When Saving the World Goes Bad
Timelines and Tribulations in Virtue’s Last Reward
Virtue’s Last Reward, the second game in the Zero Escape series, is unique in quite a few ways. As in many story-driven games, the choices you make can dramatically affect the game. However, there are more possible story paths in Virtue’s Last Reward than in any other game I have previously seen (See Figure 1). Additionally, information is sometimes retained between paths – not only by the player, but by the main character as well! Playing through one path sometimes enables the main character to remember something in another path, allowing you to proceed further in that other path. The explanation for this in game is that the main character, Sigma, is able to project his consciousness across timelines – accidentally at first, and then more and more on purpose.
Figure 1: An image showing (most of) the branching paths the story can take in Virtue’s Last Reward.
The main mechanic of the game is known as The Nonary Game. In this “game”, 9 people are trapped in a building, and have to solve puzzles to escape. People are paired together in certain ways, and there are harsh punishments (read as: killed) for not following the rules. There’s also an extra component where each player starts with 3 points, and has to get 9 to escape. After each set of rooms, you can choose to ally or betray your voting opponent. This process is very similar to the well-known Prisoner’s Dilemma. If both people vote ally, they both gain 2 points. If both vote betray, neither get any points. If the votes differ, the one who voted to betray gets 3 points, and the one who voted to ally loses two points. If any player drops to 0 points, they are punished (again, read as: killed). Additionally, once the exit door has been opened by someone with enough points, it only remains open for 9 seconds. After this it shuts, never to be opened again.
These rules are important because theoretically, everyone could just ally 3 times and then they could all escape together. However, with the fear of being betrayed in everyone’s minds, their trust in each other wavers. Some characters (and possibly you) betray, which further sows distrust, and so on. Different timelines have different results, but most end with only 1 or 2 people escaping, and the rest either trapped or dead. Some characters get so desperate to escape that they end up murdering other characters to use their bracelets (the game mechanics technically don’t care about the people who go through doors, just the number of bracelets, but the only way to get a bracelet off is to either escape or reduce your heart rate to zero). Other characters get so desperate to escape (many also have an illness that is spread about), that they end up killing themselves, seeing it as the only way to escape the suffering.
Adding to the level of distrust, most of the characters do not know each other (a couple of the characters are “pairs” who know each other, but most don’t know anyone). So, they don’t know the other participants’ backgrounds, how trustworthy they are, etc. Furthermore, since the nonary game is being run by someone (known as “Zero” – note that this turns out to be 2 people but we will continue referring to Zero in the singular sense, for later clarity), they don’t know if that someone is one of the 9 participants, or someone else entirely. And in case there needed to be any more catalysts for distrust, they also find a dead woman, murdered with a knife, in one of the voting rooms. All of this suffering and all of these deaths are meant to drive a wedge between the players, so they don’t just all cooperate and all escape together, as that would ruin Zero’s overall plan.
The plot line of the game states that a terrorist organization released a virus years ago that essentially wiped out most of humanity. The nonary game that takes place is intended to make Sigma hone his consciousness-projecting-skills, so that he can project himself back in time, infiltrate the terrorist cell, and prevent the tragedy from happening. In the end, Sigma realizes who he really is (Major Spoiler Alert: He’s Zero), and is able to make the jump back in time (the actual infiltration is left for the 3rd game in the series). Therefore, the game is over, and everyone is happy, right?
Not quite. Every time Sigma projects his consciousness, a new timeline is opened up, but once these timelines open, they don’t close. If you look again at Figure 1, you will see that there are 18 possible timelines. It’s great that a timeline is opened that will save humanity, but in the process of doing that, 16 extra timelines have been created which result in most of the 9 participants being either trapped or murdered. Furthermore, that means that in order to create a single timeline where humanity survives, we create an additional 16 timelines where humanity is destroyed! That’s 16 times as many people who suffered, 16 times as many deaths, 16 versions of each of the billions of people who underwent massive suffering. Note that there is another character who also has the ability to shift consciousness, but Sigma is directly responsible for the splitting timelines and the other person has nothing to do with it. So she cannot be considered guilty.
It is important to make a distinction here between this story line and similar story lines. There are many story lines in books and movies where the character goes back in time to correct something that occurs in the future (Such as in Back to the Future, where they have to go back in time to retrieve The Almanac). However, in this type of story, they are always travelling on the same timeline! Therefore, when they go back in time and do something, it directly affects the future, because that future is directly down the same timeline. In Virtue’s Last Reward, however, there are many different timelines. So going back in time and changing something in one timeline doesn’t change it in any other timeline! The implication is that the world can only be saved in the one timeline where the events of the Nonary Game have played out in a very specific way. Therefore, by going back in time to save the world, we can be assured that Zero only saves at most 1 world, not only leaving the other worlds full of pain and suffering, but actually creating them in the process!
The question one has to ask is whether or not this is really worth it. There is a well-known philosophical thought experiment called the Trolley Problem – A trolley is barreling down the tracks at 5 people who are tied to the tracks. If you do nothing, all 5 of them will be run over and killed. If you pull a lever, you can divert the trolley and it will only kill 1 person, but now you are directly responsible for their death. Some moral theories would say diverting the trolley is justified, while others would not. (This theme is also explored in the game Until Dawn, where the player must choose whether to divert circular saw or not, and therefore who to presumably kill).
What is there is only one person on each track – is it morally justifiable to kill the one person in order to save the other person (assuming both are innocent)? This seems even harder to justify, because now we don’t have a net gain of life! If you put 2 or 3 people on the switched track, and only 1 on the original, we start to intuitively feel more and more like pulling the switch would be wrong, because now we would be losing lives overall, and be directly responsible!
Figure 2: A visual of the Trolley Problem. Would you pull the lever?
In the situation presented in the game, Zero is taking roughly 16 lives for each life that they save (by opening the additional 16 timelines where the world is essentially destroyed)! Very few moral theories would justify such an action! Utilitarianism, which states that whatever action most increases the overall happiness is good, would definitely condemn this since, speaking on a multiverse level, it definitely decreases the overall happiness. Kant would criticize Zero for treating the participants in the nonary game as a “mere means”.
Zero is certainly aware of the 9 people they are making suffer within the game, they don’t ever address that they are creating more suffering by opening up the various timelines, instead focusing on only the timeline where the “good” things happen. If they were to realize how much pain and suffering they had caused, I don’t think they would get any pleasure from their own actions. It’s not even clear if they gain pleasure from them in the first place, as they almost appear to see it as more of a duty that they must fulfill than something they want to do. So, not even hedonism could justify Zero’s decision.
If you think about the total level of suffering and lives lost over all the timelines that are directly due to their actions, we are left with no choice but to condemn the actions of Zero. They set off to save the world, but their scope was too limited. One world is saved but an extra 16 are destroyed, and therefore the multiverse as a whole would have been better off if they had never tried to help.
Dr. Brandon Packard is an assistant professor at Clarion University. His research interests are video games, AI, and machine learning, and the ethical questions thereof. In his spare time, he enjoys playing video games and working on programming projects.
References: Figure 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem#/media/File:Trolley_problem.png
Virtue’s Last Reward: https://store.steampowered.com/app/477740/Zero_Escape_The_Nonary_Games/