Recently I’ve been preparing for a major community event on my blog called the Blogger Blitz. It’s a competition where bloggers submit characters to compete in wacky events for glory and (mild) fame. As part of this year’s Black Sheep theme, all of the characters submitted a villain for the competition. Now as everyone was choosing their characters and we learned which antagonists were making it into the competition, my own mind wandered to what villains I would want to submit if I were to be a competitor. Villains are kind of my jam, so I have a lot to choose from. Should I go creepy with Skull Kid from Majora’s Mask? Sympathetic with Shadar from Ni no Kuni? Enigmatic with Kessler from inFamous? As my mind jumped from villain to villain, my thoughts suddenly landed on the Zero Escape series and its titular antagonist, Zero. Zero is creepy and sympathetic and enigmatic! It seemed like a perfect fit, but then it hit me: Zero isn’t really the bad guy in Zero Escape.
To be fair, Zero is not one single character in the Zero Escape series. Really, it’s more of an idea, and there are three different Zeroes in the series (four if you count the hilarious Zero III AI in Virtue’s Last Reward). Each of the games is built on the same basic premise – Zero kidnaps a group of people seemingly at random and then traps them in a strange facility where they must participate in a deadly game. Winning the game means survival, but there are plenty of ways to lose. Characters can cheat, betray one another, fail at puzzles in the dangerous rooms, or simply make the wrong decision. Each game is about learning the particular Zero’s motive for bringing everyone together, and fighting for the whole cast of characters to survive until the end of the game.
What we learn each time is that Zero, the psychopath who traps innocent people in a murder game, has complex motivations (like snails) that very rarely boil down to actually wanting to kill anybody. While Zero’s status as a villain would be much easier to defend in the final game of the series, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who would call the Zero of 999 or Virtue’s Last Reward the villain. So let’s look at these characters and the games they come from to see where the evil truly lies in the world of Zero Escape.
PS – the rest of this post is going to have WHOPPING unmarked spoilers. Like, the most spoilery-spoilers to ever be spoiled. If you are in the midst of any of these games and haven’t finished yet, and care about being surprised, I would recommend returning to this post later after you’ve finished the series.
999: NINE HOURS, NINE PERSONS, NINE DOORS
999 has, perhaps, the simplest plotline in the series, being the first game and not particularly building to a grand sequel. Even then, things get pretty crazy the first time around. You play as Junpei, a college age kid who along with eight other people has been kidnapped by a serial killer called Zero. They are trapped in a deadly challenge called The Nonary Game which is themed around the number nine, and requires them to find and pass through a door with the number nine marked upon it.
It turns out that Zero is motivated not by a desire for murder, but out of self-preservation. You see, Junpei has a special ability to access something called the morphogenetic field. Think of it like cloud storage for the human brain – someone with the ability to detect it can know things that they have never actually learned, even if it happened to a different version of them in an alternate timeline in the multiverse. People with these abilities tend to have another power – the ability to link minds with other sensitive people and communicate with them over a distance. It is this power that Zero is interested in – because it is this power that saved her life as a young child.
Zero is, in reality, Akane Kurashiki, Junpei’s childhood friend and fellow “esper” (though the title for people with these abilities would change throughout the series). Because of her powers, Akane and her brother were trapped in this very facility as children and experimented upon. During the experiments, Akane found herself trapped in a furnace along with a console displaying a Sudoku puzzle. Desperate to find a way to survive, Akane established a mental connection with Junpei – but years into the future. An adult Junpei saved the tiny Akane from certain death, but the little girl was now in a bind; she had to manufacture the circumstances that put Junpei in that place and time in order to make sure her life was saved!
This, then, is Zero’s motivation. In order to unlock Junpei’s powers, his life must be in danger, and he needs to be in the same room with that same Sudoku puzzle in order to be able to show her the solution. As such, Akane has to trap him in the experiment facility under life-threatening pretenses in order to establish the mental connection that would save her young life. Partnering with her brother to help make this happen, he uses the opportunity to take revenge on the rich scientists who conducted the illegal experiments upon them in the first place.
So, is Zero evil? Her actions are built upon self-preservation, which perhaps isn’t the most noble of drives to be sure. However, it is not Akane’s intent to kill anybody – rather, she is motivated to save a life (even if it is her own). Refusal to bring about the circumstances that saved her would create a time paradox that resulted in her adult self being erased from existence. It is easier to argue in favor of Ace as the villain of this title, his immoral experiments ruining Akane’s young life as well as those of many other children. His intent to weaponize the morphogenetic field at the expense of the espers who control it is motivated purely by a desire for greed and power. So while Akane’s actions are quite similar to his actions in the past, their difference in motivation makes her the more sympathetic character.
ZERO ESCAPE: VIRTUE’S LAST REWARD
The second title in the Zero Escape series begins much the same as the first: nine participants are trapped in a deadly game called the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition. This time, the theme of the game is all about betrayal, as it is all built around the concept of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. You play as Sigma, another ambiguously-college-aged protagonist who was kidnapped by Zero under mysterious circumstances. But golly, does that not sum up everything that’s happening here.
First of all, while this game may appear to be taking place relatively close in time to the first Nonary Game, in reality it has been 75 years since the events of the first game. In those 75 years, the world has been wiped out by a supervirus known as Radical-6. The virus alters perception of reality in such a way that suicide becomes a desirable out in comparison to the suffering that the victim is experiencing. To put an end to the damage caused by Radical-6, a series of nuclear reactor explosions was ignited that put planet Earth into a nuclear winter and effectively ended society as we know it.
The facility in which the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition takes place is actually located on the moon, and Zero is in reality Sigma – just not the one we’re playing as. You see, Sigma was at the facility where Radical-6 was released all those years ago, but he failed to stop it. But he believes that all the knowledge he accumulated over his lifetime as a capable scientist would give him the ability to stop the Radical-6 outbreak were he to go back in time. To do so, he would have to utilize the morphogenetic field to switch minds with his younger self, and that would require unlocking young Sigma’s powers to make the transfer possible.
There are a lot of other details that I’m glossing over here – including Akane’s involvement in this whole process – but what’s important here is that Zero once again has altruistic motivations for his actions. Arguably, motivations purer even than Akane’s in the first game. Sigma is motivated to eradicate Radical-6 and thus prevent the apocalypse. The only way this can happen, though, is for his consciousness to return to the past when the virus was released. The Nonary Game is a necessity to train his mind to transfer through time, and his other victims are other minds which must be sharpened as well if his plan is to ever succeed.
Even more than in 999, the true villain of Virtue’s Last Reward is not the serial killer Zero, but rather the force that Zero is working against, Free the Soul and its enigmatic leader Brother. They are responsible, after all, for the Radical-6 outbreak and the nuclear winter that ruined the world. Isn’t it worth employing any means necessary in order to stop such an atrocity? Aren’t the lives of many worth more than the lives of a few? Besides, in the truest version of reality where Sigma accomplishes his mission, nobody who is present in the facility is killed, so in a way he isn’t responsible for the death of anyone. Meanwhile, Free the Soul has killed billions of people. It is easy to see this cult and their leader Brother as the true villains while Sigma works heroically to stop them.
ZERO TIME DILEMMA
That brings us to the third and final Zero Escape title, and our third and final Zero. In this title, Zero has captured nine individuals and held them in a test facility called D-Com. This is the site where the infamous Radical-6 outbreak occurred. Akane and Sigma, our previous two “villains,” are both present in the facility, victims in another game. This time, the game is called the Decision Game, and is built around impossible decisions in scenarios that end in death if the wrong choice is made. If you thought people died a lot in the other Zero Escape games, you haven’t seen anything yet.
The true identity of Zero in this game is Delta, the son of Sigma and another unwilling participant in the Decision Game, Diana. While living in the facility, Sigma and Diana gave Delta a second chance at life by sending him through time to the past. This put Delta in a difficult situation, one where he felt responsible for creating the scenario that led to his conception. Additionally, because of the circumstances of his birth, Delta is a Mind Hacker, someone with the ability to read minds and control the actions of others. This ability allowed him to see the darkest side of humanity, and one day he happened to see into the mind of a religious zealot who intended to destroy the entire world. The way he saw it, Delta had two problems: he needed to guarantee that his mother and father met in the D-Com facility under extreme duress, and he needed to eliminate the terrorist who wished to destroy the world. His solution? Release Radical-6, a deadly virus that had a 75% chance of eliminating the cult killer.
If you’re thinking “wow, that whole line of logic doesn’t make any sense,” you’re right. Delta’s history is muddy and his motivations are shrouded in enigmatic half-truths. His infamously vague explanation of his reasoning – “my motives are complex” – has reached meme-level ridiculousness on the internet, and his grand monologue about how a snail killed six billion people fails to acknowledge his own role in the atrocity. At the end of the game, Delta explains that he had to put the heroes through their horrible experiences because only then would they understand the importance of stopping the religious zealot in a way that did not require the deaths of six billion people – again, a thoroughly unsatisfying explanation.
Because Delta is responsible for Free the Soul, Radical-6, the reactor explosions that leave planet Earth devastated, and on a smaller but more visceral scale the personal horror experienced by roughly 21 Nonary Game participants, it’s easy to look at him as a villain compared to the other two Zeroes in the series. Yet if we consider his stated motives, they aren’t really that different from the other two. Like Akane, Delta is forced by the paradoxical nature of his existence to orchestrate the scenario that guarantees his survival. Like Sigma, he is motivated to stop a greater evil than himself. So why is it that we can view those two as heroes and yet consider Delta the grand villain of the whole story? And what does all of this say about the state of villainy in Zero Escape?
Ultimately, I think what the series has to say about evil is that everyone is capable of it, and good intentions can still have terrible consequences for other people. While Zero in every game is the mastermind behind a sick game that puts lives in danger, Zero is rarely directly responsible for anyone’s death. The participants, instead, kill each other. When their backs are against the wall, people become desperate and unlock their darkest selves. Self-preservation leads many of these characters to commit unspeakable acts – for Akane, Sigma, and Delta, that simply reaches a grander scale than it does for the other Nonary Game participants. In Zero Escape, villainy is a matter of perspective – and when Delta hands Carlos the gun at the end of the final game, he is confident that Carlos does not truly have the moral authority to pull the trigger.