In WIHILA 999, I talked about some of the things a game can do to make a story interesting and relatable, right up to what is probably the most important thing – the interplay between the mechanics of the game and the story. Turns out I wasn’t off the mark when I thought 999 would do this well.
So, what is the relationship between the story and the game? I’ve rewritten this paragraph something like seven hundred twenty-three times now (approximately) with anecdotes, explanations, links, questions and examples, but I’ll save space and get to the point, and we can all have a nice discussion about it later if you’re interested. The story and game mechanics can each grab your attention, immerse or engage you, sometimes in different ways. Stories can make sense of game rules, and game rules can give interactive shape to stories. If the two are integrated well, the game rules (or mechanics) emphasise the narrative so I can easily process it, and am not sparing brain space for the two separately. Meanwhile the story engages me (mentally and emotionally) in the rules, the challenges, the interaction and the goals (all of which are fundamental elements of a game). On the other hand, if the game and story are not integrated well, the mechanics distract me from the narrative or easily abstract away from it (i.e. – the mechanics have very little to do with the story), so I quickly forget or ignore the plot. The story, in turn, at best has little connection to my goals and the challenges which I must overcome, and at worst leaves me confused about or frustrated with the rules and how I am supposed to interact with the game.
And if you want my two cents (which seems likely given that you’re here reading), 999 rocks up an impressive harmony between mechanics and story.
Mechanics Serving the Story
Beating at the heart of 999 is a great visual novel. Besides the puzzles, which ask you to sit up and pay attention to the surroundings (and the characters accompanying you), the bulk of the ‘mechanics’ of the game are quite simply scrolling through text, saving your game, and making choices throughout the story. The first few are perhaps a bit obvious, but important (and more on the nuances of those choices a bit later on).
Remember not so long ago when I said the game rules can emphasise the narrative? The way in which the player controls and explores 999 is interesting in that it endeavours to be convenient, but not overly convenient. In doing so, it kept me engaged (not bored of re-reading text or redoing puzzles), but also always kept the story close, difficult to just forget or abstract away. The experience of playing 999, at least to me, means playing through the story multiple times; this is not for so-called ‘replay value’, it’s for actually uncovering the full game. This inevitably means repeating copious amounts of dialogue. 999 let’s you super-fast forward (emphasis on super-fast) through previously seen dialogue, but not skip it entirely. The game can never really be ‘failed’, but never lets you backtrack and doesn’t let you leave a breadcrumb trail of saves like some other games. The puzzles are designed such that a repeated puzzle is often trivial to complete quickly after you’ve solved it once (instead of having many time consuming parts), but is never skippable entirely, and often contains important (and interesting) character dialogue. It doesn’t scare you off by wasting your time, but it still demands your time and gets you invested.
On top of all this, an innocuous list of icons on the save screen indicating the potential endings serves to make clear the scope of the game for the player (it doesn’t end with just one playthrough, nor does it go on forever with mountains of possible endings), while quickly setting them on a hunt for new endings as collectibles.
So the tools the player is given to explore the narrative – the mechanics – serve to keep the player focused and in the story through multiple playthroughs. This is for naught, though, if the story doesn’t really act as an engaging game beyond the integrated puzzles.
The Story Serving the Game
Let’s talk about those choices you can make for a second, especially what the designers can do to make those choices interesting for a game. Sure, a handful of choices in a narrative may have a goal: a ‘good ending’ for the player, or some kind of happy ending for the characters (the ones you like anyways). However, if there is no way to inform those choices (like if putting your seatbelt on in a car gets you killed by some fluke), or the ‘correct’ choices are trivially easy to make (think about every time you find yourself yelling at a TV character to ‘do the right thing’ instead of the ‘clearly-going-to-come-back-to-haunt-you thing’), then it can hardly be said to have challenge or interaction. I’m hardly keeping you in suspense here, 999 packed in exactly what the story needed to suck me in; not just as a solid narrative, but as a real game.
As I’ve mentioned, the story of 999 is such that it cannot be completed (at least not very satisfyingly) in one playthrough, and probably not in two or three (though luck, incredible insight, or a guide can obviously prove me wrong here). During these playthroughs, I started out knowing nothing, then steadily progressed through the story, meeting the relevant characters, understanding the setting, discovering the major transformative choices (trust me, they’re pretty obvious), and finding out what can go wrong. All of this went on while I enjoyed the challenge of some well crafted puzzles and felt some level of achievement by collecting different ‘bad endings’ (yay, brutal murder bingo!).
Some of these choices were arbitrary when I was clueless. This might sound like it’s in direct contradiction to what I was just saying about being able to inform your choices, but it works here for a number of reasons. First, none of these choices lead to meaningless dead-ends: they all provide character and story development, which ultimately is the feedback required to inform your choices later. Second, these choices are highlighted throughout the story, making them easier to identify and manage. Personally, I’m a fan of charts and maps on a notepad, but there’s not so much that you couldn’t just keep it up in the old noggin. Third, the mechanics I mentioned in the previous section (fast forwarding, quick-to-complete repeat puzzles, and an explicit list of collectible endings) ensure you spend most of your time figuring out your next move and piecing together the mystery (the fun and interesting stuff). Finally, I should point out that it’s not just acceptable that some of these choices are arbitrary at first: it’s appropriate. If I could make an educated guess at a ‘correct path’ on my first try without really exploring the story, then it wouldn’t be much of a challenge. However, these larger choices only mark the beginning of the narrative maze presented by 999.
As I explored these few, large, semi-arbitrary choices (encouraged by, if nothing else, the promise of new puzzles and different endings), I was equal parts pleased and mortified to discover many smaller, less obvious character-related choices. It’s not clear at first how much these choices affect the overall game (in fact, I think it was pretty clear they do next to nothing most of the time) but the potential was there for many subtle choices, quickly cutting off the prospect of brute-force exploring every possible choice combination (at least for my level of tolerance for brute forcing solutions). In later playthroughs, however, armed with the knowledge gained of the setting, characters and options, I had an inkling, an idea or two, of how I might overcome these trials. It was an awesome ride right to the end, made all the better by the fact that I got there by interacting with and exploring the story, learning, and rising to the challenge presented by both the story and the game. I’m getting pumped just writing about it!
The Good Ending
I could continue blabbing, but I’d much rather hear your take on this topic. To recap, I felt the mechanics were designed to keep my focus on the story while keeping me engaged. The story then provides the challenges (how do I avoid this horrible event), the back-and-forth interaction with the player (information gained through exploration), and the goals (both the interim checkpoints that keep you going and the overall finish line). As always, I’m interested to hear what games come to mind when you read this: both games that could learn from design like this and games that have done as well as I seem to think 999 has done. Also, if you played 999, did you feel the same way? When you read this, do you agree with the basic points (whether or not you’ve played it) or do you think your game/story ‘sweet spot’ lies elsewhere? Discuss down below!
And here’s the secret ending of this post: this is actually also WIHILA Zero’s Escape (the sequel to 999 which I’ve not yet played). What better way is there to test and see if all the things I give the game credit for are truly qualities the makers purposefully designed than seeing how well the sequel hits the same notes, and what it changes up? I’ve got high expectations, and I hope it not only meets them, but shows me some kind of evolution or improvement I’m not expecting.