A Story of Epigenetics, Morphogenetic Field Theory, and the Anthropic Principle
You wake up in a cell with two other strangers who you vaguely seem to know or remember. There’s weight on your left wrist. You look and find a large metal bracelet or watch-like device. You can hear conversations from nearby cells. You and eight others are trapped here. A mysterious figure appears in a plague doctor’s garb, reveals a coin, and invites you to play a game of chance. A coin flip will determine you and the others' future, and you get to call it: Guess correctly and you’re all free to go, nothing more happens. Guess incorrectly and all nine of you will be trapped in a bomb shelter with a lock to freedom that only opens when at least six people have died. So which side will it be? You’re the only one appointed to determine the outcome. What will you choose, and can you live with the potential consequences?
This is the opening scene of Spike-Chunsoft’s latest and final entry in the Zero Escape trilogy, and the first of the series to appear on PC. Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is a time traveling point and click puzzle adventure game with heavy emphasis on story and progression. Players will constantly find themselves in do or die situations with interesting conclusions. Just like past titles, the initial nine protagonists are pitted against each other in a struggle for survival where they must rely on each other, but can they trust each other? After all, at least six people must die before this door can open.
Many will die. No, you aren’t spared. Yes, it is brutal.
But how do we get there? ZTD follows a similar pattern throughout. Watch a cut-scene, solve a puzzle room, make a decision, and view your consequence. Although this may seem tedious or repetitive, the way these scenarios are laid out is what mixes everything up and makes it exciting to play. Keep in mind I said time traveling earlier, which means this isn’t a linear game, as multiple forks in the road can lead to various situations. Story sections are revealed in fragments through each of the three teams’ points of view with sections blocked off until the player has met the required conditions to advance. Once said conditions have been fulfilled, you either play the next scene or unlock another scene from another team’s point of view. This, in my opinion, is where ZTD truly shines as the player is always made curious of what is really happening, when are things really happening, and why are things really happening. The more that is revealed to you, the more you find you need to know. Story sections, while rather long, are engrossing and enjoying to watch. Each character within is well fleshed out, not just single dimensioned cut outs of video game tropes, but nuanced individuals with unique personalities who react and interact accordingly. Because of this, the robotic movements of the cell-shaded bodies of the cast is easy to overlook. Even the problems with many voice lines not syncing with mouth movements are more than forgivable thanks to the well-performed voice acting. Emotions are conveyed and moments of tension are discerned, making choices in ZTD feel like they have actual weight.
Puzzles, too, are an integral part of the experience. Because ZTD is non-linear, there is no steady ramp up in difficulty from one puzzle to the next, but all areas are challenging and well put together with the solution of one section of a room leading to the discovery of the next. I enjoyed the difficulty of these sections, and even had to break out the old pen and paper for a few of them. Although I was stumped for a while on a couple of puzzles, the answers were never obtuse or unknowable. With patience, persistence, and creative thinking, all thirteen rooms are possible without outside help. Unfortunately, most of my time wasn’t spent solving these puzzles but was involved in watching the previously stated cut-scenes. Yes, I did enjoy the story very much, but I was really hoping for more puzzles, or even a hard mode to replay sections of the game with more complicated solutions. This, of course, is my opinion, but one that I feel should be stated.
Following puzzle rooms are typically a “Decision Game” section. Here the characters are presented with a particular decision to make with stated consequences, so you know the stakes. These sections, while short, are another clever plot device that advances the story one way or another. While most of these have two possible outcomes, some have up to four (and one with a hilariously meta result). These sections are generally straightforward but sometimes feel like a double edged sword. Why? Because it’s a game of probability. Chance dictates outcomes, much like that first coin toss. Unfortunately, or fortunately, just because your chances are 50/50, you aren’t guaranteed to be right the second time if you were wrong the first time. Due to this, during my playthrough I had to repeat one section 9 times before I got the “chance” outcome. Thankfully, there're only two or three areas of ZTD that play out in this manner, and I didn’t need to repeat the other sections nearly as many times. Ironically, while forcing myself to repeat these sections to receive the desired outcome, I found an interesting discovery. Not all of the decision puzzles are predefined, and, as a result, many have multiple, fully voiced scripts that the majority of players will never hear. My puzzle’s answer may have been A, while your’s B, and another’s C, but we all had the same scenario, just different in game results. This is an amazing touch which transforms these from being standard single answered stages to involved sections of perception which require diligence on the player’s part.
Decision made, we’re now treated to seeing the resulting consequence. This takes us back to the wonderfully thought out story which does an excellent job of weaving between scenarios and eventually revealing who the man behind the curtain is, what everything is really about, and why we’re jumping from section to section. Pseudo-science explanations abound throughout, but while a dose of suspended belief is required, the player is forced to think about their current situation and all the choices that lead to them being here, both in the game and in reality.
ZTD does a remarkable job of tying up loose ends into a nice bow. A bow that is as enjoyable to see created as it is to see in its final form. Each ribbon overlapping until a solid form is shaped. Does the fact that the player is perhaps more a witness to these events than a constantly interacting participant in the formation of this make a significant difference? From my experience with ZTD, it doesn’t. More puzzles would be nice, but the lovingly crafted story flowing throughout is just as engaging and rewarding as the sections in between them, if not, more so. Zero Time Dilemma, as stated by its director, Kotaro Uchikoshi, was only created thanks to the response from its passionate fan base, and it truly shows. The diverse soundtrack by Shinji Hosoe made up of hopeful piano solos, soberly acidic guitar melodies, and almost tribal electronic beats help carry out repeated or emphasized themes from the story. The game also has an interesting mixture of traditional and unorthodox puzzles that break up long story segments and keeps the player physically engaged. It uses the integration of choices that actually matter and have a real bearing on how parts of the story are revealed or progress.
Ultimately, the realization of all of these parts are tied together by a cohesive story brought to life by excellent writing and capable voice actors. All of these elements were made possible by the devoted team that created them as a loving thank-you letter to their extremely devoted fans.
Whether or not you are familiar with the Zero Escape series, Zero Time Dilemma goes over and above what one can expect an interactive story to deliver. This isn’t a detached puzzle game that moves from one challenge to the next. This is a profound experience that stays with its players well after the credits roll. One that is tempting me to play the earlier titles to participate in the complete trilogy. Just remember: We might be in the history God abandoned, but never forget: Smiles look better on you! <3