Fight Club, Memento, The Sixth Sense. These films all have something in common with Ever 17: They’re all masterful examples of narrative sleight of hand; the audience is walked through a carefully constructed story – a meta-lie – where every shot, camera angle, utterance and non-utterance builds towards a plot-subverting mind-screw. These stories linger with the audience, compelling them to ponder the questions posed and experience them again – this time keeping both eyes on the magician’s hands.
Developed by the now-defunct visual-novel developer-publisher KID, Ever 17 was originally released in Japan for the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 late into the summer of 2002. The brainchild of storywriters Takumi Nakazawa and Kotaro Uchikoshi (999, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward), was a breakout hit, and today is considered by many to be one of the immovable grandfather works of the genre – popular enough that it was eventually ported to the PC, PSP, iOS and Android, and even remade for the Xbox 360. Today, copies from the limited run of the localized PC version (the only localized version) go for hundreds of dollars on Ebay.
And for good reason – Ever 17 takes the same meticulous attention to constructing a narrative smoke-screen seen in movies like Fight Club, but in a genre defining high-wire act, keeps it up for close to 50 of its 60 hour playtime. It tasks the player with questioning the nature of existence, and reviewers with assessing whether a game can be both boring and brilliant at the same time.
Set in the isolated underwater theme park LeMu, the story follows seven characters that are trapped in the park after a containment contingency plan triggers a mass exodus. They have one week to escape from their underwater prison before the water pressure overwhelms the complex and they meet an unfortunate watery end.
But those expecting a tense race against the clock for survival are going to be disappointed. The atmosphere in Ever 17’s is as lax as its sedate pacing. The slow, oddly-placed “slice of life” vibe that permeates what you’d expect to be a tension-filled escape tale feels better suited for a slow-burning romance story. So perhaps it’s not surprising that romance is a central part of Ever 17.
You play the story from the viewpoint of one of two male leads: college student Takeshi, or a middle-school student –and an amnesiac– known only as “Kid”. The characters’ options for escaping their underwater prison are limited, leaving them to kill time whilst they wait for (assumed) help to arrive, a set-up where the protagonist is free to pursue – and potentially end up in a relationship with – one of the heroines.
Each female character in the game is based on (but not defined by) well-trodden dating-sim tropes such as the loli, otaku, yandere-tsundere, yamato nedishiko and so on; if none of those words mean anything to you then all you need to know is that if you’ve ever seen an animé before, you’ve seen characters that loosely conform to the characterization of these heroines. It’s the way their personalities have been shaped through detailed – and sometimes shocking – back stories that defines them, making them deeply enigmatic.
The most enigmatic of the bunch is Tsugumi – a stand-offish loner of questionable mental stability; she’s distrusting of everyone, a trait that’s made her so self-efficient that she’s become a seemingly all-knowing queen-of-all-trades.
Ever 17 looks like a dating sim. It walks like a dating sim. And sometimes it even talks like a dating sim – but to actually call it a dating sim would be a misnomer, and selling Ever 17 egregiously short. Ever 17 is a dating sim-shaped Trojan horse for a story that deals extensively with the concept of existence (whatever that may mean) in a way that turns out to not only be relevant, but integral to the story.
It demands that you play through it four times, taking each heroine’s path in turn before the final path opens up. It’s on the final path that all the mysteries, the seemingly inane details, and the bizarre in-fighting between characters comes together in a cacophony of mind-shattering plot twists.
But to get that last path you’ll have to slog through the slow plot progression that characterizes around two-thirds of the game. There’s a lot of repetition across the different paths, sometimes in places it needn’t exist, which drags the pacing down painfully. The ability to skip previously-read text helps to reduce the bloat, but it can only be used to skip over text that the developer has decided you’ve already read – problematic when some whole scenes are considered “new”, even though only a handful of lines actually are. This puts the player in the unenviable position of skipping text but potentially missing new content.
Ever 17 could have benefited from some editing and a more robust skip feature, particularly because clearing it in its entirety takes close to 60 hours. The first two playthroughs with each of the protagonists take around 15 hours each, and the other two playthroughs (aided by the skip-feature) required to unlock the final path take around 4-5. After this the final path opens up, which is another 15 or so hours – about a third of which is unskippable retreading.
The fact that the bulk of the game lies somewhere between dull and straight-up boring downtime should be enough to disqualify it from being a great game. Conventional review critique practically demands it. But Ever 17’s true value comes from retrospective appreciation. After seeing the climatic 10 hours of the game, it becomes abundantly clear how ripe the seemingly-innocuous downtime was with foreshadowing, plot point seeding and double-meaning; every single word and gesture clicks into place.
Whilst replaying the game post-credits, seeing how the different dialogue choices play out, the player is repeatedly reminded of the finesse with which the story was woven. It’s quite awe-inspiring to realize that the truth behind Ever 17’s story was there all along, staring the player unblinkingly in the face for 50 whole hours.
Ever 17’s plot is borderline unbelievable, but extensive foreshadowing and excellent voice work ground it all – making it plausible enough that the player will happily accept it, even if it might take them a while to fully appreciate and understand it. Yū Asakawa’s voice work stands out as a highlight –providing gigavolts of emotional charge to the few moments when Tsugumi’s cool exterior peels back.
Sadly the same praise can’t be heaped upon the soundtrack. With few exceptions, the music is forgettable and emotionally neutral. The same pieces play endlessly on repeat (song ends, then restarts), instead of looping naturally as you might expect from a videogame. There’s also some static in certain voice samples; likely an artifact from compressing the game onto a single UMD disc for the PSP release. This is only noticeable when playing through headphones on scenes with no background music, but it does bear mentioning.
Ever 17 is at times almost morbidly slow paced. It veers between being dull to being outright boring for the majority of the game, but what feels like leaden writing in dire need of an editor is redeemed and propelled into the stratosphere by plot revelations in the final arc. It’s a work of genius, the true brilliance of which becomes apparent on subsequent playthroughs. If you can understand Japanese, or somehow manage to get hold of the localized PC version, we wholeheartedly recommend Ever 17 - with the caveat that it’s cleared in its entirety; it simply doesn’t stand up otherwise. Sadly, many may never have the chance to experience it; the rights to the game are caught up in the musical chairs of acquisition and bankruptcy that’s typical of Japanese visual-novel publication. However, if you can get your hands on it, we can guarantee that taking up the long slog will eventually leave you with the same reverence for Uchikoshi’s seminal work as so many other players who went before you.