Spike Chunsoft's cult favorite Zero Escape series will conclude this June with trilogy-ender Zero Time Dilemma — but that shouldn't deter total newcomers from trying out the dark, story-heavy puzzle game, according to director Kotaro Uchikoshi. Speaking with Uchikoshi through a translator during Game Developers Conference 2016, he was adamant that when the game launches in June, it will attract its own set of fans to the franchise.
"I think that, as a fan of something, you want to get as many people as possible on board," he said. "So we wanted to make [Zero Time Dilemma] a title to be accessible to as many people as possible."
But broadening the appeal of a series with an admittedly ... complicated storyline without alienating existing fans is no easy task. At a GDC press event, Uchikoshi and members of Zero Escape publisher Aksys Games were on hand to demo the series' final release, focusing on its combination of approachable tweaks and narrative payoff for the devoted.
Zero Time Dilemma, like its predecessors 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue's Last Reward, tells a complicated story of nine participants in something called the "nonary game," an escape-the-room quest with mortal consequences. It's hosted by the mysterious masked figure Zero, whose attempts to pit the players against one another are either successful or thwarted, depending on choices made during the lengthy cutscenes.
Making the complex story approachable
To pad out this basic premise is a heavy dose of violence, time travel, the supernatural and, of course, tricky puzzle-solving. The Zero Escape series has carved a niche and found relative success for itself thanks to these highly involved facets. Its three games almost demand to become the object of players' obsessions; falling deeply into the highly complicated timeline and universe of the Zero Escape heroes might be the only way to truly grasp their story.
While that story has unfolded over the course of several years now, starting with 999 on Nintendo DS (and later iOS) before continuing onto 3DS and Vita with Virtue's Last Reward, Zero Time Dilemma attempts to welcome those with no prior knowledge of the series while also answering the myriad questions fans have about the overarching plot.
One of the ways in which Uchikoshi hopes to draw in new fans is by setting Zero Time Dilemma in the middle of the Zero Escape chronology. Instead of directly following Virtue's Last Reward, the game takes place one year after 999. This gave the team leeway to introduce completely new characters alongside familiar ones from the other two games, as well as hitting the reset button on the story by throwing these characters into a new iteration of the franchise-spanning nonary game.
Unlike the previous games, Zero Time Dilemma is also far more flexible in terms of discovering that story. All three games require players to make life-or-death choices in order to progress; in Virtue's Last Reward, a linear flowchart showed which of the branching storylines your choices were sending you down, making it easier to define your decision-making around reaching certain longer pathways.
Zero Time Dilemma brings back this element with a twist: The developer has bucked the linearity of the flowchart, instead allowing players to dip into what are called "floating fragments." In this version of Zero's mysterious puzzle game, each of the players (including the three new protagonists) gets dosed with a strange, amnesia-inducing drug every 90 minutes. When they wake up, they have no memories of what they previously encountered, and depending on which direction the player wants to go in, they either wake up sometime in the past or the future.
That nonlinearity is meant to appeal to the more casual player or budding Zero Escape fan who wants to uncover the storyline at their own pace, Uchikoshi explained. "The floating fragment system makes it so you can kind of move through different parts of the game episodically," he said. "You won't get railroaded into doing one storyline from start to finish."
"We wanted to emulate the feel of a big-budget American TV show"
But that's not the biggest change to the game — that would be, in keeping with that "episodic" concept, the newly cinematic cutscenes. These fully animated narrative sequences are meant to eliminate the at-times draining visual novel aspects of the series to create something a bit more familiar to Western players.
"We wanted it to kind of emulate the feel of a big-budget American TV show," Uchikoshi said of the change from the text-heavy cutscenes of entries past. "We think that giving it a cinematic look will give people who weren't necessarily interested in visual novels [a lower barrier] of entry."
This might be the most striking difference to the longtime player of the series who, after two games, has likely become accustomed to spending as much time scrolling through the game's text as in the escape-centric puzzle scenes. Although the cutscenes won't be any shorter than before, the director said, players will be offered a reprieve thanks to full voice acting in both Japanese and English. For the full TV-watching effect, the developer even included the option to turn on or off subtitles.
Another way of courting the Western audience: Aksys will launch Zero Time Dilemma on Steam sometime later this year; it will hit 3DS and Vita first at the end of June. Bringing the game to PC makes it the first entry in the series to hit the platform; the publisher doesn't yet have plans to port the previous games to Steam, although it's looking into it as an option.
Yet even with all of this courting the English-speaking Zero Escape fan, Uchikoshi laughed when we asked him to explain the series' unique Western success. Could he explain why the game — which by all accounts is a tough sell, thanks to its unabashedly complex storyline and visual novel features — has found more fans stateside than in its home country?
Uchikoshi can't explain why Zero Escape has more fans in America than in Japan"
This is a good opportunity to ask you the same question," he replied with a grin. "I can't for the life of me think of why."
We offered something about the murder mystery elements; Americans are really into that genre, we explained. But Uchikoshi saw it differently.
"To me, the main elements of the story is like a murder mystery, but also has these really out there science-fiction elements," he said. "Murder mysteries are huge in Japan, but they're not really into science fiction.
"Those are two tastes that Western audiences are really into," he concluded.
Uchikoshi clearly knows his series best. But despite his insistence on introducing Zero Escape to those who might be on the fence about it if not completely unfamiliar with the series, he gave credit where it is due — back to those hardcore fans who made the third and final game possible in the first place.
"Originally we had planned to develop [Virtue's Last Reward] and [Zero Time Dilemma] simultaneously," he said, but due to "various circumstances" — like the games' poorer sales in Japan — production was put on hold in 2014. After Uchikoshi announced the hiatus on Twitter, fans worldwide "besieged us and Aksys with messages of support."
"The higher-ups at the company saw these fan messages and were touched by how passionate fans were for the series, so that helped get things moving forward again," he said. The directer was able to unveil the game during last year's Anime Expo.
For all of the efforts to make the game more accessible, then, Uchikoshi also insisted that fans will experience the most payoff from the storyline. All of the mysteries will be revealed, the director said, teasing that fans' biggest questions based on the end of Virtue's Last Reward will be answered.
They're the ones who are making this game happen, after all, he said. "We wouldn't be able to make [Zero Time Dilemma] without the fans."