Friday, August 7, 2020

The Dream

この世界が きみを消し去ろうとしても Resist!

ぼくが光 追い越して きみを守るよ 
「 虹ノ矢ハ折レナイ」(A-set)

Resist! Even if this world attempts to erase you
I will overtake the light and protect you
"The Rainbow Arrow Won't Break" (A-set)

And in the series "What, you haven't played that game!?":  I'm still waiting for that Switch port of Umineko no Naku Koro ni so I can finally learn what Red Truths and things like that are...

ABIS (Advanced Brain Investigation Squad) is a top-secret unit within the Metropolitan Police Department which has access to an unconventional method of crime investigation. Using the Psync Machine, ABIS detectives (so-called Psyncers) can hook up their minds with those of suspects and others persons of interest and enter their subconscious dreams. While within these dreamscape worlds called Somnia, the Psyncer can observe the subject's dreams and memories and thus find clues and secrets that the subject may be hiding or not consciously be aware of. However, a Psyncer can only remain for a maximum of six minutes in a person's Somnium due to safety concerns, so it's imperative that a Psyncer can quickly extract the necessary information from these dream worlds. Date is one of the Psyncers of ABIS, and he has access to another technological marvel courtesy of ABIS: Date's prosthetic left eye is imbedded with the AI-Ball, nickname Aibou ("Partner"), a highly advanced artificial intelligence who can communicate with Date directly and provide him with special tools like X-ray and thermal vision, as well as several hacking and network utilities. Aibou also functions as Date's avatar while in a Somnium.

One evening, the horrible mutilated corpse of Nadami Shouko is discovered on one of the horses of the Merry-Go-Round of an abandoned amusement park. Shouko had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest, and her left eye had been removed. Date is put on the case because he himself was acquainted with Shouko: she's the ex-wife of Date's good friend Okiura Renju, as well the mother of Renju's daughter Mizuki, who due to circumstances has been living with Date for the last few years instead of with her own parents. Date promptly starts investigating the murder with the help of Aibou and the Psync Machine, but stumbles upon many trails: what has Shouko's murder to do with the Cyclops Serial Killings, a series of murders committed six years ago in which all the victims had one of their eyes removed too? Is Shouko's death related to her connection to the organized crime gang Kumakura Group and the powerful politician Sejima? Where has Renju disappeared too, and what does the net idol Iris AKA A-set from Renju's entertainment agency have to do with all of this? As Date delves deeper into the suspects' dreamscapes, he realizes that there's something much bigger going on than he could have ever dreamed of in the 2019 videogame AI: The Somnium Files for PS4, Switch and Steam.

AI: The Somnium Files was probably the biggest Japanese mystery videogame released last year, so some readers may be surprised it took me until now to play it. My excuse is that the release was too close to that of Dragon Quest XI S! One of the reasons many looked forward to this game was of course because it as the newest work by Uchikoshi Koutarou, best known for his science-fiction mystery videogames like the Zero Escape series. I'll be completely honest here and admit I never actually completed any of his games, so I didn't mind postponing my playthrough of AI: The Somnium Files. A few months ago, I wanted to play Kodaka's Death Come True as soon as possible, awhich was because I had played all of Kodaka's mystery output until then, but I know a lot of people have the same with Uchikoshi's videogames. He is a very popular developer when it comes to mystery videogames, so I wasn't surprised I saw a lot of people talking about AI: The Somnium Files when it was released, while I of course was still playing Dragon Quest XI S and trying to avoid spoilers!

Anyway, so I finally got around to the game, and it's been an interesting ride! Definitely not flawless, but ultimately, I think AI: The Somnium Files does present an entertaining mystery story with a science-fiction angle. Some flaws I experienced are system-specific by the way: the Switch version for some reason has severe difficulties loading assets during conversatoins during the second half of the game, which slows down like almost all scenes considerably and at times even prevents you from proceeding in the game, but I gather that this is not the matter on other systems. But setting that aside, AI: The Somnium Files is a good example of a mystery game (and story) that has some great ideas, but the execution isn't always consistent. As an adventure videogame, AI: The Somnium Files plays most of the time in a very familiar manner: you control Date as you move around various locations to talk with suspects, witnesses and other persons of interests to gain information and leads, while occassionally you also have to investigate crime scenes yourself too (with the help of Aibou's special functions) to find physical clues, all in order to move the plot. At set times however, you will also have to use the Psync Machine to enter the dreamscapes of suspects and witnesses to gain additional clues, and it's here where the game can become quite frustrating.

The Somnia are basically dreams, and the visual presentation is pretty awesome: each Somnia you visit is distinctly different and show you the weirdest happenings, like a fight with a gigantic polar bear or a Merry-Go-Round turning around at ludicrous speed in a creepy amusement park. Each Somnium also harbors so-called Mental Locks: by solving puzzles and breaking these locks down, Date can go even deeper in the subconsciousness of the subject to find the leads he wants. In these Somnium segments, you control Aibou directly as you walk around in the dream world to solve puzzles and break Mental Locks, but what makes these segments irritating is that the puzzles rely on 'dream-logic'. There's often no real logic to the puzzles in the Somnia (at best there's after-the-fact-logic) . The excuse is that it's all a dream, but that means that the player is just walking around in the Somnium, trying things out at random in the hopes that you'll solve a puzzle by being lucky. What makes this a frustrating experience however is that any action taken in the Somnium costs variating amounts of time, and you only have six minutes in total to break down all the Mental Locks. In the end, these Somnium segments just turn into tedious experiments of trial & error, where you learn to memorize that throwing a skull away will for some reason break down a Mental Lock and where you also learn that some single-use items have to be used at very specific times or else you can start all over again. It's such a shame that as a gameplay segment, these Somnium segments are so vexing, because the visuals are imaginative and they do an interesting job at setting up a mystery, as you're shown vague hints and clues everywhere, but you can't really say for certain what they mean at first sight because it's all presented as randomly connected threads in a person's dream.

The 3DS videogame Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Fukushuu no Rondo ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Rondo of Revenge") also had these Escape Room segments with a timer on any action taken by the way and I hated them there too. But least there, the puzzles made sense (find a key, use on locked door), whereas in AI: The Somnium Files, the puzzles were only annoying, from start to finish. I don't think there was any puzzle in any of the Somnium segments that felt truly clever, at best just 'Oh, okay, interacting with this thing here in this way for some reason made that thing over there explode which will break a Mental Lock, lucky guess there.'

In general, I think the best mystery stories excel in information management, by which I mean it's important to control what information is available to what person at what time. A mystery plot that provides all the necessary clues to solve the crime at the very start of the novel, but then proceeds to meander for 600 pages makes for a bad mystery story, as it didn't feed the information to the reader in a manner to faciliate the plot as a whole. It's what I talked about in my article on the Challenge to the Reader: what clues are available to the reader at what point, and at what point can the reader or the detective deduce the solution to the mystery? Information management is also important to the characters within the fictional world, as knowledge dictates their possible actions, and if a character never learns a certain fact, they certainly can't act in a way that implies they know said fact. AI: The Somnium Files makes for an interesting case when it comes to this topic.

The story of AI: The Somnium Files will branch off in various routes depending on certain decisions you make during the Somnium segments. These routes are treated as basically parallel/alternate worlds and each of these routes will focus on different aspects of the crime and also feature completely different plot developments. The events on the same day may be completely different depending on the route, and some people who die in one route may live and be completely fine in another route. Obviously, none of the initial routes will provide for a satisfying answer to all the questions and you will need to explore all the routes in order to gain access to the final route with the complete solution to the mystery. It's while you're exploring the various routes that AI: The Somnium Files handles information management the best. All the routes will end up in completely different places and usually leave a lot of questions unanswered, but the answers to many of those mysteries can be found in other routes. The reason why person A betrayed you may never be explained in one route, but will be explained in another route for example. Or in the case of the brancing storylines, sometimes you understand why things happen in a different way after the branching point once you play through both branches and realize what the decisive difference was between those routes. The information fed to the player is thus spread across the various routes in the game, and that results in very satisfying development of the mystery plot. It's not linear in the sense that the player can choose to do most of the routes in any order they like and you can also choose to pause in a certain route to go to another, so it's likely I will have seen certain scenes/clues in a different order than someone else playing this game. AI: The Somnium Files shows how a videogame format can do interesting things with information management in a mystery story, showing clues and foreshadowing events in a non-linear manner to the consumer, creating a mystery experience that you can't get with a conventional novel. The various routes are also written in a way that each of them will reveal very different aspects about the murder(s) while also providing new mysteries, so you're constantly tempted to keep on playing.

But there are also times where AI: The Somnium Files does really weird things with how it handles information given to the player and the characters, which does hurt the mystery tale a bit. The mystery plot overall is quite amusing by the way and the way the story uses the branching "what if that happened instead" routes to show the player all kinds of clues is pretty ingenious. But most of the information that set-up to the major story reveal regarding the New Cyclops Serial Killings is shown relatively early on in the game and I think the attentive reader will be able to make an educated guess about what direction the story will eventually take due to the early telegraphing, even if the game tries to mystify you by throwing all kinds of related, but less important mysteries at you in the various routes. That said, once you realize what is going on, it's still interesting to see how all the various scenes from the different routes fall in place and make sense in the context of the grander mystery. But AI: The Somnium Files also strangely does some clumsy things with information management: at certain points, the game simply stops the player from proceeding, prompting you to try out other routes first. The reason being that allowing the player to proceed then would provide them with very vital information that would explain too much, so it's designed to prevent you from learning that information too soon. The problem is that such blockades only makes sense from a meta point of view, with the developer trying to shield the player, but in-universe, it doesn't make any sense to have the story stop there with the characters all frozen in place because the player isn't allowed to move on yet. It's a very awkward way to control information flow, allowing a player access to a route initially, but then forcefully stopping them midway because they aren't allowed to know something yet! Even weirder is when at one point Date seems to know things only the player should know: the player did go through all the alternate routes and saw the clues/information offered there, but Date the character did not, as from all the character's POV, they will always only experience one single, linear route. In some games that utilize stories with branching storylines, this is explained through plot devices like time travel, allowing a character to travel back in time with the knowledge from other timelines), but in the case of AI: The Somnium Files, it's just careless information management. Control about what characters know what when is a pet peeve of mine in mystery fiction, so it was rather disappointing to see AI: The Somnium Files mess up there, as I found it really distracting.

Oh, and setting the topic of information management aside, I have to repeat I really like the core concept of the plot of AI: The Somnium Files, but some of the details in the story do seem really... rushed. Some mysteries shown in the various routes are only there to show the player some kind of cliffhanger, even if it doesn't really make sense for those events to happen story-wise. Even worse is when some characters have to act like complete idiots at certain points in the backstory to even make the plot work. The core idea of the story is great, but some parts of the tale are kept barely hanging together and require some characters to act really weird at certain points in the story or even go against what is mentioned only a few moments earlier!  Like with that one character being portrayed as some kind of insane, but calculating mastermind, but then we learn they also took certain life-changing decisions on nothing more than a whim without any real justification for why they'd act like so careless.

There are also some parts of the game where everyone's mileage will vary. I liked most of the characters, though some of them have awfully little screentime. There were a few action-focused scenes with Quick Time Events which felt a bit useless and I also felt the City Hunter-esque sex jokes fell flat, as they usually came out of nowhere and felt horribly out of place. These jokes were also mostly used during the action scenes, making these whole sequences stand out in the bad sense. I loved the many references to other mystery videogames and popular culture though! References to Machi will always earn a game bonus points, but that reference to Murder on the Mississippi totally caught me off guard (ha!).

I found AI: The Somnium Files to be an entertaining science-fiction mystery game that on one hand shows how the format of a videogame can present a unique mystery tale in a manner a novel can never match, but on the other hand the game also shows at time how frustrating a videogame can be, both technically as well as in terms of oddly designed segments. The core mystery plot is interesting, though some details are sloppily handled, making AI: The Somnium Files a game I do want to recommend to people interested in a science-fiction mystery, but it's not a game I would recommend to 'general' mystery fans who have never played a videogame.

Original Japanese title(s): 『AI: ソムニウムファイル』


  1. Many hate the last Zero Escape game (Zero Time Dilemma) but I think it's probably my favourite out of the bunch. Of course the 3D animations were still quite lacking just like in VLR. 999 I never really cared that much about but it has its strong points.

    1. I only played (part of) Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and never got around to truly finishing it. Perhaps I will finally get back to it ^^' I was already familiar with all of Chunsoft's novel game series and liked all of them, but weirdly enough 999 was the one I really couldn't get into so I never completed it, and obviously I didn't play any of the other two games in that series.

  2. haven't liked anything uchikoshi has done after 999. that game was a masterpiece. he tried to outdo himself and go over the top in every entry afterwords and they just fell flat in my humble opinion. 999 had simple yet effective and elegant ending while the sequels were unnecessarily complicated or had many plot holes and loose ends (natural results from over the top narrative).

    1. Oh man, I just remembered I also have Ever17 and Remember11, because they gave copies away for free a few years ago...

    2. You're overrating 999. There is absolutely no way the ending is anywhere near comparable to VLR or even ZTD. In general people like to think of VLR as the magnum opus of the Zero Escape series actually, my problem with it is the length and how repetitive it gets to try to get all the paths.

    3. As said, I haven't complemented 999 so I can't really say anything about it contents-wise, but I have to admit that the reason I never completed it was because of how repetitive it became. After I finished my first route, I realized I had to play the game again, but unlike all the modern novel/adventures by Chunsoft since the PSX era, this game didn't feature a flowchart function. And still expected me to go through it several times.

      I just didn't have the time/spirit to go through all the routes at the time, and eventually I just moved on to play other games...

    4. Yeah, and VLR is even more repetitive due to its length so I'd say stay far away from the series unless you want to spoil the previous 2 games and just go for Zero Time Dilemma which now after actually talking about it, is my fav. out of the bunch easily.

      Btw I've been playing the new Conan ending on repeat all day. Simple but atmospheric. It still hasn't been taken off Facebook so you can see it here:

    5. @ mr ho-ling: 999 got a remake for PC and consoles that incorporated a more streamlined interface that removes the need to replay segments and redundancy.

    6. @Anhiksi: For some reason I'm always more a fan of ballad endings sung by women for Conan ^_~

      @Anonymous: Yeah, I heard about that version, but I already own the DS version and don't feel like purchasing the game (and at the same time, I'm still not sure when I'll return to it, so 999 remains in my to-play-limbo ^_~)

    7. If you want to get the gist of 999's story, you can just watch this summary video ( It's better than never getting around to it, and frankly, 999 is more of a sci-fi mystery story than an "actual" mystery story anyways. Virtue's Last Reward, on the other hand, is heavier on deduction/theories, which you might enjoy.

      Also just addressing some comments above:

      - I like Zero Time Dilemma too, but I think it is a bad idea to play it as the first Zero Escape game seeing as it is the last game in the series (-_-).

      - On VLR being repetitive: It is repetitive in the same way AI: Somnium Files is. After an ending, you need to click on a flowchart to go back and play other branching routes. The endings in VLR are similar to the endings in AI (character endings) instead of 999's "fuck you, bad ending" endings.

      As an aside, my body is ready for the remastered Switch version of Umineko.

    8. I'm getting better at actually working my gaming backlog away the last few months (like finally getting to Sigma Harmonics after ten years or so), so I'm still keeping 999 in my 'perhaps I'll get to it one day' list, but thanks for the link :D

      I'm soooo looking forward to Umineko, because I know it's a game that should appeal to me. I've noticed that some of the audience that come here seem to have first learned about Japanese mystery fiction and stuff like shin honkaku discourse through Umineko in the first place, so I'm really interested to see those subjects in Umineko, because as an Umineko 'outsider' it looks like such a niche manner in which to fall in the Japanese mystery rabbit hole XD

  3. If you're planning on playing Umineko when it hits the switch, are you also planning to play/have played Higurashi?

    Higurashi's more supernatural-thriller-like (similar to ReiJinGu Loop) than Umineko's mystery-thriller and the stories are separate enough that you don't need to have, however the minor connections between them mean the story is far richer if you've played the previous "no naku koro ni." Also, to my recollection, Umineko completely spoils the solution/ending to Higurashi at one point.

    1. I haven't played Higurashi yet, and the... I think two times Higurashi Hou on the Switch has been on sale, I've really considered buying it, but in the end, I decided to play Umineko first. So I'll play that whenever that's finally released, and then probably pick up Higurashi one day, once I've forgotten any spoilers seen in Umineko :P Hou Switch was on sale only a while back, but I already heard it was a more supernatural horror thriller like, and when I looked up how long it'd probably take to go through all the core scenarios, I was afraid I'd still only be halfway through Higurashi by the time Umineko Switch would release and have that influence my enjoyment of the game (at the time, I assumed it'd release in 2020, but I guess there was never a solid release window announced).