits (so 17 becomes 8 – the game luckily does the math for you). This results in only certain combinations being able to go through each door, with at least three being required. When you first begin and lack a read on any of the characters, whatever door you choose may as well be random. But the deeper you get into the game, the more you realize the need to learn more about certain characters. This, in turn, leaves another set of characters to their own devices in another room.
Unfortunately, the greatness of 999 is buried so deep within that it’s impossible to discuss much more without diving straight into spoiler territory. The escape room puzzles are fine, but this game achieved its greatness through the handling of its narrative – if you are not familiar with where this game is headed and do not want to ruin the experience, I suggest stopping here.
Your first ending will come shockingly early. Most likely, some character will suddenly start picking everyone else off. Naturally, this is very unsatisfying. The game will encourage you to play again, so you try a different path. As you switch up the doors, you will stumble into another ending. Certain elements will click together (…or you’ll consult a guide) and you’ll eventually reach one of the truer endings.
Somehow, neither of these paths are enough on their own; to actually finish this game, you need to learn a password in one and use it in the other. 999 taps into the meta in a very unique way; by playing the game over and over, the protagonist is somehow picking up on these alternate realities. This means, in the default state, survival is impossible by design. This also means all these other endings are semi-canon; they may not happen in the true ending, but Junpei has still experienced those realities. The fact the game ultimately offers an explanation for this is the cherry on top.
Video games have a hard time handling narrative; if it’s too straightforward, it sometimes feels like the game is randomly being interspersed with a movie. Providing alternate progression can shake things up, but finding the balance between excellent writing and true variation is quite difficult. 999 simply decides to have it both ways. What you learn down these stray paths is as key as the final result. This game is loaded with great characters opening up your mind to distinct possibilities, and the individual moments really shine. Strangely, despite being a puzzle game, the most memorable is the easiest thanks to its integration with the narrative.
Alongside the more popular Portal and Bioshock, 999 stands as one of the great late 2000s games which truly questioned what it meant to tell a story in this medium. With a twist that blurs the line between player and character while somehow treating multiple endings as interconnected, 999 offers an unforgettable experience – but its greatest trick is using all these stray elements to keep casting the same characters in different lights.