Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward – An Insight Into Storytelling.

Some faget made me play VLR and then tortured me emotionally. Here’s what I went through:

Virtue’s Last Reward is the sequel to the DS game Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors or just 999 for short. With an emotional roller coaster driven by quantum mechanics, it was hard to imagine where the story would go after laying the ground work of its world. However, at the end of 999, you were left with a lot of questions with very few answers. So, on a quest to find these answers, I recently played through Virtue’s Last Reward on my PS Vita. Did I get these answers? Haha, fuck no, but I did walk away from a very unique experience. VLR thrived on the quantum mechanic side of things while creating some beautiful characters. Characters so beautiful that I am going to talk about each and every one because I love this game so damn much.botanical_garden_date_by_aruetsuto-d62kwbp

Sigma

hd5UL1rx3a95o1_r1_500Our protag. What I love about the characters in VLR is that there is more than to what meets the eye and this is most certainly true since you never get a good look at Sigma until the closing minutes of the game. I wasn’t entirely sure how to write about him due to his…consequences so this may get convoluted. Sigma started off as your fighting for what is right, run of the mill main character, but there is a lot to Sigma that is gradually revealed. From a character that was primarily used to help insert the player into the game ends up like a person that you couldn’t relate to at all by the end. This can be commended on the writer’s side by this feat alone but what I truly loved about it is that it was gradual. It just wasn’t one big twist that was foreshadowed along the way (Well, that being said, there was  that one big twist that was foreshadowed but we can get to that later), instead it was information drops here and there and subtle hints as to what he truly is, a 50-something year old with robot hands, a fake eye and the ability to jump consciences in other world lines.

What was key in making Sigma’s character was that he remained human throughout the duration of the game. He didn’t feel like some robot that was thrown into a death-game and only purpose was to advance the plot. His actions and reactions help construct a mental image of a sane man in an unfair setting, which was needed with the cast of characters that the game has. Generally, there is a trend whenever there is a huge contrast within a cast of characters, the main character tends to be the most bland one and, thus, not the most interesting one. However, due to the fact that the game never leaves Sigma’s perspective or due to those hints that were being dropped, it was hard not to earn a fascination with him. Initially, he handles the situation like a normal human would which gains immersion on the player’s side of things and makes us see a part of ourselves in Sigma. Yet, as the game progresses, you come to realize that you are not like him at all, in fact, he becomes so foreign that it was hard to imagine that you empathized with him.

Another thing I found interesting in Sigma’s character writing was when suspicion was placed on K for being Zero Sr. due to the fact that he had his face was hidden behind a mask, yet it never occurred to me that I should be suspecting Sigma on the same basis. The suspicion that was  placed on K instantly could have easily been placed on Sigma for the same reason. You never see Sigma’s face in the time of the game until the closing minutes. Everything we know of Sigma is just an assumption of what his life is and what he vaguely remembers. Even though Sigma turns out to be Zero Sr., no suspicion was ever placed on him and it was entirely unexpected. Now, with that given sentence, you would expect me to bash VLR for just having a twist for shock factor and an overall convenience to the plot. But goddamnit it was foreshadowed so well that I didn’t even notice it. From everyone every so often referencing Sigma’s age (Phi called Sigma “Old man” in their very first meeting) to having never seen Sigma’s reflection (The mirror in the infirmary was fogged up. Coincidence? You decide.), it was all there for the player to pick up on but…it just wasn’t. You just don’t see character writing like that and it was probably one of my favourite aspects about the game.

Phi

dnq8t0Auv1tw3d56o1_1280No one really knows much about Phi. Hell, even the creator admitted that she is quite the mystery in one of the Golden files.  To be honest, I don’t really know much about her. Like Sigma, she can jump consciences in different world lines and…yeah I got nothing. Its not like she is a poorly written character and missing an entire personality, she was just really mysterious. From the very moment Sigma meets her, her actions dictate her aura of mystery. She always, with a few exceptions, seemed somewhat aloof while being fully aware of the current events. Its clear that she is intelligent and rational when she wants to be but she does have a streak for getting emotional which is nice to see. Many writers tend to forget this when writing mysterious characters, they just tend to make seem aloof and know all the answers while not really having any human interactions or feelings. They just seem like robots rather than people (Kirigiri from the DanganRonpa anime, in the game she does act more…normal I guess).

Phi acts like all this but there isn’t any explanation as to why. I can only assume that it is rather traumatic as she is paired up with Sigma in terms of being able to jump consciences and he has quite a disturbing past. Its clear that whatever we are going to find out about Phi would be in later installments as hinted at in that Golden file…well, that’s with the hope that they actually come.

Dio

Dio. What a bundle a joy that guy is. My thought process of him went from “This guy is suspicious” to “Well, I guess he is alright, but I got my eyes on you…” and concluding with “Yeah no, this guy is an asshole”. He is the leader of the terrorist group, the Myrmidons, but his actions is more or less dictated for him  by his parent clone, Brother. However, unlike Luna, he is perfectly happy with carrying out his enforced orders. That isn’t much to say about Dio as the personality that is presented to you for the majority of the game is simply a façade, you never knew the true Dio other than his desire to complete his objective. In many bad ends, it is usually him where he is the lone escapee for the sole reason that he is persistent on getting his role fulfilled.  Because of this, he always votes “Betray” in the Ambidex games with the exception of two instances where external influences were involved. It is also interesting to note that it is he that flips out the most whenever a character leaves through the number 9 door without him.

I can’t really judge him on his character as his job was to create a fake personality and he did it rather well. I would’ve liked to see him change in a way after witnessing the deaths and Quark and Alice going ape shit due to Radical-6 in some routes but if that were to happen, it would break his character. Odds are, he has most likely witnessed more disturbing events in his life. What is kinda sad about Dio is that it can’t really be said that he is truly doing everything out of free will. Yes, it is true that to the very end, he was praising Brother but for all we know, that could’ve just been programmed into him or even beaten into him. He is a clone with an objective, born into a terrorist organisation. Dio never had the time to become human and is willing to sacrifice his life for fulfilling a mission. While he has zero redeeming aspects and is an apex asshole, he probably didn’t even have the chance to avoid becoming the person who he had become, which is sad in its own right.

Clover

Clover is one of two returning characters from 999 and was one of the telepathic children from the first game. She is by no means a driving force in the game and for a large section, she just acts as back-up for Alice. It seems to me that she just doesn’t have any solid character, she just acts as a means to an end with the story. Her ending just involved some exposition rather than a climax of her character. Well that, and everyone died at the end of her route which is quite funny when you think about it.

Its a shame that her character didn’t get developed enough because she has her history with the first Ambidex game. However, throughout the game, she just acts as a back-up to Alice which only further enhances Alice’s character but makes Clover seem more of a useless case that needs to be handled with care.

Alice

c9a00f2e48381401f2cf29aec003e86eAlice kinda made her debut into the Zero Escape series at the end of 999 and not VLR. She was the hitchhiker that Junpei and co. picked up after they escaped. At that time, one would’ve guessed her relevance in further installments. The main thing I find attractive in Alice’s character is that she has what Dio cannot have; a moral conscience to her surroundings. Like Dio, she has her clear objective in mind but on her route it is clear that she gets rather traumatized by her actions to be even disgusted with herself. “See? I’m horrible! You hate me, don’t you? Do it!…Kill me! Get it over with!”. That’s what I love about Alice, she acknowledges her actions and in the climax of her character route, she looks pitiful but absolutely human.

I have to admit, there was a hostility in me towards Alice when I was initially playing but, unlike Dio, she has that quality about her that lets her be molded by the Nonary Game. While its true that I did hate her for sometime, I never thought of her as a bad character, she was just initially very hard to relate with and her actions seemed rather foreign. I guess I can only compliment VLR on that side of things. They successfully managed to make her actions justifiable and worth while of her dilemma with her father. Her actions to get what she wants weren’t glorified but what she wanted was everything for her. But because it was everything to her, she lost sight of her humanity and almost became deranged just like Dio. Her entire character progression was very cleverly written and it sums up the fact that even people with just goals can become evil at the chance of fulfilling said goal.

K

abc436c43e24e174c7ce3011a2a5c038K is a mystery. That much is obvious from his very introduction. The members of the Nonary game instantly ostracized him from the get go with his “amnesia” and his inability to show his face. I think that its interesting that the group were so quick to assume him guilty of some crime for the simple reason that he is unable to show his face due to his power armour, yet no one seemed to question anyone else’s appearance. There was a Dio, dressed as a lion tamer; Alice, with only some Egyptian ornament protecting her breasts and Clover, with candy pink hair and an outfit that can make an exhibitionist blush. Maybe I’m looking to much into the apparel of the characters and it can all be explained with “because its anime, its obvious that they will wear something like that” but a game with VLR’s integrity, I just can’t help but feel that there was some message behind it.

Depending on what timeline you are playing, K’s identity can vary between two people; Akane or, if she is pronounced dead after the first AB game,  the clone of Sigma. K as a character isn’t all that influential throughout the game with the exception of 2 endings where both of his identities are revealed. He is usually just…there, usually to add something to a conversation or to give subtle hints to what he truly is. However, K has nothing ground-breaking throughout the game; there is no breakdown akin to Alice’s, no revelation of a greater plan like Dio or no great mysterious vibe given off which Phi expresses. Its not like he is wasted potential as this entire act fits his character, K has “lost his memory” or its Akane who is simply acting him out, playing the fool. As such, K is mainly a tool more than a character, not that I’m criticizing K, but I’m just calling a spade a spade here.

Quark

I didn’t like Quark, in fact I don’t think anyone really did. He was just boring with nothing to give with the exception to his outbursts caused by the Radical-6 but those lost urgency far too quickly. Even his ending was kinda…meh. With the exception of Clover’s, his ending lacked the impact and, sometimes anguish that all the others had. It was just how he found Tenmyouji real awesome cause he got him root beer float. All it was was adding to Tenmyouji’s character which helped a twist later in the game relating to Tenmyouji’s true identity.

In summery, Quark was meh.

Tenmyouji

Junpei Tenmyouji. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? On first impressions, Tenmyouji can be quite a bland character. He does nothing exceptional to stand out from the rest of the group other than having a strong connection to Quark but who gives a crap about Quark so that really means nothing to me. It was everything outside of his relationship with Quark that made him interesting, that being that he was Junpei, the protagonist of VLR’s prequel, 999. There were a few red herrings to his character, initially it was presumed that Tenmyouji was like a father figure to Akane or had a similar role to her given the scene in the director’s office in one of the timelines. Like, he was like 178 years old, why on earth would Tenmyouji be Junpei? Alice and Clover were both the same age when we saw them at the end of 999 so why would Tenmyouji be Junpei? That was the red herring that fucked me up.

The moment of realization of Junpei Tenmyouji made his character so interesting. All those actions he made throughout that you took no heed of suddenly became so damn interesting. VLR did what Telltale’s The Walking Dead could not and made an already established character’s actions logical and fascinating.

Luna

tumblr_n3z8paz0Ir1rtq2kpo3_1280Saved the best for last. Luna started out to be a pretty dull run-of-the-mill female side character that didn’t seem to offer anything other than give over reactions to everything. She started out like that. By the end, she had developed into one of my favourite characters in anime, manga, video games…pretty much everything. She was so well-constructed (pardon the mechanical pun) as a character that she had me shedding tears at her end. She shares a similarity with Dio being that she is a puppet of a greater being, however unlike Dio, she wishes to have free will and be with Sigma and be free from the shackles that is the Nonary game. Its important to notice that Luna always has a “bad end” at the end of each timeline in one way or another. Either she ends up dead or has to be toyed around by the puppet masters controlling her to help Sigma realize who he is and what his mission is.

The only real time where she got what she truly desired was in her end. She was able to die, or rather disintegrate in the arms of Sigma. It was a bittersweet sort of feeling, knowing that this was one of the happiest moments of her life despite it reaching its conclusion. Her entire life during the Nonary game was sadness shadowed away by seemingly greater events. Just like the bird caged away on her necklace, she was forced to cage away everything that was within her to simply ensure the completion of an experiment. She had to suppress emotions and feelings to the one person that gave her the opportunity to experience them and if you don’t find that sad then screw you cause that shit is depressing.

Luna was greatly put together in the sense of hiding the truth behind their character. Recently SAO S2 has tried to achieve something like this with 999_vlr___prayer_by_shi_ina-d4tcs5wYuuki’s character but failed miserably since SAO has no idea how to be subtle but hey, that’s for a completely different post. But its that important word that made Luna so compelling, subtle. There were dozens of subtle hints with a few rather large hints to her true nature of being. For instance, what could just be brushed off as cute shyness when Sigma was flirting with her in the Botanical Gardens or the Bar, were actually quite heartbreaking to see due to her having to look away from such matters. The large hint didn’t necessarily say that Luna was a GOLEMN but rather she was a part of a much greater project at hand, that hint being in the Infirmary after Luna scans Sigma to confirm that there is something quite…special about him.

Then she gave him the password…the password that could maybe be a heartbreaking break in character…

MILKEVOLI.

That’s pretty much all I wanted to say about the characters within the game, Akane serves mainly as a plot point more than anything and Zero Jr…..well its better if I don’t talk about him to be frank. I wanted this post to be centered mainly around the characters in VLR as that is what VLR does itself, it keeps itself character concentric in order to tell a story. The story of VLR would not work in the slightest if all the characters weren’t constructed as well as they were in the slightest. Well that and you progress through the game going on each characters “routes” so I guess makes sense that I put so much focus on the characters and totally didn’t waste 2900 or so words on characters without even talking about the plot.

caged_bird_by_achromatx-d5u798jThe game’s overall plot is mainly powered by the test of human psyche. What better way to test it with a simple co-ordination and teamwork exercise, a “Yes or no” puzzle with your life on the line? VLR manages to capture the desperation of humanity with the bait of freedom just out of reach.  I like when anime or video games toy around with the weakness of human mentality and with VLR you were placed right into the game to test how much your own mind is fortified.

I played the PS Vita port of Virtue’s Last Reward which I understand is the minority but in general, its alright to play. It was a little tedious at the start of the game since the Vita’s touchscreen doesn’t register styluses but after the first or second Ambidex game, it became second nature maneuvering around the rooms. In addition, I felt that the Vita’s large screen helped with the story portion of the game as I think the 3DS would be more awkward to hold and cumbersome to actually read off in comparison to the Vita. My point is, VITA MASTER RACE, THERE ARE DOZENS OF US!

Virtue’s Last Reward was one hell of an experience that makes me sad that I won’t be able to live through it for the first time again. The twists and excitement that were created were something that I have yet to see topped by anime or video games alike. VLR is a great example of character and plot writing that I tend to bring up from time to time. It understands quantum mechanics unlike Bioshock Infinite, it can be subtle with its character backgrounds unlike Sword Art Online and it host a multitude of ideas and themes successfully unlike Guilty Crown. It truly was a fantastic game that never failed at achieving its goal and for that the sequel that may or may not come, please come quickly.

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