999: The Novel
US: 17 May 2014
Mysteries are always a little interactive, encouraging the audience to play along with the plot, to consider the clues like the characters do and try to beat them to the conclusion. Mysteries exist to be solved, which means a mystery, at least any normal mystery, balances the power in favor of the detective.
This holds true even for the most confusing, confounding, and convoluted mysteries (though the best stories cover up this inherent advantage), because the mystery, by its very nature, is subservient to the power of logic and deduction. It’s something we can solve because the process of critical thinking is so powerful it can expose even the most elaborate of cover-ups.
Conspiracies are different. They are, at their core, a mystery, a question to be deduced with logical thinking, but they invert that mystery/logic power balance by inverting the kind of logic we must use to solve them. Conspiracies are irrational by nature, so we can’t solve them through normal logical and deductive thinking, lest we expose the conspiracy as irrational.
The most effective conspiracies, the kind that speak of a secret truth to the world, are so crazy and so seemingly random that we have to ignore logic in order to organize its clues into a somewhat coherent pattern. It’s a paradox: The only way to truly understand a conspiracy is to give up the part of ourselves that would question the conspiracy.
999 is less a game than it is melting pot of mysteries; a grand showcase for the addictive appeal of grand conspiracies.
It begins as a relatively simple mystery game: 9 people wake up on a sinking ship, and are told they have 9 hours to escape through 9 doors. It’s a classic “death game” premise. There are many more rules to this death game, but the premise is all that really matters for now.
I played 999: The Novel, the new smartphone version of the older 3DS game, which removes all of the puzzles, but keeps the choose-your-own-adventure style branching story, resulting in “game” that’s more novel than game. Essentially, it’s a video game that has purposefully removed as much of the game part as possible.
Despite that, it remains a compelling interactive experience. It does this by first being a damn good mystery, a genre that naturally encourages audience participation, but then it breaks the rules of logical thinking in such a way that it actually becomes more immersive and interactive. It wants to change the way we see this world (the virtual world, that is, not the real world), it wants to shake our ability to decipher facts, and undercut our ability to make logical connections. Which is all to say, the story quickly grows beyond “mystery” to become “conspiracy”. And it’s one batshit crazy conspiracy, at that!
The story involves automatic writing and William Thomas Stead somehow sending his consciousness back in time to write about the Titanic sinking as it was happening to him in the present (he was a passenger). Speaking of the Titanic, the story also involves the belief that the Titanic didn’t really sink, that it was switched with a sister ship and then that ship was purposefully sunk as part of an insurance scam.
Oh but the insanity is just beginning: There’s also the synchronicity of crystals, specifically glycerin;
Ice-9, yes the substance from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle that’s real; experiments in morphic resonance; and to top it all off, a cursed mummy.
There’s a weird kind of suspense generated by so much talk of secret things and false histories. Over the course of several hours, the game slowly imbues in you a paranoia and suspicion of everything and everyone. After all, these subjects have to be mentioned for a reason. They can’t be random, they must all connect somehow. I can’t possibly connect them logically, especially since most of them are illogical in-and-of themselves, so I submit to the game to connect them for them. I stop trusting my own critical thinking and let the game think for me.
This willing submission is a deeply interactive choice, even though it’s a choice to be passive. It’s a choice to knowingly cede control and thought with the faith that it’ll pan out into something sensible. It’s a choice that’s rewarded when the game starts making connections where there are only similarities, assuming fact when there is only suggestion, coincidences become a smoking gun, and circumstantial evidence becomes indisputable truth. The ship looks like the Titanic, so of course, it has to be one of her sister ships, the Gigantic. The man who bought the Gigantic also bought a uniquely preserved Egyptian mummy, so of course, that mummy is also on the ship. And so on. I could easily poke holes in the connections if I tried hard enough, but they feel so right that I don’t want to.
This is a massive accomplishment for any fictional story, and we should all wish for it to happen to us. It’s suspension of disbelief at work, a necessary component for all storytelling. It works so well in this case because I know 999 is a fictional story, and as such, each line of dialogue was consciously written with a purpose in mind: There really are no coincidences here. The rabbit hole of illogical thinking inevitably leads to a proper conclusion because that’s just how the story is structured. However, it’s not hard to stretch this illogic outside the controlled confines of a fictional narrative.
999 is just a fictional story, but the conspiracies it evokes are real. My willingness to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the game mirrors the conspiracy theorist’s willingness to suspend logic for the sake of his conspiracy. We’re each just people swept up in a story, but while one is just for fun, the other has very real consequences.
It’s a bit easier to understand the flat-earthers and moon-hoaxers after experiencing the madness of 999, a story that ropes you into its world like a hostage, berating you with random and tangentially spooky things until you think you see a pattern—a kind of logic-based pareidolia. It’s a fun madhouse to ride through, until you realize some folk live in that madhouse.