There is no "right choice". Because there are no choices.
All that said, Zero Time Dilemma has just about the ballsiest time travel story of them all. Yet, there’s no tricked out DeLoreans to be found here, no phone boxes or magical islands, no interstellar sling shots through a black hole. In Zero Time Dilemma we get a, uh, flowchart. This one, to be exact:
Looks pretty innocuous, right? You wouldn’t guess that each and every branch of this choose-your-own-adventure flowchart denotes some of the bleakest explorations of the human psyche I’ve ever seen in a game. If I had to pigeonhole Zero Time Dilemma, the third game in the cult Zero Escape series, it would be as a more cerebral Saw (or for any European readers out there, an ill-advised snuff version of 90s gameshow The Crystal Maze). Nine people have to lie, cheat and occasionally work together to escape an underground facility full of deathtraps, locked doors, and fiendish brain teasers. But what if the participants of Saw’s grisly gauntlet were all, in fact, a bunch of time travellers? That’s the Zero Escape twist.
Let me backtrack for just a moment. This past month I’ve played the Zero Escape trilogy back to back—999, Virtue’s Last Reward and the recently released Zero Time Dilemma. Upon seeing the credits roll on this superb blend of visual novel, escape room puzzles and sublimely batshit time travel antics—there was an overwhelming desire to put pen to paper and eulogize the series and its significant merits. Quite who this article is aimed at, however, I don’t know. If you’re already a Zero Escape fan, you’ll have bought the final installment on day one, played it to 100% completion, got the (bloody) t-shirt, yadda yadda.
If you’ve not already familiar with all things Zero Escape, it’s admittedly a tough sell. The first (and in many ways, best) entry was for the longest time only available as a dusty Nintendo DS cartridge. The second and third games were more sophisticated extensions of 999’s core ideas and concepts, and are best played on PlayStation Vita—you know, that dead brick of a handheld which nobody owns. You need to have ideally played the first two games to fully grasp the intricacies of the third. Plus, if you don’t like reading extended chunks of prose or occasional anime goofiness—these probably aren’t the games for you.
In fact, I can’t think of anything more laborious than getting newcomers up to speed on the various ins and outs of Zero Escape’s twisty lore. If you’ve ever tried, for example, to sit someone down and explain that the fifth and final Metal Gear Solid game is actually a middle chapter in the series chronology, it’s the same sort of deal. Trying to unpick Zero Time Dilemma’s intricately woven narrative threads, where characters happily spout concepts like quantum entanglement, Schrodinger’s cat and morphogenetic fields, will have you running for the hills. Crucially, though, such a recap wouldn’t actually get at why the series is so remarkable. So instead, it might be best to frame Zero Time Dilemma, in particular, against other choose-your-own-adventure titles.
Take the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead—I’d wager most people have played that, or at least have some passing knowledge of it. You took on the role of prison convict Lee Everett, who together with an eight-year-old girl, Clementine, tries to navigate the physical and moral peril of a world gone mad. Do you save Carley or Doug? A recently bitten (and clearly distressed) young woman begs you to give her a gun—do you hand one over, or just walk away? You come across a seemingly abandoned car full of supplies, do you loot its contents and potentially damn the car’s owners to death, or teach Clementine a valuable lesson in compassion? Whatever choices you made, each one felt meaningful, a reflection of what you value and who you are. Across five episodes, you built up what feels like your own bespoke Lee and Clementine. Sure, you could YouTube the other story branches out of morbid curiosity—but you’ll always have your save file tucked away, the “”real” story safely recorded. Here’s a flowchart of The Walking Dead’s decision points (only the first episode, mind you).
But if The Walking Dead was a Zero Escape title (and if we pretended that Telltale’s narratives actually branched out in meaningful ways), the season’s true ending wouldn’t be achieved through a linear progression of choices. No, you’d have to explore all the routes of the flowchart. You’d have to save Carley and Doug, go on to form a relationship with both—only to flit back to another timeline and wring yet more clues and story possibilities from it. You’d have to teach Clementine both compassion and cold-blooded logic, with both approaches being necessary to flesh out the larger narrative. Say you reached a dead end in episode five, what if you could rewind to an earlier event in episode three, make a different choice, and travel back?
Let’s look at another example, one of my favorite games of 2015—Until Dawn. I wrote about it at the time, and noted the following;
“My first playthrough of Until Dawn was as a straightforward horror story. Every subsequent playthrough however, was actually more like a time travel story. You can choose any of the earlier chapters from the menu to replay—changing variables, making different decisions—before zipping back to later chapters to enjoy wildly divergent outcomes. I’m not sure if anyone outside of Trophy hunters will properly experiment with this, but I highly recommend doing so. Almost by accident, I stumbled across one of the most accomplished time travel mechanics ever.”
The “time travel” aspect of Until Dawn was just a supposition of mine, a fun bit of throwaway subtext. But what if it wasn’t? What if all those pesky high-schoolers had the ability to experience parallel versions of each and every gory event? And crucially, what would that do to their sanity? How would they cope as their moral fortitude is repeatedly ground to itty bitty pieces?
That’s the world posited by Zero Time Dilemma. It’s a bleak universe, not because the things that happen in it are awful—although they often are, covered in blood and full of horror—but because they defy and mock the idea that our choices define who we are. You’re everyone you could be, the game argues, and it makes those potential selves as awful as it can—up to and including choices that lead to your characters’ deaths or their transformation into murderers. In fact, of the game’s nine main characters—including the heroic protagonists of the series’ past games—almost all of them can be pushed to the point where they’ll willingly take a human life.
In an even darker twist, this disconnection is clearly intentional and these murderous routes mandatory. They’re as valid as those in which things go “right.” Invoking a brutal, bloody take on the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, ZTD holds that all possible futures are equally real, regardless of whether your favorite characters start chasing each other with chainsaws in them or not. And all of them, every grisly branch of the tree, have to be traversed for the game’s “true ending” to be discovered.
This is intentionally cruel from the characters’ point of view, in so far as it makes their sacrifices and moral growth functionally meaningless (because there’s another version of them, one timeline over, that did nothing of the sort). Is heroic firefighter Carlos a potential killer? It’s not up to you, either. Even if you were allowed to completely avoid the timelines in which he might become one, they’d still be lurking out there in the wider field of the “true” stories within the game.
In so many ways, Zero Time Dilemma serves as the antithesis of games like The Walking Dead or Until Dawn, which do everything in their power to make the player’s choices feel both permanent and meaningful. “But what’s the point?” ZTD argues, when its designers (and players) know that our curiosity will never let us see just one “path” through a game. How many of us have gone back to a decision point like the Virmire choice in Mass Effect or the Bloody Baron quest from Witcher 3, to see all the ways they could possibly play out? YouTube’s always there too, allowing us to see the shape of the entire narrative, not just the one highlighted on a single path. That’s the true bleakness of Zero Time Dilemma: It turns our insatiable need to see everything, to wring every possible drop of “content” out of a game, into a codified, mandatory part of the game.