Games are changing. It’s true. We’re not even sure what they are any more. They’ve evolved so far beyond frivolous distractions that they have the potential to feed the mind with emotions just as any other entertainment medium. In the pitch alongside the review code for Continue?9876543210, solo developer Jason Oda states his game aims to sit alongside such convention-altering releases such as Gone Home, Papers, Please and The Novelist. A bold statement, and with its heavy tinges of philosophical thought on life, the afterlife and everything in between, it is an understandable comparison. Yet as you clash your way through another bizarre mini-game resembling Space Invaders or perhaps a boss from Zelda, its easy to wonder whether the message got corrupted along the way.
Ostensibly Continue?9876543210 is the story of one pixelated character’s quest to avoid permanent deletion from a machine’s memory after dying in its own video game. So the game starts with your death, a neat twist, counting down the seconds until your ultimate demise. Game Over. In a rather wonderful sequence of pixelated animation you are stripped of extraneous code and dumped into the recesses of Random Access Memory. You awake on a floating map, surrounded by other lost souls, those who have accepted their fate and are awaiting that final flash that marks permanent deletion. Yet your character cannot accept this, and begins their hitchhiking journey to outrun the erasing wave.
The first thing that strikes you about Continue?9876543210 is the consistency of the design. The pixelated 3D environments that corrupt at your feet, the wonderfully dark and crunching soundtrack, the blocky console text and even the command prompt style pause screen, resonate with the feeling that this journey is taking place in the system’s recesses. Perhaps there truly is a pixel on the run back there.
At the beginning of each playthrough you are given the option of reading the rules explaining how the game works, but I’d certainly recommend approaching at least the first run completely unguided. Your pixelated character is then set loose to roam a small map, controlled with basic WASD keys and the spacebar to lazily swing your sword in front of you, all the while the camera neatly follows from above. Ultimately you will encounter other lost souls each spouting seemingly random phrases or asking for coins to open doors leading to other bizarre encounters. Meanwhile you might be chased by strange chomping teeth, easily batted away with your sword, or even have the floor collapse beneath you, dropping you into surreal mini-games that range from the simplistic to the virtually impossible.
The beauty of playing blind, as it were, is that the whole game becomes a garbled mess of insanity, wonderfully representing the fragmented state of a memory wipe. Crude. Deconstructed. Unpredictable. Yet ultimately without knowledge of the rules running beneath the experience, your character will be lost to the oblivion of deletion quickly, within half an hour, and the entire game must restart. A new pixelated character emerges, dies, and begins the journey once again.
Perhaps on the second or third run one might take a peek at the rules. Those strange sentences spoken by the NPCs begin to hold meaning. ‘My Lighting. My Prayer’. Vital choices. There is a game here, beneath the odd layers of obfuscation, replete with goals and win conditions, but it would be ruined by a detailed explanation here. It’s not the rambling soliloquy of Dear Esther or the thoughtful exploration of Gone Home, it’s a mad chase to escape each level.
And the game really does not help itself here. Due to the ever impending doom of the memory wipe, each level only exists for a very short period, often just a couple of minutes. The result being that there is no time to breath in the pixelated atmosphere, comprehend its underlying meaning, or float along the waves of the beautifully scored music. You’re manically chasing ghosts. You’re punching NPCs for words. You’re screaming for them to open the way onwards as the seconds count down.
Meanwhile the stress levels are driven higher by the must-win-to-survive-mini-games that you are drowned in along the way. Often these wonky reimaginings of classic arcade games are extremely challenging, the difficulty further ramped up by spongy controls and dodgy hit detection. Yet the difference between failure and success often decides whether your character will remain ahead of the wave of deletion. Without success we’re doomed to repeat proceedings again.
Perhaps that is the point. Continue?9876543210, for the more philosophically inclined, will evoke feelings that few other pieces in this medium can manage. Through both strong and weak metaphor, told through a pixelated drug-induced walkabout, it could be a statement on meaning, religion and existence. Yet the gameplay itself stands in its own way of allowing the player to make these connections. Instead the stress of simply proceeding stands in its way. The dread of having to replay events already seen. Sure, there is a slight randomness to each run, with different worlds appearing and swiftly disappearing, still, only the dedicated will find any true replayability. Some will see Continue?9876543210 as a success, masterfully drawing sentiment from poignant (though sometimes clumsy) words, moodily lit pixels and brooding, bubbling music. Others will find a game with simplistic mechanics and frustrating repetition. In truth, both sides have a point.