The story is set on Contra, a human-settled planet in the distant future. Civilizations higher functions are tended to by three Filtering Computers, which control the weather, food production, and the transportation system correspondingly. These computers are monitored by the Central Mentality, a random guy who won a lottery and has been turned into a Human Popsicle while his brain runs everything. The ideal is for the CM to stay in such a state for 500 years, at which point theyll be revived and replaced with the next one.
Of course, this is where things go wrong.
The current CM (you) is suddenly woken by a series of error messages. An earthquake has damaged all three Filtering Computers, causing chaos and death on the surface. The guys that put you in there had no backup plans in case of such a catastrophic failure, leaving you to try and fix all three before too much damage occurs. Unfortunately, because you're still in a tube, you have to mentally control six robots in the facility, each of whom has a very specific function. Even worse, a previous CM (Gregory Franklin) went insane and tried to destroy the planet, meaning the public has very little tolerance for this kind of situation. If the death toll gets too high, theyll be coming down to fix the problem themselves... by shutting you down.
This game contains examples of:
- Ambiguous Gender: Auda is referred to with feminine pronouns in the feelies and hintbook and masculine pronouns in the actual game.
- And I Must Scream: "A Cryogenic Nightmare", indeed. You can't see or move. You have six robots that between them almost make up one complete, functional human. And no way to communicate with the technicians coming to disconnect you.
- Difficulty Levels: The higher difficulty settings give you less time to complete all the tasks.
- Disturbing Statistic: The game keeps track of how many people die while you try to repair the systems.
- Expendable Clone: Subverted in the sense that the clone is actually the backup. The backstory revealed to you that your predecessor CM, the aforementioned Gregory Franklin, was a Too Dumb to Live type who really screwed up things. Therefore, Contra made a clone of you for the worst case scenario. They do conclude that part of the briefing with "Remember that you can be replaced." So in this case, you are the expendable one.
- Failsafe Failure: The small informational booklet constantly mentions that nothing can possibly go wrong and, as such, leaves no real directions behind in case of a failure (and the ones they do give are either Blatant Lies or filled with half-truths). The problem is, you are the Failsafe, and when you wake up you have no directions, your robots are in terrible shape, and the real damage has just barely begun. In particular, they never bothered to fix the incredibly helpful multitasking Fred robot and neither can you.
- Feelies: This is an Infocom game, after all. The feelies included a booklet about the facility and the robots, a letter congratulating you on being chosen to serve as CM, a lottery card, and a map of the facility (with tokens to help you keep track of your robots). In some editions, the box itself was a really cool/creepy looking mask of someone in cryogenic animations.
- Fridge Logic: Invoked in-universe - the manual implies that people who bring up objections to the system mentioned on the Fridge Logic page tend to get "lucky" in the next lottery.
- From Bad to Worse: Two more earthquakes hit at a set number of moves. The first causes an acid spill in one corridor; if a robot passes through it, theyll die. The second quake causes enough damage to the Filtering Computers to shut down food production and distribution, sending the death toll skyrocketing unless you finish repairs immediately.
- A God Am I: One of the previous CMs, Gregory Franklin, went this route, and it's made the public a tad unsettled at your existence since then.
- Guide Dang It!: The map we mentioned above under the Feelies entry? Well, the game neglects to tell you where the room exits are, which room is which, etc. You know, the things you need to know in order to get anywhere? The game also fails to tell you what each robot does and what commands theyll respond to. Meaning, if you try to play without the Feelies... good luck.
- Harder Than Hard: The highest difficulty level, "Impossible", is accurately named - shortly after the game begins, the sun explodes and everybody dies.
- Human Popsicle: The player character.
- Lottery of Doom: Congratulations, you've won the lottery! And your prize is being locked up over 20 miles underground and frozen for 500 years while your brain is used to run your entire civilization!
- Meaningful Name: Each of the robots has a name that matches their function - Iris (the vision robot), Waldo (the grabbing robot), Sensa (who senses photonic emissions and ionic discharges), Auda (who can hear things), Poet (who speaks in a kind of cipher at times), and Whiz (who connects you with the Central Library Core).
- Multiple Endings: Downplayed. Depending on how well or poorly you did, you could be considered having "a home in the country and an unlimited bank account" or "being burned in effigy".
- Nightmare Face: As seen above. That face was 3D molded plastic, and probably sent young children screaming. The eyes are printed on the manual behind the mask, and the mask's design makes them follow you.
- Nintendo Hard: You have to manage six robots, each of whom see and work differently from the others, while an incredibly unforgiving time limit ticks away. This was rated "Expert" for a reason.
- No Ending: The instant the last computer is fixed, the game exits. This represents the CM shutting back down for the rest of your stay.
- Press Start to Game Over: By selecting Impossible difficulty.
- Red Herring: Fred, the seventh robot. He's a multipurpose model, which would make him the most useful machine in the room. Too bad Franklin completely destroyed him. You can find his body, but youre wasting your time if you try to repair him. That wire inside him might be of use, though.
- Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: The inevitable outcome of Impossible difficulty.
- Shout-Out: After you've helped the technicians fix the pipe leak from the Filtering Computers in the Maintenance Area, when they return to the Sleep Chamber, they mention playing Starcross, another Infocom game.
- Speaks in Shout-Outs: Poet can be a whiz at this sometimes, making references to William Shakespeare and the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland series, among others. For example, if you tell him to go to another room in the complex, he replies with "All the world's a stage, so just consider me a player."
- Teamwork Puzzle Game: Because the robots are designed with one specific function, you have to make use of all their talents to finish the game.
- Timed Mission: From the start of the game, you have to fix all the Filtering Computers before the people come down and kill you. You can shut down the transport system note to give yourself a little more time, but if it comes to that, youre pretty much dead.
- Unwinnable by Design: If you lose the wrong combination of robots, the game is pretty much done for.
- Unwinnable Joke Game: Impossible difficulty is just that. The sun goes nova after only a few turns, destroying Contra.
- Video Game Caring Potential: Winning the game in the fewest turns possible involves the deaths of at least two of the robots as they must go through an acid leak, the damage from which will eventually kill them, but if you take your time by having one of the robots steal the repair crew's tools and lead them to the damaged pipes, it becomes much easier to finish with all six robots still operational. note
- Video Game Cruelty Potential: You're supposed to be preventing a planetary apocalypse. But if you prefer, you can just sit back, maybe murder your own robots for fun, and watch the world burn...
- Video Game Cruelty Punishment: ...until they come down and turn you off.