Virtue's Last Reward
Image: Kate Gray

Welcome to the latest instalment in our nostalgia-inducing column, Memory Pak, where we're going to be doing a deep-dive into some of the most memorable moments in gaming – good and bad.

Ten years ago, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward was released in the US. In honour of this anniversary, Kate has some thoughts about the nature of kindness and cruelty to explore...

Of all the psychological experiments out there, I think my favourite is the prisoner's dilemma. The premise is simple: Two prisoners in separate rooms are asked to either cooperate with the law and turn in the other one, or stay silent. The twist is that their reward, or punishment, not only depends on what they do, but what the other person does. If they both stay silent, they each serve one year; if they both try to rat the other one out, they each serve two years.

But if one stays silent and the other one rats them out, then the snitch prisoner is rewarded with freedom, and the one who was trying to protect the other is given three years in prison. It's a fantastic example of how evil actions pay off in a society built on good, but also that cynicism and mistrust only end up hurting everyone. Obviously, the best outcome for society is that both people independently choose to protect each other — but it's easy to see how a year in prison can feel like a punishment when 0 years is on the table.

Writer and director Kotaro Uchikoshi has built his entire career around the themes of selfishness, teamwork, human psychology, and morality. His second game as a director, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, is centred in particular around the prisoner's dilemma — both as a mechanical conceit, and as a narrative theme. It might be my favourite of the Zero Escape series for this exact reason.

Like his previous game, 999, there are nine characters, imprisoned in a convoluted escape-room game in which death is the losing condition. In-between the escape rooms, though, each of the nine characters is asked to take part in a twisted version of the prisoner's dilemma, called the Ambidex Game. Three pairings are created, each one with two people voting together against the third on their own, as seen here:

Virtue's Last Reward

The extra twist is that the rewards and punishments are not years in prison, but instead Bracelet Points. Every character in the game has a watch-style bracelet, which keeps a tally of their points, and everyone begins the game with 3 BP. Get to 9, and you can escape the facility, but if your BP are reduced to zero... you die. Oh, and only people with 9 BP can escape, and the rest get locked in forever. A bit worse than prison, innit?

In the same vein as 999, VLR takes place across multiple branches, so you'll get to see what happens for a bunch of different outcomes. People get murdered just so people can vote "Betray" with impunity; people lie so that they can convince their opponents to choose "Ally". The original prisoner's game had none of this — the prisoners aren't supposed to meet up in between voting rounds, and they're definitely not supposed to do escape rooms together with the guy who may have just betrayed them in order to get a reward.

(VLR's version, in which there are more than two prisoners, and past decisions can influence future ones, is called an "iterated n-person dilemma". This is not particularly important, it just sounds cool and smart.)

Virtue's Last Reward

The escape room parts, and the discussions that are held before and after each vote, are the point of the game. Sure, it's easy to vote "Betray" against someone anonymous in another room, but having to face them afterwards, and avoid their wrath, is a whole other thing.

The Bracelet Points only add to this — someone with 1 point left on their bracelet will be utterly desperate, and although you could convince them to ally, they know that betraying you will pull them farther from the brink. And apparently, having 6 BP is something you want to avoid at all costs, because anyone facing you will automatically betray you to stop you from getting 9 BP and leaving them behind. It's complicated, even before you add in the social dynamics!

But you might be thinking, "hey, why doesn't everyone just choose Ally every time? That way, they'd be out in three turns, right?" Yes! That is correct. But that's in a vacuum, where every character is good, every character has no pre-existing relationships, and every character is trustworthy and trusting. Obviously, that's not the case. People have hidden motivations, character traits that make them selfish or cowardly, and in the protagonist, Sigma's case, he's seen people Ally and Betray in other timelines.

So, you end up with a standoff. No one trusts anyone else, even the good people. Because, as the Japanese title says: "Good People Die".

Virtue's Last Reward

That's not entirely true. The Japanese title has a double meaning: It can be translated as "good people die", but also, "I want to be a good person", reflecting the two sides of the Ally/Betray choice. The English title was an attempt to replicate this duality, combining the two phrases "virtue is its own reward" and "gone to his last reward", i.e. death. "Virtue's Last Reward" basically means that the only reward for virtue is death.

It seems like VLR, and its villain, Zero, is telling us that virtue, kindness, and hope are foolish in a world that rewards evil. The prisoner's dilemma follows the same maxim, at first glance. Betrayal has the greatest reward. Nihilism and sociopathy will always win out over kindness and blind trust.

But what VLR and the prisoner's dilemma actually end up telling us is that a world in which everyone is out for themselves ends in no one winning. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as they say. In offering the chance to be evil, to betray a fellow person for your own gain, both VLR and the prisoner's dilemma end up placing more significance on the virtuous option to ally.

You can feel the relief in the game when everyone chooses Ally — it seemed so unlikely, given all the tension and fear, but every single character chose the option to trust one another, even faced with the threat of death or being trapped in this place.

Virtue's Last Reward

When you dig deeper into VLR, you realise that this isn't the only time that kindness wins out, even in a cruel world — the very bracelets you all wear, which will kill you if you reach 0 BP, inject you with an anaesthetic and a muscle relaxant, giving its victims a surprisingly kind death. Even the antagonists — Zero, Dio, and Brother — are doing cruel things for good reasons. And the game won't let you go until you have figured out a way for everyone to get what they need, and to stop any needless cruelty that may happen along the way.

It's easy to think that the world is an evil place, and there are a lot of people out there who are just genuine bastards, it's true. But in Virtue's Last Reward, the ultimate message is not one of suffering, nihilism, and sadism; it's one of hope. Mankind is painted in shades of grey. We just have to trust that the inherent kindness present in everyone is what wins out in the end.

What message did VLR leave you with? Do you agree with me that humanity is inherently good? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!