Building Blocks – How AI: The Somnium Files Expands by Building on Its Basics

Last week I shared my first impressions of AI: The Somnium Files. I shared the ways in which the game had been enjoyable up to that point and also the ways in which it had been problematic. At the time I had played through enough of the game to get to the first significant choice, the first time when a path on the game’s flowchart branched in one direction while leaving the other direction unexplored. I felt I had seen enough of the game to give me a solid first impression, and I wasn’t necessarily wrong about that. What I didn’t anticipate is the degree to which the elements I had experienced so far would be built upon in order to amplify the Somnium experience.

Since my last article, I’ve experienced the consequences of the choices I made in the first truly meaty somnium sequence. (Remember that somnium are dreams, but not just any dream – they are the subconscious thoughts and memories of another subject accessed by the main character Kanami Date through a process known as Psyncing.) I then conducted a follow-up investigation using the clues I learned there, making significant progress and meeting a man who seems a likely culprit in the murder of Shoko Nadami. What happened then dives deeply into what I anticipate to be one of the key themes of The Somnium Files. It also dives into spoiler territory, so I’ll save that discussion for a bit later in the article.

Somnium Exchanging Expletives

To start out the discussion I want to focus on some of the ways that The Somnium Files grows mechanically once you get outside of what I can now see as something of a tutorial section. The sections of the game that you spend the most time in are the investigation scenes – you use a cursor to look around an area and examine objects or talk to persons who are on the scene. In the early game, these investigations are full of objects to examine, most of which have very little to add to the game. In fact, it seems that conversations with the other characters are the only thing that is necessary in any given investigation. Learning this is a nice step that allows you to speed things along a bit, as you’ll get through scenes a bit faster when not staring at every single bush or light fixture.

However, when you do need to look around, the game makes sure you do so by locking your ability to progress to a different area until you’ve interacted with everything you need to. The game also adds investigation scenes which require you to properly investigate. In fact, the very first investigation after I ended the last article involved actually searching the crime scene for a clue that everyone missed during the first go-around. In one such scene, my choice to look at all the objects in the room before having a conversation with the significant witness at the location actually made the conversation easier: I was supposed to investigate the room for evidence to use against him, and since I had already looked at all the objects I was able to find the evidence quickly by looking for the one object in the room where the text had changed from grey (no new information) to green (a new interaction). Time invested on the front end made things move more quickly during the interrogation.

Speaking of interrogations, this section of the game also introduced an interrogation mechanic where you present clues to a suspect in order to try and get information out of them. It’s relatively low stakes currently – when I presented wrong information, Date simply thought to himself “that’s not relevant” with no other visible penalty. I’m curious if, like the somnium after the first visit, more layers or consequences will be added to the interrogations later. During an interrogation, the clues discovered so far during the investigation are listed out on the right side of the screen. You can examine the clues with A to remind you of what exactly they mean in context, and then after the suspect makes a statement you present clues that either refute that statement or answer a question they presented. Sometimes you’ll have to present two clues together to get at the meaning you’re trying for. All in all the interrogation made for a fun exchange because it challenges you to put together all the information you’ve learned about the case up to that point.

Somnium Investigation Map
Holy wow, is there…more than one place to go?!

Another key piece that has made investigations more interesting is that they are now no longer simply isolated interactions between cut scenes. As the game’s story grows in scale Date has many different balls he’s juggling at any given time. Multiple murders, missing witnesses or suspects, as well as his key relationships like that with Mizuki or Iris. Instead of being one scene at a time in a prescribed order, you’ll be given a list of avenues to follow and then be able to pick and choose where you go and in what order. It feels good to open the map and have four or five different places to go instead of just one, and although so far it technically doesn’t seem to matter what order you do the investigations in, the simple choice to pursue which avenue you think is most interesting at the moment is a nice addition to the basics introduced in the beginning of the game.

Each individual investigation can also create opportunities to pursue new avenues, so often the areas you can see on the map at any given time don’t constitute all the different places you’ll end up exploring during one sequence. In one particular case, my pursuit of a particular witness/suspect led me through three different locations that opened one at a time trying to receive information about him, all the while finding myself hitting dead ends that nevertheless expanded my knowledge about the character or about the scenario. One small quality-of-life touch that the game uses is a summary at the end of each investigation scene to distill the blend of jokes and serious discussion into a takeaway that helps you know what is important to remember. At the end of a longer investigation sequence where you’ve visited a large number of locations, often Aiba and/or the Boss will give you an opportunity to go through everything you’ve learned so far and establish what’s happening next. These reviews are done somewhat quickly and are valuable for reinforcing the information you have learned.

Of course, if you do end up forgetting anything or find yourself needing to review after stepping away from a bit, The Somnium Files has a case file system that captures key terms and characters which you can review at any time. Some of the information captured can seem rather irrelevant, but I’m not willing to dismiss any of it just yet – the games to which Somnium is a spiritual successor have taught me not to immediately dismiss anything just because it is silly. The world drips with meaning in an intentionally overwrought fashion that’s all part of the style of storytelling.

Somnium Drift King

No aspect of The Somnium Files captures this better than the somnium sequences themselves. I discussed in the last article how somnium are dream sequences which are timebound: moving around and taking actions cuts seconds off of a ticking clock which effectively gives you a game over when you hit zero. In somnium, your goal is to solve puzzles in order to undo a series of mental blocks which allows you to get to the information you want to learn from the subject of the Psync. I described how many of these puzzles seemed random and didn’t necessarily feel like they added much to the scene other than to waste your time, but in future somnium the puzzle mechanics grow in a couple of different interesting ways.

One such way is in the use of TIMIEs as a mechanism for rewards and punishments. TIMIEs are one-off items you can use to adjust the amount of time that an action will take. They might divide the time by seven, or set it to a specific number. But not all TIMIEs are your friend. There are now negative TIMIEs which attach to you and multiply the time your next action will take. So far it seems that negative TIMIEs are solely attached to actions which you need to take in order to progress, guaranteeing that you’ll have to deal with them and making them part of the grander puzzle to solve. So far the best trick I have found for dealing with negative TIMIEs is to attach them to an action with as low of a cost in time as possible. Now some of those useless actions that only burn up five seconds can be used as an opportunity to get rid of a negative TIMIE with as little of a penalty as possible.

There’s another use for useless actions too – sometimes an action that has no effect on the puzzle at large will give you a positive TIMIE that you can use later to cut the cost on a significant action. In one situation I procured a TIMIE that reduced the cost in seconds of action down to 1/10 of its original value. Soon after finding it I saw an action that cost 120 seconds attached to a puzzle I was working on – 120 seconds is a full 33% of the time you have in somnium! By using the 1/10 TIMIE I had obtained for screwing around, I was able to reduce that action to a much more manageable amount of time and then try it out. Luckily for me, that action turned out to be exactly what I needed to do to undo a mental block. It was deeply satisfying to see through moments like that, and I enjoy how the puzzles in somnium are just as much about clever time management as they are about figuring out how you’re supposed to interact with each object.

Somnium Fighting Game Combo
The temptation to press Fighting Game Combo was simply too strong.

I’m going to spend this last section of the article diving into spoiler territory, so if you’re wanting to enter Somnium blind then this is where you’ll want to say farewell. As a result of the investigation sequences expanding, the story grows a lot more intricate as threads begin to expand outward and also intertwine with one another. I’ve discovered more connections between seemingly unrelated characters, received more unsettling implications surrounding still-unknown events six years before the game takes place, and learned of a major theme in the game about the connection between dreams and reality.

In the first somnium of the game, Date sees a vision in his dream of what I thought was a woman being murdered. It turns out I was a little off-base there – he did witness the woman being shot, but it turns out she survived the attack. The woman is also the mother of Iris, the idol who befriended Date’s “daughter” Mizuki. Yet another surprising connection with Mizuki – Hitomi Sagan is her teacher, and also good friends with Renju, Mizuki’s father and the victim Shoko’s ex-husband. The myriad ways that Renju connects to the case are not lost on Date, but Renju’s whereabouts are a huge question mark that remains unanswered at my current point in the game. I’ve spent many an investigation scene trying to find this man, to no avail so far.

Who I did find was a man who called Shoko on the night of her murder, 2 minutes after she died. While Aiba and Boss do not believe it likely that this person killed Shoko, he’s obviously suspicious, and the fact that he called from a burner phone and refused to reveal his identity only added to that suspicion. Things go from bad to worse when following the man to a warehouse leads to a second body, one that Date dreaded to find after experiencing Mizuki’s somnium: the body of Iris Sagan.

Somnium I Want to Go Home
Me every time I have to see Iris’s corpse.

Dreams and reality is a clear theme in The Somnium Files, and it is Iris’s death that really begins to push this theme in dynamic ways. Date saw Iris dead in Mizuki’s somnium, and more than that, he saw her dead in exactly the way she died in reality: frozen with multiple stab wounds in her exposed back. Was Mizuki’s dream prophetic? Did Date have a vision that predicted Iris’s horrific fate? The men of science who surround Date’s profession do not believe in prophecies, but the reality of Iris’s death has Date confused about how dreams and reality intermingle. This becomes complicated when Date’s perception of reality is called into question. After a Psync in which Date saves a dream version of Iris in order to ask her questions, an investigation of the location of the body reveals the body to be missing. A visit to Iris’s house shows her very much alive, hanging out with Mizuki as if nothing had happened.

Question two: did Date save Iris’s life in real life by saving her in a dream? Did he actually undo her murder by doing so in somnium? Again, this seems like a scientific impossibility, and doubt in Date’s claim is supported by the fact that he has no evidence that Iris was ever dead. In the moment when he saw her body, Aiba was deactivated, her battery depleted. He has no pictures, no security footage; only the testimony of his one good eye. The other person most likely to have seen the body in the warehouse won’t confess to it and isn’t exactly a reliable witness himself as he is potentially the man who murdered Iris before she was saved – if indeed she was ever murdered.

Are Date’s dreams – the dreams he shares with the men and women with whom he Psyncs – real? Do they have the power to predict reality, to see the past, to unmake events that already happened? Is Date an unreliable narrator that we as the player should discount as we move forward through the game? These are really exciting questions to be thinking about and they have me eager to continue moving forward through the game. Come for the murder mystery, stay for the sci-fi time-jumping weirdness – that’s the premise that captured my heart in Zero Escape and I imagine it will certainly keep me interested in AI for quite some time.

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