Game, Bloody Game: The Zero Escape Legacy
Trapped with a group of strangers who can influence whether you survive with your sanity barely intact, or be brutally killed in a plethora of sadistic executions – this is the conundrum the Zero Escape series constantly taunts the player with. For the uninitiated, Zero Escape is a visual novel/puzzle series known among fans for its penchant for insane sci-fi quantum physics theories involving alternate timelines, an intricately woven narrative requiring multiple playthroughs, and grisly depictions of death that would make Game of Thrones blush. All of this originated from one game on the Nintendo DS back in 2009.
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors was the awkwardly-titled first entry in the Zero Escape series which made its debut in Japan on the DS. Set in a replica of the Titanic, the characters of the game had been kidnapped and forced to play the deadly “Nonary Game” to escape with their lives and uncover the mystery of why they were specifically chosen to participate. The game played like an interactive choose-your-own-adventure book intermittently broken up with cleverly-designed escape-the-room puzzles. In order to see the “true ending”, players had to replay the game multiple times and use knowledge from each path to discover everyone’s secret motives – most endings resulted in betrayal and visceral depictions of murder.
Developed by Chunsoft – the same developer behind the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, of all things – despite positive reviews, 999 did not sell well, meaning it was a miracle it was localised for the west, let alone the fact it generated two sequels. The game was picked up by Aksys Games, who took the gamble of translating and distributing the game in North America. Surprisingly, the game became a niche hit, gaining a loyal following due to its strong writing and characters. 999 was never officially published in Australia, but was playable via imported copies.
Director and writer of the Zero Escape series Kotaro Uchikoshi only intended for 999 to be a standalone title, but its popularity in the west resulted in an equally mind-bending sequel: Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR). VLR came to the 3DS and Vita in 2012 featuring an enigmatic cast of new and returning characters forced to play a variation of the Nonary Game. The story ended on a cliffhanger, and it was confirmed there would be a third and final game to wrap all of the loose ends up.
Funding problems halted the final game, resulting in fans joining to save the series and start a social media campaign known as “Operation Bluebird”.
After more than a year of being suspended in a state of flux, Zero Time Dilemma was revealed to be the title of the third and final game in the series, and launched earlier this month on 3DS, Vita, and Steam on PC for the first time. This was the first Zero Escape game to feature fully-animated cutscenes, instead of the predominantly static art style from the first two titles. The intricate, often convoluted, but always masterfully conducted Zero Escape orchestra had finally reached its crescendo.
Despite including the games on other platforms – including an iOS port for 999 – the Nintendo handhelds remain the definitive way to play the series. The visuals look moderately sharper on other platforms, but the ease of navigating puzzle rooms, using items, and writing notes is much easier using the stylus and bottom screen of the DS/3DS. Uchikoshi stated the dual-screen was core to the experience of 999, and even mentioned the possibility of the Wii U when probed about a home console release. Considering the visuals, while completely functional, are not the main attraction of Zero Escape, Nintendo is where this series reigns supreme.
Many popular visual novel games are not on Nintendo consoles, from Stein;s Gate to Ever17 (another Uchikoshi game, bizarrely enough), Danganronpa, and even last year’s successful Kickstarter to port the Muv Luv series to the west. These exclusions defy logic considering how well-suited the DS and 3DS consoles are for the genre. Factor in popular Nintendo handheld franchises such as the Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton series, and even the oft-overlooked Hotel Dusk, the absence of more visual novels on Nintendo consoles does not add up. Hotel Dusk is a perfect example of how the dual-screen nature of the DS lends itself to a book-like narrative. The game even required the player to hold the console sideways like a book to play the game. These Nintendo games are not visual novels in the strictest sense of the genre, but do contain similar presentation and text-dense elements.
999, found itself in rare company at the time of its release in North America. It was the eleventh DS title to receive an ESRB rating of “Mature”. Right up there with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
A visual novel with an “M” rating in the US – it does not get any more niche than that. How did it become the cult success it is today?
There’s an adage among filmmakers and screenwriters, known simply as “story, bloody story”. This refers to the fact that people will put aside preconceived ideas and hesitations about low-budget effects and technical shortcomings as long as the story is bloody good. In the case of 999 and the rest of the Zero Escape series, people were willing to play a relatively unknown genre on a console not known for its dark games because the story was very bloody good.
Ask anyone who has played the game and they’ll recount feverishly their favourite characters, emotional moments, and falling victim to the narrative’s sleight of hand time and time again. Many gamers will point to big-budget blockbusters – such as Uncharted or any of the BioWare games – as exemplars of the pinnacle of story in video games. There is definitely a market for Zero Escape, and the smaller-budget games with their expectation-defying narratives – maybe even a need for them.
There’s a great quote from Uchikoshi about his work which points to his place in the upper echelons of video game writers:
“Once a piece of work leaves the hands of a writer, it becomes the readers’ work, who is the receiver.”
He recognises the importance of audience interpretation in video games’ narrative – a heartening view to have in the unique interactive medium these games exist in. Many game storytellers can be on the nose and fall into the habit of spoon-feeding their audiences.
Nintendo and Aksys can boast to giving birth to one of the most innovative and riveting narratives in video games to date.
Perhaps an alternate timeline exists where the Zero Escape series was never created. To the people who may live in such a timeline: life is simply unfair, don’t you think?
If you’re keen on any of the games mentioned in this article, luckily they’re mostly easy enough to find.
- Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors on Nintendo DS
- Very rare in Australia, but can be found in Japanese niche stores, such as Shin Tokyo in Adelaide
- Can be imported from Asks website.
- Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (3DS)
- Available on eShop for $39.95
- Very limited preowned copies available at EB Games
- Zero Time Dilemma (3DS)
- Available on eshop for $62.00
- Listed on Ozgameshop (out of stock) for $60.99