Video Games are an inherently interactive medium. You have the ability to manipulate events in a way that movies, books, comics, podcasts, just about every other medium can’t even conceive of doing. Don’t like a character? Some games give you the option of skipping over their arcs. REALLY don’t like a character? Some games will even let you, ahem, remove them entirely from the narrative.
However, there aren’t a ton of games that lean into the possibilities of what you can do with something so connective, something so personal. Thinking back to several of Grant Morrison’s works, they take advantage of the fact they are comics and tell stories that would be nigh incomprehensible if you took it out of its medium. There really haven’t been that many games that use that interactivity in that same, clever way. One of the few that does do this is the Zero Escape series, a set of visual novels set to wrap up its story with the release of its third volume later this month.
The Zero Escape games feature multiple puzzle rooms and hours of dialogue, weaving philosophy, obscure scientific theories and some odd humor into some of the most unique games to be released. The premise of both currently released games,
999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward, have a group of nine people forced to complete a series of puzzles in order to escape the death trap created by Zero, their captor. Both games feature multiple paths you can take, which lead to many different endings, usually involving the death and/or dismemberment of the captured people. This is where it starts to break off from your standard visual novel fair.
Like most visual novels, 999 has a “good” end, but it’s not obtainable the first time you play the game. Should you make the right choices and go through the correct doors, the game cuts you off at a certain point as you can’t open up a certain object. You’re then encouraged to start the game over and go through a different series of doors, which leads to opening a safe with the relevant information in it. Ah, but here’s the catch: as events play out different in this playthough, there’s no way you can save everybody and it turns out to be another bad ending. Was it a trick? Not quite. By going in AGAIN and retracing your steps from the good ending, you arrive at the same part and suddenly remember the information from your previous playthrough and are able to open the locked object. How is this possible? 999’s story discusses the possibility of morph resonance, the idea that knowledge can be shared into a sort of “cloud” that certain people can access. Your point of view character, in a moment that can only be done in a medium where you can readily go down multiple routes of a story, is able to pluck the information from that failed playthrough and use it to keep things going. It’s a great narrative trick that is later usurped by one of the cleverest twists in a game that could only be done on the console that it is being played on.
The sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, begins with the assumption that you already understand the morphic resonance turn in 999. It presents a tree’d story path with multiple limbs that you have to play through in order to eventually reach the true end. It somehow leans even heavier on 999’s turn by having multiple instances of universe jumping to get information to solve crisis. While it lacks the gut-punch of an ending that 999 delivers, Virtue’s Last Reward makes up for it with one helluva ambitious story that goes to some pretty crazy places.
The final game, Zero Time Dilemma, looks to take all of these ideas and find some way to answer the dozens of questions posed in the previous games. Through the use of wibbly-wobbly time tricks, there are four ostensibly returning characters put into another messed up game involving puzzle rooms. However, instead of the internal bombs of 999 or the poisoned watches of Virtue’s Last Reward, this game has a drug administered every 90 minutes that will blank out their memories. With a premise like that, I’m expecting some wild stuff, since the only way that the Zero Time Dilemma characters can escape is by acquiring six passwords that are only revealed when somebody dies. Yikes.
If you’re interested in the series, it’s easy to get your hands on all three games. 999 was originally released on the Nintendo DS and was later ported to mobile phones sans the puzzle segments. If you have a Nintendo 3DS, you can play it on there without a problem. Virtue’s Last Reward was released for both the 3DS and the Playstation Vita and is available digitally and in stores. Zero Time Dilemma is set to come out June 28 for the 3DS and Vita and June 30th on PC.