This text is here to try and keep Jetpack from just linking straight to the video.
Ai: The Somnium Files is a 2019 visual novel slash narrative adventure game from Spike Chunsoft, developed by Kotaro Uchikoshi (and a whole team of people, of course). In this game, you play a cop named Kaname Date, except he’s not just a cop, he’s a cop with a missing memory, except he’s not just a cop with a missing memory, he’s a cop with a missing memory and a missing eye, except he’s not just a cop with a missing memory and a missing eye, he’s a cop with a missing memory and a missing eye and a cybernetic eye that lets him dive into the dreams of other people to retrieve information in a way that is definitely going to get abused at some point.
Set in a near-future-but-still-now Tokyo, the story starts when Date is brought to the scene of a grisly murder of a friend of his, left in an abandoned merry-go-round. What unfolds from there is a story of identity, betrayal, trust, corruption and conspiracy, and which culminates in a big dance party.
A long time ago someone I still trust said of Persona 3, ‘It’s like playing really good anime,’ and I have to disagree with her there, unless she means one of those anime with lots of filler. Me, I prefer anime like Baccano; sixteen episodes of densely packed, complicated-but-not-complex narrative with dozens of characters and a wiki’s worth of explanation afterwards. And that’s the kind of anime you get to play if you play Ai: The Somnium Files.
Now, in an attempt to be somewhat comprehensive, here’s a list of content warnings for this game: Blood. Non-sexual violence. Guns. Invasion of privacy. Damage to and removal of eyes. Loss of identity. Ego death. Cancer. Child endangerment. Parental neglect. Parental abuse. Physical violence against a child. Mentions of and presence of pornographic material, though not pornographic presentation. Paranoia. Extreme violence to an unconscious body. Extremely violent mutilation. Animal suits. Political conspiracy. Singlet chauvinism. Memory loss. Dementia. Cannibalism. Some completely gratuitous cruelty to a fat character. Death of a pregnant woman. Knife murder. Being a cop. Being a cop with special powers. Alcohol.
I think that covers all the major ones, and if you just want a game recommendation, that’s all you need: This game is really good, I liked it a lot, it’s a visual novel so if you don’t like visual novels, it’s not likely to change your opinion, and it’s got lots of content warningy stuff in it. If that satisfies you, go check it out.
On the other hand, maybe you have played this game and you want to know what I think about it.
Part 1: The Game Design
Ai: The Somnium Files is a visual novel, a genre which can become a grind to experience; long stretches of reading and rereading text. It doesn’t tend to present this as long stretches of a single character speaking – instead, you’re more likely to have exposition through conversation, two characters talking back and forth. The game also diverts from the conventional visual novel model by dashing in some gameplay variations, with, basically, ‘levels’ that are small, pseudo-timed puzzle segments in people’s dreams.
These levels overcome one of the big problems that plagues the Narrative Adventure genre, where you spend your time trying to catch onto one narrow thread of logic and work out exactly what you have to do in what order. Rather than create an entire world of these narratives, where you may need to get the green dye from the seamstress to put in the fountain to die the alligator costume to scare the colonist to ensure the comic book gets bad reviews so the memoribilia market crashes, Ai: The Somnium Files keeps these sorts of association puzzles limited to the imagined spaces of dreams. That means you still get the fun ‘what does this do?’ poke-and-react stuff from Narrative Adventures, but you don’t have to carry a stepladder around in your pants, or be frustrated when that stepladder doesn’t seem to be useful in situations it’s not flagged for.
There’s some stuff in this space for your general ‘oh, yeah, good job’ praise – the game has a lot of useful options for how you engage with the text. There’s a fast-forward button that doesn’t just zip through text, but will also speed up cutscenes and animations. The original voice acting is good, the English voice acting is actually pretty good (as someone who doesn’t tend to like English voice acting), and the game has a lot of reference material for when you get lost.
Now I don’t want to tell you ‘this is a subversion of the form,’ because any time a reviewer says that about Visual novels, it’s largely going to tell you how few Visual Novels they play. What it is, however, is a really good use of the particular format and for that we have to look at…
Part 2. The Complexity
If I tried to explain to you the story of Ai: The Somnium Files up front, it would be a very large, complicated mess of explanation. There’s a lot of information that only comes out in threads of the plot that are mutually exclusive to one another. That’s what about this game uses its form so well. No single plotline, from start to finish, of Ai: The Somnium Files is going to cover everything going on in the story, and the process of discovering the ways that the story breaks apart is in turn, a lesson for the things in the story that are present, but that don’t matter. They matter in that they show the inner lives of characters, that they show you the themes and ideas in the story and how they function.
There’s this idea I’ve talked about in the past of hypertext; the idea of text that is informed by its own text. It’s like mystery stories or movies with a twist, where if you know how it ends, it changes how you feel about characters. In Ai: The Somnium Files, this isn’t made something you just experience by replaying the game – it makes replaying the game into an element of the game.
There is a single, reasonably sensible, linear narrative that goes from beginning to end in this game, informed in places by information that’s literally unavailable to you if you haven’t done all the other possible plot lines. In a typical pathed visual novel, it’s not uncommon for players to play it over and over again, to make sure that they ‘get’ all the endings, or to look for secrets or solutions to problems they grapple with.
Ai: The Somnium Files presents its different story threads as spreading points on a flowchart, which you can use to jump around in the story without punishment or needing to set all the flags properly on the way to get where you want to go. It handles this flexibility by making all the ‘fork’ points in the story by putting them in the dream exchanges. This lets the aforementioned mechanical segments serve as the fulcrums the story moves around.
It also means the story gives you a lot of time to experience these characters – and not just their stories, the way their lives go from one end to the other, but their inner lives, the things they think about and care about, and the ways their relationships work.
And that is part of why I like this game so much.
Part 3. Why I Like It
Ai: The Somnium Files is, essentially, a game which sells you on characters. The story itself is interesting, sure, it’s a really solid horror-thriller narrative set in a not-quite-now Japan, and it is absolutely loaded with character. It’s not subtle, mind you – you’re playing a detective with an AI in his eye and her name is ‘Aiba’ and Ai means ‘love’ in Japanese, and it looks like a VI inverted, with six being an important number for the imagery in this game, and you work for an organisation literally called Abyss. There’s a point where two characters sit down and just discuss all the imagery in a character’s name.
Normally, when you meet characters like this, the impulse is to say hey, they’re not what they seem, implying there’s something wrong about being a nice receptionist or a too-online computer geek or a minecraft streamer idol. What Ai: The Somnium Files does instead, is to present a narrative where those characters are in fact, exactly what they seem, but what they seem is treated more seriously, and with more meaningful depth than we normally afford that kind of character.
There’s a point that’s gone a little-bit-viral about this game. This bit, where Mizuki praises the LGBT community.
Now, you may find this weird. This may seem out of place. This may seem to be heavy handed, and to see it in a game, you might imagine it’s kind of sarcastic, or done entirely to be a joke. Except, it’s not, this is how this game communicates the things it values and cares about. Everything in this game, a game about lies and parallel universes and paranoia and conspiracy, is delivered with this kind of fist-pounding sincerity.
I like all that – and it’s in a story that’s both an engaging mystery and a thrilling serial killer drama.
It’s also really funny?
Like, a lot of games in the thriller genre tend to be a bit one note – we’ve all seen Steam’s short horror games that are essentially a spooky maze, with a constant, oppressive, half-lit story space. Ai: The Somnium Files is a story that’s filled with humour, and wit, and charm, and genuine distressing sadness and extremely mournful seriousness, which again, is something that uses the story space of the kind of videogame it is really well.
That’s all the stuff I can use to recommend the game to people in general.
In specific, though…
Part 4. Getting Personal
I started playing Ai: The Somnium Files because a friend asked me to.
She had just finished playing it, and was a crying, happy, sobbing wreck of immensely emotional stuff, and wanted to be able to talk to people about it. This is a state you might recognise if your friends are prone to going ‘aaaaaa’ at one another over things. She attached All The Content Warnings, and talked about how she wanted to share it with more people but recognised the problems of recommending that kind of game, but hoped someone around her would try it out.
So I did.
Now, this friend connected to this game for a bunch of complicated reasons, but a big part of it was that she found it a profound emotional experience that she wanted to share with her friends. She loved that character and that character and that character and they were all so good and –
Look, there’s a lot of air between her and me. We’re very different people. We don’t respond to things in the same way. Different interest and communities and very different life experiences. I didn’t think at the time she’d know me well enough to have told me ahead of time that I’d like this game as much as I did. I played it to understand her better.
And now, she’s heard my reactions to it, my response to it, the jokes and the character beats that resonate with me, too? Did she know I’d find Date compelling as a figure, as someone maimed by life and missing what people consider a past, doing his best to take care of someone younger than him and traumatised? Did she expect I’d like this game this much, when I so often don’t like things at all? It’s not like I’ve been very big on any other visual novels in the past. It’s not like you’d see ‘ah yes, a visual novel about a punny cop, that’s very Talen.’
And I played it.
And now we understand each other a bit better.
I knew I was in trouble making this video because I attempted to just wing it – go from the gut and talk about it in one long, stream of consciousness set of thoughts. Then I realised that not only was I taking a long time to do it, but I was also disjointing thoughts and just going off on tangents about ways these characters are great, or the way they do things I care about. I could keep going, about how the story shows ways that understanding people still needs boundaries. I could talk about how it shows an example of neurodivergence handled in different ways by different people. I could talk about how this work of copaganda also shows how useless cops are and how unmitigated, unregulated power creates more problems than it solves. I could talk about trauma, about expressions of inner life, about achievement systems as intuition pumps and about big nondiegetic dance numbers. There’s a lot in this game to talk about, and maybe I’ll talk about it more, another time –
I love this game.