Sometimes, you’ll come across a piece of media at just the right time, and it’ll hit just right. Maybe the tone will match how your feeling at the particular moment, maybe the events will resemble some part of your life… There are myriad reasons for us to connect with any piece of art. The fact that I felt so connected to the story of Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, however, is rather depressing. These stories of nine people trapped inside a game where life and death truly hang in the balance aren’t exactly ‘realistic’ – in fact, they’re really rather far fetched. At least, they should be.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is a collection of the first two games in the trilogy, 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, and Virtue’s Last Reward. They are visual novels with occasional escape room puzzles, making them reminiscent of games such as Danganronpa or Ace Attorney, but the timelines and events are much more twisty and timey-wimey. The first game in the collection, 999, feels ever so slightly more grounded, as it sees 9 people abducted and stranded on a sinking ship where they have to try to cooperate in order to escape. There are a few supernatural and philosophical themes that come up through the game, such as morphogenetic fields, but it feels relatively earthed. The focus of the game lies heavily on the mysteries of why you’ve been forced to participate in the game, who the mysterious ‘Zero’ is and what links the participants.
999 is a joy to play – the story is fascinating and every new droplet of information that you get that brings you closer to understanding the mysteries that swirl around you is exquisitely satisfying. As you play through the game, you’ll make a variety of choices which will affect how you proceed through the timeline. There’s immense replay value here as you strive to leave no stone unturned, and, in a similar way to Nier Automata, you’ll end up having to play through all of the various timelines and endings before you uncover the truth of the situation.
So here you might be wondering, how did I feel connected to these games? Well, as much as I loved the first one, 999, it was Virtue’s Last Reward that really lined up with real life in some creepy ways that just made the experience so much more visceral for me. Similarly to 999, VLR sees a group of nine people wake up inside an isolated facility as they try to survive the newly redesigned Nonary game and understand why they’ve been brought here. On their way they’ll uncover conspiracy theories about the moon and a mysterious virus that is allegedly ravaging the Earth, causing people to isolate in attempt to halt the spread. Sound familiar?
Locked up at home, teaching online, holding meetings with colleagues through video calls, separated from my family, I’d never felt quite so alone, quite so able to empathise so much with such a dark tale. VLR has gained itself a pretty decent fanbase in the years since its release, and I’m sure of I’d played it earlier I would have loved it too, but playing it during the coronavirus pandemic made it hit so much closer to home. As the story unfolded, I felt sucked ever deeper into this world and the characters as they tried to uncover the truth of their situation. Beyond obvious links to real life, the criss-crossing web of plotlines spanning alternate timelines and universes made for a thoroughly gripping tale that had me enraptured.
I think the most interesting thing about both games in this collection, VLR especially, is that I really feel that this is a story that can only be told through the gaming medium. We often come across games with inarguably good stories, but tell me that The Last Of Us couldn’t exist as a movie or a book. Sure, the experience might be a little different, but the underlying story beats could be the same. In others, such as the Far Cry series, the story just serves as motivation to keep you playing the game and exploring the world, gradually fading in importance as you uncover your own fun in the world’s sandbox-like playground. With The Nonary Games however, I truly feel that this tale can only exist in the medium of video games, and as a result, it stands to me as one of the biggest arguments for games as an art medium.
After finishing The Nonary Games collection, I felt myself looking back on the experience regularly, at how much I loved the characters and the world, even pondering some of the questions that the game raises about personal choice, human relationships and destiny. It’s a fascinating game which explores some really deep questions, and I’d recommend it to anyone.