“Please… wait… I’m not ready to die.” These are the final thoughts of an adventure game hero as he lays dying on the digital ground, waiting for the player to hit Continue. As the ubiquitous 10 second timer counts down his thoughts are of the mission, his friends and his true love. When the screen displays Game Over, he knows that he has failed them all. Normally this is where the character’s adventure ends, but in Continue?987654321, it marks the beginning of a new journey. Developer Jason Oda has brought us the story of a video game hero wandering the afterlife on random bits of code in RAM. Along the way, you must help him avoid the Garbage Collectors and come to terms with the impending nothingness of Null Sleep.
Continue?987654321 is a game played for its story and the emotional connections made with the player. Figuring out the story and gameplay are a large part of the overall experience. Early on you will be given a choice between reading the instructions that explain what is happening or to “keep it mysterious.” I highly recommend the latter option for the first few times you play as it really adds to the sense of loss and hopelessness. Because of this I am also not going to give a lot of detailed information, to avoid any spoilers.
Basic gameplay has you running around a piece of discarded code, which takes the appearance of such places as a trailer park, ice flow or a seedy inner city slum. There are people in these areas that you may speak with. What they have to say may or may not be important. Some people are willing to sell you information which might be of value. There are also a number of buildings that can be entered, though most will be closed initially. How to open those buildings is something you need to figure out. Once inside you will be given a multiple choice question, you can try to guess the right answer if you don’t know it, or leave and come back later. If you get the answer right you choose as a prize either prayers or lightning. Both serve very different purposes but are equally important. Eventually you will find a way to leave these remnants of code and hop to another, which will have a similar set of rules for you to figure out.
The bulk of the game is played from an overhead view as you run around the level looking for clues and answers. The controls are simple, just four directional buttons and an action key. The action key is used to initiate a dialogue if someone is around or to attack. From time to time a part of the code world will be deleted beneath your feet and you will have to fight your way back. The gameplay changes a bit at these times. The act of returning to the code may be represented as a third person dungeon crawl, side scroll beat’em up, arena combat or platformer. During these levels you will physically fight the Garbage Collectors that have come to destroy you. Upon completion you will be returned to the previous area to resume your journey.
The graphics of Continue? are purposefully pixelated. The characters are simple and almost indistinguishable from each other with very minimal animation. As a design choice I feel this style both makes sense from a gameworld standpoint and contrasts well with the mood of the game. Bits of old discarded code are not going to be pretty or well detailed, even the Garbage Collectors are simple in design. At the same time there were parts of the game where I really empathized with the characters pain and loneliness. At one point, the character is sitting and staring at a campfire fire, alone, with his sword stuck point first into the ground beside him. Even without dialogue or description I understood what was happening – not the precise facts but rather the emotion. I give a lot of credit to Jason Oda here for humanizing a character who, graphically speaking, only vaguely looks human. I think part of this also comes from the musical score. It is not very complex, but does manage to set a somber mood throughout the game.
This game is meant to be experienced rather than played. Once you sit down and start playing you aren’t supposed to stop. To reinforce this idea there is not an option to save or quit the game. There is a respawn system of sorts, if you have met certain requirements you may start a specific level over when the character dies but only in your current play through. If you close out of the game then you must start at the very beginning the next time you play. Of course just closing out of the game presents it’s own issues. To exit the program you must first reach an end point. When the game ends, you will be given a score of sorts and only then will there be an option to truly quit playing. For a videogame this seems like an odd and horrible design choice, but for a fully interactive existential journey it is a perfect fit.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
One of the biggest challenges games face is to be seen as serious art rather than a mindless diversion. Personally, I feel Continue?987654321 is most definitely a work of art. My time with this title felt more like what I would experience from a Sundance Film Festival than from a Steam Sale. It offers deeply complex themes that emotionally grab you from the very beginning. If you are willing to set aside the idea of a “game” and instead play it as interactive art, then Continue?987654321 is well worth the price.