Parallel Worlds, One Story – The Narrative Structure of The Somnium Files

AI: The Somnium Files starts out with a simple enough premise – you are a Japanese detective investigating the murder of a woman found dead in an abandoned amusement park. But the story doesn’t stay at that level of simplicity. In this world of science fiction and dreams, many threads are tangled together in the web of that first case, and those threads can lead in vastly different directions. From conspiracy theories about underground organizations in service of aliens to political corruption to serial killers to a story about broken families, The Somnium Files dabbles in a number of genres and themes. Within those genres and themes, different characters are significant. There are a number of major players involved in the narrative of AI, and as the game goes on more and more of them become untrustworthy.

All of this could become difficult to juggle if contained together in one continuous story arc, so The Somnium Files does something different. Through the use of a number of parallel worlds, AI shows us all the possible directions of this story in manageable chunks that focus on specific characters and themes. In this way, the genre of the game almost changes from path to path, with some incorporating more elements of the fantastic while others focus more on street-level policing; some focus on characters who are kids caught up in something far beyond them while others focus on professionals dealing with opposition from scrappy opponents who will use any resource they have to get what they want.

In this article, we will explore the different themes and characters who intersect in The Somnium Files and discuss the different ways in which they interact to tell one overarching story. I’ll speak in general terms to keep spoilers to a minimum but know that if you want to go into AI as blindly as possible, it may be good to skip this article for the time being and revisit it after you’ve played at least some of the game.

Somnium Polar Bear Murder
This scene from the game’s promotional material is a lot more tense than I expected!

The Somnium Files features a flowchart which is essentially Date’s investigation board. Photographs pinned to a corkboard and attached by threads indicate specific scenes in the game. When you reach a Somnium which splits the path of the game, two threads will spread out in different directions. I’ve chosen to play the game by following one path until I reach a barrier and then going back to the most recent possible choice and trying a different direction. At the time of writing, this has led me to one of an unknown number of endings as well as two points where I’m not allowed to progress the story yet.

I actually have a couple of problems with the way that AI handles its flowchart system. One complaint I’ll note is that the above mentioned story progression points seem rather arbitrary. In Zero Escape (another Spike Chunsoft game with which The Somnium Files shares a director), you can progress a story until you run into a point where you need the information available in a different timeline to proceed. Maybe you learn a passcode in path C that you need in order to disable an explosive back on path B. AI’s cutoffs don’t feel like that. They are more like cliffhangers – you don’t have permission to progress anymore so we can keep the suspense going for awhile longer. My suspicion is that for these segments of the game, a story element that is the focus of another plot is about to come into play so you need to be familiar with that element before proceeding. But it feels arbitrary, as if you are being kept out of doing something interesting for no reason other than it not being time yet. Since having to switch to a different path on the flowchart takes you out of the momentum of a scene, it can be jarring to do so.

My other issue is that the mechanism for choosing which path you are going to follow has no strong or obvious meaning in many Somnia. The flowchart does not split on dialogue choices or even choices you make in your investigation. It focuses on the puzzles that you solve in the dream sequences known as Somnium. The problem with this is that the puzzles don’t have any obvious real-life meaning and so your choice feels random. You are – in two situations quite literally – just choosing right or left, with no indication of what each direction means your character is going to do in the story once the dream is over. There has been one Somnium so far where it was clear what choices you were making by solving puzzles in specific ways, and those choices did have a meaningful impact on Date’s portrayal in the story. But so far that approach has been the exception rather than the rule.

Somnium Eye in the Window.jpg
The Somnium scenes can be very surreal compared to the rest of the game.

One interesting aspect of how AI does narrative design is that the genre of the story changes subtly based on the paths that you choose. On a grand scale the game is always a science fiction crime thriller, but different paths put emphasis on different aspects of that description. The first path that I ended up taking in my playthrough put a much heavier emphasis on the science fiction aspect of the genre, immediately introducing parallel worlds and the possibility of altering reality through dreams. It took almost no time for the original crime that starts the whole story to become merely a backdrop for a story about a group of kids wrapped up in a conspiracy beyond their imagination, and the ability of one detective to stand against the force of that conspiracy.

That made it all the more shocking when I jumped to the other side of the flowchart and almost immediately stumbled upon a second body. I literally shouted out loud “HOLY SHIT” as I walked in on the second victim hanging from a fishhook with their eye gouged out. I forgot that The Somnium Files was a game about a serial killer. But the game didn’t forget, and as I explored this new segment of the flowchart the game felt like a different experience. None of the parallel worlds pseudoscience nonsense was in play anymore – instead, the bodies were piling up as Date struggled to get a very real handle on an investigation with very real consequences.

The tone and the subject of the investigation was not the only aspect of the game to change from world to world either. The characters that I could and could not trust also changed. The first ending I ended up finding was the Iris ending, and while there is a slight amount of distrust of Iris depending on what path you take there, that distrust is still offset by a respect and admiration for Iris that comes from spending so much time with her and getting to know her heart and motivations. It’s a hard choice not to believe her, and her friends are individuals that you can trust. On the other side of the flowchart, both Iris and Ota are incredibly suspicious while someone like Pewter who previously appeared to be a villain is instead helpful and trustworthy.

Somnium Doujin Plots
Of course, some things never change.

The differences between the characters are generally not because of differences in personality from world to world, but rather because they are motivated by different things and those motivations may not be activated in one timeline the way they are in another. In the Iris timeline, she appears to be the second target of the killer so it makes sense for Date to plan to protect her and for those who are motivated by protecting her to be helpful. Conversely, when the second victim is a different person and circumstantial evidence points to Iris, those same individuals who were allies when you protected her may now be enemies when they feel that you threaten her. In this way, the characters behave differently from world to world within the flowchart while still maintaining the core of their identity.

Characters also have different levels of emphasis depending on which storyline you explore. Take for example the mysterious prisoner known as #89. This character has a brief role in the Iris storyline but for the most part we learn very little about his true personality or motivations. We do learn about him one important fact that I won’t spoil here; what’s important about the fact is that when you have that fact in mind during the timeline where you learn more details about #89’s life, it puts all of the information you learn into a different context. I viewed #89’s backstory differently because I knew who he was to other characters in the game from the Iris path. Had I played the flowchart in a different order, my opinion about #89 might have been quite different.

The ways that information interact from timeline to timeline is a part of what makes AI so fun to explore. Anytime you jump to a new timeline, something that might have been a throwaway line in your first timeline may be an entire plot point, thoroughly explored with multiple twists and turns. You may know the conclusion of a thread but have no idea what built to that conclusion until you explore a different story. As you play through different timelines and build your pool of knowledge about the case, different threads come together and continue to show the characters in increasingly complicated lights. As all the genres blend back together into the overarching theme and the flowchart fills out, you can see the big picture at long last.

Somnium Original Victims
Personally I’ve enjoyed the increased focus on the actual serial killer in this timeline versus the conspiracy theories of the Iris timeline.

With only one timeline completed, I don’t fully know how much of AI is left for me to complete. Based on my experience with Zero Escape, the first ending is generally the signifier that you’ve reached the middle of the game. There are still entire unexplored paths to walk, but once you’ve started to walk them you’ll soon find yourself able to unlock multiple endings back to back. By the end of my play session I’d found another blocked story path, and I think there’s a good possibility that when I finish my current investigation I will finally unlock one of the paths I haven’t been permitted to complete yet.

The Somnium Files tells its story through an interesting vehicle. Each of its branching paths focuses on different characters and themes. These spotlights then intersect in fascinating ways when you experience other timelines, building piece on top of piece until finally the whole picture begins to come clear. I’m excited to see how all the things I have learned up to this point come together and to begin the snowball of unlocking endings until I finally at last reach the true conclusion of the game.

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