Monday, July 18, 2016

VN Talk: Zero Time Dilemma - Non-Linear With Style

I'm a big fan of the Zero Escape series which, as a whole, combines escape room mechanics with visual novel scenes to tell a gut-pounding story of nine people trapped playing a sadistic and possibly lethal game intended to bring out the worst in human nature. And yet, no matter how dark the games get, there's always humor, and sometimes a few tears.

Zero Time Dilemma is the third and final game in the series, and just came out at the end of June. This is much sooner than I usually talk about games, but as mentioned, I'm a big fan of the series, so this was one of the few Day 1 purchases I make these days. Also, I'm aware that this game very nearly did not get made at all if not for the incredible amount of fan support, so I made it a point to contribute to the sales tally and let the production team know their work hasn't gone unappreciated.

There are spoilers for the first half hour of the game and spoilers for how the plot is structured, but I've left out specifics since it's the nature of the narrative I want to talk about here. I'll talk about plot specifics later.

Zero Time Dilemma is the story of nine people participating in a Mars simulation site in the Nevada desert, the kind where everybody is physically isolated from the outside world so researchers can track what people's behavior is like and how they deal with problems when trapped in an enclosed space for a long period of time.

The whole thing goes off the rails though, when the nine people wake up in three different cells and are informed by a robed man named Zero, who is wearing a plague doctor mask, that they are now to participate in the Decision Game.

This game takes place during a simulated blackout period between Earth and Mars, so the nine participants cannot expect anyone to be monitoring them or to be able to communicate with the outside world. Worse, they seem to have been removed from their facility and transferred to an underground shelter.

The nine people are divided into teams of three, named C-Team, Q-Team, and D-Team, after Carlos, Q, and Diana, who are designated the team leaders. Each team is isolated from each other in three different wards (Wards C, Q, and D) so there is no way for them to directly communicate except through a messenger dog that is small enough to move through the air vents.

Zero informs them that the only way to leave if is six people die. Each time someone dies, an X-Pass is revealed, and they need six X-Passes in order to open the X-Door which leads to the elevator which will take them outside. To jumpstart everything, Zero asks each team to vote for which team should die, since that will give them three passwords right away. Whichever team gets two votes will be executed. Choosing to not vote will result in two votes for not participating.

Each participant in the game is also given a watch they cannot remove, which has two functions; 1) to tell the time, and 2) to inject a drug cocktail that will knock them out and remove their memory of the past 90 minutes. Naturally, they're only allowed to be awake for 90 minute stretches throughout the game, so the injections will remove their memories of whatever they did. As a "thank you" for voting though, Zero will not inject the amnesia portion for the first knockout, so people will remember their vote and have to live with the consequences.

So that is the setup.

From there, the game assumes a nonlinear style of play, based on the four possible outcomes of the vote; everyone is spared (by spreading the votes), C-Team dies, Q-Team dies, or D-Team dies.

But the player is not allowed to proceed directly to the next segment after the vote.

Instead the game opens up "fragments." The player can choose which team they want to play as, and are presented with a number of fragments in the timestream with little to no context for what happens in them other than a thumbnail graphic from one of the scenes.

This fits in with the memory loss, since the characters wake up with no idea what has happened since the vote or if this is even the first time they've woken up. They have watches, so they have an idea of how much time has passed, but nothing more than that.

The game plays with this, with some fragments occurring later in time than others, or even at the same time for the same team (in which case they're in different timelines based on how the vote went). Since they're in a shelter and they're unable to see the sky, time is also relative, since they only know what the watch tells them and there's no guarantee it's accurate.

A lot of games like to advertise having a non-linear story, but really, no one quite does non-linear like Zero Time Dilemma's opening fragment scramble.

Sometimes a team will wake up and discover someone's missing and they don't know why. Other times they'll discover through announcements that someone on another team has died, and have absolutely no context for what happened, leading to rampant speculation over whether someone on another team can be trusted.

But the fun thing is, as the player, it's possible to start to piece together things before the characters, because the player has access to all the timelines. After completing fragments, it's possible to see a flowchart (with unplayed areas blacked out). As more of it gets filled in, players can guess from context where the latest fragments will eventually wind up.

Being a Zero Escape game, this also means that the different timelines do not exist in isolation and it's not just the player who has access to all the information regarding what happens. Certain characters can get flashes of insight into things that happened in another timeline, even if it did not directly involve them.

As awareness of this phenomenon grows, this culminates in both characters and players intentionally jumping timestreams in order to accomplish what could not be done in a linear existence, and many later segments cannot be played at all until the player has done some jumping. It's only by collecting information gained across different timelines that it's possible for everyone to unite and escape the Decision Game.

Though the game starts at the same place for everyone, each player's method of getting to the "real" ending is different. There are certain funnel points where the information is controlled and it's not possible for players to deviate much (you can tell from when people get stuck and run to the GameFAQs message board and they all have similar flowcharts), but for the most part, and definitely for the first half of the game, players will have wildly different experiences.

It's entirely possible to play a fragment from late in the timeline and then go back and see the events leading up to it, all without intending to do so. Other times, it's possible to make Choice A in one fragment and then end up jumping to the timeline of Choice B in another. (That was probably the most gut-wrenching one, when I realized why I was missing someone because I was in the timeline where I hadn't saved her life.)

The little epiphanies that happen throughout ZTD are what make the game fun, and though they don't snowball to quite the level of Virtue's Last Reward (my favorite of the series), it's a very unique storytelling style that relies on the player being active and engaged.

Most tellingly, the key to Zero's identity is never directly revealed to the player. A lot of times when information needs to travel timelines, the information is clearly marked as something the player needs to remember. Sometimes Zero will even explicitly say something to that effect. But to identify him, the player needs to be able to put 2 and 2 together rather than just plugging in various potential keywords.

This makes Zero Time Dilemma a lot of fun, because there's a strong element of mystery in additional to all the pseudo-science, mental time travel, and death game portions of the storyline.

Now that the series is over, I'm not sure where I find anything else like it.