The Dubious Question of the Quantum Whodunit: The Experiential Hysteria of Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
[what follows is a sort of review, analysis, and utter ouroboros of aimless outrage that will spoil almost every major plot point of this brand-new game]
If this article finds you in the year 2029, close your eyes and let your web browser dictate the following words to you: you’re standing in a room with a knife and baby Adolf Hitler.
How do you feel?
Can you shoot (or become) your own grandfather? Is there a goat or a sports car behind the third door? Was it heads or tails? Is A Beautiful Mind a good movie about game theory? What’s the point of Goat Simulator? Is the cat DEAD or ALIVE? And gentlemen, how do we -kill- baby Hitler?
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is a game inspired by questions such as these, and is, as best as I can boil its disparate elements into a stew, Primer meets Saw in the same grocery cart as a huge stack of Ranma ½ manga. It’s a visual novel about a group of nine people — Carlos, Akane, Junpei, Q, Eric, Mira, Diana, Sigma, and Phi — who are volunteers in a supposed psychological test-run in the Nevada desert for an aspirational Martian colony.
Well, guess what. That’s either not the story or not the whole story. A dude walks into their barracks wearing a very-scary duster with a plague doctor mask and cane, murmuring in a comedically distorted monotone, that the true test, something called the Decision Game, will now commence. Carlos is singled out and has to guess the outcome of a coin flip — red or blue. Get it right, and everyone is released into the desert sun and the credits roll. Awesome job! Get it wrong, and you are not goddamned going anywhere — you get a lot more Decision Game to play.
Upon reloading the game to see what happens if you guess wrong, the group is split into three teams of three and each team is isolated a different wing of an underground bunker, and the only way out is for six passwords to be entered in a computer beside the formidable exit door. One password is announced by loudspeaker each time a member of any of the teams dies. So only three people could possibly escape and the others have to eat shit.
To facilitate the process, each participant in the game is wearing a doomy-looking watch that displays the time and injects a memory-wiping serum into their blood every 90 minutes. In those 90 minutes, each team is presented either a puzzle-room to escape or a severely serious decision to agonize over for 90 minutes. Usually one leads into the other and you’ll have an impressively multifaceted pile of mechanisms combine into a situation like the game’s flagship Decision Game moment in which your character must choose to either fire a gun loaded with three blanks and three live rounds into a person’s head or allow another person trapped in an incinerator to burn, with the following rules:
Rule one: The lock on the incinerator door behind which Victim A is trapped is only unlocked by the sound of a gunshot. Either a shot from a live round or a blank will open the door.
Rule two: The gun in the room is fixed in place to Victim B’s head, the result of your room-escape puzzle revealing that his weight is needed to activate what are clearly restraints all over the chair.
Rule three: You have thirty seconds to choose whether to pull the trigger.
The characters begin yelling at each other about which is the “most right” decision, somehow, while helpfully pointing out that if the trigger goes unpulled, Victim A’s odds of an extremely terrible death are 100%. But if the trigger is pulled, it’s another coin toss — Victim B’s odds of dying are one in two.
These moments are definitely the game’s greatest feature — I absolutely love that many of these life-and-death decision points are transparently broken down into probability lessons for anime-loving onlookers soon to take their SATs. I frequently imagined these characters as muppets and celebrity guests from Sesame Street stuck in a jealous Fraggle’s sado-arithmetic dungeon in which correctly deploying pi calculations prevents fatal revolutions of oncoming buzzsaws.
Thereby, the game does a remarkable job of gumming the hands of pioneering mathematicians and pseudoscientists interchangeably, and achieves laudable mileage out of mentioning famous paradoxes, thought experiments, and quantum physics theories while appropriating them to meet some nonsensical narrative function, which frequently amounts to the script throwing out the word “quantum” and heroically crapping the turd-flinging Jesus Christ out of its imaginations’ pants. Lost yet? Don’t panic on me now!
The further in game you get, you’ll continually finding yourself up against walls of Game Over screens as your characters make choices that don’t pan out and everybody turns into an apeshit lunatic under stress and kills themselves and the others in the aftermath. Or blow up the entire facility. Stuff like that kind of just happens a lot.
So what you have to do is examine the “Flow” chart that depicts the various branches that split from each decision you make, which helpfully includes the total possible number of outcomes, many of which you are required to see many of these outcomes in order to open up new branches on separate timelines.
However, given the sheer foreboding variety of sci-fi elements thrown in without coming within an inch of stable worldbuilding, things swiftly become ferociously complicated. From some angles, the story makes sense, but I’m pretty convinced, based on my own ontological relationship with fictional time-travel science, that this game makes close to no sense. For more on that, continue reading, or go play this Rubik’s cube of razor blades yourself. Those are your only choices.
A comprehensive list of stuff that fucks everything up:
1. I did not play the first two games, and that is no fault of mine
The first moments of this game are perhaps the most engrossing expository disaster I have ever seen. I could not tell what was the fault of a screwy translation and how much was somebody taking a swing at rendering the inner emotional worlds of characters in dialogue for the first time in their lives. Human speech appears to serve a very different purpose in this reality. The array of concepts to digest this early in is way more than staggering — we’ve got time travel, the extended and out-of-nowhere existential crisis experienced by nine strangers when a coin toss is wrongly guessed, and a kid nobody remembers in the previous days’ tests with a huge spherical helmet on his head.
Nothing anybody says seems to mean anything, and this is further complicated by one guy casually explaining he’s a 60-year-old consciousness sent back in time into his 23-year-old body, shortly after he examines a big red box covered in buttons and deduces that it “isn’t made of anything from Earth.” If anybody here is an android or an alien, now is evidently the time to speak up!
In defense of all the idea vomit that new players will ingest, some of these dangling concepts that are teased and dropped are continuity bonuses for anyone who’s played the first two games, which were Nintendo DS and Playstation Vita exclusives. As such I will never play those in the life I am currently living.
2. The power of SHIFT
Here’s where things go from “what the crap is all of this” to “who in the name of Hiddleswift on a pogo stick is responsible for this game*.” Over the course of seeing all their assorted volatile bullshit go down, certain characters reveal their histories interacting with the “morphogenetic field,” which allows a person’s “quantum mind” to SHIFT (Spacetime Human Internal Fluctuating Transfer) into a neighboring reality in which they do not die if in their native reality they are about to do exactly that.
Quick aside: I’d like to mention that I cannot imagine the labyrinth of suffering the translators of this game must have navigated together. Their story is the true Sawshank Redemption here.
So SHIFT is essentially the mechanism that enables a threatened consciousness to jump through the morphogenetic field and into the body of a safe alternate body, at which point the minds switch places and a person just standing around minding their own business is sent to their death in a foreign reality. Yes. That’s exactly what this game is saying.
In time, certain characters such as our firefighting boy Carlos realizes the ability to SHIFT to specific realities. In one particular branch, the Decision Game leads Carlos and his team to this “decision”: they have to roll three dice and turn up all ones, or they get gunned down.
This played out accordingly in my game: First, we rolled the dice and failed to show a single one. We took shelter behind a bar counter and the gatling guns turned us into a red mist straight off. So I returned to the Flow screen and tried the dice roll again, and again, and again until we got all ones. When that happened, there was some celebration, we got drunk, and talked about something that a lot of people would construe as having been important to listen to.
Soon after, or concurrently, whatever, the same team, in a separate branch of reality, on the verge of killing one another yet again, decides to jump together into a different reality that they all remember. Now, which do you think they choose? That’s right, they go to the dice roll scenario, but specifically to the branch in which they didn’t win. The characters, perhaps realizing the their peculiar blunder, look around and choose to protect the woman in the room from the gunfire, and they huddle around her with their butts pointed straight at the guns.
Somehow, this saves her life though the bar did not. Covered in her friends’ blood and seemingly quantum-invincible in this world, she then jumps to the reality in which they win the dice roll, and who does she run into there but the exact same dumb assholes who saved her life in a reality they all could have skipped by SHIFTing straight into the successful dice roll reality.
And wait, you might be thinking, isn’t there a supposedly reality we’ve seen in which these people win a coin toss and they don’t have to do any of this shit? There is! But SHH!
What more could we possibly need to embiggen this grand quantum cock-up?
3. The Transporter
Early in the game, I had a theory. Since each survivor has their memory wiped between every 90-minute death festival, what if we’re not seeing alternate realities at all, but increasingly disoriented people convinced they have the ability to SHIFT between realities because they keep waking up to everyone in their teams alive, all while battling hazy dissonant memories of everyone dying — so in actuality people are being killed, only to be regrown somehow and reintroduced to the test chambers each round? When I tackled The Transporter Room last of my available story options, I was on the verge of convincing myself I had cracked the case.
The Transporter is a huge byzantine machine discovered in the mid-1800s by a German Antarctic expedition, and it is allegedly designed by an alien species that doesn’t use a base-ten numeric system, but actually they also do because they realized humans would have to use their technology eventually. The Transporter reads the molecular structure of whatever you put inside it and sends an exact copy of whatever it is to whichever year you specify. This explains everything! I thought. Everybody who dies is stuck in the machine and sent back in time to do another test!
But no. None of this is the case. Sigma and Diana wake up in the Transporter Room and puzzle their way to its activation. They send biological faxes of themselves back in time, but they remain in their own timeline intact. The machine cannot be reactivated for a convenient ten months, which conveniently is plenty of time for them to ration the food on the shelf, which allows convenient time for having a ton of sex and giving birth to a convenient pair of fraternal twins they name after Sigma’s love of the Greek alphabet — Delta and Phi.
And yeah, that’s the same Phi as the third member of D team, conspicuously absent at the start of this story arc. Hail Satan, my man.
Speaking of this Delta character…
4. Zero’s true identity and motives: countless bridges-too-far
Zero, our Jigsaw-ish master of ceremonies, is often speculated to be SOMEONE AMONG THEM, without anybody apparently being aware that this would technically be possible through the use of the Transporter, a device nobody knows about at that time.
But you see, this turns out to be a little off the mark, at least in the sense they mean when, like me, the characters are all shouting their theories of What is Going On Here.
What is going on here is that Zero is a guy nobody coming fresh to this series has any reason to suspect — he is the other twin mentioned above, by the name of Delta. So yeah. He was goddamn freakbirthed by time travel! He is so pissed about it, I mean SO BLADDER BUSTINGLY ANGRY ABOUT IT, that he’s devoted his life to ensuring that he manages to be FREAKBIRTHED AT ALL.
How can he do it? Well, he has to be born in 2029 as the result of a ten-month boredom bang between Diana and Sigma. He is sent back in time to 1904. Then he has to live to around 2025 to build an underground bunker full of probabilistic death machines inspired by decision theory and the more spiritually sobering scenes in The Deer Hunter.
BUT THERE IS WAY MORE TO IT THAN THAT, SUPPOSEDLY.
Let us not go without mentioning that Delta is using this facility to release a virus called Radical 6 into the world in order to have a 70% chance to eliminate a religious fanatic who is going to launch a nuclear war that destroys all human life in the future. This is but one possible outcome.
So by ensuring that all this stuff happens, Delta is pretty damn sure he’ll ensure that it all happens. That’s the whole point of the Decision Game.
Now, let’s take a look at another important facet of our special geriatric boy Delta:
5. The characters have professions and defining characteristics (but only when not inconvenient)
It is established early that Carlos is a firefighter and can “sense” when death is lurking behind a door inside a burning building, which is a skill that field trips to fire stations are designed to instill in kindergarten-aged children, and a skill that all firefighters are supposed to have when they complete training for fighting fires. However, as the leader of C Team and therefore one set of the player’s hands in the bunker, the player’s ennui and morbid curiosity will answer the siren song of an unexplored story branch to ensure that Carlos makes decisions that get him and his team killed many, many times.
Akane, his team member, is some kind of freedom fighter in the future and also a supergenius in the areas of mathematics and pulling solutions to thirty-character anagrams straight out of her ass in seconds flat. But this is not enough to render the solutions to many puzzles obsolete! Sometimes she just full on panics and becomes a chainsaw-wielding soldier of frenzied heartbreak! Sometimes, she faints like a female Henry James character just before she can eke out the solution to some pressing issue. Sometimes she is as much help as a life-sized Barbie in a box staring ever forward.
This is all later explained as a result of Delta’s “MindHacking” everybody, which is exactly like Dr. Xavier’s mutant power but without risk of reproach from Marvel’s legal team. It turns out the “Decision Game” is a misnomer — Delta is almost always forcing the outcomes we see to ensure everybody SHIFTs from this unfair life and into a reality in which they could possibly survive, SUPPOSEDLY with the rosiest intentions of saving the planet.
So too can we say that this is a result of the script proving ultimately unable to hide the man behind the curtain, yanking on strings out of sheer boredom. More on that in just a bit.
6. The point of this game is that your decisions are meaningless across the breadth of the multiverse, and therefore the SHIFT ability attempts to take a pathetic shit on that same worldview
So it’s a fantasy. A gonzo time-traveling fairytale conceived of undefined vocabulary words in a particle physics textbook. A light (grim) teen (gore) romp in which some folks are able to jump through time and space to hijack the bodies of their alternate selves as long as they’re able to convince their “quantum minds” they are in suitable life-threatening danger, which usually requires the person in question eating a bullet and dying excruciatingly violently while everyone else looks on in utter amazement.
This is a game that proposes many worlds and focuses on around three worlds out of the infinite pool. Given the constraints of telling a story and designing a game of sane length, how could it possibly have been any different? Nonetheless, the lengths to which this story goes to explain to the player and itself that its causally-endangered bubble of reality is definitely not about to burst under its own weight is equal parts impressive, desperate, worrying, and often hilarious.
From my perspective, this SHIFT ability combined with Delta’s MindHack incalculably fouls up everything the game sets out to do. The only continuity we need for this story to work is to see a single branch in which the characters survive the entire ordeal through extremely improbably means, after which one or two of them experience eerie pseudo-memories of what might have been had they lost the coin toss.
Instead of literally passing the baton of consciousness between bodies, I think it would have given me a great deal more pause if Delta were to say, after the team manages to rip themselves out of their situation despite the game’s appointed rules, “You know why we’re here? The numbers just ensured that we would be.”
Sure enough, your agency as the player is an illusion, just like that of the characters under Delta’s total MindHack control. And that mind control leads to an apocalyptically, senselessly complicated structure of events and cause and effect. If there has ever been a better meta-commentary on the experience of reading an adventure game developer’s mind to beat a particularly ludicrous puzzle, I do not know of it.
I mean, this is a choose your own visual adventure novel. And there are two kinds of people who will come to it — those willing to have fun with that, and those who are, but find ways to get upset about enjoying it.
Yes, the price of progress in this game is predictably a little steeper than it should be — though the puzzles aren’t quite as illogical as some more nefarious point-and-click scenarios, they remain garishly opaque at their worst.
Worst of all, progressing the actual story requires two things — seeing multiple and specific versions of tragic events and choices and giving the game the specific answers to bizarre questions each time it demands them, which usually sends you scrambling along the worst kind of fetchquest —backtracking through past cutscenes comprised of dialogue that occasionally veers brutally inane, thus creating a nasty trap in which zoning out is almost guaranteed as characters speak.
Outside the test chambers from which you have to escape, abstract and creative thought is generally not going to prove useful — it’s primarily a test of whether you fuss suitably long over sliding all the pieces into the correct slots. Judicious note-takers will breeze through it. This is not a Chrono Cross where the reality-jumping mechanic is an actual gameplay feature — it’s really more of a narrative quirk.
If you want to massage all these anime scenes until you see a weird branch split off of them, by god, go right ahead, and I’ll send many sons to fight and die for your right to do that in the country in which you live which permits such behavior, nay, even celebrates it when you do. If not, that’s also fine, and you really don’t have to be a dick about it!
I learned everything I actually needed to know about Zero Quantum Escape Demolition in the very last scene. The game’s final player-decision point didn’t like the last choice I made, which is to prevent all nine heroes from SHIFTing into the reality in which they won the coin toss. If they do SHIFT over, they’ll switch places and the coin toss winners, their formerly luckier selves, will die in their place in their current history.
In choosing the more complicated route — electing to die and let the lucky remain alive — the following cutscene was palpably displeased with my goody-goody egalitarianism as everyone joined hands and happily went to death in order to quarantine all their pain and pantomimed emotional squalor from breaching into another reality where none of these things happened.
Zero Time Escape Problem’s response was to dump a GAME OVER screen on me for killing all these Power Ranger archetypes from out of time and space.
Is any of this my fault? Hardly. Is Zero the bad guy? Yes and no. Did our heroes prevail? Yes and no. Will they stop the annihilation of humanity? Yes and no. The game fights valiantly to make this seem more ambiguous than it is. But with such a closed system of possible binaries for the players to choose against the multiverse where all things are rendered both true and untrue, and while it’s impressive to see a piece of paper folded into an impressively convoluted origami, the plot is little better than a mathy sideshow — ultimately the excrement of a series of actions that more or less creates a feedback loop continually making up excuses to explain more and more for the sake of having more to talk about to fill its space, much like some essays I’ve read.
The incongruities in the characters and never-nailed-down ecology of time travel are frustrating at first (and all the way through), but having seen them thoroughly wrung out by the game’s end, we find a compelling thought to take home about the nature of consciousness — if any human is capable of snapping at any second and doing things totally out of character in a multiverse of infinite possibilities, who are we really?
That’s what makes the final scenes of the “true ending” so dissonant by going out on an awkwardly upbeat coda—after murdering themselves multiple times over to land above-ground after a successful coin toss, are this timeline’s heroes the ones who succeed? With the power of friendship and FREE WILL (???) with a lot of help from the SHIFT ABILITY (!!!), Zero Time Dilemma consoles, how could they fucking not?
And thus the final Decision Game is revealed: Delta throws Carlos a gun and, led to believe we get to choose whether to shoot Delta or spare him, I automatically assumed based on the treatment of my earlier decision that what the game expects me to do is to choose FECKLESS FANFARE and shoot that whacked-out ubermensch in the face. But instead, the credits roll before Carlos is forced by me or Delta or parasitic brain fungi to choose while I laugh and laugh and laugh.
From now on, spoiled as I am by Rick and Morty’s attention to detail and Zero Escape’s variably-coherent nihilism, I want creators to know enough to understand that when you put the word “quantum” in front of “whodunit,” the correct response is both “all players involved” and “none of the above.” This game is one of a few that acknowledge the Darwinist undercurrent of a quantum-hopping premise: the haplessness and guilt that attend survival and the inarticulate meaninglessness and inevitability of chaotic death if life occurs in an infinite multitude of universes. Bioshock Infinite gravely failed at this game years prior.
All in all, this is the best visual novel I’ve ever played, and there wasn’t even any pornographic content at all. It is also the worst visual novel I’ve ever played, and there was absolutely no pornographic content. You can buy Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma from Steam for $40, you can pirate it, or you can furiously masturbate yourself to sleep and never touch it all, and you’ll be just fine whatever you choose. Enjoy the Decision Game.