[13 January 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Your heart is a filing system, filled up as it is with memories.
Memory is the central focus of Jason Oda’s awkwardly titled, Continue?9876543210, concerned as it is with death and using random access memory as a metaphor for the transitory nature of existence. Indeed, if you understand why RAM is kind of a reasonable metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence, this is a game that is built for you, both poet and tech geek that you might be.
The premise of Oda’s game is that the player will be taking on the role of one of several video game characters (and one is randomly assigned to you during each playthrough) that has just been killed in a video game. Video game characters are, of course, disposable commodities, given that their often brief existences merely represent a slight advance in progress of a player and a temporary setback—that is until someone decides whether or not to respond to that nearly universal of video game questions: “Continue?”
The title of the game determines the player’s decision as does the opening sequence of the game, which features the dying character falling to the ground before the question, “Continue?” appears on the screen followed by the ten second timer that will determine that characters fate. The timer ticks down to zero, signaling the end of someone’s game but the beginning of Oda’s game, which is a meditation on what happens after a characters death, what happens to that character before he or she is swept away by random access memory.
Thus, the player of Continue?9876543210 is taking on the role of a character fully aware of his or her own mortality, who is desperately attempting to hang on to life before it slips away.
What follows is composed of fairly minimal rules and gameplay that dominantly focuses on creating a mood to ponder the transitory nature of existence more broadly. Any given protagonist in Continue?9876543210 will concern his- or herself with the quest to escape the “Garbage Collector” that will wipe out any memory of him or her, but he or she will also spend a fair amount of time wistfully reconsidering their own memories of their own existence.
As such, the game is a meditation on the tenuousness of mortality itself, somewhat reminiscent of the desperation of the short-lived androids of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a desperation that in that film also exists to mimic and remind its audience of the frailty of human existence and the sorrow of the loss of memory—that which comprises the unique perspective of a conscious being.
The game achieves a kind of admirable thoughtfulness through its slow pacing and somber tone, and playing it is at once fascinating and surprisingly peaceful. However, as a result of the very things that generate its almost zen-like meditative mood, this is not going to be a game for everyone. There is no main menu. The game always starts with the ten second countdown timer and the same lingering sequences that represent the player’s death. Frequent and familiar cutscenes will likewise reappear and skipping over them is impossible. Oda recognizes that this would break the tone of the game, ruining what he is trying to accomplish, but players accustomed to convenience and speed in games are going to want to tear their hair out over the inability to jump into the next game or the next level of the game.
And the game itself is hard, making multiple playthroughs necessary to ultimately beat it. It is a game whose rules are initially obscured from the player, so some trial and error is necessary to figure out what to do on any given level, but even once the system that underlies Continue?9876543210 becomes clear, it also becomes clear that the game is unrelenting in its challenge, one or two bad mistakes will cost you the whole game, and games are long, due to the pacing and repetitiveness of its sequences.
Combat itself is simple. You can move using the WASD keys, and you can slash with a sword with a single button press. The real complexity of the system concerns how the player character must explore several unique environments, chat with the NPCs there, gathering information until he or she can earn “Lightning” or “Prayer.” Lightning is necessary to exit a level as each level has several exits that are blocked until those blockages are exploded by lightning. Prayer is used to generate buildings in an environment called your “Sanctuary” that appears every third level in the game. In the Sanctuary stages, the player has to hide out in those buildings from a storm generated by the computer memory that he or she is located in. If you have not created enough buildings to weather the storm, you will die—this time permanently. There are no continues after this permadeath—except, of course when you are returned to the title screen to repeat the whole process once again.
All in all, this is very simply one of those games that you are going to love or going to hate. You are going to either find its mood and tone, as well as the themes being played with through the entire approach that Oda takes to its subject matter, engaging and interesting, or you are going to be completely put off by the slow pacing, repetitiveness, and possible pretension of the whole experiment. I find myself in the former camp, rather than the latter. In my estimation, the game is good and treats its subject matter with a quiet dignity that makes constant playthroughs intriguing and challenging. However, I just have to give fair warning to you that this is very simply not a game that just everyone is going to jump into and enjoy. Its audience is narrow, but those who are interested in games that seek to provide a less than common experience are likely going to find something slightly rapturous in the experience of Continue?9876543210.