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Visual Novel / Zero Escape

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Zero Escape is a trilogy of Visual Novels for handheld systems published by Chunsoft (now known as Spike Chunsoft) and directed and written by Kotaro Uchikoshi. Each game involves nine individuals waking up and finding themselves in an unknown location, in which they are forced to play a Deadly Game by somebody named Zero. The game consists of the players, each equipped with bracelets with numbers on them, using said bracelets to open doors that lead to puzzles, eventually finding and opening the number 9 door which leads to freedomnote . As they play, they work to figure out where they are and who Zero is. The further details of this premise vary depending on the game.

Games in the series:

  • Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999): College senior Junpei is kidnapped one night in his apartment, and he awakes on a replica of the Titanic along with eight other people. The players then discover that the replica is sinking, and in 9 hours, the ship will be crushed due to the pressure. He and the others, unwilling participants in what is called the "Nonary Game", then split up in an attempt to seek a way out. Released for the DS in 2009 in Japan, 2010 internationally.
  • Virtue's Last Reward (VLR): PhD student Sigma is captured in his car one night and transported to an unknown facility, where he awakes with eight other people. The game this time is the "Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition", which allows for the players to "ally" or "betray" each other in special cases, in an attempt to rack up 9 points so that the only exit to the facility is unlocked, and only for the person with 9 points. Released for the Vita and 3DS in 2012.
  • Zero Time Dilemma (ZTD): Once again, nine people (some of whom return from previous games) are trapped in an underground facility. However, the game this time is not the Nonary Game, but the "Decision Game", which forces the players to commit horrible acts if they want to make it out of the facility. This game was placed on hold due to the previous games' lack of sales in Japan, before finally being released in June 2016. Released for Steam, 3DS, Vita and later the PS4.
  • The Nonary Games: A bundle containing an Updated Re-release of 999 (that contains higher quality graphics and voice acting), and a straight port of VLR. Released in 2017 for Steam, the PS4 and the Vita.

Common themes include science and pseudoscience, more specifically the connection between human minds and to what extent that can be brought to. The games are also well-known for having shocking twists and turns in their plotlines; because of this, beware of spoilers, even when reading information about one game without having played the others. (Our pages for each game tend to be relatively spoiler-free regarding other games, but try to be wary regardless.)

Compare to the Infinity series, which Kotaro Uchikoshi also had a hand in writing and shares some themes and twists with Zero Escape, as well as Danganronpa, the creator of which is friends with Uchikoshi, which leads to them inspiring each other with their games. Ironically, Danganronpa is far more popular than Zero Escape, perhaps in part due to its usage of the same tropes which Uchikoshi intentionally avoided, such as a school setting and young protagonists.

Tropes that apply to the series as a whole (and only the series as a whole):

  • Arc Number:
    • Nine and zero. Constantly. As well as a little bit of 3 and 6, due to their relationship with 9.
    • Zero Time Dilemma's are 6 and 10. Yet, it tries to fool the player into thinking it's 9, like in 999 and VLR.
  • Arc Symbol: The letter "Q" shows up quite a bit. This is partially due to the fact that, in Japanese, "9" and "Q" are pronounced the same, and a lowercase "q" looks like a number 9.
  • All There in the Manual: Uchikoshi has held a Q&A session for each game so far. Downplayed, though, as he's also stated that people should come to their own conclusions about what isn't in the game, considering people having questions to be a failure on his part.
  • Anti-Villain: Every Zero, surprisingly enough. Akane was trying to save her own life as well as take revenge on the people who murdered her. In VLR, all three of them (mainly Akane and Sigma) are trying to save the entirety of humanity. In ZTD, Delta is trying to cause his own birth and save humanity without killing three quarters of it (if he wasn't lying about the latter in the first place). They just... keep having to abduct people and force them into deadly games to do these things. This is played with too, however, with some characters finding Akane's actions in VLR to be selfish and unnecessary. Delta may even count as a dark parody or self-deconstruction, as he goes to a great deal of effort to describe his complex motivations, but the characters aren't satisfied by it and are quick to point out his crimes.
  • Anyone Can Die: This series revels in how many different ways it can kill its characters. Absolutely no one is safe, and due to the nature of the games, everyone dies at least once, including the Big Bad... but at the same time, almost everyone survives in parallel timelines, often due to the actions of their doomed alternate selves.
  • Big Bad: Zero II/Brother/Q/Delta for the series as a whole, as he is the leader of Free The Soul, Akaneís Arch-Enemy, and the one who manipulates the other characters and events of the series according to his plan- which, that being said, is to save humanity from a religious fanatic, whether that be through killing the Fanatic and six million through Radical-6, or engineering all the Deadly Games to get the participants to master their Time Travel powers. Akaneís antagonism, including creating the two Nonary Games, was done to stop Delta- which unbeknownst to her was All According to Plan.
  • Big Good: Zero I/Akane for the series as a whole. She organizes events to save herself in 999, pushes Dr. Klim to create the AB project to stop Radical-6 in VLR, infiltrates D-com along with Sigma and Phi for the same reason in ZTD, and is the leader of Crash Keys. That being said, Akane is a bit more morally grey than most examples.
  • Butt-Monkey: Considering everything happens because a snail led a girl into being killed and a Frane Up leading to Akane Kurashiki getting orphaned and picked for Gentarou Hongou's Nonary Game, everyone in this franchise is horrifically unlucky in getting involved in the following events.
  • Cerebus Rollercoaster: The first game was relatively dark, with detailed descriptions of death via explosion. Due to Executive Meddling, the sequel had a much lighter, more comedic tone, despite even higher stakes and the story taking place in a Bad Future following a Hate Plague that caused multiple people to be Driven to Suicide. The third game takes the first one's darkness and gore up to eleven, contrasting heavily with the previous installment.
    • Arguibly Justifed in-universe too. Akane was Zero in the first game, and was effectively Co-Zero in the second game. The Zero of the third game was a much more ruthless if still as well intentioned individual.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In addition to each game having its own Chekhov's Armoury, there is one particular gun use between games: In 999, Ace mentions a CAS freezing method that could theoretically be used to create a Human Popsicle. One game later, it is indeed used that way as a major plot point.
  • The Chessmaster: Zero, naturally. The planning for each game is very meticulous. Exaggerated with Delta — even in that Golden Ending, after the characters do all they can to rebel against his game, he reveals that even that was an outcome he was working towards.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Pretty much every character has at least one philosophical monologue, often wrapped around a scientific (or pseudoscientific) subject.
  • Darker and Edgier: The series slowly gets darker with each new entry. Initially the first game is just a group of nine people trying to escape together in an allotted timeframe while also trying to find out who they can trust. The second game ramps things up with psychological warfare and manipulations, plus many more deaths in nearly every route and the reveal that the game involves trying to save the world and prevent 6 billion deaths. The final game combines this with Bloodier and Gorier, with many brutal and graphic deaths happening no matter what decisions are made.
  • Deadly Game: Both of the Nonary Games can very easily be this. However, it's also theoretically possible for everyone to escape alive if they follow the rules and work together, which ironically means the games are not zero-sum games. On the other hand, the Decision Game has death as a necessity.
  • Downer Ending: Most of the endings, partially due to a large amount of them being "GAME OVER" endings, and partially due to escaping being the motive of the characters and thus only the final ending of each game can have them truly escaping.
  • Easy Amnesia: One character per game claims to be missing their memories.
    • In 999, it's Seven.
    • In VLR, it's K.
    • In ZTD, it's Q, or rather, Sean.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Due to the games being mystery games, the true endings will usually contain most of the massive twists.
  • The End... Or Is It?: "TO BE CONTINUED" endings, which require you to gain information from a different ending before you can proceed.
  • Everybody Lives: In the best endings in all three games, almost - in 999, Teruaki Kubota couldn't be saved, and some non-Nonary Game-players die as well, although they all had it coming. Played straight in VLR with regards to everyone involved with the Nonary Game, but there's a much greater death toll in the backstory. In ZTD, taking the alternate timelines into account, the final body count is negative 6 billion.
  • Exact Time to Failure: In 999, it's nine hours. VLR has countdowns to when the players have to be in certain locations or perform certain actions. ZTD downplays this, giving each team 90 minutes before Laser-Guided Amnesia kicks in.
  • Extradimensional Emergency Exit: SHIFTers are people who can transfer their consciousness to alternate timelines when faced with extreme danger. When this dimensional "jump" occurs, the performer takes over the body of their alternate selves, who die in their place in the original timeline.
  • First-Person Perspective: In every game, even ZTD.
  • Foreshadowing: Very, very often. Done to great effect especially with odd-sounding lines that the player is very likely to dismiss; lines that in hindsight are talking very blatantly about endgame plot twists.
  • Gameplay and Story Integration: There is very little abstraction.
  • Gainax Ending: Any ending that has a shocking reveal that isn't explained until much later. The final endings, although they do rationalize most of the game up until then, tend to bring in sudden new reveals of their own, to be addressed in the following game.
  • Godzilla Threshold: In each installment, Zero thinks the situation for themselves has gotten so bad that the only way to fix it is to force nine people to play a game that may cost the death of the entire cast if they don't do what Zero wants them to do. It's particularly grave in Zero Time Dilemma, where 6 billion lives depend on the outcome of the Decision Game.
  • Golden Ending: Every game has Multiple Endings, and one of them lets everyone live. You are never able to get it in your first playthrough, though — first, you need to complete other endings for plot reasons.
    • Played with in ZTD. There is an ending where Everybody Lives, but at the same time everybody also dies in another timeline. The final ending is initiated when everyone regains their memories of all the timelines in a situation where they are trapped in the bunker with a bomb about to go off. The only way they can escape with all their gained knowledge is to SHIFT their consciousnesses to a version of themselves that never played the game at all, allowing them to escape with all their knowledge that will let them save the world. However, the consciousnesses of the bodies they SHIFT into will be swapped into the bodies of the versions of themselves in the bunker, meaning they will die not understanding what is happening. And in the other timeline, Delta will get away with everything since they can't prove that he committed any crimes (since in that timeline, none of the games actually happened and any evidence of kidnap has been cleaned up). He does give Carlos a gun to let Carlos kill him in revenge if Carlos desires, but we don't see the result of this.
  • Hidden Depths: Pretty much every character has secrets about them, sometimes of this nature. In particular, the fanservicey characters tend to be very competent with technology.
  • Hurricane of Euphemisms: In some of the Does This Remind You of Anything? scenes, particularly the elevator scene in 999.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Everyone frequently makes puns for no particular reason. Eventually lampshaded in VLR when Phi calls out Sigma on making a pun other than the one she expected him to make.
  • Info Dump: Often of fictional scientific experiments, or pointing out interesting observations about real science. The rest of the time, it's backstory or attempts to rationalize some of the more confusing time-related shenanigans.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: A lot of your time spent playing will involve trying to connect tons of seemingly disparate mysteries and contradictions. This is especially true in ZTD in which you play individual fragments at different places on the timeline.
  • Let's Split Up, Gang!: Justified, as the Nonary Games have limits for how many people can go through each door at a time.
  • The Many Deaths of You: In every game, the nine players meet all sorts of deaths along the way, some more gruesome than others. Taking all the timelines into account, the Player Character can be stabbed, blow up, die by poison, be shot, commit suicide... Zero Time Dilemma exaggerates this trope, taking the ways of dying over the dozen.
  • Mind Screw: Of the 'complex application of science/pseudoscience' variety.
    • The branching endings are actual in-universe timelines. Expect these games to call into question who you're playing as as well.
  • Mind Screwdriver: The true endings try to explain a lot of what happened throughout the game, but expect to be confused regardless.
  • Mood Whiplash: There's a lot of comedy in-between the very serious and very dark parts. Justified as humans in a similar situation would likely try to lighten the mood to make up for the scenario they've found themselves in.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: With colorful casts and very few organised groups, this is unavoidable. There are characters who will try to save everyone no matter what, there are those who would like to save everyone but are realistic about it, there are those who try to save those they personally care about and don't care about others, and those who only care about themselves, and those who have their own secret agendas during the games. Depending on choices, one character may be one or the other of those, and some characters only appear to be something and are in fact something else.
  • Multiple-Choice Future: The universe runs on the many-worlds theory — there are countless universes out there, each being created as one of the results of any decision. Once trained, SHIFTers can move through them at will, and this becomes a requirement for reaching the Golden Ending.
  • Multiple Endings: Every game has more than one ending, with each installment surpassing the previously established record, reaching over thirty in Zero Time Dilemma. And you're going to have to get most of them — the first ending you get is merely the beginning.
  • Omega Ending: In each game, in order to get to the best possible ending, you first need to go through every other major ending (2/5 in 999, 12/22 in VLR, 15/32 in ZTD). This can take dozens of hours depending on the player's speed at puzzle solving.
  • Omniscient Morality License: Each game's Zero claims that normal justice is meaningless, as each Deadly Game's purpose is revealed to be a way to make the protagonist achieve Mental Time Travel and stop a Greater-Scope Villain, so Akane and Sigma Klim end up as Easily Forgiven while Delta's fate is left ambiguous. They all feel completely justified in putting the lives of the cast through hell for their greater goals, without explaining what these goals are, since most things the heroes do go All According to Plan.
  • Once per Episode:
    • A main character's left hand is severed, allowing their bracelets to come off without them immediately dying.note 
    • There is at least one person in the facility that is not one of the players.note 
    • A bad ending gives an Infodump and information necessary to reach the Golden Ending.
    • The Player Character knows things they can't possibly know thanks to the sharing of information via the morphogenetic field.
    • A lethal weapon is found during a room escape and left alone by the player character. Said weapon is later used in order to take a life.note 
    • There is a Jerkass woman with visibly huge breasts who turns out to be a genius in some field of knowledge.note 
    • One non-Zero player is a murderous sociopath (or become one) who will try to kill the rest of the cast.note 
    • Zero is revealed to be the player, though what this actually means is different between games note .
    • There will be a major, story-breaking-tier plot twist (with foreshadowings throughout the whole game) involving Zero's identity that plays on the player's perception of the story through deceptive mechanical presentation. This is something of a Signature Style for Kotaro Uchikoshi, as he employed similar twists in the Infinity series Major Spoilers! .
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: A lot of characters have codenames they invent (for security reasons in 999, for amnesia or secrecy reasons in VLR and ZTD). You end up learning some of their birth names later on.
  • Ontological Mystery: Where are we, why are we here, and who is Zero?
  • Point-and-Click Game: During the room escape fragments, you pick up several items, combine them and use them in different ways and in different parts of the room to unlock the exit door or trigger a cutscene. In the Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS versions, you can use your stylus to interact with the environment.
  • Protagonist Title: Near the end of every game, Zero is revealed to be the Player Character in some capacity. In 999, you play as Past!Akane seeing through Present!Junpei's eyes, while Present!Akane is Zero. In VLR, you play as 22-year-old Sigma who has unknowingly mentally time travelled into his 67-year-old body, while the actual 67-year-old Sigma is Zero. In ZTD, you play as Delta, who is Zero, watching the events unfold through security cameras and using mind control to get the team leaders to make the decisions he wants.
  • Psychic Powers: The morphogenetic field. It seems to vary between their users (called espers) from telepathy (being used by pretty much all the players of 999, minus possibly Seven, Ace, and the Ninth Man) to Mental Time Travel (Sigma, Phi, K, Akane, Junpei, Carlos, and Diana) to mind control (Delta). Since the field is a product of all of humanity, theoretically, anybody could use it under the right circumstances.
  • Religion of Evil: Free the Soul, which has apparently been operating for years - there's hints of it in 999, most notably the robes that Snake finds, and it becomes a major plot point in VLR.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Each installment in the series has major reveals which are heavily foreshadowed but not easy to pick out on an initial playthrough. These include young Akane being the Narrator All Along in 999, Sigma being an old man in VLR, and Delta's existence in ZTD. Once you know the twists, the hints are obvious, but they are presented in such a way that they can be easily written off without arousing suspicion.
  • Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory: Becomes much more prevalent in VLR and ZTD, where characters are explicitly included in the deadly games to train their ability to retain their cognizance across multiple timelines, using information gleaned in one reality to assist them in others. Sean, being a robot whose primary programming is housed within a quantum computer which is observiing multiple realities, similarly has this trait.
  • Sanity Slippage: Obviously, some characters are not going to respond to being thrown in a Deadly Game well.
  • Sequel Hook: Alice in 999 and the entirety of the final three endings in VLR.
  • Sequel Escalation: Each game ups the sci-fi elements more and more. 999 is largely set on reality, with several elements mentioned by the characters (such as the rat experiment Santa brings up) actually being done in real life. VLR dives deep into the sci-fi department, adding space travel, clones, robots, etc. into the story. ZTD then goes on and includes a transporter made by intergalactic beings. By the end of the third game, the morphogenetic field concept introduced in the first game seems tame.
  • Serial Escalation: The first game has six endingsnote  The second game has twenty-two. The third game has thirty-two. The stakes also change between the games: 999 is about saving a life and taking revenge on a small group of antagonists. VLR is about training two people to psychically transmit their consciousness in order to save the world from an apocalypse caused by an evil religion releasing a terrifyingly lethal virus several years in the past, the story of which is told in ZTD. And the third game is about preventing an even worse scenario which results in humanity's extinction, which the aforementioned apocalypse was intended to prevent.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: While swearing is always present, all three entries have an specific character that is much more dirty-mouthed than the rest. For the series as a whole, the most prominent one would be Dio, according to this chart (beware spoilers).
  • Stable Time Loop: In every game, some event has happened in the past thanks to the game's current events and Zero is trying to make sure the latter happen by forcing the nine players to perform them. It sometimes gets so impossibly confusing that you end up with a Mind Screw in your hands.
  • Start X to Stop X: A reoccurring motivation behind the Games, regardless of which Zero is in charge. They either take advantage of a tragedy to stop/prevent it or use the same methods as an even more evil third party to counter them.
  • Take Your Time: Despite the often-prevalent in-universe time limits, characters stand around talking quite a lot, and you have as much time as you want to solve puzzles. However, do expect the characters to get interrupted by said time limits at some points of the story anyway, though they still usually had more than enough time for whatever they were talking about.
  • Talking Is a Free Action: A common occurrence in this series is for characters to talk non-stop for exposition during moments of impending doom, completely ignoring any danger present for them. Each time, the story continues as if nothing happened.
  • The Series Has Left Reality: 999 is fairly grounded in reality despite being a Science Fiction title - putting aside the concepts presented by the characters, the workings of the Nonary Game aren't really out of this world. Meanwhile, VLR starts out with an Artificial Intelligence shaped like a talking rabbit. By ZTD, you have literal alien devices and timeline "shifting" that might as well be magic.
  • Time Bomb: Courtesy of Dio in VLR, and part of one of the rooms in ZTD, as well as the function of the Force Quit Box.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: It can get very tricky keeping track of the various timelines in each game, even with the included flowcharts. It gets even further complicated by characters jumping back to earlier points in time, jumping forward once an important action has been done in the past, jumping sideways between timelines, etc..
  • To Be Continued: Some timelines stop at a certain point and won't continue until you do something else in another timeline first, prompting the message "TO BE CONTINUED" note . This type of plot halt is infamous in 999, where your path to the True Ending becomes a "Shaggy Dog" Story and you have to go back to the very beginning of the game to try another path.
  • Translation Convention: The first game doesn't really deal with this as all the characters are Japanese. But starting with VLR, an increasingly larger percentage of the cast are American (Sigma, Phi, and Alice in VLR and Sigma, Phi, Diana, Carlos, Eric, and Mira in ZTD, with Dio, Luna, and K being ambiguous and Sean being a robot, though the boy he was based off of was likely American). None of the characters have any issues communicating with each other despite the potential language barrier (though in ZTD, Carlos, Junpei, and Akane would be the only team where that would be a concern and it's possible Junpei and Akane learned English considering their respective plans).
  • 20 Minutes in the Future: 999 takes place in 2027, and the other games take place at varying points afterwards. VLR makes mention of several antimatter power plants, long-term bases on the Moon, and a planned manned mission to Mars.
  • Twist Ending: Most endings in all three games occur in a completely unexpected way, to varying extents. This includes Gainax Endings where it feels like something just came out of left field.
  • Two-Part Trilogy: While VLR leads directly into ZTD, 999 is much more self-contained and only tied in to the others retroactively.
  • The Unfettered: Every Zero is this: a person who is willing to kill nine people in gruesome ways to achieve a big goal. Sure — given that these games have Multiple Endings, no one or few people are sacrificed in the best one... But Zero's means are still morally questionable at best. And some of the victims bring the memories of their own deaths from other timelines.
  • Violence is the Only Option: Every Zero has this belief. They think that the only way for their plans to succeed is to risk nine people's lives (or more) in many horrific ways. They never consider addressing the participants to try and come up with a collective plan.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: You have the opportunity to make choices that the other characters don't like. You usually have to do these things at some point in order to get the final ending.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Zero in each installment has a noble goal but pretty cruel and horrific means to get there. They force nine people to play a Deadly Game in order to ensure that some event in the past happens, as that event was possible thanks to the present's actions on behalf of the participants. Their secondary goal is to punish or stop an evil third party that caused or is going to cause a lot of trouble to Zero.
  • World of Snark: It's extremely common for characters to throw sarcastic remarks at each other during the Deadly Games. Virtually everyone in Virtue's Last Reward does this all the time, and the majority of the cast of the other two games does as well, to varying degrees of nastiness.
  • You Wake Up in a Room: All of the Nonary Game players wake up in an unknown location and must escape it as soon as possible before even beginning the game. In Zero Time Dilemma, the participants are injected a drug that makes them sleep and forget what happened in the previous 90 minutes, so they experience this trope to a degree repeteadly throughout the Decision Game.

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Video Example(s):


VLR: Two Milkmen Go Comedy

Phi decodes a seemingly nonsensical phrase left by whoever's running the deadly Nonary Game.

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Main / SignificantAnagram

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