I recently wrote a piece on one of my favorite video game series, Zero Escape. Since writing that I’ve played the third game in the series for the first time.
The third game is called Zero Time Dilemma. It’s available for a variety of platforms, thankfully. I played it for 3DS, but it which platform you use shouldn’t affect the experience. (It’s also on sale right now in the Steam sale!) Once again, this is really difficult series of games to talk about without spoilers. I think the games are best experienced blind. But it’s particularly difficult to talk about the third game without spoiling the first two. So there will be vague spoilers here. You really DO need to play the first two games to appreciate this one. Luckily, they have re-released those two in a single package called The Nonary Games, available on multiple platforms.
I suspected that I knew when and where ZTD would take place within the world of Zero Escape. I was correct. This game is set up at the end of the second game Virtue’s Last Reward, so the third game really is a necessary final puzzle piece to the story of the series. From a narrative point of view, I found this pretty satisfying. After VLR, with the story left hanging, I had a feeling of disappointment, especially as no third game seemed forthcoming. This game leaves provides some needed closure.
The three games of the series take place at different points in time, but don’t occur in chronological order, so this third game actually takes place prior to the second. (But you have to play VLR first, you REALLY do.) And here is where I’ll get into spoilers. This series is all about jumping through different timelines, alternate histories, the branching decision tree of the multiverse. That’s the reason the story works so well as a video game, since you can die and then simply reload at an earlier point and do something different. And you have to do that to progress, because the characters are doing the same thing you are. I will also just say that this series has one of the most unique takes on time travel I’ve ever encountered. So that’s an aspect of the story.
Ok, but what about ZTD. First of all, it’s a significant break from the first two games in format. The first two games both consisted of visual novel segments and puzzle segments. These types of segments alternated, with the characters forced to enter rooms where they had to solve puzzles to escape. Only by moving through those rooms could they ultimately escape the sadistic game that Zero was forcing them to play. (Hence Zero Escape.)
One of the interesting things in this game series is that the mastermind “Zero” is different in each game and the purpose and intent of the game he’s forcing the characters to play is also different. This is especially true of ZTD. The ultimate goal for the players is still to escape, but the requirements to escape are much simpler. There are nine people trapped by Zero. When at least six of them are dead, the remaining players will receive code words to open the exit door. That’s it. The players aren’t required to enter puzzle rooms or work together in any way. They simply have to survive and others have to die. In addition, every 90 minutes they will be injected with drugs from their bracelets that will put them to sleep and make them forget the previous 90 minutes.
Which leads us to the most unique part of this game: you don’t play it in chronological order. After the initial intro, you are given a series of thumbnails of segments to play. You don’t know when those scenes occur or in what order. You can choose to play them in any order, although many are locked until you have done whatever is necessary to unlock them. And the characters don’t really know what’s going on either, since they most likely have had their memories wiped of whatever came before. So you might see a scene where a character is missing and no one knows why. And only later do you find out how that character died.
The 9 characters are also divided into three teams of three. The teams are kept separate for the most part, so each segment you choose will be a segment assigned to a team. There are still puzzle sequences to play through as the teams encounter different rooms that include puzzles, but you never know when you are going to be getting a puzzle room scene or simply a cutscene.
Speaking of cutscenes, there’s another big difference in this game. The first game was text-only, so you had to read the dialogue and click through it. The second game was fully voiced but still required you to click through each line by default, though you could set it to autoplay. This game doesn’t require you to click through character interactions, so they just play as fully voiced cutscenes. That means a large part of the game involves simply watching cutscenes. (I got a lot of knitting done while I played this game.)
So ZTD reminds me a lot of another game I discussed, Her Story. They are both games that primarily involve watching video of a story that plays out in a player-controlled non-chronological order. It’s an interesting way to tell a narrative, and one that is pretty unique to video games. But it makes for a fairly passive experience compared to a lot of games, so it’s best to be prepared for that.
In addition to the floating thumbnails to choose your scene to play, you also have access to a branching flowchart like in VLR. But you don’t know where the segments you choose are going to fall on that flowchart, so you are still choosing mostly blindly. And there are also some deceptive aspects to the flowchart, like parts of the game that aren’t shown on the greater chart and others I’m not going to mention. You can’t rely on the flowchart to figure out what’s going on, is my point.
The overall mood of the game is very dark. I found it to be the darkest and scariest of the three games. Though I know I also found the first two very suspenseful and unsettling the first time I played them. All three games are very good at invoking the feeling of vague dread. But this one, partly as a result of the random order of scenes, takes it up a notch. Not knowing what kind of scene you’re getting next, or how far down the tree it might be, means never knowing if you’re going to get some calm conversation, or characters murdering each other, or a tense puzzle environment. It keeps you on edge, and there were times I stopped playing rather than starting a new scene because I just didn’t feel up to what might happen.
Because this game is way more violent and deadly than the other two. The whole point is to get the characters to kill each other, after all. So they die a lot more often, and you are put in the position of having to decide whether to kill people quite a lot. The other two game involved the threat of death, but it was death that just happened to players, usually done by Zero. This game is about murder and betrayal and causing others’ deaths to save your own. So yeah, it’s pretty dark. I stopped playing this at night for a while because I was getting so creeped out. (And I admit I’m a wuss. I can’t take a lot of horror games because I get so into games in general.)
So let’s talk characters. Several familiar characters from the first two game are present: Junpei and Akane from 999 and Sigma and Phi from VLR. The rest are new characters, and I think they did a really good job at making interesting characters for this game. That’s really one of the strengths of the entire series: giving you a large collection of characters who you get to know bit by bit and come to care about or at least have strong feelings about. Initially I thought some of the characters in this game were a bit bland. They don’t have the strong, unusual character design that’s present in VLR or 999. They look more like normal people. But as the game played out, I came to really like many of them and realize there was more to them than it appeared at first. Some of these characters have big secrets, and the payoff hits home.
999 had an air of antique spookiness, VLR was futuristic sci-fi creepiness, and ZTD is more in line with VLR. It’s a very sci-fi environment in many ways. The tech on display is definitely futuristic but still believable for a game that takes place in the near future. Except for one very notable exception. I have a feeling that this one important element of the story is a sticking point for the suspension of disbelief of many players. I’m not going to explain it, but you’re basically asked to believe in the existence of mysterious alien tech in order to make the underlying plot of the game work. It’s a pretty big ask, and it might be too much for a lot of people to swallow.
Ultimately, I was mostly ok with it. The plot worked for me on an emotional level, so I was able to handwave the sci-fi implausibility. This is a very emotional game, in the way that a lot of visual novels rely on emotional payoff to make an impact. I think it succeeds very well on that level. It also succeeded for me on a plot twist level, in that there is at least one MAJOR MAJOR spoiler I did not see coming at all, and it was a really big “gotcha” moment. Again, I can see some people feeling it was an unfair twist, but I look forward to replaying this because I remember some hints throughout.
So let’s talk about actual gameplay. This is where the game is a little weak. Not just because so much of it is cutscenes, but because moving through the game and progressing can be freaking DIFFICULT. The game does not really explain how to play itself very well at all. At first things are mostly smooth, and you can select which scenes to play until you run out of unlocked content. But eventually you’re going to run out of available scenes and nothing new will be unlocked. Unfortunately this is going to be the state of the game for much of your playtime. If you’re going to finish the game, you’re going to spend a lot of time stuck, trying to figure out what you could possibly have failed to do.
Needless to say, this is pretty frustrating. One of the big failures is that there is an early decision point in which each team has an A or B choice. I played through both choices for each team, thinking I’d explored all my options. That’s all that’s shown on the story flowchart. But in fact, the game requires you to explore ALL the permutations of choices among the three teams. Not only do you have to play all of the scenes available, you have to play them multiple times in the right order. There is a little icon on the flowchart screen that lights up if you do it right, but I didn’t notice it until I found that information on a forum.
I spent a lot of time reading on forums how to progress. Because you can do things in very different orders, often you can’t move on until you do things in the right order. So when you get stuck you almost have to revisit a bunch of previous scenes to see if you get other options now. Or turn to google. Several times you are asked to input a response and given a blank entry you can type into. Progressing relies a couple of times on putting the right response into the blank and it’s really not obvious what the answer might be. At least twice the outcome of a scene depends on pure chance. So you have to keep replaying until you get the right outcome, and it could take several times to win the coin toss or roll the dice correctly. (Consider that a hint. Yeah those dice majorly tripped me up.)
This is the major flaw of the game: it’s complex and confusing and often frustrating. The main challenge of the game is figuring out how to get the game to move forward, how to unlock the next cutscenes. And that’s a valid alternative game mechanic, but it isn’t implemented perfectly here. It’s not like I just got completely, totally stuck once, but over and over again, where I would finally figure out what I was supposed to do, which would unlock one or two segments, and then I’d be stuck again.
So I understand why this game may have had some mixed reception. It’s a weird, ambitious kind of game, and it’s only ever going to have a cult following. The whole series is like that, although this may be the most flawed of the three.
And yet, I still think it’s really good. As a story, as an emotional experience, it’s really, really strong. The game forces you to make every choice you’re faced with, and very often I really, really didn’t want to make those choices. I didn’t want to be responsible for some of these characters’ deaths. (Other times I felt more cavalier about seeing what horrible outcome the game had in store for me. “Let’s see what happens if I fuck everyone over!” Seriously, though, there is some BAD SHIT that happens in this game. This is a game for people who like emotional trauma.)
The game does an excellent job of making you care, though, and this game, maybe more than the other two, makes all the endings feel consequential even if you’re just going to go back and do it differently. There are really huge things you only find out in side paths, for example, that none of the characters may know at the “true ending” of the game. That’s neat. Other times you have to go through some of the most traumatic moments in order to have the information to get a better result (this was also prevalent in VLR.) A game over screen (of which there are many) doesn’t mean you definitely were wasting time going down that path.
This game affected me, and left me feeling pretty satisfied. It also took me a while to process it. I’m looking forward to replaying it, but it was frustrating and stressful enough that I’m not going to do it right away. I think this game and the series as a whole is very, very worth playing, especially if you’re someone interested in novel storytelling and games as story medium.
With all the emphasis on story, emotion, and decision making that has been prevalent in games in the last few years, maybe more people than ever are primed to enjoy them. I think they are games that really reward the time put into them, and have high replayability. Ultimately, I am satisfied and pleased with ZTD, and even my frustrations weren’t enough to dull the impact of the game on me. The game also does a pretty good job of resolving the major threads of the Zero Escape story, while still leaving some room for the story to continue in the future. Personally, I feel like this story is probably done, but I’d love to see the creators make other, similar games without the increasingly complex backstory of this universe.