Franchise Festival #42: Zero Escape

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be unlocking the story of Zero Escape, a trilogy of visual novels released in the 2000s and 2010s by Spike Chunsoft. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Background

Chunsoft was founded in Japan in 1984 by Koichi Nakamura. The studio would go on to develop games in a variety of genres during the 1980s and 1990s, becoming most notable as the creator of the first five Dragon Quest games. These would come to be primarily associated with Enix, publisher and owner of the Dragon Quest intellectual property, but were originally developed by Nakamura’s small studio.

Dragon Quest II. Credit: MobyGames

Following Enix moving Dragon Quest core title development responsibilities to Heartbeat for Dragon Quest VI (1995), Chunsoft began to focus more consistently on its roguelike Mystery Dungeon series. This began with Dragon Quest spinoff Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeonin (1993), but would be applied to any number of IPs over the following decade. The basic concept – turn-based overhead navigation of a character through randomly generated dungeon maps punctuated by combat – was highly popular in Japan, leading to the success of Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (1995), The Nightmare of Druaga: Fushigino Dungeon (2004), and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team (2005). Each of these Mystery Dungeon sub-series would be followed by multiple sequels.

Shiren the Wanderer. Credit: MobyGames

Throughout its entire development history, Chunsoft had also been slowly acquiring a reputation for high-quality visual novels. This genre is characterized by extensive narratives, heavily developed characters, and an emphasis on plot over gameplay. The player primarily interacts with the software by making choices for his or her protagonist. These had originally been inspired by Western text adventures of the 1970s and early 1980s, but these had lost their audience in North America with the rise of graphics-oriented video games in the mid-1980s.

428: Shibuya Scramble (the 2018 English-language re-release). Credit: MobyGames

The niche genre maintained a foothold in Japan, however, flourishing among dedicated fan communities throughout the 1990s. Visual novels had not been Chunsoft’s primary focus during the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps due to the inherent challenges localizing the text-heavy genre outside of Japan, but this trend began to change with the release of Imabikisō (2007) and 428: Shibuya Scramble (2007). Though these remained locked to Japan – at least until the 2018 North American and European release of 428: Shibuya Scramble – Chunsoft’s next visual novel would receive a worldwide release less than a year after its initial publication in Japan.

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (2010)

Kotaro Uchikoshi was developing a mobile port of Chunsoft’s Banshee’s Last Cry (1994) when he was asked to become a writer on 428: Shibuya Scramble. Instead of pursuing this opportunity, Uchikoshi made the case for a visual novel that tackled complex philosophical topics and integrated puzzle elements; the resulting game would be appealing to a limited visual novel audience, but would likely attract a new audience more interested in puzzles than plot. Chunsoft agreed to the project proposal and hired Uchikoshi to direct it in 2008.

An opening cutscene sets the tone for this tale’s high-minded peculiarity. Credit: Oni Black Mage

The veteran writer had been working on digital board game adaptations and dating simulations during the 1990s and 2000s, and he was eager to try a significantly more ambitious approach to game design. The project began as an attempt to explore the concept “Where do mankind’s inspirations come from?” This led Uchikoshi to biochemist Rupert Sheldrake‘s work on the morphogenetic field theory; Sheldrake’s parapsychology research is intended to support the hypothesis that memory is inherent in nature. The concept has a lengthy history in the 20th Century, but Sheldrake’s specific approach was influenced by Hinduism and Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.

We have to talk about that Telepathic Mechanism. Oh, you know the one. Credit: Oni Black Mage

With regard to its actual narrative, 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors was supposed to begin with a scenario where a young man and woman wake up handcuffed to one another in an unfamiliar setting. Elements of this basic plot outline would remain in the final game, but the physically-linked protagonists would be abandoned early in development. Adopting puzzle influences from various websites and earlier software in collaboration with fellow Chunsoft staffer Akihiro Kaneko, Uchikoshi devised the Nonary Game as his title’s structural foundation.

A puzzle inspired by Tiger’s classic handheld game Lights Out (1995). Credit: World of Longplays

The Nonary Game, a deadly Saw-like scenario in which nine people must escape from a mysterious location in which they’ve been imprisoned by a masked figure called Zero, frames protagonist Junpei’s struggles in 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. He awakens at the start of the story with no memory of how he arrived in the bowels of a sinking ship. Slowly remembering the circumstances of his kidnapping, Junpei joins eight other individuals who have been similarly trapped. The group collectively solves puzzles to navigate their environment even as their numbers are whittled away through grisly means. To ensure that the player is aware of the stakes, one of the nine is killed almost immediately after the group’s first meeting.

The player can rotate puzzle objects on the lower screen while observing the room above. Credit: World of Longplays

Puzzles are widely varied, including concepts as disparate as the physical manipulation of objects using the Nintendo DS touchscreen and standard Sudoku. Few are simple, and most require dedicated critical thinking to resolve. Even navigation centers on numerical puzzle-solving, as each character is equipped with a bracelet numbering one through nine; this determines who can enter which numbered door, as the collective bracelets when entering a door are added together and the resulting two digits of their sum are added together again to produce a final single digit. This digital root must be identical to the door number through which they moved. This has the effect of enhancing tension as certain doors are rendered inaccessible, but also serves to break up the cast and force conversation between different characters.

Math-ing in a game? Poppycock! Still, you gotta do math to get through the doors. Credit: Oni Black Mage

Interspersed with the puzzles are lengthy dialogue sequences which both develop characters and begin to provide context on why these nine individuals were forced to participate in the Nonary Game. For better or worse, dialogue occasionally moves into purely conceptual territory. As sometimes happens in the Metal Gear Solid series, characters will expound at length on seemingly tangential topics. In 9 Hours, 9 Person’s, 9 Doors, these subjects include (an uncredited) Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-nine, a mummy on-board the Titanic, and time paradoxes, among others. The languorous pace of conversation can sometimes verge on the absurd, especially in light of a nine hour clock ticking down the time remaining before the ship sinks; this clock, mercifully, advances at the convenience of the plot rather than proceeding in real time. The extensive dialogue is therefore not a gameplay concern, but may reduce the player’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Whoa, Number Nine’s gone mad! Credit: Oni Black Mage

Gameplay occurs across two screens in the original Nintendo DS release. The top screen depicts characters talking or action occurring, while the bottom screen facilitates puzzle-solving or navigation. Progression is similarly bifurcated into puzzle sequences, which play out as characters attempt to escape rooms into which they have been locked, and text-based story sequences. The latter sometimes include action represented by still 2D images.

There’s a lot of backstory to resolve, even if the Nonary Game seems reasonably straightforward at first blush. Credit: Oni Black Mage

Nine endings are available to adventurous players. One “true” ending is more complete than the rest, explaining the background to the Nonary Game and tying up the vast majority of dangling plot threads. The other nine endings tend to feature one or more characters going mad and murdering the others. It is impossible to achieve the True Ending without first achieving one of several bad endings, ensuring that the player always has to replay portions of the narrative and make different choices. On any given run through the ship, the player can only access a subset of the total puzzle rooms available; this makes a portion of any run relatively unique.

Junpei’s last sight is rarely a positive one in the bad endings. Credit: World of Longplays

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors was surprisingly popular outside of Japan. Published by Aksys in North America, Uchikoshi’s gamble paid off. Critics praised it, though they questioned the value of repetitive dialogue and puzzle sequences on subsequent playthroughs. Sales were not high overall, but were uncharacteristically high for a visual novel in North America. This prompted later ports of the game – notably to mobile devices – and a multi-platform sequel in 2012.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012)

Kotaro Uchikoshi had developed 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors as a standalone narrative, but its success prompted Chunsoft to pursue a sequel shortly after the game launched in North America. Uchikoshi successfully pitched turning the game into a trilogy, with the second and third installments being produced simultaneously. Development on Virtue’s Last Reward began for the DS before being shifted to the upcoming Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita platforms.

That rascal Zero is kidnapping people again. Credit: BuffMaister

Taking criticism under consideration, Uchikoshi sought to create a better version of what he had envisioned when developing 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. Many Japanese players had apparently avoided the preceding game due to its frightening appearance and intensity; the sequel was consequently designed to focus on exploration rather than suspense. Additionally, though the number of endings is increased from nine to twenty-four, a new flowchart menu called FLOW aids players seeking to experience each ending without replaying dialogue or puzzles completed in prior playthroughs.

The aptly titled FLOW system keeps replays running smoothly. Credit: MobyGames

Due to concerns about how the 3DS would handle 2D illustrations, Chunsoft opted to render characters as fully textured 3D models in Virtue’s Last Reward. Similarly, significant story moments play out in full-motion cutscenes for the first time. This resolves some players’ concerns that the 2D art of 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors was too stiff. Voice acting is introduced, enhancing the player’s connection to Virtue’s Last Rewards’ characters still further.

Characters speak early and often, popping up alongside whatever the player character is examining when they have relevant input. Credit: BuffMaister

The morphogenetic field hypothesis remains central to the game’s narrative despite Sheldrake no longer being explicitly referenced in the text. In addition to this influence, Uchikoshi makes use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This philosophical puzzle, in which a person is forced to decide whether he or she would betray an accomplice for a reduced prison sentence while knowing that the accomplice simultaneously doing the same will result in strong sentences for both, plays out in-game through the so-called Ambidex System. The player is regularly confronted by the opportunity to betray or support an ally, at which point two timelines diverge. The FLOW system permits players to instantly explore what would have occurred if he or she made the opposite choice. As with 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, gameplay mechanics are integrated tightly with the thematic content.

Characters are fully modeled this time. Some celebrated this change in direction, while others mourned the loss of the former game’s distinctive 2D sprites. Credit: BuffMaister

The new player character is Sigma, a figure specifically crafted to suggest as little personality as possible. He speaks through text but lacks the voice acting that all other characters share. Uchikoshi intended players to see Sigma as an avatar for themselves, much like a silent protagonist in a role-playing game. The remainder of the nine Nonary Game participants are based on the Enneagram of Personality, a schema of personality types categorized by Bolivian philosopher Óscar Ichazo.

Zero sure looks different this time around. Admittedly, this is just a pre-programmed AI called Zero III representing a human antagonist, but it’s still pretty silly. Credit: BuffMaister

The narrative is quite similar to the series inaugural entry, at least in the early hours. Sigma and eight others have been kidnapped, outfitted with numbered bracelets, and must work together to escape their captivity in an isolated warehouse full of puzzles. They are presided over by Zero III, an artificial intelligence represented to the other characters as an animated rabbit. Failure to complete the Nonary Game while abiding by its rules is punished by grisly death.

Puzzles are as varied as ever. Credit: BuffMaister

The game was critically acclaimed, perceived as an unmitigated improvement on the already-engaging foundation established by its predecessor, but this did not translate into strong sales. Virtue’s Last Reward was a commercial failure in Japan, a historically reliable audience for visual novels. This surprisingly poor performance led Chunsoft to second-guess its continued funding for the Zero Escape series, abandoning any further development on the trilogy’s planned conclusion. Uchikoshi’s forward-thinking decision to begin developing the next game during the production of Virtue’s Last Reward was not enough to prevent his next intended title from being axed.

Zero Time Dilemma (2016)

Luckily for fans left waiting for a conclusion in the highly suspenseful Zero Escape saga, the franchise would not remain silent for long. Those very fans would play an active role in getting the project back on track after Uchikoshi’s 2014 Twitter confession indicating that the sequel had been cancelled. Within weeks, an internet movement called Operation Bluebird had mobilized around expressing support for a new entry in the series.

Zero has changed again. His fashionable new plague doctor mask reflects the third series entry’s focus on a virus. Credit: MobyGames

Studio Chunsoft had merged with Spike in 2012, shortly after the release of Virtue’s Last Reward, to become Spike Chunsoft. This newly reorganized studio would be the recipient of numerous petitions concerning Uchikoshi’s proposed game. Uchikoshi himself briefly explored backing the game using Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform established in 2009, but believed that the third title in a trilogy would not attract enough attention.

Typing in the name of which character will die is somehow more chilling than choosing between multiple choice options. Credit: MobyGames

According to a 2016 interview with Kotaro Uchikoshi and series composer Shinji Hosoe, fan support ended up convincing Spike Chunsoft to green-light the final Zero Escape game. Specifically, Uchikoshi opened his last pitch to the studio with a fan rendition of the series’ theme song that had been posted to YouTube. Swayed at last by the international fan community in spite of a limited Japanese audience, Spike Chunsoft agreed to back the project. In mid-2015, American publisher Aksys announced that the game was finally in development.

Puzzle designs are inventive and reflect the ambition of two puzzle designers working concurrently. Credit: MobyGames

Zero Time Dilemma is similar to its two predecessors in the fundamentals while representing a major cosmetic evolution. The player again takes on the role of a character trapped by an unseen enemy and forced to cooperate with others in an attempt to avoid death. At the same time, he or she seeks to piece together the more complex mystery of why the characters have been trapped. Choices are made throughout the story that lead either to a satisfying ending or a grim fate for the player character. The game is set between the events of 9 Hours, 9 Person’s, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward.

The flowchart showing overall progression reveals disparate paths trod by each team. Credit: MobyGames

Interestingly, the player now controls three separate individuals throughout the narrative. Each leads a group within the confined setting. Chapters are similarly divided, with each representing ninety minutes of in-game time. In its most experimental twist, Zero Time Dilemma permits the player to experience chapters outside of their chronological sequence; characters lose their memories after completing each chapter, and the player selects chapters without any foreknowledge about where they occur on the overall timeline. The narrative is significantly more complex as a result, with the player seeking to piece together the non-linear plot as he or she discovers new information.

Chapters are rendered as fragments chosen by the player from a menu without knowing their content or timeline placement. Credit: MobyGames

Puzzles are more ambitious than ever. Rather than developing these in collaboration with Spike Chunsoft’s Akihiro Kaneko, the puzzle designer for the previous two games, Uchikoshi hired two new employees to independently devise puzzles. One of these individuals – Koichi Yotsui – was responsible for developing more surprising unconventional puzzles while the other – Yudi Sazaki – hewed more closely to the design template established by mobile “escape room” games. The integration of new creative voices ensures that players who have already completed 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward still regularly face challenging brain teasers as they guide their characters through the setting: an abandoned nuclear shelter.

The interiors may be a bit dark and gloomy, but are livened up with splashes of color. Credit: MobyGames

That setting was apparently inspired by the financial hurdles encountered when creating the game. At an interview with Gamasutra during the 2016 Game Developers Conference, Uchikoshi admitted that budget constraints were the main reason that he returned to a drab interior space. This did not reflect poorly on Zero Time Dilemma‘s visual design, however: its cel-shaded characters are more detailed and articulated than ever. Horror elements are similarly enhanced, rendering Zero Time Dilemma the most disturbing entry in the Zero Escape series.

Enhanced visuals allow Uchikoshi and new character designer Rui Tomono to offer more unpleasant scenarios than ever. Credit: MobyGames

By the end of June 2016, it would be released worldwide on 3DS, PlayStation Vita, and Windows PC. The following year would see the series’ console debut with PlayStation 4 ports of every Zero Escape title. The international audience was rapidly expanding for visual novels, and Zero Time Dilemma proved that such a market was only becoming hungrier for new content from Japan. Critical acclaim poured in from international outlets, with the complex narrative and puzzles again meriting the highest praise; concerns were voiced about Spike Chunsoft’s middling animation and voice acting, but these did not detract significantly from the rapturous reception by long-time  series fans. Uchikoshi and his team had stuck the landing, producing a title that not only succeeded in being released – itself a surprise after the 2012 cancellation – but also managed to wrap up mysteries introduced throughout the trilogy in a satisfying manner.

Conclusion

For as verbose a franchise as Zero Escape was, it is a bit surprising that no spinoffs were created aside from a disappointing browser game promoting Virtue’s Last Reward. Unlike many other visual novel series, little tie-in media was produced; the only related anime was an animated short produced by Gonzo (best-known for Adult Swim’s Afro Samurai). Perhaps the lack of more non-interactive is due to the high level of integration between narrative and gameplay achieved by the series. Without the ability for characters to remember their experiences in alternate timelines due to the player remembering them – representing the creator’s preoccupation with Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field hypothesis – the entire scenario would be undermined.

One of the only “Safe for Work” images I could find from the tasteless Virtue’s Last Reward browser game. Credit: BrianYDG x

Kotaru Uchikoshi had been toiling in Japanese game design for two decades, but he had finally established a worldwide reputation with Zero Escape. No more needed to be said once the franchise had come to its natural (if uncertain) conclusion. Uchikoshi would move on to manga and game adaptations of his own 2015 anime series, Punch Line, and would eventually leave Spike Chunsoft to form independent studio Too Kyo Games in 2018.  

Gonzo’s animated short tie-in to Virtue’s Last Reward, on the other hand, is quite beautiful. Credit: CHUNSOFTCHANNEL

Zero Escape may have ended, but it left an enduring legacy in North America. Between the end of the West’s fascination with text adventures in the early 1980s and the localization of 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors in 2010, the vast majority of video games sold to Western audiences had required a heavy graphical element. It would be inaccurate to say that Zero Escape single-handedly revived visual novels in the 2010s, but the series and its American distributor Aksys have played an outsized role in popularizing the long-dormant genre outside of Japan. If the burgeoning presence of localized visual novels on the PC, PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 over the last five years is any indication, English-speaking visual novel fans owe a debt of gratitude to Kotaru Uchikoshi and his team.


Sources


What is your favorite game in the series? How about your favorite twist (with spoiler tags of course)? Could you see a series revival someday? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Next week we’ll hurtle into the metaphorical intersection of Burnout‘s history. Don’t forget to join in at 9:00 AM EST!