In 2012, I wrote that Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward should be Kotaku’s Game of the Year. Three years later, it’s safe to say that... Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward should have been Kotaku’s Game of the Year.

I started replaying Virtue’s Last Reward following recent news that Zero Escape 3 is a real thing that’s actually happening, and even though I already know the story, the game’s got me hooked again. The writing; the pacing; the image framing... it’s all incredible, and gripping in a way that few games have achieved to date.

So in the wake of ZE3’s announcement—publisher Aksys says it’ll be out in the summer of 2016 for 3DS and Vita—this feels like a good chance to explain what makes this series resonate with so many people. Let’s get our friend Disembodied Kotaku Voice to help out.

Hi! So what exactly is this ‘Zero Escape’ thing?

It’s a series of visual novels—read: interactive stories—that are best described as sci-fi horror mysteries with crazy philosophical and supernatural twists. There are two games in the series so far: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) and its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR).

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Why are they called ‘Zero Escape’?

It’s sort of a play on words: the concept of these games is that you and a group of other people are trapped somewhere with very little chance of getting out. And in both games the main antagonist is a mysterious figure named Zero. As you unravel their stories, you learn who Zero actually is, and you try to learn how to escape.

OK. So let’s start from the beginning. What’s up with 999?

999, originally released on the DS in 2009 (and then later for iOS), tells the story of nine people who are kidnapped, placed on a sinking cruise ship, and forced to play something called the Nonary Game in order to avoid death. I’ll stay vague on the details, because gradually piecing together the plot is part of the charm here, but as you make progress, you’ll have to pick between various doors, each of which will lead you down a different branch of the story.

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So it’s non-linear? I thought this was a novel.

It’s both! 999 is indeed a visual novel, and it tells one of the most captivating stories in gaming, but it’s also got multiple endings based on the choices you make. Sort of. Let me put it another way: there are multiple points where the story can end, but there’s only one real ending. In order to see it, you’ll have to play the game multiple times, which means you’ll have to repeat some things.

You have to repeat the same scenes more than once???

Yeah—you can fast forward through text you’ve already seen before, but you’ll have to complete the same puzzles a few times, which is a real problem that’s thankfully fixed in the sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward. If you do play 999—which I recommend!—my advice would be to do one playthrough totally blind, then finish it by following this spoiler-free flowchart to get the SAFE and then TRUE endings. Repeating a couple of puzzles is a pretty decent tradeoff for the true ending, which I promise will blow your mind.

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(Note: I haven’t played the iOS port, but fans say it’s a watered-down version of the game with no puzzles, so play the DS version if you can.)

Can I just skip to Virtue’s Last Reward? Isn’t that the better game?

VLR is definitely better—and it improves upon 999’s formula in a lot of smart ways—but the two games are inextricably connected. You can play VLR first. You’ll probably love it. But you won’t appreciate the twists and turns nearly as more unless you’re familiar with 999’s plot and characters, which lead directly into VLR.

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How so?

The Nonary Game returns. One of Virtue’s Last Reward’s main nine characters, Clover, is also a main character in 999. Also many many many other things I won’t spoil because there are few pleasures in gaming like uncovering them yourself.

OK, well what CAN you tell us about Virtue’s Last Reward?

It came out for Vita and 3DS back in 2012. It’s a visual novel, just like 999. It’s the second Zero Escape game. It revolves around game theory—specifically, the prisoner’s dilemma—and it also tells a non-linear story with a single true ending. As you progress, you’ll make various choices. You can then access a giant flowchart that lets you go jump around in time and make those same choices again to see what would happen if you did things differently.

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So it’s a time travel game?

Sorta. Again, I’m being purposefully vague so as not to spoil any of the story, but basically, you uncover different bits of information as you progress through different branches of reality, and then you can combine that information to figure out what’s going on. Like any great mystery, it’s harrowing, satisfying, and unbelievably addictive.

That’s vague.

I know. Sorry.

It’s OK. So both games are mysteries and all you do is read and make choices about which doors to enter?

Not quite. You make other choices, too, especially in VLR. Both games also have escape-the-room puzzles that help break up all the dialogue (and add some tension to the plot). They’re sort of microcosms for the main game; you’re trying to escape the Nonary Game by escaping a series of small puzzle rooms. Lots of escaping.

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Do you get to escape?

Come on. I’m not telling you what happens. But I will tell you that VLR has some loose ends, and although the conclusion is really satisfying, it doesn’t wrap up everything.

That’s why people are so stoked about Zero Escape 3?

Yeah. Well, what you have to understand there is that Zero Escape 3 almost didn’t happen. In early 2014, series director Kotaro Uchikoshi published a depressing series of tweets in which he said that the game might not happen, which led to a big fan campaign and a whole lot of outcry. All that attention eventually got Uchikoshi a deal, and earlier this year the publisher Aksys started teasing something new, which turned out to be ZE3, as officially revealed in early July.

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What’s particularly cool is that neither Virtue’s Last Reward nor ZE3 would have happened without word of mouth here in North America, where the series has become a lot more popular than it ever did in Japan.

OK, I want to check out these games. Where should I start?

Start with 999 on DS, if you can. Play through the first time blindly, then follow the flowchart to get the SAFE and TRUE endings, fast-forwarding text you’ve already seen before.

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Even if you can’t get 999, though, definitely play Virtue’s Last Reward on 3DS or Vita. You won’t regret it.

You can reach the author of this post at jason@kotaku.com or on Twitter at @jasonschreier.