Zero Time Dilemma: Deconstruction of Choice in Video Games

I apologize that I haven’t been posting much lately. I’m kind of preparing to move and being in that phase leaves me feeling rather blasé about writing. I have found time, however, to play a new game from start to finish, and since I just finished it last night, I think I’d like to discuss it here. It just so happens the game is Zero Time Dilemma (3DS), the final game in the puzzle/visual novel Zero Escape trilogy. And today’s prompt is dilemma – what are the odds? I’m likely going to slip in and out of spoiler territory, so be forewarned.

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Not long ago, I talked about the second Zero Escape game, Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR). I had mentioned there that I had started Zero Time Dilemma (ZTD) and that I had mixed feelings about the game. Useful tools made available to you in VLR, like utilizing the top screen for displaying notes and informative files, had been rendered clunky and almost useless at times. The touch screen notepad had become nearly unusable, as it never seems to react to my stylus in any consistent way. Also, for some reason there is now an “ink limit” that the eraser also takes from. The only way to get more “ink” is to completely blank the page.

Choppy game elements aside, the plot is also something I found to be hit-or-miss at times. As in previous games, the story centers around 9 people who have found themselves trapped in a secluded location by a mysterious man calling himself Zero. The SHIFT/FLOW system returns, but this time around your group is split into 3 teams that must escape rooms and play “The Decision Game.” This game often involves a life-threatening situation, in which the team leader must decide how to react, whether it’s to save their team, choose who lives, or sabotage another team. The surviving members of the group will be able to escape once six people have died, and six passwords are revealed that will let them out of the one door back to the outside world. This is standard for this series, as is the meandering  use of scientific theories to explain the more supernatural elements of the game, like being able to send one’s consciousness to another history, effectively swapping consciousnesses and altering different timelines. You really need to suspend your disbelief to enjoy these games.

To be honest, what kind of wore me down most were the characters:

You had D-Team, headed up by new character Diana, and veteran Zero Escape characters Sigma and Phi. This was actually a cool set-up and even the eventual, timeline-skipping twist that takes place was handled pretty well. Honestly, though set up to be a cliché in a lot of ways, Phi is, overall, my favorite character in the series. Her enigmatic nature and attitude are well-suited to the story the game is trying to tell, and her backstory, only ever given to you bit-by-bit, is well structured. And because of the way she is linked with Sigma and Diana, the whole team feels interesting, and more importantly, necessary.

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She also got glasses between the future and the past.

Next up was Q-Team, with Q, Eric and Mira. Mira is a somewhat emotionless, well-endowed woman and Eric is her neurotic hanger-on. Both find themselves at a loss for how to deal with the strange boy in their group with a helmet locked onto his head. For everything wrong with their personalities, this group was actually my favorite, as they provided the most mystery. Every member was a new character and it’s clear that no two people like each other particularly well. Nobody in this group is ever up front with their history, making every time you play as them all the more interesting. There is real tension here, and questions you actually want answers to. Also Q-Team is the only one that gets two special, hidden endings.

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A team that really knows how to pique your Q-riosity.

Finally, though they are regarded as the first group, is C-Team, my least favorite group. C-Team features one newcomer, leader Carlos, and two characters who were involved in every game, Akane and Junpei. I hate them so much. Carlos is passable, even though he’s just a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, firefighter hero-type who wants to save everyone (eyeroll…) but Akane and Junpei, despite their establishment in canon, have some of the most clichéd, insufferable moments in the entire game. Akane is sensible, polite, but “unexpectedly” determined, while Junpei spends most of his time making snarky comments and being generally unlikable. These two have been implied to have a thing for each other for the entire series, and for whatever reason the game decides to act like Junpei proposing to Akane is some kind of suspenseful mystery. Their presence as the most overused character archetypes, the young adult pair that are just too smart and sensitive for everyone else, grates on my nerves so much, I actually was happy for the scenes where we saw C-Team get executed. They get better, but my opinion still remains relatively low.

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One of the most generic descriptions I have ever read, and yet he’s probably the best character in the team.

If it sounds like I hated the game, I actually did not. Overall I really liked Zero Time Dilemma, despite the fact that many times I found myself overly frustrated with a few obtuse puzzles and finding myself kind of hoping some of the characters would end up dead in each timeline, the game as a complete package is actually really satisfying. Though it does end on a cliffhanger moment like Virtue’s Last Reward, ZTD’s is far less of a tease, letting you guess what might happen rather than feel like there SHOULD be more game, but instead you’re just hooking for a sequel. ZTD has one of the coolest twists towards the end of the game that, I must admit, I did not see coming. I won’t say what it was, but I will say that no matter how flat or disparate each fragment of the game may seem, it does all come full-circle in a way you end up satisfied with despite yourself.

Awhile back, I discussed the concept of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story and gaming, and have discussed on occasion the merits of the visual novel. Ultimately, I argued, most games were either a linear or branching story flowchart and the rest is ever-advancing physics, graphics, and design. The direct nature of text-based or text-heavy games is actually the foundation of all interactive storytelling. Zero Time Dilemma turns this idea on its head. While the game features a literal flowchart of branching storylines and entangled timelines, it ultimately ends where it’s supposed to. The game manages to take away choice without you noticing – you’re too distracted by the story – and it’s kind of amazing. ZTD throws the concept of “canon ending” out the window, with all paths leading to some kind of history that plays out beyond the confines of the game.

Zero Time Dilemma deals with the notion of choice and how a single decision can create drastically different results. You actually realize seven different histories (and many more “bad end” histories), all of which wind up affecting one another, or at least explaining elements of other games in the series, but because your end goal is only realized by finishing every other timeline, the game is effectively linear. Through its premise and its design, ZTD creates the feeling of a choose-your-own-adventure game while ultimately telling one cohesive story. And it is a cohesive, if confusing, story, filled with everything soft sci-fi has to offer: time travel, remote consciousness, overly complicated technological puzzles… It’s engaging and fun.

Though the game definitely lags in the middle and has some parts that are difficult to swallow, Zero Time Dilemma has a strong beginning and end, and holds up as a decent game in its series. I still prefer Virtue’s Last Reward, but ZTD definitely has the better ending. What’s redeeming about ZTD is how it twists the notion of narrative-heavy gaming into something that, while in reality familiar, seems totally foreign. This is reflected in the game itself, as the characters face many different mysteries that are actually much simpler than they seem. If you get the chance to play Zero Time Dilemma (or already have), definitely reflect on the notion of video game storytelling. What’s old? What’s new? What works? What doesn’t? I think one of the best parts of ZTD is what it lets you ask questions about choice, both in the game, and in games in general.

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All images from Zero Time Dilemma’s website.

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