‘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.

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.

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