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What follows is a light canter through some of the themes of Virtue’s Last Reward. Not even all of the themes, just some, since here we have a game so intensely dense it would take far longer to do justice than I can spare at present. For some reason, Virtue’s Last Reward is not a very widely written-about game despite the favour it has won within a fiercely passionate fanbase. These notes are my contribution to change that. So I’ve made an early executive decision that this will almost completely be a spoiler-free zone, bar some points of lore and sci-fi, with the hope to entice you into picking up this title at some time preferably soon. I could gush, oh I could gush, though I’ll leave that till another day.
Lastly, I apologize in advance for writing while hungry. Also: VLR’s developers are named Chunsoft—this will come up again at the end. It’s not important that you remember, it’s just the little editor in my head will bug me endlessly for even the slightest lack of clarity on the matter.
In a small, fearful whisper of a voice I say Virtue’s Last Reward is one of my favourite games. Normally I’m quite skittish about these things. After the credits have rolled and the disk’s box has accumulated a healthy film of dust, it’ll still take me an age to decide whether I want to take a game, frame it and hang it on my wall. You know, that kind of post-game meditation where, once it’s over and done, you don’t just put it down and move on with your life, but instead keep it with you and carry it along as a part of you, buoying yourself with your past wonder and joy. I only played Virtue’s Last Reward maybe a month ago but I treasure it.
You might be pleased to know, for the benefit of fleshing me out as a person1, that VLR is the sequel to 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which at first I utterly despised. Oh god did I hate it. As well as burdening the narration with the unfortunate design decision to over-indulge in our shockingly dull protagonist, Junpei, said narration was also restricted to the Platonic form of a snail’s pace. It wasn’t until I eventually and thankfully died that something clicked. The sensation I remember was as if my brain spun an entire 360 degrees in my head and thanked for its exhilaration the nearest thing at hand, which was my DS. In an instant, 999 snapped from all the way from ‘intolerable’ to ‘sublimely magical’, and it, too, became one of my favourite games.
This is my way of saying: I absolutely recommend you play these games, starting with 999.
But where would a videogame be without some completely superfluous sexism. Where 999 had entertained itself by damselling virtually every female character in existence, Virtue’s Last Reward takes the more sombre approach of granting its protagonist, Sigma, the bad habit of creeping on women and framing it as comedy. I won’t give examples because even typing it out makes me regret Point Number 1, though rest assured they are many. The fact that Sigma’s horrible antics recur so frequently, and with him never being substantially reprimanded to an extent that would prevent his continued misbehaviour, suggests we’re expected to laugh it off as all in good fun. I was not so inclined.
Incidentally, I haven’t forgotten that another character, Tenmyouji, at one point states rather firmly he is moved to nausea at the thought of a man dressing in women’s clothes. Now, while I put forty glorious hours into devouring VLR and these moments made up just a tiny portion of the whole, they were a blight on an otherwise happy experience. You kind of come to expect horrible stuff like this from videogames but this was very trying.
I adore mysteries, and more so murder mysteries—I’ve a cavernous hunger for the genre. In this metaphor I play games with my belly. I understand this flatters neither myself nor VLR since by this imagery the main thing it has going on is that I’m a great big glutton, but look, it is the truth. So, VLR is a trough full of wonderful and I am a pig.
That might be the ultimate cause of my enjoyment of the game but still VLR does quite a few clever things with itself outside of the central mystery. First, a little backstory: college student Sigma awakens to find himself imprisoned in a facility alongside eight other individuals. Together they are forced to play the Nonary Game, an escape-the-room tournament, under penalty of death. The identity of their captor, codenamed Zero, soon gives way to the larger question of the purpose of the Game. Throughout the Nonary Game, our cast comes across curious snippets of lore from the worlds of science, mathematics, archaeology, and so on, patterned to clue the player in to the themes and plot twists lying at the heart of the answer to this question.
One of the major themes is consciousness, particularly the nature of it. Both 999 and VLR incorporate the metanarrative that comes from a player’s routine act of dying and replaying a game into the story proper. The information you gather on one fatal playthrough (which becomes a timeline) carries through to the next timeline both in your mind, Dear Player, and in the mind of Sigma by virtue of the knowledge you act upon through him. This grows and develops into a doctrine on consciousness as a certain arrangement of data—knowledge of your name, your past, the characteristics of the people around you, the secret password you need to bypass a door—that can be manipulated and distributed much like we do with electronic data. The manner by which consciousness is distributed in VLR relies on some delightfully hokey science, which is ok. It’s a game, not a thesis.
This seems outrageous until they bring up the Chinese room, a thought experiment where a man relays pre-programmed responses to questions fielded at him, and he oblivious to the meaning of any message in the communication. The experiment juxtaposes actual understanding against the mere appearance of understanding, aiming to disprove the possibility that a computer could attain consciousness as humans have it. But it sparks intrigue on the connections between meaning and knowledge (in the form of information), and on those between consciousness and understanding.
The question Virtue’s Last Reward asks is this: if information can be sent from one person to another (such as in the case of writing it down and handing it to them), can understanding likewise be communicated in some form or other? If so, might that constitute a transmission of consciousness?
To this end: robots.
Another theme presented is causality. Extrapolating from Schrodinger’s Cat, which draws on the dual likelihoods of a cat being either alive or dead at a particular moment in time through the magic of quantum mechanics, VLR posits that by understanding conflicting events as existing within a superposition, they can be retroactively resolved one way or the other by an external cause. There are some implementations of this logic taken literally where a character’s earlier actions change state from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ according to the player’s present decision. But the more interesting2 application relates, again, to consciousness.
Given how actions are largely interpreted in conjunction with their consequences, we typically rely on retroactive information to tell us the meaning of an event. For example, a vicious comment is realised as hurtful through the effect it had on the person it was targeting; if that person never heard it and was never harmed, perhaps the comment would not be thought of as mean. Although the act of a recipient hearing a comment and becoming offended by it is a separate, later event to the act of a cruel old bastard shooting their mouth off, still we attribute the effect as innate to the cause, as a characteristic of it, and not as happenstance. This is just the normal way we conduct ourselves in how we model reality.
When we make a decision, be it a moral choice or, as in VLR, choosing between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, a lot of the time we can only determine whether it was an important decision by the events that unfold because of it. Sometimes your choice might seem to be crucial as you are taking it but is later proven inconsequential, while other times the opposite happens. So if the means by which we value or regret our decisions stems from an understanding taken from information that was unavailable at the time the choice was made, does that mean we have little way of understanding our thoughts and actions in the present tense?
Going by the Chinese Room, does this deny us the possibility of consciousness? Are we no different than a computer autonomously reading from a script it could never comprehend?
So the game has themes. Many games have themes. Nothing new there. But the beautiful thing about this particular game is it respects your intelligence. I say that in contrast to the vast majority of titles I’ve played in recent years. This is a game that exists as it is and knows you’ll either discover a perfectly VLR-sized hole in your brain begging to be filled. Or you won’t give a toss, in which case, grand, nobody can befriend everyone. Chunsoft knows that the baddies and the goodies resonate thematically—sure didn’t they make the game—but they have faith you’ll pick up on it if you’ve the passion to go hunting. It is not the sort of super smart game that makes pretension out of its insecurity, so feels the need to temper itself. I’m looking at you, The Last of Us, with your bloody action setpieces and your bloody ladders. Sorry playerbase, you’re all as thick as mud.
VLR is a narrative puzzle twisted around a stock of ludic puzzles. As you unwrap it and start to tie together all the dangling plot threads, you gradually discover this wonderful harmony deep within the core. The solving of this puzzle becomes an aesthetic joy.
1. Which I am, and not a bot.
2. And perhaps saner—I am neither a quantum nor a mechanic.