In the Zero Escape trilogy, you have to make a choice. Rather, in Zero Escape, you are in a constant state of decision. Do I choose to go in door 4 or door 5? Do I follow alongside a secret government agent or a cynic who wants to see me dead? Do I inject a vial that could begin the pandemic or hope I don’t already have the virus? These games are obsessed with the torturous existence of living within systems.
Systems aren’t an uncommon topic for games. Many designers and theorists even go as far to say that the medium is the aesthetic form of systems. Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman wrote in 1999, “Games are abstract, mathematical systems. They are aesthetic and material systems. They are social, linguistic, and semiotic systems.” Yet, living in this moment it’s hard to say that systems were ever something to idealize at all.
For the last few weeks systems have been widely realized as not only flawed, but assailable. Since the death of George Floyd, political action has erupted on a scale unseen by this generation. Goals that BIPOC have been expressing and organizing towards for years are starting to grow closer. More and more people are realizing the game is fixed by white settlers and built for Black bodies to lose.
Laws that protected police violence for almost half of a century have been repealed. Police are being removed from various city schools. City councils are beginning to work toward defunding their police forces. To be clear, these are only steps towards the goals of abolishment of the police, of ICE, of prisons, and the US; but they are also steps that reveal that action is working. The system is flawed, but it’s also assailable.
It’s on these points that I find myself reconsidering Zero Escape trilogy and the larger idealization of systems. Zero Escape follows three separate instances in time where the deadly “Nonary Game” is held. A nonary game is when 9 people are locked together in an isolated location and must solve a series of puzzles to escape, or face deadly consequences.
Sigma, a character who appears throughout the series, first comes to the nonary games after being abducted from his studies at a PhD program on Christmas Eve. He wakes up in an elevator with a white-haired woman, later known as Phi, and is told that he has to play the nonary game to maintain a score above 0, or else he will be injected with a variety of chemicals that will kill him.
Escaping the games is only the front-facing objective, however. As the groups in each game progress, it is revealed that larger systems at play brought them together. This is one of the main pulls of the series. With every title, you begin a nonary game, and by the end you discover how deeply complicated the reasoning for the game running truly is.
Sigma, as a continued example case, is not in the game just to escape. He was brought because he has the special ability to carry his consciousness across parallel universes and time (don’t worry, we will dive into this later). The games are a preparatory series of exercises setup for Sigma to change a horrible catastrophe that wipes out the majority of humanity.
While these consistent political underworkings are exciting, they are simultaneously flawed as messages. Over the course of each game, characters are revealed to have powers or hidden reasons for entering the game, but none of them ever truly have an effect on the game’s outcome. The game was predetermined from the beginning by the designer. Yet, the characters never imagine that they can do anything outside of how they were designed to participate. Because of Zero Escape‘s emphasis on the designer as all knowing, it argues that political action is realized through accepting and accepting the system given to you by those who maintain power.
Most of Zero Escape‘s character agency is built through the relationship between player choice and theories based in conspiracy, game theory, mythology, and physics. In the first game these theories are tightly connected to create an insular mystery that the protagonist, Junpei, investigates via mutagenetic field. It is the second game that these theories develop to an extreme degree with the introduction of characters’ abilities to SHIFT.
In Virtue’s Last Reward, Phi and Sigma are revealed to have the ability to carry their consciousness and memories between parallel dimensions. This is key, since it allows for the characters to escape with information about where they died in the nonary game, and make different choices in other dimensions. In one of them, the group of players discover that there are bombs placed around the game facility set to go off. Unfortunately due to time limit, they can’t figure out the methods to deactivate the bombs or even find the locations. Instead of continuing to search, the protagonists typically end up interrogating other members in their final moments, looking for information to take to a reality where they can survive.
Because of this SHIFT phenomena, a large thematic focus of the game is on quantum states. Specifically, Schrödinger’s Cat is used as an example to understand what is going on with this SHIFT phenomena.
Essentially, Schrödinger’s Cat is a theory that puts a cat in a soundproof box with a bomb and asks, “is the cat alive or dead?” Well, we can’t really know because there is no feedback from the box, so, the theory states that the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead. At this moment the cat is in a quantum state, and the theory argues that when we open the box the quantum state collapses into a single state that we can comprehend. The cat being alive, as an example. The video above will do a better job explaining exactly how the game interprets the theory and I highly suggest viewing it for a better understanding.
Once quantum states are understood by the characters and the player, the weight of characters lives become less important in the plot, and also the game’s design itself. Over the course of the story, characters have to play a series of games inspired by the prisoner’s dilemma to determine who gains and loses points. As mentioned before, when players 0, they are injected with lethal chemicals.
As the player makes choices throughout, the consequences that you thought risked the safety of characters transform into choices eliminating what route of information you want to follow first. The prisoner’s dilemma stops being a dilemma at all because you know that both outcomes must come to fruition in order to progress forward. This loss of consequential weight is consistent across all three of the games.
In the third title, Zero Time Dilemma, there is a dimension where Phi, Sigma, and a new character Dianne, are trapped between two choices. Phi has woken up in an incinerator room that is going to turn on in a minute. The only way for Dianne and Sigma to unlock the door is for Sigma to sit in a chair and have Dianne pull the trigger of a revolver locked onto him, loaded with half of its bullets.
There are three outcomes of this situation.
- The trigger is pulled and Sigma doesn’t die, releasing Phi, leaving the three characters alive.
- The trigger is pulled, Sigma dies, and Dianne and Phi survive.
- The trigger is not pulled, Sigma survives alongside Dianne, and Phi is killed.
There is a clear favorable outcome, but it doesn’t matter what the player does. All three must occur for the game to progress.
In other visual novels this design of following a bad path to see a character die in order to make better choices is not uncommon. However, in those games the characters and world are reset upon the loading of a previous chapter or checkpoint. In Zero Escape, the characters possess no such privilege. They are made dependent on the rules of the nonary game and the logics of SHIFTING.
This makes the pain and suffering for each of these characters to hold no consequence. As each game iterates on the last, horrible horrible instances of emotional, physical, and psychological violence are inflicted on the characters resulting in death. However, the trauma resulting from these incidents are never given any emphasis at all. There is sadness in periods where characters are SHIFTING and searching for timelines where someone is alive. But once the characters find those timelines it’s as if it didn’t matter that they witnessed horrible moments of individuals they cherish being brutally killed.
In our world we are not universally understood to SHIFT across dimensions. Considering that fact, Zero Escape argues that we are required to force ourselves through death, trauma, and violence inflicted by broken systems in order to find an eventual state of peace. It doesn’t matter what long term trauma is inflicted upon you. You must commit to the system. But this falls so tremendously outside the range of how many people do exist in relation to political systems.
Liberatory systemic change doesn’t come from the inside actors, it comes from those oppressed by the system coming together to retaliate. In some cases the government gives into those goals in attempts to maintain control of their system. In other cases, it’s the system that falls to the people and leads to revolution.
Asking the inhabitants of a system to commit to the system is no different than telling people on the streets that they should wait for the vote in order to make change. It’s a complacent expression that upholds the current government systems and doesn’t confront the troubled historical agency each individual holds. Meanwhile Black lives are continuing to be brutalized around the world and the evidence is monumentally available (TW: police violence). We are past the point of waiting to vote.
While I do see many of Zero Escape‘s arguments as flawed, I find myself returning to Schrodinger’s Cat. In one moment of Virtue’s Last Reward, the organizer of the game’s life is under the danger of being taken away and she tells Phi and Sigma, “The cat in the box…Is it alive? Or is it dead? Sigma, Phi… You will decide its fate.” She is asking through the previously taught example of Schrodinger’s Box, what reality the two characters will bring to fruition? What actions will they take to realize the future they want to be in?
And what actions will we take to realize a future we desire? Will we continue to follow the ideologies and rules put in place by its designers to benefit the upper class and whiteness while exploiting everyone else? Or will we continue to gather together online and on the streets to fight against the system? That’s a question we should not only answer now, but also in our everyday actions. In every space with injustice on any scale, how will you decide to act?
Photo credit: @splitcoco