ZERO ESCAPE : 999 (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors)

Updated Comments

This is interesting. I've learned something from playing a videogame with my girlfriend, Sarah. Specifically, I've learned a lesson. She'd say that she is (almost always) right about things like this, and I'd be inclined to agree. In particular though, I've learned that there is value in replaying Zero Escape, both in terms of properly exploring the games plot, but also just in playing it through with someone. My original comments are posted below and most of them still stand, with one caveat - to get the most out of this game you absolutely have to play it at least twice, preferably 3 or 4 times. 

When I completed the first run through of the game, Sarah picked up my save game and began playing. What started out as me receiving regular updates developed fully into us playing it together, albeit with her mostly doing the driving (i.e. poking the DS screen to her hearts content). This was primarily down to the fact that that the 2nd play through is fundamentally more interesting, longer and meaningful than the first. So much so, that the first play through is closer in sense and tone to a prologue where you learn the mechanics of the game and a bit about the characters. The second play through is where you properly understand and explore the game. The plot is expanded, you have many more meaningful interactions with the characters, you still make interesting choices and solve interesting (and mostly new) puzzles. The second play through took at least 9 hrs and this included an expanded ending section that was an absolute blast.

The really interesting thing is that the developers clearly structured the game in such a way that the additional play throughs are actually relevant and meaningful in terms of how the overall story plays out, rather than just being irrelevant speed runs. This is really bloody clever - Sarah and I are not playing again to get irrelevant collectibles, we're doing so to properly explore the story and characters which is genuinely awesome. 

This also leads me to another point - I didn't mention the characters so much in the initial review but really, playing through at least twice is best way to fully engage with them. They're so well written, genuinely funny (and often frustrating) and more fully realised in the additional games that I can honestly say i was far too hasty in dismissing the value in "replaying" the game. It is safe to say that you don't so much as "replay" as you do "fresh-play". 

The game is also excellent as as shared gaming experience. It is not a multiplayer game per se, but it really lends itself to being played alongside someone. This is because it is closer to watching a move than it is solo gaming. You discuss the characters together, solve puzzles together, suggest and debate theories about the plot together and tell each other off for poking the wrong DS screen with the stylus. I can honestly say that my experience with the game has been significantly enhanced by handing it over to my girlfriend to play and discuss with me, even if I am no longer actually playing it.. There really are not many games I can say that about at all. 

Finally, the plot. Oh, good ol' Junpei and his inner monologues, Lotus and her ridicculous breasts, June and her falling over in fear at various times and yes, even Clover and her daft hairstyle.... they're all wonderful and often very amusing characters. Their bad language, quirks and grumbles about their situation really do become more amusing as time goes on, rather than wearing on you (almost without exception) and the more time you spend with the game the more you get out of it. Sure, the plot is bat shit crazy, the characters bonkers mental and the writing often silly, but it is all infused with both a sense of fun and mystery that just makes playing and replaying the game so much fun. 

All of this just means that I really cannot recommend Zero Escape enough. It is very good as a standalone 6hr single player game, better as replayable and fully explored "save game plus" and superb as a game to share with someone else. 

Honestly - I am really glad I handed the game to Sarah and said "you may like this", as without her playing it, I'd not have properly got the full game experience. 

She was right. Again. 



Original Review

I “completed” 999 : 9 People, 9 Doors, 9 Hours (999) after approximately 5-6 hrs of play and was left somewhere between intrigued and confused at the way the game had panned out. The game itself is essentially a playable book similar in structure to the old “adventure books” where you could make various choices about where to go and what to do.

999  invites you to play as Junpei – a young chap havinga very bad day. There are two main components to the game – (i) puzzle solving and (ii) character interaction and decision making. The game is set up in such a way that you have Junpei, the player character and 8 other characters with varying motivations, histories and “ways” of doing things. With one exception, all of these characters are painted in various shades of grey – that is they tend to be murky, sometimes deceitful or just downright surprising in how they interact with you. The characters, including your own, provide the backbone of the games decision making and puzzle elements as well as the story.

To say anything meaningful about 999’s plot however would be to ruin its strongest and enjoyable element. There are twists and turns, characters surprise you in what they say and do and you will find yourself carefully considering sometimes seemingly insignificant decisions such as whether or not you believe in Astrology. Often your dialogue choices are not presented as “yes” or “no” – they too are shades of grey and more nuanced than simple binary decisions, It makes reading through the dialogue and making decisions interesting and even entertaining. 

You see, 999 isn’t really a game. I mean, it is a computer game per se, but it is really a digital novel. This is a text heavy but well written game (there is plenty of humour, drama and personality) where you spend the vast majority of your time reading and then painting a picture in your own head as to the story the game is telling you. It is superb and really succeeds as a digital novel. Even the occasional repetition of text and ropey translation are easily forgiven such is the wit and sense of humour that is stitched throughout the game. 

The puzzle solving element of the game is less successful, but still enjoyable. With 1 or two exceptions, none of the puzzles are particularly challenging and typically solved by a “click everywhere / try everything” approach. A couple do require a bit more thought, mental gymnastics and I even used a guide to solve the one really tough one. In fact, assuming there is only 1 solution to the 1 tough puzzle, solving it without a guide really would represent a massive difficulty spike out of tone with the rest of the game.

As you can tell, I really liked the game, it is fast paced, but with plenty of depth, interesting without being overly complicated or super long and intellectually stimulating, if not overly demanding. As a one of play through, I loved it. But there is a problem, the game is not meant to be played once, it is meant to be played at least twice.

See, the first time you play through the game, you get 1 ending. I am not sure if this is the same ending for everyone, but it is one ending with a very ambiguous final scene. I have my theories about what happened, but to know what happened, you have to play through the game a second time and make different decisions to get a subsequent ending, The problem with this is the main game itself – the puzzle solving in particular – doesn’t have enough replay value for me to warrant a full 2nd play through. In fact, I don’t think that you can get the proper ending without a full second play through. Sure, the game allows you to skip some text, but the puzzles are not skippable and to be honest, you will probably have to re-read much of the text to remember where you are in terms of the games progress.

This is all very bothersome and I cant help but feel the developers would have been better off extending the main game by an hour or so to close out some of the questions rather than making you play through the whole thin again.

It is a relatively minor quibble however – and actually, my girlfriend is havinga blast playing through the Save Game Plus instead of me and I get to watch / get the random updates on what is happening. This seems to be a good solution to the problem actually.

There you have it an interesting puzzle game laced with a super story and digitally told narrative. This game is well worth the £23 or so I I paid for it and even if I am not entirely sold on the replay value really recommend playing at least once for the interesting plot, well drawn (literally and metaphorically) characters and intriguing experience of playing, rather than just reading, a book.

Monetising Video Games - Letter to Edge

19th June 2013

Hi Edge Team,

I hope you are all well and having a good 2013 so far. I was reading Leigh Alexander’s piece in Edge 253, May 2013 on games staying relevant in the changing digital landscape and I found her nostalgic musings on how games used to be both interesting and similar to my own. Her article did spark a thought in my head, mainly around how monetised games are now compared to when I grew up. You have probably had correspondence on this before, but I wanted to share my own take on the just how expensive it is becoming to access games and suggest that the big players in the gaming market aren’t just getting our hard earned cash in exchange for games, but we’re paying them to take much more than that.

Firstly, one of the biggest leaps in monetising the video game industry has undoubtedly been down to the internet. Whereas before we would have had to pay once for a game, now there are additional charges levied on many games. For example, Fifa 13, brand new, will have cost a minimum of £40, but to play it online on X-Box Live, you also have to take out an XBL subscription, my own costing £60 per year, just to play it with my friends and have access to all its features. Other games of course offer DLC add-ons, typically at a cost of 1/3 or ¼ of the price of a full game.

Of course, development time went into these titles and people need to be rewarded for their efforts, but in any other industry, this is just cross selling – ensuring you get extra money out of the customer you already have secured. DLC packages are a great way to reach people who have already spent money on your game and are highly likely to spend more. When you layer in the other costs, say for a decent broadband connection, the console itself, a HD TV, your basic set up costs for gaming are at in excess of £500 plus several subscriptions that need to be charged to a bank account. What I am getting at here is that while we do have unparalleled access to a wider variety of games than ever before, its also become much easier to monetise what would have been part and parcel to a standard game package in the past.

My point isn’t to criticise companies for doing this per se, but when you are talking about having to spend at least £500 to get the basics right for 1 console plus more than likely another £200 - £300 per year to have access to a decent selection of games on 1 console and play them online, you’re probably talking close to a £1k per year commitment on what is essentially entertainment. Oh, and if you’re like me and just have to play both Metal Gear Solid and Gearts of War, add another couple of hundred pounds on to that for the 2nd console. No wonder the videogame industry has grown as big as it has, but this has priced many people out of enjoying games – my younger brother for example can just about afford 2nd hand PS3 games, some of which he cant even play online because they ship with an “online pass” – another way to nudge people towards purchasing full price games. Oh and you could even have additional download fee’s as game downloads tend to be big and not everyone has access to unlimited broadband.

There is however a flip side to this – the industry which I work in relies heavily on customer data to make decisions. In fact, so much so, that we often pay significant amounts of money to ensure that we have access to up to date customer data (and, in the census’s case, out of date data). However, each and every time we connect to XBL or PSN, we are sharing our user data with Sony and Microsoft. No problem, except we are paying them for the privilege of this. Sure, they are providing us as service, but what are the main components of the service? Access to more game downloads that we can pay for and a great platform for them to send use tailored advertisements that we are more likely to like, and therefore spend more money on. In my business, we pay money for this information, in gaming, we are paying MS and Sony subscription fee’s that give them unparalleled access to our behaviours (what we play, how long we play it, what we buy, when we buy it) and their sales targeting and customer segmentation will only improve as their data set gets richer and richer.

By this point you could be asking, so what? Well, call me a cynic, but with the announce of two new next gen consoles over the last couple of weeks, both of which are emphasising online connectivity and social media integration, monetising the industry will only get more and more prevalent. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon saw retail games shipping essentially 50% unlocked where you then had to pay a fee per chapter / racing track / weapon if you wanted to unlock it, and some games are already doing this.

Finally, just to turn this on its head, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing – in fact, my favourite gaming experience in the last year actually leveraged both of the above points on monetising the game and data collection perfectly and created a truly phenomenal game. Telltales “The Walking Dead” was a truly great game that had a chapter structure where I was more than happy to pay £15 for the full game (all 5 chapters). The game then shared feedback of how my decision data played out against other game players which greatly enriched my overall experience as I was able to see where my own moral compass played out against the wider community and buy bite sized packages in an really affordable way.

So there are my musings, I guess the challenge that I really have is where next for the next gen consoles – personally when I buy a game I expect it all to be there and not have to pay extra to download bits that should have been in the game, but equally I am all for greater flexibility of payment and use of data to enrich the gaming experience. My main worry is that the big players will dominate and place the emphasis on ensuring that as much advertising and selling to customers takes place as possible and I fully expect gaming to not only continue to be an expensive (and eventually, somewhat exclsusive) hobbywhere we are continually advertised and sold to. I don’t want my gaming experience to end up like the TV (adverts every 15 – 20 mins) or the cinema (30 mins of adverts before the film) or even football (corporate sponsorship everywhere), but I suspect that as consoles get more and more sophisticated and complex technology it will only get easier and easier to “sell to consumers” rather than deliver great games for games.

Apologies for the length, but I am both excited and fearful for the next gen consoles and I’ve already had to start a savings account to put money aside for a console. It was easier growing up – my dad just bought an amiga and my cousin sent me his 2nd hand games for free once he finished with them, those were the days.



Letter to Edge - Can I play as Her?

November 30th 2011

This month I wrote a letter to Edge about females in computer games. I am not sure if it will be published, but, for the record, it is copied in full below, along with a link to Edge's site...


As a subscriber of edge I have always enjoyed your features on games, particularly those that take the time to understand and explore the impact of a game (GTA III feature in the most recent edge is a great example). One comment in the recent issue caught my eye -

"Uncharted 3 may retain the female characters of the second game, but Naughty dog appears to have run out of things to do with them"

Women in video games is a topic that has been often debated but not fully explored as far as I can see and I would really value Edge's / Edge readers thoughts on the impact and future of female video game characters. For me, someone who purchased the first Tomb Raider on my PC (back when games came with a big box, pun not intended), I have always wondered when female game characters would move beyond the caricature they so often are.

Tomb Raider was actually a great example of an empowered heroine, albeit scantily clad and with some serious attributes, however her character was anything but fleshed out. When I think about male's in video games, there are several epic stories that spring to mind whereby we have a leading man with genuine emotional development (Red Dead Redemption), internally conflicted (Solid Snake) and even truly emotional (Shepherd : Mass Effect). While Shepherd can be played as a woman, the point here is that it is almost perceived as a novelty, not the norm. Even male characteers in some of the less thoughtful games (GOW, COD) have story arcs and character background, but female characters with the same are the exception, not the rule.

Mass Effect and Heavy Rain (and Catherine, though I imagine that is meant to be slightly subversive) are two exceptions to this rule, but when I think of the number of actresses who are recognised for their leading roles in large scale films - Jodie Foster (SOTL), Halle Berry (MB), Maggie Smith (HP) etc - there appear to be many more than those who are believably realised in video games. As much as I enjoy Grand Theft Auto, it effectively uses women to satirise society, and many other games use women similarly to titillate (DoA), merely provide balance to the plot (Resident Evil 2) or provide variety on a theme (Silent Hill 3). I do wonder when we will get a video game defining performance on the scale of, say, Natalie Portman in Black Swan.

I feel that vide games have their equivalent to Christian Bale (Solid Snake), Bruce Willis (Marcus Fenix), Viggo Mortensen (Boy in Shadow of Collossus), Clint Eastwood (Marsden) and even a decent supporting cast with Cilian Murphy (Otacon) and Keanu Reeves (Drake). But, where is our Clare Danes, Natalie Portman, Nicole Kidman or equivelants in Video games. I cant think of many and it is a damned shame. Instead, we have Princess Peach (Mario), Lara (TR) and, the developed but underused females in Metal Gear (Sonny, Sniper Wolf et al)

It would be genuinely interesting to see a fully developed epic game that not only had an excellently written female character, but also a complex love story, emotional weight and, most importantly, believable attributes (physical and mental).

One last thought - though I don't know the industry well, one assumption would be that both a cause and effect of this is that games have historically been a male dominated industry, so perhaps the writers focus on what they know and publishers focus on the target audience. But if you look at HBO's game of thrones, there is a broad mixture of genuinely interesting Female characters - young and old - that add a wonderful blend of variety and realism to what could have been an old boys tale of swords and sorcery (albeit indebted to the excellent source material).

Many thanks as always - its been a great year for Edge, including the revamp and hope you guys om the editorial and business staff have a great Christmas and new year....