I don’t think I’ve ever gone into an Kotaro Uchikoshi game and felt the best ending was anything other than the canonical one, the one that is supposed to resolve all of the issues and tie up all of the loose ends- though when it all ended the rope was left limp, what was solved wasn’t actually something I cared about as much as I thought I did. I realized that the game and I disagreed about what was really important here, about who matters at the real end of it all.
Uchikoshi is a game developer most famously known for the Zero Escape series or “The Nonary Games”, a trilogy of visual novels with surprisingly hard puzzles. Every one of these games has a timeline, or rather, a giant flowchart of events. They present stories that always have multiple endings. The chart isn’t just informative, it is usually the main conceit of these games.
The way their structures work makes it so there is information you can only acquire through reaching a dead-end ending, or rather, one that isn’t directly on the true ending path. But these aren’t true dead-ends as you still might pick up key details from failure that could be helpful later on, from what is behind a certain room or whether you have enough info to progress through a certain path yet. Most importantly, these endings also include pivotal moments of characterization. This structure is one of the main draws of these games, but these also may contain limitations that haven’t really reared their head until this entry. One of flow, when your player can jump around different spots and characters are laid out as a chart to be solved. Characters, on the other hand, are laid out as a chart to be solved before them.
Since the Zero Escape series always reside within a Death Game, endings that might be considered a point of defeat can also reveal special moments with characters or even a gruesome showcase of what they were willing to do to stay alive. It’s the nature of a Death Game or “Survival Type”, presenting a scenario where a number of people are trapped with each other and must do anything to overcome obstacles and achieve escape. Normally, there is an intended final truth for the player to ultimately reach, one that has all the answers and resolves all tensions in one way or another. This is along the lines of what I mean when I talk about an Uchikoshi game.
But in AI: The Somnium Files, the premise is considerably different from the others – it doesn’t take part in a Death Game. You play as Kaname Date, a detective part of a team called ABIS who investigates crimes via a machine called the PSYNC, which allows him to dive into people’s dreams and gauge the truth of a matter from there (the game really doesn’t get too deep into the moral quandary of doing something so invasive). The game progresses via visual novel/investigative sequences where you talk to people and investigate scenes for any clues. The PSYNC, as a main mechanic, also takes a huge part in storytelling around the endings, as the story branches into two paths when you make decisions inside the device although for this piece I am mainly looking at only one of the paths.
On the left side of the flow-chart are endings focused on fleshing out certain relationships and characterization that won’t show up on the path to the true ending, a delineation that hampers the flow of “growth” characters might otherwise have. The path we will be focusing on centers on a character named Mizuki Okiura, a twelve-year-old girl with unexplained superhuman strength and beyond-her-years maturity that lives with Date in his dingy one room and one-bathroom apartment. Date acts as her legal guardian, however, their relationship thus far is not a parent/guardian one. Her biological parents up until the game’s events were still alive and Renju, her dad, was even best friends with Date. The game kicks off with the body of Mizuki’s mother, Shoko Nadami, being found in an abandoned amusement park. Mizuki is found that night inside of the very carousel that her mother was found dead on, and later in the game she stumbles upon her father’s dead body along with Date. This route is about Mizuki’s grief and Date’s relationship with her thus far.
Mizuki’s relationship with her parents wasn’t ideal, Mizuki’s mother, Shoko, has a history of hitting her. Renju, her father, practically gave Mizuki away to Date when Renju knew he wasn’t willing to take care of her. Mizuki is starved for affection and Date, throughout this path, is trying to make an effort to bridge that gap, but you don’t become a good parent overnight, and in the case of Shoko and Renju, sometimes you die a bad one.
Since the start of the game Mizuki has been on a nonstop train of worry after worry about her friends and family and the payoff of seeing her happy here at the finish line, reconciling her odd relationship with Date and opening up despite the times where she shuts down due to her trauma, makes this a good enough ending for me that I in fact stopped playing the game for close to two weeks after I experienced it. It felt like it had the payoff of an actual canonical ending. The problem is that this is the route where all of this relationship building between the two characters is relegated to in comparison to the true ending.
The true ending takes its time solving other issues. In the true path, Date and Mizuki’s development feels far and away less and less important the closer I get to the core problem of the entire game. Other characters including Aiba mention how Date needs to do better in handling Mizuki and I found myself yelling at the screen in defense of Date. Divvying up character development across different timelines is something for the player and not for the characters in this game, making certain characters feel fragmented, incomplete in comparison to others when reaching the final moments of the game. It created an odd situation where I found myself emotionally wanting in the true ending and kept coming back to the fact that I would’ve been okay not solving these murders, because I cared more about Mizuki, and to see her neglected when I know Date can do better, when I know the game knows he can do better, was aggravating.
There’s a certain dread that hangs over me when I can feel a character I connect with and their relevance slipping away from the main stage of the story. To hell with the plot, screw the mystery, perhaps what matters more in a story is that you take care of your characters rather than let them fall by the wayside while your main narrative soldiers on.