"The minute you get off Jehuty, it will stop providing energy," your captor says wanly in an early scene. You asked for an extra life and this is what you got? Years before BioShock exposed player choice as an illusion and portrayed gaming as an act of enslavement to the machine, ZOE 2 sketched this story about a Dingo Egret who was forced to control a robotic puppet simply to be able to continue existing in its world. It just felt less profound because, frankly, it wasn't written very well.
The fact is, though, that it takes a great deal of work simply to continue playing ZOE 2. It's a hardcore game that will have you replaying sections perhaps a dozen times in order to guide a helpless LEV by the hand through waves of enemy units in a space station, or blow up five sections of a train before a timer runs out. And this work makes the game seem like an affair worth fighting for.
It's about an hour in that the game's defining piece falls into place. Your machine begins to develop a voice. The mecha is overseen by an artificial intelligence named ADA. She's the girl in your ear that has been telling you how to move and attack effectively.
Then one day, noticing a new threat, ADA subtly suggests using one of the power-ups you recently obtained. Soon, Dingo and ADA are hashing out tactics in the middle of each boss encounter. One boss can only be beaten by using pieces of the environment to disable her shield; and ADA tells you this, encourages you, even. You didn't see it coming, but you and ADA have formed an intimate pact. The two of you are trapped in this ferocious game. How will you make it through together?
You realise that ADA has been guiding you from the beginning, pointing you repeatedly in the right direction. That autolock? It was her, watching out for you. But midway into the game, you find that ADA harbors fond memories of another man. You feel a pang of jealousy. It's at this point that the rambling cut-scenes finally make sense. Each minute that you can't steer Jehuty, you are away from ADA. You become determined twice over to master the machine, to face down the game.
Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner ends, appropriately, with Dingo and Jehuty parting ways. Some arcane plot turn likely explains how Dingo avoids going into cardiac arrest. I missed it because I was marvelling over what the game had done. Genuine poignancy emerged from the digital muck. After all its empty talk and schizophrenic battles and wanton tear-jerking, it turned out this frightful machine keeping you in its thrall actually did have a heart.