Exploring mortality in ‘Continue?9876543210’
The ending of the classic 1982 sci-fi film "Blade Runner" offers up a memorable concept: a robot's fear of death. Faced with his imminent demise, rain battering his blood-soaked face, the fugitive "replicant" Roy Batty tells Harrison Ford, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those . . . moments . . . will be lost in time, like tears . . . in rain."
The scene works because Batty's existential crisis, of course, mirrors our own. We humans want to believe that our souls will exist after our deaths, but how many of us are completely positive? In our darkest moments we worry, like Batty, that the experiences that make us who we are will one day dissipate into nothingness.
I was repeatedly reminded of this brilliant scene as I played "Continue?9876543210," a fascinating new game from Jason Oda, a 35-year-old Brooklyn-based game developer. Oda takes the themes of the so-called "tears in rain soliloquy" and extends them: What does it mean for a video-game character to be faced with nothingness? How should it, and we, respond to this knowledge?
But the game is more than just a meditation on mortality. Playing it and corresponding with Oda via e-mail revealed that it also offers a fascinating statement on the act of playing — and making — a meaningful game.
The title, which I'm going to shorten to "Continue?" to save my number keys from an unnecessary beating, is derived from the countdown imploring you to insert a quarter when you lose at an arcade game. At the beginning of "Continue?," no quarter is forthcoming. The countdown ticks to zero and you, the fallen would-be video game hero, are banished to a purgatory called the Random Access Memory where you await permanent digital deletion at the hands (if it had hands) of something called the garbage collector.
Right off the bat, the game, which is presented in a blocky, "Minecraft"-ish visual style (the characters are basically just collections of rectangles and squares; things are pretty, in an intentionally pixelated way), tells you explicitly how you should approach it. Plunked down in some sort of refuge for soon-to-be-deleted game characters, you are told that all is lost. This is presented not as an entirely bad thing, but rather as a chance for peace, for an escape from the endless cascade of wants that hobble and paralyze you.
"Here, we are finally at peace, with no want in our hearts," says a character sitting by a fire in the opening area. "And soon the garbage collector will come to delete us from memory forever. Your want burdens me, playersprite. Rest with us here in the quiet. With the lightning comes the nothingness that brings us into nullsleep."
A character sitting on a blocky log, speaking in the wonderfully poetic hiccuping English found throughout the game, gives you some further philosophical instruction. "Well, yes . . . a failure is you, true," it says. "But forget your mourning of the lost quest young playersprite. Be at the peace with life you have led, want nothing else, and make ready for automated system garbage collect."
But that's the problem — this is a video game. The player needs a quest. So you set off from the opening area into a variety of levels (the order is random, and you don't encounter every level in every playthrough). One is a seedy district full of pimps and prostitutes. Another is a pre-Columbian town hugging the side of an angry volcano and littered with the victims of ritual sacrifices.
Even though the core mechanics of "Continue?" are simple — all you can do is lash your sword out at enemies and talk to other characters — the gameplay is layered with details that reveal themselves only after a fair degree of exploration. Essentially, you try to talk to as many people as possible while fighting the enemies apparently assisting the garbage collector. The more characters you talk to, the better you'll be at the game's two main tasks: building structures that help protect you from the garbage collector, and using "lightning" to clear a path to blocked-off areas.
In the end, though, it's futile. The garbage collector will come for you. You will be rendered into nothingness. The implication is that your journey is simply a quest for knowledge, a quest for peace and acceptance.
And yet, because it's a game, it turns out there's an object: to collect as many of 16 folder-looking things (Oda simply called them "points" in our correspondence) as possible. At the end of each playthrough, you get a message like "And Bill went into nothingness with a sense of:" followed by an emotion. When I collected only 2 points, that emotion was TERROR. When I nabbed 5 (the best I did, pathetically enough, in my short time with the game), that emotion had been upgraded, if you can call it that, to FEAR.
So on the one hand, detach yourself from want, seeking only knowledge and peace. On the other hand, collect points — the more points you get, the more peace you achieve. It's a pretty vicious system, when you think about it: Even as the game preaches against desire, it elicits it.
"Being aware of this contradiction, my initial vision of the game didn't include a score because I wanted the player to be focused on just the experience of coming to peace with nothingness," Oda wrote in an e-mail. "In fact, the original concept included a score counter that never went above zero. As the development of the game progressed, however, it became apparent that it was necessary to have some kind of clear measure and system of rewards." It's an interesting admission. A guy who set out to make an artsy, meaningful game — and succeeded — realized that it still had to be "playable" in a traditional sense.
Much of my desire to get points was cued by subtle design decisions. When I played "Proteus," the beautiful "ungame" I wrote about earlier this year that involves simply wandering around a wondrous world with no objective, I didn't feel a need to chase anything. From reading about the game beforehand and experiencing its ambience, I knew that I was simply there for the journey. There didn't have to be a destination.
In "Continue?," on the other hand, I wanted to "win," despite the game's contrary core message — maybe because aspects of the game reminded me of the "Zelda" series, maybe because I felt I deserved a reward when I defeated an enemy ("Proteus," of course, has no enemies). Even though I appreciated the game's message, I found it hard to embrace its call for detachment from want. I wanted those points!
Of course, in the end, the points mean nothing. As Oda noted via e-mail, at the end of every playthrough the game flashes "a note that despite all of your efforts, both you and your score are now set to null."
I hadn't even noticed. I was trying to beat my abysmal high score.