The Greatest Games: Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012)

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012)
Developed by Chunsoft

General spoiler warning: Virtue’s Last Reward is the sequel to 999; the central concept of VLR is built around the plot twist of the first game. Since I cannot discuss any meaningful element of VLR without bringing up that twist, be warned that this will be spoiling that earlier game. (Surprisingly, I’ve managed to avoid meaningful spoilers for VLR itself – which, being a visual novel I can praise without narrative spoilers should itself be taken as a sign of its quality)

Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors started off with a killer concept and transcended to something else entirely with the revelation that the whole thing was a psychic experiment drawing information from alternate realities. The problem with this system was that only two of the paths really mattered, and they had to be completed in a specific order to reach the true ending. By acknowledging this concept from the beginning, Virtue’s Last Reward is better able to implement mechanics to make these various realities connected.

The big thing here is the inclusion of a flowchart which fills in as you stray down the various paths. The player can jump to key moments – the first game required starting from the beginning each time, which could get rather tedious even with a skip dialogue feature. Additionally, the puzzles down each path are completely unique. Where 999 had only two meaningful endings, VLR hides secrets down several paths. Basically, it’s a total overhaul of the first game, to the point that rereleases of 999 now include their own flowchart. It’s hard to explain the joy of experiencing a story with multiple canon endings.

By making each path count, there’s simply more time to make all these concepts and characters matter. Each of the nine characters, including the protagonist, are harboring some major secrets. No one is here just to spout off psychological concepts and game theory – they certainly still do that, but there’s a lot more going on as well. Which path you take first can completely change your perception of other routes; no two players will really experience the same narrative until it’s all tied together at the end.

Another key change is the addition of meaningful decisions. In 999, all you really had was which door to choose and making sure to hear a few important conversations. In addition to the doors, the characters of VLR are constantly forced into a game implementing the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each character starts with three points, and they will be released if they manage to score nine – whoever escapes first will seal everyone else inside. If their score hits zero, they are immediately executed. If they choose to ‘ally’ with each other, those involved gain two points. Both betraying results in no change, while being betrayed results in losing points while the traitor gains more. This gives the player more meaningful influence over the paths while also providing a better read on what these other characters represent. Who appears too trusting, and who will predictably stab everyone in the back? The game makes sure to play a few neat tricks here and there, just to keep the player alert.

The escape room segments continue to be a fun way to break up the tedium and stop this from being a traditional visual novel. They also help add to the Saw-inspired atmosphere. Most come for the story, but simply having the player actually interact with these puzzles is a convincing method to get inside the head of the protagonist. Otherwise, he would simply be a character you sometimes command, which can shatter the illusion of player-protagonist connection. This game wouldn’t work if you didn’t feel personally betrayed by these characters at key moments. This feeling is emphasized by the Prisoner’s Dilemma segments occurring between those who solved these rooms together.

I’d prefer not to dive into any more details – this is simply a brilliant narrative structure with tons of effective twists. The entire Zero Escape series feels like a key example of how video games can tell narratives in a way other mediums cannot, and Virtue’s Last Reward is the highlight.

The Greatest Games: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2009)

Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2009)
Developed by Chunsoft

Mixing the visual novel with the escape-the-room genre, 999 is a game that works in ways you would have never imagined. The basic premise suggests something from the most macabre horror movies. Nine characters are locked in a sinking ship and told they must play a deadly game. Explosives have been planted inside their bodies. They can only proceed through doors which require certain combinations related to numbers on their bracelets. When one player races ahead in a mad frenzy and gets himself blown up, their situation becomes clear. Despite sounding like the video game version of Saw II, 999 transcends this to somehow become one of gaming’s most compelling narratives.

The doorways are an ingenious way of including seemingly innocuous choices. Each door has a number from one to nine. To enter a door, the characters must add up their bracelets together to reach that number; if they go above ten, they instead add the digits (so 17 becomes 8 – the game luckily does the math for you). This results in only certain combinations being able to go through each door, with at least three being required. When you first begin and lack a read on any of the characters, whatever door you choose may as well be random. But the deeper you get into the game, the more you realize the need to learn more about certain characters. This, in turn, leaves another set of characters to their own devices in another room.

Unfortunately, the greatness of 999 is buried so deep within that it’s impossible to discuss much more without diving straight into spoiler territory. The escape room puzzles are fine, but this game achieved its greatness through the handling of its narrative – if you are not familiar with where this game is headed and do not want to ruin the experience, I suggest stopping here.

Your first ending will come shockingly early. Most likely, some character will suddenly start picking everyone else off. Naturally, this is very unsatisfying. The game will encourage you to play again, so you try a different path. As you switch up the doors, you will stumble into another ending. Certain elements will click together (…or you’ll consult a guide) and you’ll eventually reach one of the truer endings.

Somehow, neither of these paths are enough on their own; to actually finish this game, you need to learn a password in one and use it in the other. 999 taps into the meta in a very unique way; by playing the game over and over, the protagonist is somehow picking up on these alternate realities. This means, in the default state, survival is impossible by design. This also means all these other endings are semi-canon; they may not happen in the true ending, but Junpei has still experienced those realities. The fact the game ultimately offers an explanation for this is the cherry on top.

Video games have a hard time handling narrative; if it’s too straightforward, it sometimes feels like the game is randomly being interspersed with a movie.  Providing alternate progression can shake things up, but finding the balance between excellent writing and true variation is quite difficult. 999 simply decides to have it both ways. What you learn down these stray paths is as key as the final result. This game is loaded with great characters opening up your mind to distinct possibilities, and the individual moments really shine. Strangely, despite being a puzzle game, the most memorable is the easiest thanks to its integration with the narrative.

Alongside the more popular Portal and Bioshock, 999 stands as one of the great late 2000s games which truly questioned what it meant to tell a story in this medium. With a twist that blurs the line between player and character while somehow treating multiple endings as interconnected, 999 offers an unforgettable experience – but its greatest trick is using all these stray elements to keep casting the same characters in different lights.