Game Review: CONTINUE?9876543210 Asks The Big Questions

And dares to not answer them. The cheek of it!

Continue?9876543210, the only game whose title can be typed via Victor Borge impression, begins with a game-over screen.

A skinny, blocky RPG character collapses in a forest, and we’re asked the titular question. Do we continue? Not exactly. Our dying character protests and we follow him or her into the bowels of the computer as they wait to be deleted forever by the all-powerful Garbage Collector. Continue? takes place in the ephemeral world of computer memory, but we experience it as a journey into gaming purgatory.

A solo project by Jason Oda, inspired by Peruvian jungle drugs and a near-death experience in the mountains, Continue? is a rare experiment in the gaming medium. It’s an attempt at using abstraction to explore complex spiritual concepts like mortality, memory, and the self. What is our legacy when we die? Did we exist at all if we die unremembered? What is this human emotion you call...love?

Despite a recurring folder and document icon motif, don’t expect any goofy Jurassic Park file-system visualisations here. The Random Access Memory is a series of landscapes filled with all the quiet desperation and loneliness of the Midwestern desert. There’s a trailer park; run-down slums; a scarecrow-strewn cornfield and more. The level order is random, and you won’t see everything in a single playthrough (which thanks to its unforgiving gameplay, can be short - but I’ll get to that in a minute). Each level is populated by faceless, downtrodden characters flickering in and out of corporeality, contemplating what they did in life and what will come next.

It’s all presented in beautiful, dreamy, glitchy graphics, with gorgeous atmospheric effects and colours that lend melancholy to its pixel art. The musical score, though overbearing at times, complements the more profound moments with ethereal beauty.

The strongest sequences in Continue? are the vignettes that take place between each playable section - little reflective breathers written, designed and animated with gentle grace. Whether pondering a tableau of a passed-out drunk, savouring the joys of lying face-down in a field, or praying for forgiveness to an abandoned childhood teddy bear, these scenes conjure a meditative atmosphere. There’s real poetry here.

As a game, Continue? meets with mixed success pursuing Oda’s abstract goals. On a mechanical level, the object of each level is to escape, in order to hitchhike or actually hike to the next one. Thus, barriers blocking the exits must be removed by “lightning,” collected from shamans dotted around the maps. Shamans are accessed via a frenzied, somewhat repetitive process involving talking to characters, unlocking doors and answering questions. There are a lot of interlocking mechanics right off the bat. It’s a little daunting at first.

But lightning is merely one of two choices the shamans offer. The other is “prayer”, which erects additional shelters in the interstitial worlds that appear every two levels. These are where the calamitous Garbage Collector threatens to wipe your data clean, and shelters are vital to surviving these onslaughts. The lightning/prayer dynamic proves an excellent game-centric metaphor for the decision we must always make: stay comfortable and risk stagnation, or move forward and risk annihilation (real or figurative)? It’s a powerful choice with real consequences either way. Failure to gain enough lightning or prayer results in being trapped, or the most terrifying prospect of all: running out of hiding places.

Not all the game systems reflect theme quite so succinctly. Oda seems so terrified of being pretentious (which he really isn’t) that he frequently undercuts himself with incongruous and sometimes frustrating combat sequences. Each level is divided into a number of time-limited rounds, and at the end of each, the player is plunged into a randomly-selected combat arena. Meant to leaven the mood and provide respite from the soul-searching, these segments destroy the atmosphere that’s been built up. They’re cute throwbacks to the likes of Space Invaders and classic 2D platformers, but the controls are so rough and unreliable that they convey more irritation than meaning. It brings to mind Bioshock Infinite, the degree to which the combat jars with and distracts from the game’s more existential objectives.

Or perhaps the unresponsive controls, leading ever towards an incredulous death, are meant to symbolise the neverending struggle to keep going and stay alive. That’s only half a joke. One of the first lines reads “your want burdens me.” Is gaminess our want? Are Continue?’s game systems a satire on gaming’s reliance on them? A theme throughout is that of accepting one’s mortality; by frantically running around trying to escape, are we simply delaying the inevitable?

When you finally perish, you’re rewarded with a montage and a broadly spiritual, nondenominational prayer tailored to your specific playthrough. Here Oda gets back to his intention: these are poignantly composed and offer thoughtful reflection on the cruelty and beauty of life, and the unsentimentality of death. The game then begins afresh, with a new character dying - the circle of life and death, heartbreak and release continues.

Obviously deeply personal to Oda, Continue? is meant to inspire and feed private reflection. As such, individual players’ mileage will vary. In my experience, the best parts of the game absolutely achieve its goals, but it strays too often into more traditionally gamey elements that undermine what it’s accomplished. It’s hard to say the product matches the ambition, but every pixel is painted with love.

Continue?9876543210 asks big questions, whether direct or hinted. It doesn’t provide answers, but perhaps that’s the point. You see what you want to see.

And my heart still breaks thinking about that teddy bear.

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