[This article contains minor spoilers for the games in the Zero Escape series. I have, however, kept them vauge enough that they will only make sense if you’ve played the games.]
Let me tell you a story.
One day, a woman went running down a path that she had traveled many, many times in the past. This path has a fork in it, and normally this woman takes the right hand fork. This day, the woman sees a snail in the road, and in order to avoid it, she makes the split-second decision to take the left hand path instead.
This story is told by the character Zero in the third game of the Zero Escape series, Zero Time Dilemma. The story does not have a good ending, because in fact, ten minutes after this choice, the woman is dead. One choice destroyed her. That, in fact, is the point that Zero is trying to make here. One choice, no matter how inconsequential it seems at the time, can destroy us.
Our lives, Zero says, are the culmination of choices that have brought us to this place in time. In fact, because we are able to observe the results of our choices, for us, the choices that we made are the only ones that can possibly exist. As explained by Junpei, one of the main characters in the series, this is an extension of the Anthropic Principle, which states that the only universes that exist are the ones in which there is life intelligent enough to observe the universes.
This is not the most complicated thought experiment that exists in Zero Escape. It is a series that exists to promote thought, though in the beginning it doesn’t quite appear to be. It’s not the first game to incorporate investigation and puzzle solving into a greater narrative, but it’s the greater narrative that gives the series both its charm and its frustration. It is very much a series that assumes that the player is at least as intelligent as the characters are, and the characters are very, very intelligent.
Let me start from the beginning.
Zero Escape is a game series about choice. It is about the choices that make us, and the choices that break us. In taking us down that journey, the series examines what it means to make a choice, and what could happen in the path not taken. Several famous thought experiments are cited to support this philosophizing, and in fact those thought experiments are woven into the mechanics of the games themselves in very surprising ways.
Consider the first game in the series, 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. In this game, as can be deduced from the title, nine people are kidnapped by the villain Zero and put into a building with nine doors, and are given nine hours to find their way out or else they will be killed. Each door and each person is assigned a number, and in order to open the doors, the characters must split into groups whose combined value numerologically equals the door that they are trying to open.
The game immediately sets the rules of the puzzle and causes the characters and, by extension, the player, to make assumptions based on those rules. Even the interactions between the characters are based on the assumption that they are who they say they are, and many of the characters conform to certain stereotypes. It is a very intentional plot decision, because the only way to figure out the greater mystery of the game is to determine when those expectations are being subverted, and make your decisions based on that information.
It’s the subversions themselves that make the series worth playing. When it comes down to it, the plot could have easily been a mess, just like any plot that involves thought experiments that reference parallel universes and time travel. It’s the characters, though, that carry it. Akane Kuroshiki, the character initially presented as the bubbly cheerful ‘best friend’ type, eventually reveals herself to be cold, calculating, and absolutely ruthless in her determination to complete her goals and stay alive. She is the culmination of the reversal of several assumptions about the very nature of the so-called ‘Nonary Game’ itself, but for me, she succeeds because she subverts the expectation of the ‘female co-star’ in general.
All of this carries forward into the second game, Virtue’s Last Reward, which simultaneously brings out the best and worst in the series. For this game, the choices are further abstracted away, changing from numerology to game theory. In fact, the central mechanic of the game is a very well-known game theory thought experiment, the Ally/Betray game. Just like before, there are nine people kidnapped and placed in the game, only this time they must collect nine points in order to escape the final door. At various points in the game, characters are organized (either individually or in pairs) into rooms in which they must vote to ‘ally’ or ‘betray’ the person or team that they are ‘playing’ against.
In the game theory experiment, if contestants on both sides select ‘ally’, both sides get two points. If both sides select ‘betray’, both sides get no points. The interesting part is that if one side selects ‘betray’ while the other selects ‘ally’, the ‘betray’ side gets three points, while the ‘ally’ side loses two points.
Obviously in a perfect world, everyone would always chose ‘ally’ and the game would be over. In a perfect world, everyone would always chose the right hand path and no misfortune would ever happen. But if there is a snail, or rather, if there were any suspicion that the other side will chose ‘betray’, then the selection becomes an exercise in self-defense. Only people who have enough points to open the door can escape, after all. Everyone else will be killed.
In this game, every expectation is questioned. It becomes very obvious very early on that people will select differing choices in versions of events that might otherwise seem equal. It is not so simple as replaying the same segment of the game and making the opposite choice, because there is no way to guarantee that other people will make the same choices. Furthermore, it is very easy for the player to lose track of which past choices led to which results, and while there is a menu that keeps track of the timelines, even that menu can add to confusion because it reduces the entire game to ‘choice and result’ while making it difficult to keep track of what dialogue and which events led to those choices and results.
Even the ‘companion’ character in this game, Phi, is an exercise in subversion. Phi initially comes across as very abrasive and condescending, and so the player is led to distrust her. She will advocate the most ruthless and self-serving choices, making her seem very heartless. Of course, things aren’t as they seem, and her choices, while defensive, always end up being the right choices. Phi’s attitude ends up stemming from the fact that she legitimately is the smartest person in any room she is in. Not only does she have previous knowledge of all of the puzzles in the complex, she also has a very deep understanding of advanced mathematics, physics, and chemistry, as well as high-order philosophy. And instead of being untrustworthy, she reveals herself as being the most loyal person in the group, at least toward the player character.
Now, Virtue’s Last Reward brings in several plot threads involving time travel that are perhaps the worst in the series, and the resolution of those plotlines is so disjointed and tangled that it should be very unsatisfying. It isn’t, though, because the characters involved are very full of heart, personality, and earnesty that you can’t help but feel something for them and want them to come out of things okay.
The truly impressive thing about the third game, Zero Time Dilemma, is that it almost never got made. The series was always pretty fringe and niche to begin with, and the fact that the series talks over the player’s head in more than one instance probably didn’t endear it to very many people. While the plot is very compelling, I can see where the various ‘bait and switch’ subversions can get very intellectually impenetrable, with sometimes very little payoff. Take, for example, the case where one novel by the celebrated author Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, is heavily referenced in the first game. As it turns out, that reference is a red herring, with certain key plot points actually being derived from another Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse Five.
It was, therefore, a huge surprise for everyone when Zero Time Dilemma was announced, was actually completed, and ended up being a narrative return-to-form after the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey mess that the overarching plot of Virtue’s Last Reward ended up being. In this game, any pretense of a greater purpose for the puzzles and traps is removed and every choice is boiled down to a split-second decision. Every path, in other words, is focused on the snail.
Even though this is the game that wraps up many of the plotlines, there is one more initial assumption pushed onto the player: the assumption that there are no good people left in the world. By this point, all of the returning characters have had to do horrible things in order to survive, and even out of the new characters, most of them seem very, very ‘off’ in ways that amount to severe sociopathic issues. Out of the people trapped in this game’s puzzle complex, there is only one who seems like a good person, but because of everything else that has gone on so far, the initial reaction is to distrust him and his motives.
However, is it not the reaction of the people who are affected by a choice to blame the thing that caused the choice in the first place? Consider the story of the snail. In that story, is the snail to blame for the woman’s death? Or was the snail simply an innocent creature in the wrong place at the wrong time? There is yet one more assumption to be made, and that is that the snail is the thing in the situation that is immutable.
But everyone has a choice, including the snail. And the point that is being made, by Zero and by the games themselves, is that sometimes we are the woman, but far far more often, we are the snail.