His name might not ring as big a bell as Shigeru Miyamoto or Hideo Kojima, but in the niche world of the visual novel, Kotaro Uchikoshi is just as legendary. He wrote countless top quality Japanese visual novels before receiving critical acclaim in the West as creator and lead writer on the Zero Escape series. With the release of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors in 2009 he almost single-handedly put the visual novel genre on the map outside of Japan. In 2012, 999’s sequel Virtue’s Last Reward reeled in even more fans and the series became a genuine cult classic. The third, and final, entry called Zero Time Dilemma is finally out tomorrow. Perfect timing then for a cosy chat about past, present and future.
Can you give those unfamiliar with the games a quick introduction to the series?
The Zero Escape series is built on escape-the-room type sequences with puzzles and riddles in addition to plot centric story scenes (called Quest Part and Cinema Part in ZTD, respectively). The Cinema Part has branching paths depending on the choices you make. So your decision creates different ‘histories’ (or timelines/worldlines).
In a conventional adventure game, these ‘what if?’ scenarios are the main appeal, but for the Zero Escape series, the branching story is part of the theme.
In this world, you can communicate with people in the past or send your consciousness to a different world line. This gives me room to plug in many scientific, philosophical and occult theories. Entertainment for the thinking man.
If you have to single out one new feature you’re excited about, what would it be?
ZTD employs cinematic storytelling. The plot proceeds like you’re watching a TV show so it keeps the player engaged. The Cinema Part culminates in a Decision Part where you make a life-or-death choice—but it’s not as simple as ‘do you kill person A or person B?’
These conundrums are based on far-reaching themes that include physics, metaphysics, mathematics, logic, ethics, cosmology, ontology, epistemology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, philosophy of the mind, probability theory, game theory, decision theory, utilitarianism, communitarianism, occultism and so on.
The story doesn’t follow a conventional timeline—the scenario is split into several fragments except you don’t know where each fits into the timeline until after you clear it. For example, a fragment starts with one character murdered. How did they die? You must piece together the fragmented story to reveal the final, shocking truth.
Without spoiling: the ending of VLR left a lot of players confused. Did you always develop the script in order to be told over the course of a trilogy or were all the entries written separately?
When I wrote 999 I didn’t have a series in mind. The sequel happened because 999 was well received. Initially we planned to release parts 2 and 3 back-to-back for the DS, but during development the 3DS and PS Vita were released so we had to restart from scratch. We managed to get the sequel, VLR, out the door. After that we had foreign fans pounding on our door for the next installment so ZTD was finally greenlit.
Production of Zero Time Dilemma has been hanging by a thread for a long time due to disappointing sales of the previous entry in Japan. In your opinion: why did VLR fail to meet expectations while being so popular in the West?
I get this question a lot. Honestly, I have no idea! I’d like to ask you the same thing. Dear reader, if you have an answer for me, please send a tweet to @uchikoshi_eng. I read everything sent to me.
Will players who haven’t played or completed 999 or VLR be able to follow the story?
We certainly kept new players in mind. The three team leaders, Carlos, Q and Diana know nothing about the events of the previous games. They serve as stand-ins for new players. If the player has a question, odds are those three have the same question. “What incident occurred last year?”, “What happened in the future?” Akane, Junpei, Phi and Sigma fill in the blanks so even new players can follow along.
We used a similar method in VLR and people who hadn’t played 999 still say they enjoyed it.
The graphics look grittier and contain a lot less color than before. Why did you decide to noticeably alter the art style?
In a way ZTD represents a renewal for the series so I used a different character designer—in this case, Rui Tomono. Kinu Nishimura’s designs in the previous games have many fans (including myself), so the decision to change was a difficult one. After much internal discussion, we decided we wanted to create something new.
It’s difficult to phrase, but Tomono’s illustrations match the strong philosophical bent of ZTD. Think about white wines versus red wines. White wine goes with fish, red wine goes with meat. Both are delicious, but you can’t compare them.
Characters are locked up in a facility, playing mind games with a mysterious psycho while the constant threat of betrayal and death surrounds them. Is it a coincidence that Danganronpa and Zero Escape share a lot of story elements?
It’s partly coincidence and partly inevitable. Both titles are unconscious reflections of the state of society. Modernism is finished, Communism failed, the fire went out of Capitalism. Many people want a belief system to anchor themselves. Put another way, there’s no longer a clear-cut line between good and evil or right and wrong.
This amorphous dread welled up in the populace and spilled over to form the backbone of Zero Escape and Danganronpa.
There’s also a more pragmatic reason. If you don’t have the budget for an open world, you create a closed world. And to make a closed world believable, the logical thing is to have someone, or something, trap the cast.
Nowadays, there’s a lot of controversy around the oversexualized depiction of female characters in games. Do you think that’s a real issue?
This is my personal opinion, but I think other countries overreact to sexuality. Japanese men are often labeled as perverts and hentai (myself included), but the rate of sexual crimes in Japan is amongst the lowest in the world. I understand that this is partially because many crimes go unreported, but even so the number is very low. According to a report by Nation Master, the rate of sexual crimes is 1 in 100,000 people, ranked 105th out of 119 countries.
There are various factors for the low rate, but some theories owe it to Japan’s acceptance of sexual media. If you can satisfy your needs via fantasy, you don’t need to act them out the real world. Of course I’m not saying you can get away with anything so long as it’s fiction. But if something has an evident, ideological reason, (think of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), this freedom of expression should be protected.
How would you react as a creator if your game was called out as being sexist?
Some—albeit very few—people have accused the Zero Escape series of sexism. I can’t quite understand why. Women play an active role. I won’t go into details because of spoilers, but in 999 and VLR the women deceive and manipulate the men. Basically, the women win.
I have to assume that people who knock the games haven’t played them and are decrying the designs. Is it misogynistic to have female characters in revealing outfits? So where does that put RPGs with bikini armor that offers no obvious protection? I mean, there’s countless movies and manga with scantily dressed women. Then there’s the inverse—games with macho men in heavy armor swinging around weapons that weigh more than they do.
Don’t get me wrong! I like those sorts of games. I’m just showing how silly it sounds to baselessly label something as ‘sexist.’
Zero Time Dilemma is the first game in the series to come out on pc, next to 3DS and Vita. Are there any plans to port 999 and VLR in the future?
I’m sorry. Please wait for an official announcement.
How do you feel about the rising popularity of virtual reality? Do you think the technology can creatively enhance the experience of visual novels?
I think the hardware fits the adventure genre like a glove. Frame rate refresh issues can make people feel motion sick in an FPS or similar twitch titles, but adventure games are slow-paced so it’s not as much of an issue. Also, I think wearing a headset for five or six hours would do things to your brain, so rather than marathoning an open world game, you could put on the headset for puzzles and remove it for the story.
However you approach it, VR is rich with possibilities that I’m interested to explore.
Zero Time Dilemma is the final entry in the series. Is it hard to say goodbye?
Development on 999 started in 2008. It’s been nine long years… the same amount of time that Akane and Junpei were separated! So I feel quite emotional about it. It’s terribly sad to say goodbye to the characters I’ve spent nearly 10 years with.
What does the future hold for Kotaro Uchikoshi? Will you be working on a new visual novel series, or would you like to work on a different genre of game?
I’ll take all the factors into consideration—platform, target audience, producer requests—before deciding the most appropriate way forward.
Depending on the platform I might go back to the classic visual novel or maybe try something new. If I have a round peg I’ll look for round holes, if I have a square peg I’ll look for square holes. You know me.
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma hits Nintendo 3DS, PS Vita and pc on June 30.