by Kristin Bezio
Several months ago – yes, I’m sorry, I’m a bad slacker of a game critic – I heard an NPR story about Continue?9876543210, a game by Jason Oda billed on its website as “A contemplative journey into existential despair.” “Despair” is a pretty good description of the game, on a couple of levels.
Most basically, I played Continue on my iPad, which was an interesting experience in and of itself and led me to despise gameplay on iPads, so I imagine some of my frustration with the game has more to do with its platform than anything else. Note: I do not recommend playing on the iPad if you have a choice (although there was an update between my first and second playthroughs which made it much nicer to play, so I didn’t spend nearly as much time rage-cursing my device). But I had no idea how to make my little sprite do anything at all the first time through, and that pretty much led me directly to a state of “existential despair.” So I guess it accomplished its goal?
Putting aside basic mechanical failures (especially since they’ve improved), the game isn’t actually that much of a pit of “despair,” although after two tries, although I improved, I certainly did not ever feel as though I was really “playing.” Rather, I felt like I floundered my way through both experiences only to discover that at the end, even if I did manage to get through the requisite number of worlds, talk to people, answer questions correctly, buy car parts (why?), and heal myself, I still died. Because that’s really the nihilistic message – the “despair” – of Continue. It doesn’t matter what you do or how well or poorly you do it, you either die early or you hold on a bit longer and then die. Not exactly an uplifting fantasy, even if it is probably an accurate representation of life.
The game’s theme, however, is really what induced me to purchase it to begin with: “You are a dead, failed video game character wandering the recesses of the Random Access Memory, trying to find peace in the final moments of your existence before being deleted forever.” It’s a digital exploration of what happens to your gamesprite when you die – presuming, of course, that it has feelings or consciousness. And it’s really quite an interesting thought experiment, one we often don’t consider as we rush headlong into combat without terribly much concern about our character’s death since we know we’ll just respawn (provided we’ve been diligent about saving so that we don’t lose too much playtime or loot).
Continue begins with the question so familiar to most players that they don’t even bother to read it when it pops up on their screen: “Continue?” It then counts down from 9 – hence the title, which contains the full count-down. But as the player in Continue, we don’t actually “continue” the gameplay. Instead, we accompany our pathetic little sprite on its Dantean descent into the virtual underworld, through a reddish haze of smoke and bubbles and into the boat of a small black box with glowing red eyes, crossing the digital river Styx (presumably) on our way to a holding area, the antechamber to our very own Inferno.
The player is presented with a choice upon leaving this chamber to either read through some instructions or to muddle through without them. Don’t muddle. I tried. It was a spectacular failure. The instructions tell you that each game you play will place your sprite into six worlds (randomly drawn from a pool of ten) which it must navigate through lightning (to destroy obstacles) and prayer (to build shelters). There are collectable objects which the sprite may offer at shrines and information imparted to it by other sprites which grant it additional lightning/prayers if it answers questions correctly.
But there is a time limit. Every forty-five seconds, the player is plunged into an underworld where the sprite has to complete a challenge (minigames that allude to other games, like Space Invaders or Mario). Occasionally, toothy boxes appear in the levels, and the sprite has to stab them with its sword or be forced into a duel with even more toothy boxes that damage it and can lead to its second death (and the end of the game).
One of the more confusing parts of the game is that there is a lack of obvious countdown in time, and so the player struggles to figure out when to use lightning and when prayer, and which is more effective at what times. As Andrei Dumitrescu notes in his review for Softpedia, “There’s an air of mystery linked to Continue?9876543210 at all times and I often struggled to understand what was happening on screen or why I was choosing a shelter rather than a lightning strike at certain times, but I continued because the atmosphere of the game remained intriguing throughout.”
Unlike Dumitrescu, however, once I identified the Dantean trope of Continue, I was less intrigued. Each level does provide some engagement in terms of exploration, but the cryptic nature of the dialogue (some of which the game even admits is “babble”) and the lack of clear goals or win conditions was ultimately beyond frustrating. J. Nicholas Geist, in an aptly titled review “Continue?9876543210 is a Brilliant Mess of Videogame Ontology,” Continue “is weird, foreign, and deliberately obfuscated…It doesn’t want you to understand; it wants you to engage incomprehensibility.”
And Geist (how perfect is his last name?) is correct. Continue isn’t really meant to be a game. It’s meant to be a commentary on gameplay. As he notes, in gameplay, “We used to know the feeling of starting over at the beginning – losing the work and progress of a character through a game, starting fresh and unequipped at a title screen that bears you no memory – but we know it no longer. We’ve forgotten how to die.”
And that’s really what drew me to the game to begin with, and what drew me back after my first frustrating experience with it. The novelty of death. The fact that now in games we expect to simply reappear, all our gear in hand and lifepoints restored, back at the other end of the hallway. The idea of returning to an ontology, to borrow Geist’s term, when death really was final is something that we often turn to games to escape. We want to be able to engage in actions that have no real consequences, either in the real world or in the gameworld, but Continue won’t let us. It makes sure that in the arbitrariness of our sprite’s afterlife, there is neither certainty nor permanence. It comes, it struggles to understand its purpose, it tries to cling to a fiction it was fed within the above-ground game narrative (the “quest” to which it desperately wants to return), and when that fails, it battles futilely to survive. And then, like us, it dies.
Continue is not a game I would recommend as escapism or even fun, but as a way to think about what games are and what they do, it is indeed a “brilliant mess.” The experience of playing Continue is like the experience of life; people give you advice, but it doesn’t usually make sense until you encounter it later, in another world, seemingly another life. You don’t really understand what to do or where to go, but you muddle through, mashing buttons in the hope that you might hit on something that works, and when you do, you repeat it until long after it’s stopped working. It’s about making the most and best out of the life you have, knowing there is no respawn, no Continue?, no matter how much we might want there to be.