The Zero Escape games are must-play video games that twist and turn the interactive medium – without relying on emerging technologies like VR or AR.

The three titles that compose the Zero Escape trilogy are Nine Hourse, Nine Persons, Nine Doors; Virtue’s Last Reward; and Zero Time Dilemma. They blend together genres like horror, sci-fi, and philosophy into a series that focuses on a group of strangers trying to escape a locked prison.

Typically, a group of disparate strangers awake to find themselves trapped in a series of dungeons that contain puzzles for them to solve. Fail, and the consequences result in death. As far as premise goes for horror games, this is as pulp-y and grindhouse as you could hope for. Come for the murders and the mysteries, but stay for a unique fascination with metaphysics.

Writer/game director Kotaro Uchikoshi is fascinated by philosophical and metaphysical principles. Its these fascinations that make his game “tricky”.

Zero Time Dilemma Cast
Zero Time Dilemma Cast

When playing any video game, one typically assumes the role of a character - an avatar for dialogue, physical appearance, etc. The character has no actual thought of its own. That is provided by the player. So, when considering playing a puzzle game, who’s solving the puzzles? Not the character, but the player. This disconnect between player and avatar is cleverly reinterpreted by Uchikoshi by transforming the player’s role to be not necessarily as a character, but a metaphysical presence within the game.

Characters in Zero Escape continually question how they come up with certain puzzle solutions, or how they know narrative plot-points that should be physically unknown to them. The reason? Because they are known to us as we experience the game in third person. This might be the first instance of role-playing as conscious thought. As far as narrative adventure games go, this is some radical reinterpretation of the player’s role.

Time Flows Oddly
Time Flows Oddly

Uchikoshi’s gone on record to say he’s never been content writing a traditional adventure game. In an interview with Gamasutra, he says he’s always been intrigued with the concept of choice, and how that leads people to walk the path they are in life. Even as choosing dialogue options and narrative paths make up the bulk of visual novels as games, choices in Zero Escape are just as fickle and precarious as the player’s role itself.

In the first game, the player is forced to play twice in order to finish it. The first time is to play out the story as it would naturally. Then, armed with the knowledge of foresight, the player plays again for a different outcome. For Uchikoshi, this was the only way the characters within his story could justifiably make leaps in their logic to come to the true answer behind the mystery of their imprisonment.

A similar thing occurs in the next two games in the series, Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma. While the two games no longer force the players to replay the entire thing several times, they do treat linear time as just another game mechanic — something that can be manipulated because of Uchikoshi’s enthrallment with knowledge and choice.

Virtue's Last Reward
Virtue's Last Reward

Like Jonathan Blow’s Braid, which upended the linear nature of 2D platformers, and Ken Levine’s BioShock, which played with the idea of choice and violence in shooters, Zero Escape does the same for visual novels. The game follows a long tradition of titles that subvert the idea of players being in control. As video games often give us the illusion of choice, these are the games that pull away the veil, and push that medium forward as a storytelling device.

Photos via Spike Chunsoft, Aksys Games

Matthew Kim is a Los Angeles-based writer who dreams of a colder climate. You might have seen his written work on video games and film appear in publications like VICE, Kill Screen, Unwinnable, and more. He also once wrote about personal finance, but that's neither here nor there.