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No escape: Zero Time Dilemma and the narrative design of Kotaro Uchikoshi

A question and answer session with Zero Escape director Kotaro Uchikoshi, which aims to get further insight into how his wildly creative and intricate narrative-based games take form, as he prepares the series' latest entry.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

April 25, 2016

11 Min Read

The Zero Escape franchise has a checkered history. The original game, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, was a cult hit for the Nintendo DS -- spawning a passionate fan-base and a sequel on the 3DS and Vita, called Virtue's Last Reward.

Both games are rightly praised for their intricate storytelling, but the second didn't make enough money to warrant a sequel. Its director, Kotaro Uchikoshi, even took to Twitter to announce that it would never happen.

Somehow, though, the third game in the franchise was announced. It's coming out this June, and this time around, the sequel will be more cinematic, and also hit the PC via Steam in addition to the two portable consoles. This is good news for fans of Uchikoshi's intricate work in game narrative and newcomers alike.

At GDC, publisher Aksys Games did the first live demos of the game, which promises to be just as macabre as its predecessors. At that event, I got a chance to sit down with Uchikoshi, and further inquire about his methodologies for developing story-based games.

The following Q&A reveals a bit more about his working process -- a topic I've tried to investigate in prior conversations with the developer. You can also watch his 2013 GDC talk on visual novel design at the GDC Vault.

We talked when Virtue's Last Reward came out, and I asked you how you could design such an intricate story with so many paths. Now you've gone even further. It's non-linear and even more spread out. How do you design such an intricate story?

Kotaro Uchikoshi: With this title, we set out to solve all the lingering mysteries from VLR. That gave us the basic framework to work within. We needed to figure out how to explain away all the mysteries without contradicting any of the setups from the previous title.

If we only stuck to that, it would be kind of constricting, and it wouldn't be so much fun to create -- or for the player. So we decided to add extra side-stories to give the narrative a little extra punch.

Spoiler alert: As you know from the previous titles, certain characters have the ability to jump through time and space to different histories. Taking that gimmick into consideration also opens up more narrative possibilities.

Our team consisted of myself and two other writers. So we are able to kind of bounce ideas off each other and figure out the best way to make everything work.

It's hard to understand how you can write a story that is influenced by random events. I'm curious how that works.

KU: I've always found the idea of coincidences to be very interesting. Just the fact that we're here sitting and talking to each other is its own form of destiny. Things happen today because they are meant to be -- because of certain actions that we made in the past to get to where we are today.

That's been an idea that's always fascinated me. I'm quite the reader, so I did all sorts of research and read lots on the topic in preparation for writing the game.

Floating Fragments

But when you demoed the new game, you chose to pull the trigger. However, after that, it's possible that the character Sigma lives, or Sigma dies. You don't know even what outcome the player is going to get. How does that even work?

KU: That's a very good point. That was a challenge that I inflicted upon myself in writing this title. I want to take a different approach than usual novel/adventure titles. In particular like what we're looking at with the Floating Fragments. It puts the player in control of editing the story.

In a normal visual novel, the story takes place on a fixed timeline. The writer is trying to entertain the player with this interesting story. With the Floating Fragments system, the player chooses how they remix the story.

Even though the Floating Fragments are all decided ahead of time, there's a limited amount of them and the player will eventually play them all. Depending on the order you go through them, each player will have their own unique experience.

Did you end up finding that you changed what fragments you made -- or the events -- as you were making the game, or did you decide all that stuff up front? It seems like having that kind of structure would invite you to make changes, but I also know that if you do too much you could mess up the story, so you'd probably be cautious.

KU: Pretty much all I can say is I had to be extremely careful in planning out and plotting the progression of the story. Like you said, you change one fragment and it affects everything around it. I just had to know what I was doing going into it, being extremely cautious.

In terms of how I decided to break up the different fragments, I wanted to break up the story in a way that would be most entertaining to the player.

In between the second game and the third game you wrote the anime series Punch-Line. Did you learn anything from directing that anime series that you brought back into games? Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience contributed for you?

KU: Compared to the previous titles, Zero Time Dilemma is more of a cinematic storytelling style. When you're writing an anime, of course it's more cinematic by default. I was able to take some of these scriptwriting tips and tricks that I learned from Punch-Line and applied them into doing the story for Zero Time Dilemma.

Just to set the record straight, for Punch-Line, we're also releasing a game in April.

That's right. I'd forgotten that. I read that, but it hasn't been announced for the U.S. yet.

I watched Punch-Line, and I've played the other two games in the Zero Escape franchise. The stories tend to be very intricate. What is it about intricate stories that appeals to you?

KU: I don't really mean for my stories to be this complicated. Honestly, I'd rather write simpler stories, but it's what happens.

Do you think it's because you like to include these themes of philosophy and speculative fiction? What comes first? Is it the deep themes, or is it the complicated stories?

KU: In the case of Zero Time Dilemma, it started off with a central theme. In order to convey this theme, I thought about what different elements would best work for that. That's why I have all these seemingly unrelated bits of speculative fiction and philosophy.

For example, I have this philosophical idea that fits into creating the core of one of the fragments. You put a bunch of the fragments together, and you get a piece of the whole story. So it builds from little pieces into a larger story.

Another thing I noticed about your storytelling is you seem to have a fascination with telling stories out of order, so the player or viewer has to put it together in their head and you don't really understand it until it all comes together. Can you talk about why you find that interesting?

KU: If you look at other adventure games, you can see that a lot of titles end up dealing with the concept of time. Adventure games are kind of on rails. There's a flowchart, that's how the story proceeds. You can look at that as the passage of time.

All adventure game writers who hone their craft, end up reaching the topic of time. The question is, what do you do with it?

The timeline of Virtue's Last Reward. Intricate, but seemingly put to shame by Zero Time Dilemma.

Obviously I haven't played Zero Time Dilemma yet, but it seems like if you look at 999 and VLR and this game, the timeline aspect gets more intricate from game to game.

Is that a natural consequence of what you just talked about? That as an adventure game designer, you end up playing more and more with time?

KU: That's a really tough question. Thinking about it, I'd have to say it's because I don't want to create your run-of-the-mill type of adventure game. I want to do something that other visual novels haven't done before. In order to do that, you need to introduce new plots twists and tricks. Personally, I think a story that you can't predict is much more interesting than one you can.

Yeah, for sure. But then you also run the risk of going too far -- creating stories that are too far out there. Do you have a point where you have to stop yourself?

KU: I admit that it is easy to go too far. Even in the most recent title, looking back some things I'm like, "Did I really have to go that far out there?" It's an imperfect art. I think those imperfections are what make the game interesting.

To be fair, while you're going through the different segments of the game, you don't necessarily feel like the story is so out-there that you can't understand it. It's presented in a fairly straightforward manner, but when you get down to it and try to look at how everything fits together, that's when it starts to get complicated.

Something I'm curious about is if you play through VLR all the way to the end, it's clear that you had an idea for the setting and events for Zero Time Dilemma already in mind. But it ended up taking a long time to make this game, so I was wondering if things have changed at all from your initial ideas.

KU: Definitely. It's kind of the same for all titles but definitely, of course, for Zero Time Dilemma. The game structure changed from when I initially thought of it to when I got around to implementing it.

To give you an example, when you're writing based on the characters' point of view, the characters take on a life of their own and make their own decisions, and decide where they want to go. But as a creator, you want to take the story in a particular direction, but the characters are pulling it in another direction. You have to think of a way to reconcile that.

For me, I usually let the characters go where they'd want to go, rather than forcing them to go where I want them to go. Hence the structure and story might change from how I originally thought things should be.

There's another question I have about the characters. Based on your previous work, you like playing with the idea of identity. Characters don't know who they themselves are -- in a literal sense, sometimes. What is interesting to you about that?

KU: You hit on a good point, but it's really hard for me to put it into words. It's one of the main themes of the new game. If you go through and play the story, I think you can understand what my stance is with identity and people trying to figure out who they are.

I think I write about identity issues because it's something that I constantly struggle with, myself. I'm always thinking about who I am. In some ways I think I have a multi-faceted personality. My characters also deal with that same issue.

There's something else. The settings of the games are all similar, in that people are trapped and trying to escape. You'll other kinds of survival game stories in Japan. What's so fascinating about a story like this?

KU: In terms of video games, it's basically a budgetary situation. If you put a bunch of characters in an enclosed space, all you need to do for asset creation is create this enclosed space for them to interact within.

If you're a triple-A, big company, you don't really need to worry about asset creation. But someone like us who's more medium-tier, it's definitely a consideration of budget versus game content. Danganronpa has the same thing.

I didn't expect such a practical answer. I thought you were going to say something about characters getting into conflict, or extreme situations, or something like that.

KU: [laughs] I'm sorry to ruin your dreams, but it's a very practical consideration for us.

It makes a lot of sense. I guess the last question that I have is have you thought about what you could do in VR with a scenario like this?

KU: I definitely want to work with VR sometime down the road. This sort of escape game setup is extremely well suited for VR. It would be like you're trapped inside your own room, trying to figure out how to get out. It'd feel very realistic.

At the same time, to go back to what we were talking about, it would be on the cheap side to produce, so we wouldn't have to worry about budget so much.

Just doing an escape room scenario by itself wouldn't be so interesting, so I definitely want to add some kind of narrative on top of that.

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