Artful Video Game Storytelling

I don’t get too specific, but this post has Spoilers for 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors


Anyone who plays enough video games knows how important storytelling has become for the medium. Though obviously not essential, as many great games have little to no story at all, both the big budget and independent scenes have a plethora of compelling, story-driven games. Video games are unique when it comes to storytelling because they require the direct action, and often skill, of the player to progress. This is unlike other mediums, where you’re never punished for doing a poor job of watching a movie or reading a book. How much you can understand may vary, but you progress regardless.

Over the past few years I’ve become increasingly aware of and fascinated with games that have core story elements that only work in the video game medium. Adaptation would be possible, but something crucial would be lost along the way.

Recently, I completed 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, a 2010 visual novel adventure game developed by Chunsoft for the Nintendo DS. Nine individuals wake up trapped on a ship, having been abducted by an enigmatic person named Zero. They must participate in the Nonary Game, which has them selectively going through different numbered doors that require they solve puzzles, in order to find a way off the ship. You play from the perspective of Junpei, a young man whose specific conversation and pathway choices — decided by the player — affect how the story progresses. There are factors that are constant within all branches of the story, but many choices introduce different variables that effect the outcome. In total there are six endings.

On the surface the game was what I had expected from a visual novel. As I got my first ending, however, it quickly became apparent to me that multiple replays — aided by fast-forwarding through content I had already read — were necessary to understanding all that was going on in the story. I got more and more invested as different branching paths revealed new information to me. Many of these paths, however, led to an unfortunate end for the characters without any closure to the narrative. Seeing one particular story path through to the end gave me all the prerequisites for getting the “true ending,” where I could come to understand what the story was really all about.

Explaining the concepts at play would take far too long, but even as a Doctor Who fan the conceptual sci-fi behind everything genuinely blew my mind. By chance, on my first playthrough I did everything required to see the true ending. The problem was I hadn’t seen any other ending. Each playthrough that I then undertook was not simply continuing my experience with the game, but were all in service of the narrative as a whole. This decision to continue replaying to see different endings was relevant and necessary in order to see the true conclusion. As it turned out, it wasn’t just me experiencing all these branching paths, it was a character’s perspective in-game as well.

This sort of reveal is something only video games as a storytelling art form could achieve. You assume you are a detached participant in the story that is unfolding, like a novel or movie, but 999 shows how this medium can toy with that assumption, creating something truly artful. Though it may seem a small thing written down like this, the impression it left on me during my experience with it was significant. It excites me to see the medium explored in this way, doing something with storytelling you can’t experience elsewhere.



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