When is a game not a game?

999 the novel

One game I forgot to mention in yesterday’s article on my rediscovery of mobile gaming was 999: The Novel – although it’s debatable whether it should be called a game at all.

I’ve been interested in trying out the games in the Zero Escape series for a while. Zero Time Dilemma, the third game, came out for the 3DS earlier this year to glowing reviews, and the second game, Virtue’s Last Reward, went on sale in the eShop at about the same time. I promptly snapped it up, but I wanted to start the series off at the beginning, with the clunkily titled 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Unfortunately, this DS game is fairly tricky to get hold of (and expensive, too), but I found out that there’s also an iOS version.

However, the iOS version is a bit different. The DS game is billed as a ‘visual novel adventure’, where you explore a sinking ship as part of a sadistic game organised by the mysterious Zero. At several points you have to solve puzzles to escape rooms, and every now and then you have to decide which door to take, with the story changing according to your choices.

The iOS game keeps all the same dialogue and door choices, but it completely strips out the puzzles – instead the screen just goes black and says something like “They were able to solve the puzzle and open the door”. So essentially, the whole ‘game’ is just clicking through dialogue and choosing one of two or three doors at about five points.

999 the novel watch

I’m used to playing visual novels like the Ace Attorney series, where essentially you’re just looking for the right line of dialogue to proceed, or the right object to present. But as I discovered when writing this article about the J.B. Harold games, in Japan this series would more likely be considered as an ‘adventure game’. Over there, visual novels are pretty much what the name implies – novels with pictures, and very little in the way of interaction.

So 999: The Novel on iOS is a visual novel in the strict sense – writing and pictures and not much else. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it at first.

Without any interaction other than the odd door choice, the writing is forced to hold up on its own – and quite often it comes across as a bit clunky. The storytelling has an unfortunate penchant for melodrama, and quite often characters will annoyingly repeat themselves, or parrot what someone else has just said. Frequently, people will launch into long and bizarre anecdotes that seemingly have little connection with anything else, like the time someone eagerly describes a series of crystal experiments. I also felt the loss of the puzzles – it felt like my agency had been taken away.

But having said that, I did start getting into it after a while. After getting my first ‘bad’ ending, I became curious as to how things would have turned out if I’d gone another way, and I found myself getting more and more into the story. Eventually, I saw all of the endings the game had to offer, including the so-called ‘true’ ending. The story gets more and more ludicrous as the game goes on, but the characters are likeable, and I enjoyed the rollercoaster ride of revelations.


But is it really a game? I found myself pondering this after I’d finished it. The only interaction is limited to five or so choices, so calling it a ‘game’ is really pushing the definition. But then again, there is a metagame in the sense that working out which routes offer the better endings is part of the challenge. More to the point, it felt like a game thanks to the graphic style and, well, clunky dialogue, to be honest. Nothing tells you that you’re playing a game more than making apologies on behalf of the designers for lacklustre writing. It’s a sad fact that as gamers, we’re willing to overlook cheesy scripts because they’re pretty much the norm for our genre – just look at Uncharted. And just last night while playing Bayonetta 2, a critically lauded game, I found myself wilfully disregarding the dreadful acting of that irritating squirrel character, not to mention the sometimes painful script. Often, playing games feels like watching your own child act in a school play – you’re willing to forgive their lack of finesse just because you want them to succeed.

So yes, 999 doesn’t have the best script in the world, but at least it has an interesting story. And it just about qualifies as a game, in my opinion. But it did make me wonder what the minimum amount of interaction would be for a piece of digital entertainment to qualify as a game. If you only made one choice, would it still be a game? If all you were doing was tapping through dialogue without making any choices at all, would that still be a game?

I’d probably say ‘no’ for the above two options, but that also made me wonder what threshold 999: The Novel had to cross for it to become a game in my mind. Is five choices the minimum needed for it to feel like a game? What if it only had four choices? Or three?

My mind flies back to the legendary Advanced Lawnmower Simulator, an April Fool gag perpetrated by the editors of Your Sinclair. The ‘game’ involved holding down one button to make your character mow the lawn – and that was it. It elicited howls of laughter from the youthful me at the time.

But is it a game? Unequivocally, I’d say yes. But if something as simple as that can be considered a game, then surely anything could?