There aren’t many series that I play as an adult that I wasn’t introduced to as a kid. Games like Mario, Pokemon, and The Legend of Zelda have been a part of my life for over 20 years. Fire Emblem could be argued to be one of the more recent series in my repertoire, but even that has been over 10 years – it was a big part of my teenage shenanigans. Among the series that are still some of my favorites today, Zero Escape is one that is relatively young in terms of my experience with it; I played my first one during my senior year of college.
Though the Zero Escape trilogy was relatively short-lived in terms of the number of games, its impact on me was huge. It sparked an interest in thrillers and science fiction that had laid dormant beneath years of nothing but medieval fantasy. Although most of the science in Zero Escape was pseudoscience, it still got me reading theories and thinking about concepts that most games never touched. When the trilogy came to an end, I was sad to see it go. My hope was that games like it would continue to be released by the same creators, even if it didn’t involve the same characters or world. As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
AI (pronounced “eye”): The Somnium Files is a new game by the minds behind the Zero Escape series and also the Danganronpa games. It starts off as your typical murder mystery/detective story, but is set in a future where investigations delve into the subconscious minds of witnesses. For fans of previous games by the same team, there are plenty of elements that feel familiar, but it has a few new tricks up its sleeves as well. In today’s article, I’ll be discussing my first impressions and whether or not I feel that AI will scratch the Zero Escape itch after having a few years away.
One thing AI does well is throw you right into the action – at least, what constitutes action in this game. The story opens with Kaname Date (your character) investigating a murder at an abandoned amusement park. Like most visual novel/investigation type games you look around with a cursor and press A on objects to examine them. If the object isn’t important, you get some flavor text. If it is important, you’ll gain more ways to interact with it such as examining it more closely or – in the case of a person – receiving dialogue options. Dialogue options are mapped to different buttons on the controller, or you might click the left or right stick to activate a special form of vision (more on that in a bit).
Something that caught me by surprise right away is how few objects seem to be important during any given investigation. I am not far in the game at all so this may change soon, but it seems like 80% of the objects you can look at don’t actually have any in-game effect. “That’s a tree.” “There’s a park bench.” “A window looking outside.” These kinds of brief descriptions are commonplace and it makes me wonder why they chose to make those particular spots interactive at all. Another 10% of the time, an object may not be important but it will at least trigger unique dialogue. A common joke is for Date to make a pun based on words that sound like the word for what he’s looking at. For example, while looking at a pair of swinging doors in a restaurant, he starts talking about how he forgot his bathing suit and gets corrected that the doors are not swimming doors. Enough of these feel like a reach that I have to wonder how much of the wordplay was lost in translation.
For interactions that are important, you’ll have options to expand on dialogue or to take a closer look at an object. Date is without a doubt the laziest detective to ever star in a video game. Whenever he investigates he never walks over to objects to take a closer look at them – instead, he uses his mechanical eye to zoom in on things from across the room. His eye – named AI-Ball, by the way – also sports an x-ray feature, as well as an artificial intelligence that can perform tasks like image analysis, searching through police files, or scrolling social media.
The AI-Ball’s intelligence is named Aiba (the eye puns are just getting started, friend) and she is Date’s partner in crime – er, solving crime. Their back and forth banter will be your constant companion as you investigate, but Aiba is more than just a fancy computer. She can remove herself from Date’s eye socket and allow him to see from normally impossible angles, including looking at himself. Aiba also has a direct mental link with Date that allows her to know his thoughts and to participate in his dreams. This is the second core mechanic of the game – when you’re not investigating or watching a cut scene, you’ll be in a dream sequence called a somnium.
Date is part of a special division of the police force that investigates the subconscious mind by diving into the somniums of other people. While inside a dream, Aiba moves around and interacts with the various objects or individuals who can be found there (funnily enough, this makes her more physically engaged in her investigations than Date ever is – Aiba really does ALL the work). In somnium, things can behave in unexpected ways, so a lot of your actions will involve experimenting with the connections between seemingly mundane objects in order to determine how to move forward. Deeper levels of a somnium are blocked by mental locks, which are essentially puzzles you need to solve in order to move forward.
Anytime you look at an interactive object in somnium, you’ll have multiple ways to engage with it. Most of the ways won’t have any meaningful effect, and for some objects none of the interactions will lead to progress towards the unlocking of the mental block. But for those objects that matter, finding the right interaction will lead to changes in the environment that allow you to try even more interactions, slowly unraveling the puzzle one piece at a time until you make a significant amount of progress by undoing a mental block.
It can sometimes seem like every single non-progress interaction is utterly meaningless, but that hasn’t been the case in my experience. Some interactions serve as hints that will help you solve later portions of a puzzle. As a small example, in one somnium I went to a broken ride and kicked the pieces around. The kicking didn’t do anything in that moment, but it showed me that there was a connection between that ride and another one. Later, because I knew the two rides were connected, I realized that I could kick the broken ride to get the reaction I wanted out of the other one and progress the game. This means that even useless-seeming objects may be hints for later in the somnium, so you aren’t always just trying to randomly guess which interaction has meaning. The game will give you clues if you look for them.
Of course, you don’t have the luxury of trying every single interaction with every single object. Your time in a somnium is limited, and each action – whether simply moving from place to place or engaging with a curious object – costs you time in seconds. When you run out of time in a somnium your mind is lost forever, which in game terms means a game over. You’ve got a few tools to help you get around this, though. You have three reset points which you can spend to return to the last memory block that you removed, allowing you to try a different approach and spend your time more wisely. You also have resources called TIMIEs that can alter the amount of time that actions take, setting it to a specific number or reducing the number by a certain percentage.
The choices you make in somnium matter for one other reason – they can make a difference in the real world. A familiar feature in AI is a Zero Escape -style flowchart. Whenever you make a significant decision that alters the course of the story, the timeline in the flowchart will branch and send you in one direction while the other one will remain unexplored. You can return to these major moments and experience the somnium again to open the chart in another direction. I’m writing this article after opening my first branch, so I still don’t know how extensive the choices will be or how many endings the flowchart may lead to. But I’m excited to see how the branching paths lead to different interpretations of the game’s story.
I’ll talk a little bit about the story and characters of the game, so if you intend to play AI and want to avoid some minor spoilers, skip ahead to the next screenshot. I’ve mentioned already that Date is investigating a murder. The victim is a woman, and not just any woman – she is the mother of the child to whom Date is the current legal guardian. That same child is found at the scene holding what appears to be the murder weapon. There are lots of early-game implications that the case is intimately tied to this one family – the other witness on the scene was a fan of the daughter’s best friend, who is an internet idle that works for the father and ex-husband of the victim. All these elaborate personal connections are then expanded by the secrets learned in somnium, and it seems that there’s possibly a connection to Date’s forgotten past. The victim was found missing the same eye that Date has replaced with AI-Ball, and the mother of the idol who is his adopted daughter’s best friend appears in Date’s dreams.
Because the characters are so interconnected with each other and are deeply involved in the murder, they take center stage during the early parts of AI. Most of the characters fall pretty strongly into archetypal roles. Date’s adopted daughter Mizuki, traumatized by the loss of her mother, is totally silent and distant, but she also has a secret life that Date has known nothing about. Her friend Iris, the idol, is a manipulative actress who knows how to work an angle in order to get an opportunity for more online views, but it’s implied that she has a complicated past. Ota, the superfan, is the most stereotypical portrayal of an adult nerd you could expect. My hope is that these characters will expand beyond their one-note portrayals as the story goes on.
Date in particular is highly grating. Because he is the player character, you experience much of the game from Date’s perspective. The flavor text is written in his voice and during dreams you are privy to his thoughts. As a fan of puns, I don’t mind his sense of humor most of the time, but Date is a classic Uchikoshi protagonist in that he is a relentless pervert. Whether he’s reducing the receptionist at the entertainment company to a pair of breasts seated behind a desk or ogling Aiba in the dream world, Date is portrayed as always objectifying the women around him. It’s typical for this series but Date is particularly egregious, so that’s something to be aware of when considering whether this game is a good fit for you.
So far AI has been a fun experience with a few problems here and there. I’d prefer more of the object interactions in the game to have meaning behind them, and the highly archetypal characters are nothing to write home about (particularly Date). However, the story of the murder is compelling and I’m excited to dive deeper into the aspects of it that will undoubtedly have an edge of horror. There are small moments, such as the flailing horses in the somnium of the carousel, which show the darkness that the game will be capable of. I’m excited to get to the core of the weirdness of AI and away from the parts of the game that are more predictable. My plan is to continue covering The Somnium Files on Mondays until I finish the game, so if you enjoyed this article be sure to swing by next week for more on the game!