I have a lot of interests. I don’t always keep up with all of them as well as I’d like. So I managed NOT to hear that one of my favorite game series got it’s long-anticipated third installment made until almost a year after publication.
Almost as good was the news that they’ve released all three games on PC through Steam as well as for PS4. So I figured now that the games are much more accessible than ever before, I should tell you why YOU SHOULD PLAY THEM.
But this is challenging. The Zero Escape games are some of the most difficult to talk about. It’s difficult to explain what they ARE and what they are ABOUT without major spoilers. And there are a LOT of potential spoilers. Moreover I think the enjoyment of playing the games would be seriously compromised if you are spoiled for some things.
So I’m going to try. But first I’ll just say that if you like video games with great narratives, lots of dense story, especially if you also like puzzles, you need to just run and go play them now. You’ll thank me eventually.
(Note: I haven’t played the third game yet, though it’s sitting next to me as I type. So I don’t know exactly what the story of that game is, though I have my suspicions about how it’s connected to the first two. If my suspicions are correct, you really need to play the first two FIRST. )
So first, let’s talk generally about what kind of games these are. They don’t fit perfectly into any one genre, as they are unique. They are weird little Japanese games. But they are part of a few different game traditions. First they qualify as adventure games, in the sense of classic graphic adventures (point and click adventures.) They have heavy emphasis on story and puzzles and not combat or reflex-driven actions.
Secondly they are visual novels. When 999 (the first game in the series) was released there were not a lot of visual novels published in the West. Now they are much more common to anyone familiar with small or indie games. Visual novels originated in Japan, and some people barely consider them video games. They are more like interactive novels. They feature lots of text to read, and the only actions the player takes are decisions that determine how the story plays out.
Dating sims are a popular subcategory of visual novel and probably the kind people are most familiar with. Most visual novels involve branching story paths with multiple endings. It’s expected the player will play the game over and over to make different choices and get different endings. (In a dating sim each ending involves winning a different romantic partner, usually.) Sometimes there is a “good” or “true” or “ultimate” ending and frequently the more difficult to obtain endings require you to have played through certain other story paths first.
The Zero Escape games are visual novels and follow most of these conventions, but they also have other features and, in my opinion, utilize the format better than any other games ever have. They are hybrid visual novel/puzzle games. So in addition to long segments of text-based story, there are also sequences involving puzzles that you have to solve in order to progress. I’ll talk more about the puzzles in a bit.
So what is the basic set-up? Let’s start with the first game 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. As the game opens you wake up and you’re locked in a small room. You realize after looking around that it looks like a crew bunk in some kind of metal-hulled ship. About that time, the round window bursts and water starts pouring in. You have to escape before you drown! The door is locked, but there’s a card reader next to it. So you have to hunt around the room and follow the clues to solve the puzzles to find the key card that will let you out before you drown.
While that’s a pretty intense way to start a game, I’ll tell you right away that you’re not under a time limit at any point in these games. Thankfully. Even when it feels like you are under pressure, you really can’t die by not solving puzzles quickly.
So eventually you solve the puzzles and escape the room, entering the first visual novel portion. You meet a bunch of other people who also woke up trapped in their own rooms. And eventually you have the situation explained to you by finding notes. There are 9 of you. You are trapped on a ship (it looks like a luxury ocean liner ala the Titanic). It is sinking and in 9 hours will go under. There are nine numbered doors throughout the ship, with the way off the ship being behind door number 9. There are complicated rules about when and how you can go through these doors, but basically you go through in groups and have to then solve the puzzles behind the doors to be let out again. If you break any of the rules about going through the doors, you will be killed.
The person behind all of this calls himself Zero. The rest of you have numbers 1-9. And very quickly you discover the part about killing isn’t an idle threat, because someone decides “Fuck this” and they die. Horribly.
So this is not a kids game, by the way. It’s very much a game made for adults, with adult language and a very dark, threatening tone. It’s not quite a horror game, but definitely relies on suspense and creepiness. You are trapped in a situation reminiscent of Saw or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, playing by the rules of a mysterious and dangerous puppetmaster under threat of death and with no escape except to keep playing the game.
So the important choices you make in 999 are who goes through which doors. Which doors you go through and who you are with determine what experience you have on each play through. There are 10 endings possible, with one actual goal ending. The real ending is much longer than the others. It’s not necessary to play through all the endings, though many of them are worthwhile either because they’re amusing or because they answer questions or tell you more about different characters. I think you only actually HAVE to play the game through 2 times to get the real ending, assuming you do everything in the right order from the beginning. The game allows you to fast forward through conversations you’ve seen before, automatically stopping when it gets to new dialogue, which is a very welcome feature. You still have to play through the puzzle rooms each time, though some are going to be different depending on your choices.
But often you can take big short cuts in the puzzle rooms if you’ve kept good notes. Which you will need to do. Many of the puzzles require pen and paper to solve or make note of pieces. Several of the rooms only require you to know the right code to leave, so if you write it down you can speed through on subsequent plays. I always finish the game with several pages of puzzle notes, though.
So let’s talk about the puzzles. I think the puzzles in the Zero Escape games are some of the best puzzles in the industry. I have played a lot of games with puzzles, because I play a lot of adventure games. But I’m not actually a huge fan of puzzles. I really don’t like Myst and all it’s many, many, many imitators. I don’t generally like puzzles for puzzles’ sake. I got bored of the Professor Layton games about halfway through the second game.
I am a frequent cheater at puzzles. If I start getting frustrated with a puzzle, I just reach for a walkthrough because it’s not worth getting pissed off. So it means something when I say I really, really like the puzzles in these games. I rarely reach for a solution unless there’s something like, urgh, math involved or I really am just completely stuck. And these puzzles are really well designed to be challenging but not frustrating. There aren’t any annoying timing puzzles or sliding tiles that take a million tries to get.
There are a wide variety of puzzle styles without many repeats (unlike, say the Layton games where I think there’s maybe 6 puzzles repeated over and over). Some are math based, some are games, some require looking all over the screen, some are codes to solve, but they are all way above average for game puzzles. I find them really satisfying to solve, so that you feel you’ve accomplished something when you finally open that door, without a whole lot of being stuck.
So I feel like that’s about as far as I can go talking about the first game without danger of spoilers. I haven’t gotten into characters, although the first game is filled with really memorable characters. Or the themes of the game and there are a lot of themes. You get a lot of info thrown at you about seemingly random things. Everything from supernatural legends, paranormal phenomena, weird bits of science and the occult, and lots and lots of philosophy. Some of it is based on the real world and some of it is not, and one of the accomplishments of the game is that I had to look most of it up to know if it was created for the game or something that exists outside it.
All of it ties together or at least most of it does, into the reason you’re in this weird-ass situation. There IS a point and a purpose, and I find it immensely satisfying. I honestly consider 999 one of the best narratives I’ve ever consumed, and moreover one that could only be told through the media of a video game. The very format of the game is what allows for the story to be told. It’s super brilliant and that’s all I’m going to say.
Ok let’s talk a bit about the second game, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. So this game is very similar to the first, except it’s much bigger in scope. Once again you (playing a new character this time) are kidnapped and forced to play a sadistic game under threat of death. There are 9 players with numbers and doors to be unlocked and puzzles to solve behind the doors. But it’s all a lot more complicated than the first time.
This time there are both pairs and solo players and who is paired with who switches from round to round. Instead of a player’s number determining which door they can go through it’s now done by color, and the colors change each round. And after each puzzle round, there is an “Ambidex game” where players are locked into little rooms to vote whether they will “ally” or “betray” the other people on their color team. Betrayal wins you more points towards escape than allying, but allying helps everyone gain points equally. And betrayal may take a person’s last points from them, at which point they die.
So the focus of this game is much more on the interpersonal dynamics and whether or not you can trust anyone. It’s a game with a lot more frequent interpersonal clashes and more frequent violence and death than the first.
Partly that’s because the number of endings has increased to 28 total possible. It actually feels like more than this, because if you go down a path prematurely, you will get a “to be continued” false ending. There are lots of game over paths, and 9 character endings. There is still one True ending, and in order to get it, you have to complete all other 8 character endings first.
To make it a little easier to actually get the ending, there is a branching flow chart of choices and you can move to any choice on this chart at any time. So you can make Choice A and see it play out and then skip right back and make Choice B and see how that works out. This means you never have to play any puzzle sections more than once. You can still fast forward through dialogue sections too. All told there’s something like 40 hours of gameplay involved, so it’s a pretty big game.
VLR has a much more sci-fi feel than 999, which had a paranormal/horror aspect. VLR deals with artificial intelligence, robots, quantum mechanics, apocalyptic diseases, terrorism, and themes that feel much more 21st century. It’s a less creepy game, in my opinion. (It’s also probably easier to spoil, so REALLY don’t look at anything about the game online. Like I just looked at a list of characters that gives away SO MUCH.)
It’s not clear for a long time exactly how the game connects to the first one. There’s the very similar game, the fact that someone named Zero is in charge again, and there are a couple familiar faces as characters. All is eventually revealed and the two are definitely connected. The second game ends with a LOT of exposition of some very complicated ideas. If the game has any fault it’s that the gigantic branching structure and the underlying premise are REALLY complicated and difficult to follow. I’ve played the game three times and each time when I start it I’ve forgotten exactly how everything fits together.
However, it’s complicated for a REASON because it’s a really unique take on…let’s say causality. It’s a story that really seeks to do quantum principles justice, so yeah, it’s complex, ok. (But it does feature one of the clearest explanations of Schrodinger’s cat I’ve seen.)
You may be getting the idea that these games are…thinky. They are. They tackle big concepts about the nature of reality and identity and human nature. They’re super ambitious and that means sometimes they don’t quite succeed at everything. I think VLR is a stunning game, but it’s also less successful than 999. It’s a bit over-ambitious and overly complicated. Eventually working your way though EVERY branch of possibilities starts to feel like a grind. (Also I should mention the original 3DS version of the game has a MAJOR bug that can wipe out your savegame if you save while in the wrong room. There’s only one save slot, so I lot over 30 hours of play the first time I played it. The fact that I wasn’t too upset at replaying it should tell you something though. To prevent the bug never save in any room but one of the big warehouses. I assume the re-release fixed this problem.)
Oh I haven’t mentioned that VLR featured a full voice cast. Not everything is voiced, but the visual novel segments are, and it’s very nicely done. The translations for both games are excellent and don’t feel like a shoddy or rushed localization.
So I guess that’s it for the first two games. I’m super excited to start Zero Time Dilemma. The last thing I had heard after VLR was that there was very little chance of the series continuing, despite the creator’s desire to do so. So it feels like a minor miracle to suddenly have the next installment.