More persons. More doors. No escape.
"The theme of VLR is of course global warming and environmental destruction. Just kidding, ha ha ha. But you see? Humans can lie without breaking a sweat."
Director and Lead Writer of Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward Kotaro Uchikoshi's mirthful statement, from an interview posted by publisher Aksys Games, covers a lot of relevant thematic ground. Dry, illusive, and more than a little dark, it's a fitting introduction to Virtue’s Last Reward, the successor to Chunsoft's 2010 DS puzzle-adventure game 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Like 999, Virtue's Last Reward puts the player in control of an ordinary young man who ends up captured and placed in an ominous, enigmatic situation with eight other individuals. Escaping the malevolent situation requires cooperation, but, as Uchikoshi explains, this dependence carries a danger.
“'Lying' and 'betrayal'… these are some of the major themes in this title. However, the main characters in this game aren’t lying on a whim or for a joke. Each and every one of them has their own beliefs, purpose, and goals, and in order to stay true to those they will have to choose 'betray.' I think the real fun in this game is trying to solve those mysteries."
As in 999, the characters are forced to participate in a complex psychological contest called the Nonary Game. Virtue's Last Reward's incarnation of the event carries the subtitle "Ambidex Edition," and, as alluded to by Uchikoshi, places an emphasis on the slipperiness of trust. The orchestrator of the game's twisted premise, an AI taking the image of a rabbit and referring to itself as Zero III, tags each of the nine characters with a bracelet. By playing the Ambidex Game against each other, characters can lose and gain BP (Bracelet Points); reaching nine BP lets you attempt to open a door with the same number and escape, while falling to zero rewards you with death.
The rules of Ambidex Edition are an interpretation of game theory (the analysis of strategic decision-making), particularly a form known as "The Prisoner's Dilemma." Each is structured around the phenomenon of betrayal in individuals, even in the face of a mutually beneficial alliance. In Virtue's Last Reward, this is decision is communicated by the option for both you and a given opponent to pick "Ally" or "Betray." If both participants choose ally, they each receive two BP. If one chooses to ally and the other to betray, the former has two BP deducted while the latter gains three. If the betrayal is mutual, BP for each remains constant.
"So," Uchikoshi continues, "let’s say you and your opponent both have one point. If your opponent says, 'I’ll definitely choose ally!' what would you do? Would you choose ally? Or betray? If your opponent really chooses ally and you chose betray, you will essentially cause their death. On the other hand, if the opponent lied and they choose betray while you choose ally, then you will die."
Alongside the psychological tightrope of the Nonary Game (the "Novel" section of the game), Virtue's Last Reward features touch screen-based puzzles (the "Escape" sections) similar to those of 999—and exhaustively varied selection, according to Uchikoshi.
"There’s a slide puzzle, a code puzzle, a logic puzzle, a math puzzle, a panel puzzle, a line puzzle, a scale puzzle, a dice puzzle, an hourglass puzzle, a clock puzzle, a cocktail puzzle, a billiard puzzle, a dart puzzle, a jukebox puzzle, a DNA puzzle, a pH puzzle, a jellyfish puzzle, a Zero III doll puzzle, a slightly perverted puzzle, and several others. That is just a small portion of what’s inside."
Uchikoshi also notes the warm reception to 999 in the West as the catalyst for the production of Virtue's Last Reward, though we will have to wait until later this month to see if the latter continues that legacy of critical success.