Zero Time Dilemma & Baccano!: Adventures in Non-Linear Storytelling

Adventures in Non-Linear

Zero Time Dilemma, the third game in the Zero Escape trilogy of games, regularly jumps between one of three trio of characters without context for what occurred while we were off gallivanting with another group. That mystery is deepened because each character’s memory is erased between player jumps, so they lack the knowledge of what happened prior. Only by replaying Zero Time Dilemma are players able to view everything that happens.

Reviewers remarked on this, arguing that this non-linear form of storytelling is only possible in video games. Up through about two weeks ago, I agreed. Then I watched Baccano!

In this case, I’m referring to the 2007 anime adaptation of a series of Japanese light novels written by Ryoga Narita, starting with 2003’s “Baccano!: The Rolling Bootlegs”. (2016 marks the official English release of the first volume in North America.) The anime takes several stories (including the aforementioned “The Rolling Bootlegs”) and makes three stories set between 1930, 1931, and 1932 (also visiting 1711 and 2001). Instead of running through one story and beginning another, creating an odd flow to the anime’s 16 episodes, they’re spliced together.

In other words, Baccano! jumps between the three stories so they each hit the same narrative peaks at roughly the same time, including their conclusions. Although each story shares a few characters (most notably the eccentric robbers Isaac Dian and Miria Harvent, wonderfully voiced in the English dub by, respectively, J. Michael Tatum and Caitlin Glass), each contains a fairly sizable cast. Consequently, this means that the overall anime involves over 20 characters among roughly a half-dozen families and organizations.

That’s not to say game critics were wrong about Zero Time Dilemma. That game is designed to ensure that nobody sees the entire story on their first playthrough. Alternatively, Baccano! can’t hold anything back due to the video medium being non-interactive, yet the two share a similar, if not identical, spirit. Their intentions are to confuse and force the audience to consider their respective stories through somewhat non-linear means, not to mention send the audience back for repeat viewings/playthroughs.

For instance, the first episode begins with Gustav St. Germain and his assistant Carol discussing the events of the anime after the fact, cutting to scenes that reveal the fates of numerous important characters, but we’re robbed of context. Who are these people? How did they reach this point? And where’s that guy’s hand and forearm? (Word of warning, neither Baccano! nor Zero Time Dilemma pull their punches when it comes to gore.)


Later scenes show two characters discuss the impact that prior events — events that later episodes will show — had on their fear of death. The following episodes don’t stray from this; an early scene shows a young woman at the bay. It’s impossible to determine its placement in the overall story, much less why she’s staring at a group of people raising objects from the water. That’s just one instance of several contained within the series.

Ultimately, Baccano! confuses the audience enough that viewers who return for additional viewings armed with knowledge of characters and events are rewarded with a better understanding of the story, but manages to stay coherent enough to keep audiences interested and willing to jump into the next episode. That’s a difficult line to walk, as one might imagine, since dipping too far into either direction threatens to destroy the viewer’s interest.

Fortunately, Baccano! doesn’t suffer in that regard, although it does get a little crazy in ways that only anime seems to. The story set upon the Flying Pussyfoot train contains two assassins of questionable sanity, and the end of that story involves characters managing to hold onto a rope attached to the train without somehow touching the ground (it’s possible that the train was over a bridge), before launching over the train. It’s a somewhat nutty sequence, but the rest of Baccano! stays comparatively grounded.


Of course, neither Baccano! nor Zero Time Dilemma originated this type of storytelling, but they’re excellent examples. Baccano! comes highly recommended, as does the entirety of the Zero Escape trilogy. Just don’t be surprised if you end up scratching your head at any point.

May 21, 2017 – Removed an unintended double negative.

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