What happens to a video game character when the player quits or doesn't continue?
They die, just like the rest of us.
That's the premise of Continue?9876543210, recently released by Jason Oda. You play as 1 of 6 random video game characters who have failed in their video game quest. Before being deleted permanently by the garbage collector, your character can wander the random and glitch-y environment of the Random Access Memory. This world is occupied by other characters and environments from your video game which are also waiting for deletion.
But you can choose instead to avoid the inevitable for as long as possible. This is where Continue? gets strange as it encourages you to discover its mechanics on your own, but thankfully still giving you the option to view the game's tutorial at any time.
What it boils down to is this: there are a total of eleven areas in the game but only 6 are picked for a single playthrough. When you first arrive in an area the entrance to the next level is obstructed by unmovable blocks. At this point you have to explore the area you arrive at, whether it be trailer-park full of juggalos and Native Americans or a seaside town filled with sailors and the like, and speak with its inhabitants. These people usually speak nonsense, but sometimes give you option to pay them to open doors for you that are scattered throughout the level.
Once you enter these doors there are several different things that can happen. Some doors contain people who will welcome you in, or somewhat hostile people who require you to answer a question of theirs or you'll stumble upon a room where you have to return a specific relic that your character carried in their inventory when they died. Solving these puzzles is a matter of talking with other inhabitants of this town as some of them will give you the answer to these puzzles, which is specified as such as their dialogue is marked with a special emblem.
Though the result is always the same whether the person welcomes you in or after you solve the puzzle: you are given an option to either receive their lightning or their prayer. Lightning has the ability to potentially destroy the blocks jamming up the level's exits, while prayers adds new structures to a town level. The importance of the town level is that you return to it every 2 areas you complete. The garbage collector arrives to the town in the form of a thunder storm, which you have to take shelter from by hiding inside the buildings you built out of the prayers you've collected. The thunder storm will destroy your shelters, and if you're in one, you have to race to another one before the storm strikes again. If you survive long enough the storm will pass, and your character continues on to the next 2 levels, repeating this series of events over again.
You have to manage your use of lightning and collection of prayers against a ticking clock. In the 2 standard levels you explore there's either a forty-five second clock that repeats 4 times, or a 1 minute clock that repeats twice. Regardless of which one you get, the process is always the same. After the clock runs out you will be transported to a random gameplay sequence that have scenerios ranging from exploring a dungeon and slicing up enemies to conversing with a mysterious and godlike being which you can ask a set of predetermined questions about your existence and such. How well you do in these gameplay sections will decide how much more money you get to purchase new doors and some free keys which unlock doors for you after the gameplay sequence ends. After you complete these sections it will take you back to the level and start the clock again. Though keep in mind, the last round of the clock will not trigger a gameplay section, but rather the garbage collector thunder storm will arrive and start destroying the level, forcing you to rush to the exit. If you've even opened it, that is.
The time management mechanic is certainly interesting and in my first couple of playthroughs, I found it exciting, but it quickly became annoying. Running around listening to NPCs babble quickly becomes frustratingly boring, and constantly getting sucked out of the level into these small gameplay sequence is neat, but there's not a lot of variety in them and the controls are pretty chunky and imprecise. This is fine for a time, but the endgame challenges really ramp up the difficulty, to the point where I was fighting the controls more than the actual enemies.
I found myself more frustrated as I proceeded in Continue? because of how repetitive it got. I wanted to see all of the environment and dialogue, but the random nature of the game meant I didn't always get new environments. And when I did get stuck in old levels, the solutions to puzzles that I had already solved before changed which meant I couldn't blast through sections of the game that I had already thoroughly finished. It was simply aggravating.
What compelled me forward despite this is some truly touching writing. There's actually some really emotional bits in the game that got me pretty good, and even some chilling and poetic writing in the game that is very memorable and quotable, like any good writing should be. This includes some of the stuff that comes out the babbling NPC characters. Some of it can be marked off as nonsense, which the game has a justification for early on, but some of it comes off as haunting and disturbing. It's really good stuff.
Continue?'s presentation is also pretty solid. Even though the game has a familiar blocky art style, it doesn't use it to pander to memories of past video games. Indeed, there's some striking moments when the game plays with your expectations when it has some powerful moments of visual fidelity that goes beyond or manipulates its blocky look for its overall thematic message. Its accompanying score and sound design are both fitting with more subtle, moody pieces that enhance the experience further. Though they do get tiring after multiple playthroughs, though not as much as the actual game itself.
Both the writing and production values of Continue?9876543210 are immediately striking, but sometimes it felt like it wasn't worth slogging through the actual game over-and-over again for those bits. The time management aspects of the game are actual pretty solid, but grating to go through as I replayed the game multiple times, not to mention how it randomizes the solutions to its dialogue puzzles. What isn't solid is its gameplay which starts out janky but serviceable until the game gets much more difficult, demanding more from you than the mechanics and the controls can deliver.
Continue?9876543210 is a game that is more interesting than it is good. It's a hard game to recommend, but if any of the above sounds the least bit interesting to you, it's worth giving it at least a couple of tries. Maybe at a lower price, though.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)