Monday, August 15, 2016

5 Writing Lessons I Learned from Zero Time Dilemma

Zero Time Dilemma was one of my most anticipated games this year, being the third and final game in the Zero Escape series, but while I enjoyed it, it didn't quite live up to the hype. I suppose part of that comes from the long anticipation period I had after Virtue's Last Reward, which is one of my favorite visual novels of all time. ZTD had an incredible legacy to live up to.

So I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised that it didn't. I enjoyed it to be clear. I ended up taking the week after Anime Expo off from work and spent most of that in a gigantic bum rush going through Zero Time Dilemma.

But even though ZTD did some very cool things like the non-linear storytelling and the memory loss every 90 minutes, there were other things that felt weird or left me cold. So here are five writing lessons I learned from Zero Time Dilemma (spoilers included), starting with the negative stuff and ending on a positive note.

1) Hiding information for a surprise twist can backfire spectacularly, even if you've done it well before

This is an issue because of Q, and probably my biggest beef with the game. The nine people trapped in the Decision Game are divided into three teams of three, and the player is mislead by camera angles during the team leader announcement to think the boy with the helmet is Q, but Q-Team actually has four people on it. The real Q is not shown on screen until Sean (the boy) correctly identifies him as Delta, and the mastermind behind the game.

However, Q has been with the rest of Q-Team for the entire portion of the game. The reason the player doesn't know is because the camera angles never show more than his shadow and even his own team members barely mention him because they think he's blind and deaf and unable to be communicated with.

This was particularly annoying, because when I finally discovered Delta was the mastermind and had Sean call him out, the camera suddenly moved over to reveal him and I was shocked that there was an old man in a wheelchair who had apparently been sitting in plain sight of everyone except for me.

In retrospect I was able to find clues to his existence, but they are so minor as to be easily missed during a player's first time through. The characters are disoriented by their ordeal and enforced memory loss so the player tends to be similarly adrift.

Now, this trick can be done well, because Virtue's Last Reward did it earlier in the same series. VLR hid Sigma's physical age from both Sigma and the player (that he's an old man instead of a young one). But the reason it worked is because the game took place almost entirely in first person from Sigma's point of view, so what he didn't know, we didn't know. Also, Sigma's arms are cybernetic and clothed with artificial skin and muscle, so he didn't know the arms he was using were not his original 20-something year old limbs.

Finally, there were multiple conversations that Sigma had directly with other characters where they made fun of his age. Unlike Q, who was not party to the conversations that mentioned him, VLR's conversations were directly with the player character, so it's unsurprising that the insults are more memorable and taken more personally. At the time it's easy for the player and Sigma to write off other people as being rude, only for those clues to come back when the reveal is made.

2) Don't set up expectations you can't or don't expect to fulfill

Virtue's Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma were conceived at the same time, but due to VLR's poor sales in Japan, ZTD came along years later and only after a successful fan campaign on the part of the English-speaking audience. I'm not sure if that factored into the discontinuity, but there was a bonus post-game scene in VLR that was included for players who managed to get all the bonus files in the game.

Game writer Kotaro Uchikoshi came out last week and said that the Another Time ending in VLR is not canon, because not every player who reaches the end of the game will see it, but the thing is, it feels very real and sets up a lot of expectations for what needs to happen in ZTD.

We learn that a mysterious entity "?" might be what allows the existence of a timeline where Radical-6 never escapes. We learn that Kyle has presumably jumped back in time even though he doesn't have a body to go to.

VLR proper closed everything off really well, only for Another Time to pop open a lot of questions, so players went into ZTD expecting to see how "?" fits into everything, and looking for Kyle, only to not find anything of either, as though Another Time never happened.

It was unsatisfying without knowing this from the start, and Uchikoshi has since said that it was a mistake to connect Another Time to the timeline flowchart in VLR, which made it look like it was canon, when it shouldn't have been. Uchikoshi says it was included as a bonus, since at the time VLR was in production the 2011 Tohoku quake had just happened and he wanted to give a little hope to what was otherwise a grim ending.

I'm not sure if that was always his intention, it's possible he threw away Another Time later on when he figured he could make a better story without it, but it could have been handled a lot better.

3) Player/character disorientation works even better when something expected is missing

This was a fun one to experience in action.

We know the Decision Game involves teams of three, and the three characters on each team all know who the others are. They're already expecting to pass out after 90 minutes, and they're expecting they will have forgotten things since their last period awake. They have a lot of be anxious about.

So the first time I played a story fragment where C-Team woke up with only two people I feared for the worst. Junpei was missing and I didn't know why.

Worse, I was now being forced to solve an escape room to leave the pantry, when the biggest issue on my mind was Junpei's safety.

Much of the anxiety worked because even though this fragment can be played early in the game, Junpei was the protagonist from Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors which was the very first game in the Zero Escape series. Junpei and Akane's relationship and how they aided one another quite literally through time and space, was the most memorable part of 999, so when Akane wakes up and Junpei is nowhere to be found, we panic over his absence just as much as she does.

And of course the kicker is… right after we solve the puzzle, we do find out what happened to Junpei.

4) It's fun when one story makes you think of an older one in a new way.

The Zero Escape series has always contained some element of alternate universes, where the story branches depending on choices the player has made, but unlike most games which consider those exclusive from each other, Zero Escape has had information readily cross back and forth between them. Sometimes the information to solve a puzzle cannot be found in the timeline the player is currently in, but can be discovered in a different one that otherwise leads to an undesirable end.

When Carlos discovers his consciousness has hopped between two closely related timelines without understanding how, Akane chooses to explain the multiverse to him by using Back to the Future.

I watched Back to the Future ages ago as a kid, and though Marty McFly changes the future after his trip back in time, I didn't take the ending as much more than what I saw at face value. Marty went back in time where he started with a mousy "loser" for a dad, changed the past by making his dad cool, and went forward in time to discover his adult dad is a much more confident person.

Akane is not me though, and says that when she got to the end of the movie, she wanted to know what happened to the Marty of the second timeline, the one who grew up with the confident, rich dad, because that Marty must have existed, before the Marty we know goes back to the future. So whatever happened to the second timeline's Marty?

It was a good question to ask! And one I'd never thought of.

5) A little humor, even black humor, goes a long way the darker the main story gets

Shortly after Akane explains the multiple timelines to Carlos, she suggests the team hop timelines to escape their current predicament. This kickstarts a hilarious string of events where Carlos, Akane, and Junpei hop timelines with the specific intent of abusing their ability to do so.

It's a creative sequence because it's very much something a player would be inclined to do.

The reason for the humor comes from multiple sources. First is Akane's completely blasé approach to overloading a nuclear reactor specifically because it's easier to hop timelines when under duress.

Second is that when someone's consciousness jumps, they switch places with the version of themselves that they're going to, which means that if they're about to die, they're going to be killing their other self when they jump. While Junpei and Carlos are initially reluctant about swapping under those circumstances, they get comfortable fast, to the point they treat their alternate lives about as cheaply as the player does.

Third is that they choose very strange timelines to jump to while they have very little time to discuss anything resembling a plan. There's nothing that gets a laugh and a fair bit of concern like suggesting they jump to the timeline where they're all about to die in a hail of machine gun fire.

Fourth, Junpei wants to break the game by getting two of them killed in one timeline so they can use their X-codes (obtained on death) and then hopping to safety to another where they can use the codes to escape.

It's a very meta way of looking at his own existence, and involves him and Carlos sacrificing their other selves (who, by the way, are currently celebrating their amazing victory at rolling three 1s on three different 6-sided dice, a 0.46% chance) and jumping just ahead of Akane, who stays behind long enough to hear their X-codes before jumping herself, presumably leaving her other self bewildered and confused with the bodies of her friends.

Since you can repeat fragments whenever you want, going back through this sequence was one of my favorite parts to replay. It's so messed up, but it had me in stitches, and it's just what I needed since this is by far the darkest and most bloody installment in the Zero Escape series.