Welcome to the Nonary Game...
If you havent yet played Aksys Games unsettling Zero Escape series--consisting of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (aka 999) and Virtues Last Reward--youre missing out. Though they might not be the biggest names out there, these visual-novel adventures have received acclaim from critics and players alike, and theres never been a better time to jump onboard; 999 is on its way to iOS this summer, and its sequel, Virtues Last Reward, is currently free on PS Vita via PlayStation Plus. (VLR is also available on 3DS.) The iOS version of 999 features enhanced visuals and a new flowchart for skipping to different parts of the branching story, along with the same great plot, writing, and characterization that made it a cult hit on DS; however, the object-oriented puzzle sequences have been removed and replaced with new story scenes, making it a visual novel in the purest sense.
We recently had the chance to speak to the series creator/director/scenario writer, Kotaro Uchikoshi, as well as translator Nobara Noba Nakayama and localization editor Ben Bateman of Aksys Games, to learn some behind-the-scenes info about the existing Zero Escape titles and gather tidbits about the expected sequel.
Warning: Spoilers below!
GamesRadar: Id like to know some more behind-the-scenes info about Virtues Last Reward. Like, why did you choose to make antagonist Zero III a rabbit?
Uchikoshi: For Japan, theres folklore where when you look up at the moon, the shape--the shadows--looks, to the Japanese, like a rabbit. I think its like the Japanese are making the mochi with a rabbit. Any Japanese person would pretty much know that. Its like the man on the moon for you. I put that in because at the end of the game you know that the whole game is set on the moon. At first I do it without trying to hint that too much, but at the end when its revealed, for the Japanese people theyll be like, Oh! So thats why he made it a rabbit! Because were on the moon!
Ben Bateman: I assume that this was intentional too--the rabbit thing would go over the heads of most of an English audience, but the fact that Lunas name is Luna and she is part of that installation is also sort of a similar hint.
GR: Theres one part in VLR thats been really bugging me. Theres one part where Sigma wakes up and rubs his eyes, so how does he not notice that he has a freaking cyborg eye?
Uchikoshi: Um, I think that he only rubbed one eye. Which was the real eye.
Bateman: An alternative hypothesis would be that because his arms are also mechanical, so knowing that he would do that, he programmed his arms to not feel the response of the fake eye, so he feels a real eye, even though theres a fake eye there.
Uchikoshi: Well go with that. [laughs]
GR: What are some other secrets of Virtues Last Reward that havent been made public yet?
Uchikoshi: You know on the test site theres a tape with the voices? That girl is the basis of Luna. And she meets Sigma eventually and becomes the model of Luna. But if you say that itll ruin the surprise and the fun of the next game.
GR: I think I heard about this. Her names Diana, right?
Nobara Noba Nakayama: Yeah! And [also] theres a scene on the computer, where it has all the data loading and it has all the information.... We wanted to change everything; on the screen originally it was a whole different set of numbers. We went through all this debate to change it. All the names--we changed them. So my name is in it, Bens name is in it...
Bateman: If you look at the screen that has all the GAULEM [robot] product IDs--and theres like 36 of them--I changed every single one of them so that each one of them is a reference to something. Theres one for each of us in the office. Theres some that refer to other things like characters from Dr. Who and things like that... Its not plot-related, but its an Easter egg.... Theres one for each of the main six from My Little Pony.
Noba: And then he also put in his girlfriends name. So theres that for the US audience. You guys can try to figure out what they refer to. That was a fun one. We pushed for that.
GR: So, how far in development is the third Zero Escape game?
Uchikoshi: The story itself I pretty much have developed in my head, but it hasnt really gone into production yet. Theres no promises yet, but maybe in the near future we can proceed. This is all from the fact that I was invited to GDC to speak, and that we were nominated for best narrative. That sort of led to the users voice saying, We want the next one, and that is pushing it. Thanks to the users, the company has pushed forward with thinking to the next level of actual development, but theres no promises just yet.
GR: Do you know who the protagonist will be?
Uchikoshi: Yes. I have it in my head. But I think that the user should look forward to it. I cant say anything yet!
GR: VLR pointed to everything in the next game happening at the Mars test facility. Is that where it would be set?
Uchikoshi: Yes. The stage will be there.
GR: Anything else you can tell us about what will be in the third game?
Uchikoshi: Oh lord! Please give me the strength! Grrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaa!
GR: Um...OK. So, anyway, youve mentioned wanting to make mobile titles for a while, and now 999 is on iOS. How does it feel to have the game go multiplatform, and what made it a good fit for the platform?
Uchikoshi: Im very happy that it has gone to iOS, and Im hoping that more people will get introduced to the world of the Zero Escape series this way. However, Ive also learned that releasing games on smartphones imposes various limitations and obstacles, and is very hard. Its different in terms of hardware, but also in terms of sales. Still, we learned what we could and could not do, so I think it was definitely worthwhile. This whole experience was very educational.
GR: The removal of the escape/puzzle scenes (from 999 for iOS) is fairly significant. What made you arrive at that decision, and how do you think it impacts players enjoyment of the game?
Uchikoshi: We cut out the escape scenes because we wanted people who are not that great at puzzles, and people who don't play games at all, to be able to get into my story. The latter group especially, since they likely dont own any gaming consoles. However, even people who don't own game consoles have smartphones, right? So as a result, the iOS version will allow you to experience the story as if it was a novel or manga. This is like a deluxe version of an electronic book. For this title, you can expect to enjoy beautiful graphics that you can't experience in a normal electronic book. Weve also updated the sound effects and music.
Now, of course, in our minds 999 is only complete when it includes the escape part. We took that into consideration when we set the price point for the iOS version, so we hope youll understand. If people play 999 on iOS and feel like something is missing, then they can always play it on the DS.
GR: Other than the new visuals and the flowchart, is there anything new in 999 for iOS that fans of the DS version should be looking for?
Uchikoshi: Hopefully people will enjoy the new, improved art and the flowchart--which makes it much easier to go back to particular paths. But to be honest with you, we made the iOS version for people who have never played the DS version. My intent was to offer this story to as many people as possible.
GR: If you could make a game without worrying about funding or budget or sales numbers, what would it be like?
Uchikoshi: I personally played The Walking Dead and I think its a really well-made adventure game. I would like to make something of that scale.
GR: Do you have any interest in developing for next-gen consoles like PS4, or are you more interested in the handheld and mobile market?
Uchikoshi: Yes, I do! I would like to develop for PS4, but you know how The Walking Dead is multiplatform? I would like to do it like that where I could do it for PS4 but also for iOS and mobile and all the other platforms.
GR: Finally, VLR frequently mentioned Schrdingers Cat. So tell me: is my cat at home alive or dead?
Uchikoshi: Right now, currently, hes in two states. Hes both alive and dead, so when you open your door when you get home, youll know the answer.
What's in a story?
No word yet on the cat, but we hope that this has answered some of your burning questions. If you're interested in Zero Escape or just want to give the first game another run through, check out the iOS port hitting later this summer.