Welcome to the latest installment of our nostalgia-inducing column, Memory Pak, where we’ll delve into some of gaming’s most memorable moments, good and bad.
Ten years ago, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward was released in the US. In honor of this anniversary, Kate has a few thoughts on the nature of kindness and cruelty to explore…
Of all the psychological experiments out there, I think my favorite is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The premise is simple: two prisoners in separate rooms are asked to either cooperate with the law and turn the other over, or remain silent. The twist is that their reward, or punishment, depends not only on what they do, but on what the other person does. If both are silent, each one serves one year; if they both try to rat the other out, they each serve two years.
But if one keeps quiet and the other rats them out, then the imprisoned snitch is rewarded with freedom, and the one who was trying to protect the other gets three years in prison. It’s a fantastic example of how bad deeds pay off in a society built on good, but also that cynicism and mistrust only end up harming everyone. Obviously, the best outcome for society is for both people to independently decide to protect each other, but it’s easy to see how a year in prison can feel as a punishment when 0 years is on the table.
Writer-director Kotaro Uchikoshi has built his entire career around the themes of selfishness, teamwork, human psychology, and morality. His second game as director, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, focuses in particular on the prisoner’s dilemma, both as a mechanical conceit and as a narrative theme. It might be my favorite of the Zero Escape series for this very reason.
Like its previous game, 999, there are nine characters, imprisoned in a convoluted escape room game where death is the losing condition. However, between the escape rooms, each of the nine characters is asked to participate in a twisted version of the prisoner’s dilemma, called the Ambidex Game. Three pairs are created, each with two people voting together against the third alone, as seen here:
The added twist is that the rewards and punishments are not years in prison, but wristband points. All characters in the game have a watch-style bracelet, which keeps track of their points, and they all start the game with 3 BP. Get to 9 and you can escape the facility, but if your BP drops to zero… you die. oh and only people with 9 BP can escape, and the rest are locked up forever. A little worse than prison, right?
Like 999, VLR runs on multiple branches, so you’ll be able to see what happens with a bunch of different output. People are killed just so people can vote “Betray” with impunity; people lie so they can convince their opponents to choose “Ally”. The original prisoner game had none of this: prisoners are not supposed to meet between voting rounds, and are definitely You’re not supposed to do escape rooms together with the guy who may have betrayed you for a bounty.
(The VLR version, in which there are more than two prisoners and past decisions can influence future ones, is called “iterated n-person dilemma”. This isn’t particularly important, it just sounds cool and clever.)
The parts of the escape room and the discussions that take place before and after each vote are the point of the game. Sure, it’s easy to vote “Betray” against someone anonymous in another room, but having to face them afterwards and avoid their wrath is something else.
The bracelet points just add to this: someone with 1 point left on their bracelet is going to be completely desperate, and while you might be able to convince them to ally themselves, they know that betraying you will push them even further back from the brink. And apparently, having 6 BP is something you want to avoid at all costs, because anyone who faces you automatically betray you to prevent you from getting 9 BP and leaving them behind. It’s tricky, even before you add the social dynamics!
But you might be thinking, “hey, why doesn’t everyone pick Ally every time? That way, they’d be out in three turns, right?” Yes! That’s right. But that’s in a vacuum, where every character is good, every character has no preexisting relationships, and every character is trustworthy. Obviously, that is not the case. People have hidden motivations, character traits that make them selfish or cowardly, and in the case of the protagonist, Sigma, he has seen people Ally and Betray in other timelines.
So, you end up with a showdown. No one trusts anyone else, not even good people. Because, as the title says in Japanese: “Good people die.”
That’s not entirely real. The Japanese title has a double meaning: it can be translated as “good people die”, but also “I want to be a good person”, reflecting the two sides of the Ally/Betrayal choice. The English title was an attempt to replicate this duality, conflating the two phrases “virtue is its own reward” and “it has gone to its last reward”, i.e. death. “The ultimate reward of virtue” basically means that the only reward for virtue is death.
It seems that VLR and its villain, Zero, are telling us that virtue, goodness, and hope are nonsense in a world that rewards evil. The prisoner’s dilemma follows the same maxim, at first glance. Betrayal has the highest reward. Nihilism and sociopathy will always trump kindness and blind trust.
But what VLR and the prisoner’s dilemma actually end up telling us is that a world in which everyone cares about themselves ends with no one winning. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as they say. By offering the opportunity to be evil, to betray a fellow man for one’s own benefit, both the VLR and the Prisoner’s Dilemma end up giving more importance to the virtuous choice of allying.
You can feel the relief in the game when everyone chooses Ally. It seemed highly unlikely, given the tension and fear, but all the characters chose to trust each other, even in the face of death or being trapped in this place. .
When you dig into VLR, you realize that this isn’t the only time kindness wins, even in a cruel world: the same bracelets everyone wears, which will kill them if they hit 0 BP, inject them with an anesthetic. and a muscle relaxant, giving its victims a surprisingly gentle death. Even the antagonists, Zero, Dio, and Brother, are doing cruel things for good reason. And the game won’t let you go until you’ve figured out a way for everyone to get what they need and stop any unnecessary cruelty that may occur along the way.
It’s easy to think that the world is an evil place, and that there are a lot of people out there who are real bastards, it’s true. But in Virtue’s Last Reward, the final message is not one of suffering, nihilism, and sadism; it is one of hope. Humanity is painted in shades of gray. We just have to trust that the inherent goodness present in everyone wins out in the end.
What message did VLR leave you? Do you agree with me that humanity is inherently good? Tell me your opinion in the comments!