'Zero Time Dilemma' Argues for the Necessity of Trauma

The structure of Zero Time Dilemma suggests that learning how to solve problems can only occur after having lived through suffering.

Zero Time Dilemma

Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Release Date: 2016-06-29

I beat Zero Time Dilemma, a 20+ hour game, in five minutes.

This actually wasn't hard to accomplish. Zero Time Dilemma's narrative structure is based on a series of branching storylines, the root of which is a choice determined by a coin flip. I won that coin flip. The nine potential victims of the maniacal Zero were saved from having to experience his series of puzzles and death traps as the result of my lucky guess. The credits rolled.

And then I loaded up the game again in order to lose a coin flip. After all, the point of a game is to face challenge, to be challenged, to overcome obstacles. I needed to at least see the game's nine protagonists suffer. I needed to suffer.

After all, I anted to play.

Interestingly, the game very much acknowledges this need in its own strange game that it plays with its own sense of time and narrative structure. If you lose the game's coin flip, you gain access to your choice of the leader of three different groups confined by a seeming sociopath named Zero in a bunker underneath the Nevada desert. No matter which team you choose to play as at that moment, each group will eventually (as you choose them) witness a cut scene and be forced to make a decision that may or may not doom one of the other teams.

From there the ramifications of that decision will open up more branching paths in the game's plot. Each sequence that you complete with a team sends you back to a flowchart representing the full complement of choices throughout the game in order to choose the same team or another team to experience yet another branching path with.

My own natural gamer instinct was to press forward towards what seemed the potentially "best" ending branch (barring the one that I had already experienced, which removed me from the game itself), attempting to survive the overall plot with all nine players of Zero's decision game remaining alive.

However, each pathway that I took with each of the teams ultimately led to a dead end, or at least a "locked" ending, as each team was confronted with opening a puzzle box at the end of that storyline that could only be opened with a password, a password that that storyline had not offered any clear way to guess or to ascertain.

Which led me back to the alternate pathways, the more brutal pathways, in which sacrificing teammates or other teams becomes necessary to progress in this game seemingly inspired by the Saw franchise. Zero's puzzles, like that of Jigsaw's of the infamous film series, concern finding solutions that frequently lead to having to make life and death choices for the players involved, and I began witnessing and becoming responsible for the deaths of characters whose lives I had previously attempted to preserve in another timeline. I felt driven to these acts, though. After all, it seems that the solution to finding the passwords in the "good" timeline could only be located by exploring other possibilities in time, possibilities that were far less than "good" and more horrible to become complicit with.

As a result, Zero Time Dilemma emerged for me as a game wed to the notion of ethical sacrifice for the sake of play. To find solution, the game encourages the idea that one can only understand how to seek such solution by exploring all ethical possibilities, even if that means witnessing death or torture, or to be more accurate and more honest, by knowingly causing someone or multiple people to die by engaging with every timeline and possibility within the game's branching structure.

Ethical choices determining a game narrative's outcome is, of course, by no means a new concept in video games. Such ideas are present in the sprawling narrative of Mass Effect or in the choice driven adventure games made by Telltale games. Telltale's series of games, like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, or to some degree even Bioware's slightly less nuanced, much more binary morality metrics, though ground the idea of making choices a part of creating interest and surprise in the twists and turns of the narrative. Often in these games seemingly "good" options sometimes lead to unexpected negative consequences or vice versa. Zero Time Dilemma differs in its approach to the dramatic possibilities of making moral choices and shies away completely from such nuance.

In Zero Time Dilemma, you generally always know when your choices will have positive or negative consequences for its characters. The question that the game asks is not whether you will be good or evil. It simply asks if you're willing to make terrible choices for the sake of playing the game, for learning its secrets and solutions. How evil will you be in order to keep playing the game? It argues that if conflict is to exist in a story and a game, the stakes of play is suffering and that trauma is the only way to to learn or know everything that its game world has to offer the player. If you want to win, you have to commit to becoming something like Zero himself, one who takes pleasure in toying with the pain and choices of others.






The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.