Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nonary for the People

Whenever Roger Ebert pops up into the news, my little corner of the social imaginary grumbles anew about his failure to acknowledge videogames as an art form, which is apparently an important thing. In the midst of the grousing, examples are inevitably put forth, and the irritating people--in the past, we'd have called them "ludologists"--point out that the examples don't count, because they're notable for plot elements that rely on narrative (i.e. non-ludic) conventions. In short, movies are art, whereas videogames may not be, because the examples of arty videogames are actually short films. Which are art. Or they're not. I dunno.

Anyway, it's refreshing to see games that openly embrace the syncretic, and 9/9/9 identifies itself quite openly as being a mystery novel with graphic adventure "escape" scenes. It takes some getting used to, and I certainly ground my teeth a bit during the stretch between the opening escape and the four/five dilemma, but in time, and with the help of several extra-literary devices, it works very well.

Initially, the seeming sluggishness induces an odd sense of displacement, which is actually pretty appropriate, all things considered. As a player, I never seemed to see what I expected to see when I was reading about it, and the displacement faded only when I accepted that 9/9/9 really wasn't going for film as its fallback medium, but the novel. Just like it said in the damn manual.

So, it's mostly reading. The visuals are haunting, but more a series of illustrations than anything else, more for style and mood than action. As for said action, the prose is competent, and at times loving: never before have I read such a thorough description of what would happen to a human body should an explosive be detonated in his or her small intestine.

Which brings us to the plot, which is, well, spoilery, really. The genre kind of demands a lack of info. For our current purposes, it's worth mentioning the end structure. 9/9/9 has six categories of endings, if the save screen is to be believed, and when the game is completed, the player may restart with the (heaven-sent) option to speed-scroll through text already read, and with the choices already made highlighted for easy reference. The result is a system that encourages players to rapidly replay similar events, an area in which games happen to excel.

One of the few entirely unique affordances of the videogame medium is the ability to conceal rules from the player: the first goal of the game is to figure out the second goal, etc. The repetition of plot elements fits into the game's narrative very well (think Eternal Darkness), and it's genuinely unnerving when a character you find sympathetic and vulnerable kills you with an ax. It casts a strange light on your next time through the game, with the future ax-memory breeding with the previous one. And while any non-linear text of this type allows for differing futures, I'm personally unclear on whether even the past is stable: if something is true in the 5-7-1 path, can we be certain it's similarly true in 4-8-6? Even if it happened before any of us showed up on this damn boat?

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