Remember Me

Box Art

Nilin, the game’s protagonist.

I finished Remember Me a couple of weeks ago, but I started it in May. Part of the reason it took me so long is that the game didn’t pull me back in the early stages when I had Rocket League or Street Fighter available. It becomes more compulsive towards the end and ultimately I’m glad I finished it, but the game doesn’t make itself easy to like. It’s on the edge of excellence. Remember Me is a game that needs to be better at almost everything, few aspects worthy of praise without caveat. It’s an ambitious game full of great ideas and I admire much of what it accomplishes, but its execution is so lacking that it undermines itself constantly.

Remember Me is a 2013 third-person action game set in Neo Paris in 2084. It admirably satisfies the cyberpunk aesthetic invoked by a “Neo-” prefix. It follows Nilin, an amnesiac “Memory Hunter” and member of a terrorist group calling themselves “Errorists”, fighting to undermine Memorize, the corporation responsible for the creation of the Sensen. The Sensen is a device that allows people direct access to–and manipulation of–their own memories, as well as those of anyone else with the device installed. You may notice that that synopsis is full of thematic proper nouns. So is the game. It was a problem for me; everything in the game is given a made-up name, often a pun that’s unhelpfully close to something sensible. Combat moves are “pressens”, diary entries are “mnemists”, health packs are “SAT patches”, recordings are “remembranes”, a lockpick is a “pick socket”. It’s an honest attempt at world-building but I found it clunky and unnecessary; it made the game’s language difficult to process and enforced a distance between me and the game world.

Combat

I should admit up front, I’m a huge Platinum Games fan, so I have lofty expectations of action game mechanics. Remember Me’s combat has 2 attack buttons, an invincible dodge, a time-pausing selection wheel for special attacks and a lock-on ranged option set to a shoulder button. The combos themselves feel pretty good with a nice heft to the strikes, but the game weirdly limits your directionality during fights. You can’t keep a combo going while switching targets unless you use a directed dodge to flip over a different enemy and continue the combo after you land. It makes the combat feel static since use of the left stick frequently results in a dropped combo. The ranged option (“spammer”) feels like it was designed for a different game and never quite gels with the experience. There are a couple of enemies that force you to use the spammer; it’s awkward and underpowered leaving you frustrated and bored.

The combos themselves are fairly standard sequences of x and y presses, but the game has an intriguing system designed to add another tactical layer to the brawling. The player is able to choose the animation and effect for each individual x or y press in the combo, called a “pressen”. Pressens fall into one of three main types: hits that do a lot of damage, hits that recover some of Nilin’s health and hits that knock a chunk of time off the cooldown on all of your special attacks. The further into the combo a pressen is placed, the greater its effect. At every moment the game aims to have you considering which of these effects is most valuable. The correct decision changes depending on what enemies you’re fighting (for example, some enemies have electrified shields that always damage you when you hit them, but you can negate this damage by using health-recovery moves). I think it has the potential to be a very dynamic system. It’s worth mentioning that some of the fights in Remember Me take place within mindscapes and abstract spaces. In these battles, the damage pressens are basically useless, which was a nuance I really liked. The soundtrack, which is pretty awesome overall, complements the combat well. Each successful strike of a combo is accompanied by a musical hit that gets louder and thicker the further into the combo you get. It’s an effective way to reinforce the satisfaction of accomplished execution.

Pressens

The interface for assigning pressens is clunky and unclear.

My issue with the pressen system is in how it’s implemented. Combos are customised by pausing the game and entering a user-unfriendly menu. You must clear your existing combos to conveniently revise your chosen pressens. Your tactical needs only become clear after a fight has started, so the game requires you to break any flow or rhythm the battle has generated in order to implement this important system. Once paused, it can take up to five arduous minutes to get the conformation you want. I would rather be pressing shoulder buttons mid-combo to change the “mode” Nilin is in, thus altering the effect of subsequent strikes. This would let the combat flow while allowing me to make tactical decisions on the fly. I found that the best way to play was to have several specialised combos, each filled only with a single pressen type. This meant I could reliably change approach mid-fight when needed, rather than risking missing that last meter build hit in a long combo. The game holds back access to most of the pressens–particularly the special moves–for too long, so combat near the start of the game fails to engage. It definitely improves, becoming more dynamic once you have access to all of Nilin’s tools and an appropriate variety of enemy types, but combat constantly feels like a missed opportunity.

Platforming, Level Design and Art Direction

I could live with the lacklustre combat but the level design and environment traversal are where the game really falls down for me. Remember Me caught a lot of flack for being “linear” when it came out. I’ve never felt that linearity is a valid criticism in and of itself (Super Mario Bros. is very linear) since linear progression allows for a more tailored gameplay or narrative experience; the approach has clear strengths that shouldn’t be dismissed offhand. The problem with Remember Me is that its levels are confined, simplistic and dull. The game is beautiful–one of the best-looking Unreal 3 games ever made–and the levels give a good sense of what part of Neo-Paris you’re in, but I felt they lacked character overall. The only environment I remember is the La Bastille prison, and only because the game sends you back there every other mission for the first half of the game. Worse than this, though, is how unengaging the levels are as playgrounds; they have no sense of place. As I clambered around window sills and pipes, or jumped along corrugated rooftops, I had no idea where I was in relation to anything else in the level. I had no sense of where I was heading or where I’d come from, taking the game one uninterested leap at a time. Mechanically, the ledge-hanging is rote but the raw platforming is worse. Nilin has a very short jump, but when you’re within a few feet of a platform edge with another platform to jump to, you trigger a different animation that carries her across. This means jumps are unpredictable and unrepeatable. The level geometry is universally unclear and the direction Nilin springs in feels like a random function of camera position and the direction she faces. Combine that with insta-death and minute-plus load times on failure and you have a recipe for frustration. Much of the game comprises long, purposeless corridors that simply link one combat or puzzle section to the next. The few puzzles the game offers are rote as well. There’s a pervading sense of the game being a third-person action game by default. The developers don’t seem very engaged in crafting an action game but perhaps the decision was made with marketability in mind. If so, I wish they’d been more enthused by it or been empowered to explore the type of game they really wanted to. That seems to be the case with Dontnod’s second game, Life is Strange, which takes the format of a visual novel.

Screenshot 1

The game is visually stunning.

This is all a shame, because on paper the environments are varied and fascinating: a slum generated by income-inequality; a sewer, home to fearsome mutants who turn out to be the wronged discardia of this false utopia; a fortress prison used for human experimentation, an upper-class district filled with the bright lights the utopia promised; that same district, flooded and destroyed; a cult-like commune for the ultra-rich; and finally within the servers holding the memories of the populace. The breadth of vision in the game is staggering when you can step away and look at the big picture but the constrained, mundane design makes this so difficult to do.

Memory Remixes, the game’s USP

The game’s big innovation–and the part of gameplay that most strongly connects to the game’s narrative and themes–is the memory remixes. These are sections where Nilin accesses the memories of other characters and alters them. Narratively, the idea is to change the character’s perspective so that their new behaviour becomes beneficial to Nilin and the Errorists. For example, the first memory remix sees you manipulate the memory of a bounty hunter in order for her to switch sides. You accomplish this by overwriting a memory her husband undergoing an unsuccessful but benign medical procedure to one of the treatment killing him. This turns her against Memorize, who were responsible for the treatment. The moral implications of this action are never addressed; an absence that persists throughout the game and made it hard for me to fully warm to Nilin.

 

The memory remix sequences take the form of what is essentially an interactive video. The memory is played out “in situ” and the player can then rewind this to find aspects of the sequence that can be altered, such as knocking over a glass or unbuckling a seatbelt. You then watch the effect of this modification play out in the scene. The game doesn’t discuss how the victim’s brain spins out these changes into new memories with new details. I got a little indignant, thinking “memory doesn’t work that way!” To be pedantic, you’re implanting memories more than you’re remixing them, but what the game does with the concept is more than interesting enough to just accept it and see where it goes. I was annoyed at myself for being skeptical early and not enjoying these segments fully. My only complaint about the remixes is that watching the scene play out 3 or 4 times can get a little repetitive, but I appreciate why it’s necessary.

Once again I was left with a sense of missed opportunity with these sequences. Given the profound effect the remixes have on the characters, the memories themselves are pivotal moments in these people’s lives. Many of them are intensely personal but fall flat since the game does such a poor job of letting its characters feel like real people. We are given little reason to invest in them or consider them as complex individuals. Part of this is structural; the game essentially has you reach and remix a new character every other chapter. They’re only introduced at the start of the chapter, you have no interaction with them during the chapter except for maybe a diary entry (which cannot be considered vital) and by the end they’ve undergone what is supposed to be huge shift in their personality or outlook. It feels unearned and haphazard. Spoilers Towards the end of the game, some of the largely absent, but oft-mentioned characters turn out to be Nilin’s parents. The game assumes that this knowledge will demand your personal investment, yet we see too little of the relationship on-screen to really care. End Spoilers Even the character you spend the most time with, Nilin, is an amnesiac from the beginning of the game, so there’s very little character to get to know.

I can’t understate the potential I think this idea has. For a player to be able to enter a character’s memory and experience something directly is a powerful and emotional storytelling device. It’s a great technique for revealing a “truth” and an impressively unique use of the video game medium. Imagine finding out the reason for a mysterious character’s motivation by entering their memory and watching it. Imagine the turmoil of deciding if you should take that pain away from them at the cost of their entire sense of self. There are fascinating questions about intimacy: how much of a violation is it to access and erase these memories against someone’s will? How close do you have to become to a person to volunteer access to your own most painful or joyful moments? Or how painful would it be to deliberately erase yourself from a loved one’s memory in order to protect them? Painstakingly obliterating your most beautiful shared moments accumulated over the course of a story. While I played, I kept imagining how this mechanic would work in a game that spends a lot more time with its characters-something like a Bioware game. I really want to play that game.

Story, Setting, Characters

As alluded to above, the setting of Remember Me is fascinating and fresh, but the game never gives us a chance to explore or experience it in any depth. I love how ambitions and slightly bonkers some of the environments are, like the last chapter, which is set in Memorize’s headquarters. The complex is a huge multi-towered skyscraper with the central servers (the “Conception Cube”) suspended from the towers and held aloft in the centre. I do wish I’d been able to spend more time in the world and make it feel like that time had meaning. The world is inhabited everywhere by servile robots, but their place in society isn’t really addressed, which feels like a huge oversight given one of the game’s later revelations. As it stands, the few diary entries hidden around the place don’t deliver on the promise of the setting. There’s a certain campness to the aesthetic and some of the world that would be more enjoyable if the game weren’t so po-faced. I appreciate the game’s commitment to its bigger ideas and it carries an endearing earnestness in its tone, but a little humour would not have gone amiss.

Wings

Symbolism! I choose you!

 

The characters don’t fare much better, sadly. Their visual design is beautiful across the board. The game has a nice, clean cyberpunk aesthetic and all of the characters are immediately recognisable. Some abilities manifest as digital constructs in bold colours around the characters. They look great and the angel wings accompanied by a lion roar for Nilin’s powered up state was hokey, but a personal favourite. It’s worth praising the diversity of the main cast as well. The protagonist, Nilin, is a mixed race woman, not a frequent headlining combination. Dontnod are on record as saying their female protagonist made a publisher hard to secure and I’m sad that I don’t see Nilin included in more lists as the game seems largely forgotten. There are plenty of people of colour in the cast, a wide range of ages, backgrounds and body types including one character with prosthesis. Sadly, the surface is as deep as the appeal of the characters goes (with one exception). Due to the limited screen time most are relegated to a couple of tropes (naive newcomer, megalomaniacal warden, self-absorbed brute, obsessive scientist) and don’t get a chance to breathe. Nilin’s amnesia does her character a pretty deep disservice, as we necessarily don’t learn who she is or what she stands for. She spends most of the game blindly following the orders of Edge, the Errorist leader, pausing only to voice a few meek concerns, despite the obvious destructive consequences of his campaign. The game actually starts to ask lots of really interesting questions about what makes up an individual. Nilin has lost her memory but sees evidence that she fought for this anti-establishment cause. She seems to believe this, but can a person hold a belief without the underlying memories and experiences that lead them to it? Is she a believer? Has she been indoctrinated? Is she being used etc. The game flirts with these ideas but never explores them..The only dramatisations of Nilin’s uncertainty are some interminable interstitials where Nilin speaks to herself. They’re obnoxious and poorly written, offering no further insight, but insulting the player by hammering home the major themes. For a game with something as nuanced and innovative as the memory remixes, it was disappointing to see such a poor use of the medium here.

Nilin is an unrepentant murderer in the game, never questioning if the end justifies her means. And her means leave people dead, homeless or with their entire self perverted by one of her remixes. At one point she remixes a man’s memory leading him to immediately kill himself and she expresses very little guilt or remorse over this. She is never presented as anything other than heroic. Spoilers Later, it’s revealed that the CEO of Memorize is motivated by an obsessive pursuit of a noble goal and without a shred of self-awareness Nilin self-righteously demonstrates to him the error of his ways. One of the “twists” in the game is that Nilin discovers she is the daughter or the founders of Memorize, the corporation she’s trying to dismantle. She wrecks her parents’ memories, convincing her father he killed her accidentally as a child only to then immediately reappear in front of him. The goal is to manipulate them into willingly destroying the technology and corporation they’ve constructed. Just before the game’s finale there’s a completely unearned reunification of this central family that rings hollow. We needed more time with these characters to be able to care. This focus makes the world of the game seem terribly small; everything that has transformed Europe and the human experience is ultimately a family squabble where everyone just needed to understand each other a little better (sigh.) End Spoilers.

The Finale

H3O

The game’s final boss and best idea.

By far the most interesting part of Remember Me is its finale. This game has a genuinely unique, subversive final act that really grabbed me. Honestly, the game is worth playing just to see how far they take some of their ideas and how unexpected the final confrontation is. Spoilers. One of the central mysteries of the game is the identity of Edge, the Errorist leader. It’s obvious from the beginning that he’s a big-picture kind of guy, proudly uncaring at the blood spilled in pursuit of his goal of destroying the corporation he sees as a source of oppression and corruption. As the game progresses it does a great job of showing that he has personal stakes in the conflict, beyond ideology or politics. If anyone called this character’s identity then I am thoroughly impressed because it’s one of those rare twists that is both surprising and makes perfect sense in retrospect. His identity is big and bold and unapologetically emo, but it works. In a visually beautiful sequence where Nilin walks through a seemingly infinite maze of server banks, it is revealed that Edge is actually a sentient AI, the first ever to exist in this world, spontaneously arising from within the Memorize servers (called H3O for some reason). The catch is that he comes into being on the server where all of the unwanted memories of Memorize’s customers are stored. Every moment of heartbreak, pain and loss is kept here; memories their owners chose to forget. This leaves the creature in constant pain, with very little but the darkest of human emotion to draw from. However, in a clever subversion of the usual nascent AI storyline, H3O does not conclude that all of humanity must be eradicated, he concludes that he simply wants to die, to not live in constant suffering. His entire crusade has been designed to bring Nilin to him, in order that she end his life of pain. His existence is interesting in and of itself but I think he’s also meant to stand as a personification of the consequence of rejecting our own pain. Something unpredictable, nearly unseen. You do end up fighting an enjoyably strange final boss battle against him, although why conflict is necessary is never adequately explained. Once again Nilin never really considers an alternative to destruction and once again the game doesn’t feel this is worth exploring. There is a strange sense of catharsis to the battle, though. I loved the vision and ambition of this ending. I was genuinely surprised and deeply impressed; I just wish the game hadn’t held its best ideas back until the very end. End Spoilers

 

Summing Up

Remember Me is an odd beast, filled with inconsistencies and bad decisions. The moment-to-moment gameplay is rarely engaging but the world is always interesting, even though the game does such a bad job of presenting its own good ideas to you. The memory remixes are an innovative idea with nearly unlimited storytelling potential, hobbled here by a cast of characters that we aren’t given a chance to invest in. When the game reaches its climax and finally shows its full hand it’s hard not be blown away by its ambition and earnestness. It makes the uneven journey worthwhile. It’s just a shame that the same level of vision wasn’t present in the rest of the game’s design. I can’t give Remember Me an unreserved recommendation, but it has some of the most interesting ideas I’ve seen in a video game yet and Dontnod deserve to be lauded for that. Someone give them Platinum’s number; I hear they’re doing a ton of co-productions at the minute…

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