Remember Me: A Retrospective Review


Memories make us who we are.

Who would we be if things had turned out just a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly in our lives?

A 90’s song can bring me back to my teenage days in California, shift­ing from an emo­tion­al­ly sta­ble kid to a ner­vous home­body strug­gling to fig­ure out where I fit in. A love­ly scent can invite a flood of tears, even if the source is a happy expe­ri­ence I’d never soon for­get. A sin­gle word can bring me back to a stag­ger­ing­ly painful moment that sets the tone for the rest of my day. Together each piece of the puz­zle forms a larg­er pic­ture, no detail more impor­tant than the other in the grand scheme of things. I’ve always embraced the wealth of warm mem­o­ries I have to look back on, view­ing them as my very own clus­ter of joy that helps me sleep at night and informs every­thing I do in the day-to-day. Not every­one can claim the same and for that I’m for­tu­nate.

These are just some of the many rea­sons I was drawn to Remember Me, Dontnod’s sci-fi thriller and very first foray into the AAA space. Released a mere few years ago under Capcom’s label, this game drew a lot of media hub­bub for its pro­tag­o­nist (a mul­tira­cial black woman) as well as the studio’s attempt to give her a love inter­est only to have it canned by pub­lish­ers due to the pre­sumed straight male audience’s neg­a­tive reac­tion. Despite this ini­tial media fren­zy, there real­ly hasn’t been much talk since. In fact, the game received a rather medioc­re respon­se by crit­ics when it was released and deliv­ered so poor­ly on the finan­cial front the stu­dio was at risk of bank­rupt­cy — they would later be pulled out of the pit by their sleep­er hit Life Is Strange. While main­stream accep­tance isn’t an imme­di­ate sign of qual­i­ty, I still found it trou­ble­some at the time (and a touch iron­ic) that a game all about mem­o­ries hasn’t been remem­bered much at all.

Remember Me is set in Neo-Paris, a futur­is­tic ver­sion of the French capi­tol. The game stars Nilin, a mem­o­ry hunter who has been cap­tured and thrown into a spe­cial­ized pris­on to have her per­son­al­i­ty com­plete­ly wiped away for a crime she can’t even remem­ber. In a for­tu­nate turn of events she’s con­tact­ed by a man named Edge, assur­ing her he’s a past co-worker who wants her to break free and con­tin­ue down the path she had start­ed — she’s no mere mem­o­ry hunter, he stress­es, but one that can remix mem­o­ries and alter them to her will. The game sees Nilin, and by exten­sion the play­er, fol­low­ing Edge’s cryp­tic advice in an effort to piece togeth­er the details of her life and dis­cov­er who she used to be while fight­ing ene­mies rang­ing from every­day guards to ‘Leapers’, humans who lost their mem­o­ries and saw their phys­i­cal forms erode as a result. The set-up for the game alone already cre­at­ed some large shoes to fill.

You’ve seen this plot toyed with in many a science-fiction and action film, from Total Recall to Minority Report. Hell, it seems every other anime that’s been released in the past decade has insom­nia or tam­pered mem­o­ries some­where in the plot. If you think about it, it’s real­ly not hard to see why this trope is so pop­u­lar — ubiq­ui­tous expe­ri­ences are one of the hall­marks of a suc­cess­ful story and mem­o­ries are some­thing every­one can relate to. That these story ele­ments are often tinged with sad­ness or hor­ror is a tes­ta­ment to their unique nature. Memories are thought to be rel­a­tive­ly untouch­able, forever frozen in time and only at risk from age or a par­tic­u­lar­ly rough bump to the head. Even a sin­gle lost expe­ri­ence can alter how we per­ceive the world.

The first pos­i­tive that can most eas­i­ly be noticed about Remember Me is the art direc­tion. This is one of the most beau­ti­ful games I’ve ever played — while the pow­er­ful graph­i­cal engine is nice, it’s a com­pelling art design that truly stands the test of time. Glowing neons mar­ried with old-fashioned baro­que and art nou­veau archi­tec­ture cre­ate a blend of the old and new in a way that res­onates with me long after I’ve turned the game off. Even the grungi­est and grit­ti­est ele­ments of the envi­ron­ment, of which there are quite a few, gleam at the play­er — you can prac­ti­cal­ly smell the oil spills glit­ter­ing on the streets, almost feel the wind as it weasels its way through the under­ground tun­nels and clut­tered streets you trav­el and fight your way through. Lighting is atmos­pher­ic, the col­ors pop and even minor details (such as the sur­re­al design of the game’s boss robots) cap­ture your imag­i­na­tion. The game goes from ugly to beau­ti­ful and back again at the drop of a hat, as seam­less as it is engag­ing.

It’s more than just pret­ty to look at, though — it’s visu­al­ly symp­to­matic of the game’s explo­ration of manip­u­la­tion, vio­lence and iden­ti­ty. You can see the world at odds with itself, strug­gling to main­tain its glam­orous image while cov­er­ing up all the ugli­ness under­neath. Not unlike a futur­is­tic ren­di­tion of what we see in day-to-day life, in fact — I can’t help but think of the shiny vis­ages of wealthy American cities like New York City and San Francisco, ever attempt­ing to main­tain their lucra­tive glam­our through a con­stant era­sure of the poor and home­less. Because of this, it leads one to nat­u­ral­ly ask uncom­fort­able ques­tions as you jog through glam­orous mar­bled hall­ways and creep back into filthy alleys. Good art design makes you curi­ous and Remember Me deliv­ers in spades.

The music is a mar­vel that com­pli­ments the art style direct­ly, waver­ing from clas­si­cal strings to more mod­ern glitch­core and elec­tron­i­ca. The bat­tle themes even have an inter­est­ing side-effect while you play — each note will become punc­tu­at­ed with addi­tion­al quirks in accor­dance with your actions, speed­ing up and glitch­ing out and slow­ing down as you land com­bos. Voice act­ing hits a sim­i­lar pitch and each char­ac­ter sounds dis­tinc­tive­ly, lov­ing­ly craft­ed (even if the dia­logue itself can run the gamut from poet­ic to cheesy). So, we know that this game is tech­ni­cal­ly and artis­ti­cal­ly com­pe­tent. But style doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean sub­stance. Does the game have any­thing to say?

Yes… and no. Remember Me reveals its biggest ambi­tion is also its biggest mis­step, with a story that brings up a pletho­ra of fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tions only to explore them bare­ly over an errat­i­cal­ly short length. For starters, char­ac­ters are brought in to van­ish just as quick­ly as they appeared, san­i­tiz­ing the human ele­ment to a barely-there pres­ence that starts to feel detached. I real­ly want­ed to see more of “Headache” Tommy, the griz­zled vet­er­an friend of Nilin who runs a scum­my bar and cre­ates some of the (rather funny) adver­tise­ments you see while run­ning around in the world. While he was one of the less inter­est­ing char­ac­ters, I was still sur­prised we learned so lit­tle about Bad Request, a fel­low mem­o­ry hunter said to be one of Nilin’s ‘biggest fans’ from her glory days. Heck, I want­ed to learn more about Olga, the venge­ful boun­ty hunter after your head whom you force to your side through your very first ven­ture into remix­ing. She has, what, two and a half note­wor­thy sce­nes before dis­ap­pear­ing from the story entire­ly? Remember me, indeed.

Nilin her­self is a mas­sive con­tra­dic­tion, pre­sent­ed as an ambi­tious enig­ma with a secret to crack yet hard­ly com­ing off as more than a Strong Female Character wad­ing through lack­ing writ­ing. Metroid: Other M received a lot of crit­i­cism for water­ing down a pop­u­lar hero­ine into a yes-sir no-sir robot, while Portal flipped the script and fid­dled with the trope of an Omnipresent Voice — in other words this ele­ment is nei­ther inher­ent­ly good or bad, just one of many ingre­di­ents that can be thrown in the pot. While she has a decent set-up and a bril­liant voice actress, Nilin made me ask yet more ques­tions that hard­ly received any explo­ration. Throughout my playthrough I kept ask­ing, “She lost her mem­o­ry, but has that entire­ly changed her per­son­al­i­ty? If she doesn’t remem­ber the per­son she used to be, how is she still able to brawl like a sea­soned pro­fes­sion­al? Is that just mus­cle mem­o­ry? Why does she not ques­tion more how Edge knows so much? Why has she not refused to do any­thing until she sees him? Why does she never real­ly refuse to do any­thing?” The lat­ter proves par­tic­u­lar­ly frus­trat­ing when an entire chunk of the city ends up flood­ed in the first act because Nilin unques­tion­ably fol­lowed Edge’s orders for a sab­o­tage mis­sion. What should have been a ‘holy shit’ moment hard­ly added up to more than ‘a minor detail that gets a few lines before she goes back to casu­al­ly obey­ing him’.

What?

Each episode in the game ends with a cutscene of Nilin gaz­ing at her navel and wax­ing philo­soph­i­cal about the events that occurred, com­plete with beau­ti­ful abstract envi­ron­ments straight out of an art­house flick. It is in these set pieces she con­sid­ers and explores some of the ques­tions the play­ers asks, but… that’s about it. Herein lies not just an issue with Remember Me, but any game that wants to strike a chord in its audi­ence while steer­ing clear of the uncom­fort­able at the same time. Having ques­tions with few (or no) answers doesn’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly equal deep — it’s a del­i­cate bal­ance man­ag­ing the gray, unpre­dictable nature of life. Not every­thing is per­fect­ly spelled out, nor does it need to be. But when a piece is unwill­ing to com­mit to many (or any) answers to all the ques­tions it lobs at its audi­ence, it comes off as insin­cere. When some of these ques­tions reflect real-life issues? It almost seems cow­ard­ly.

There’s lit­tle quite as frus­trat­ing as being pre­sent­ed with a ver­i­ta­ble buf­fet, only to be told you can look but can’t eat. Even if the end result is far from medioc­re, dis­ap­point­ment is only a nat­u­ral ele­ment to fol­low behind. One of the com­mon ideas in the game is that you can do things with­out even think­ing, hint­ing at an unex­am­ined mem­o­ry or instinct you gained with­out your knowl­edge. Hell, you could ditch the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry sur­round­ing kid­napped mem­o­ry hunters and make an entire plot based on that alone! As we’ve seen, Remember Me suf­fers from a sev­ere case of try­ing every­thing only to achieve very lit­tle. I won’t fault it for its ambi­tion (bet­ter to try too hard than not enough), but dis­may is a mea­ger emo­tion to recall for a title that clear­ly took a lot of work and love to make.

It doesn’t end with plot hic­cups and thread­bare char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, either. The dia­logue whiplash­es from ele­gant to obnox­ious in a heart­beat (“This Little Red Riding Hood has a bas­ket full of kick-ass!” is a real line) and I found myself reg­u­lar­ly wrestling with the cam­era dur­ing com­bat. As for the bat­tle sys­tem? Think Arkham Asylum meets your aver­age Tekken game. In tak­ing down mooks and guards you’re given oppor­tu­ni­ties to change your com­bos on a whim, which is a plus for those that like cus­tomiz­ing their game but not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing for those that want­ed some­thing a touch dif­fer­ent. I wasn’t look­ing for­ward to gravity-defying punch­es and kicks — I was curi­ous how mem­o­ry remix­ing would impact the flow of game­play. When I found out it just turns your ene­mies into stum­bling drunks at the press of cer­tain QTEs, I was dis­ap­point­ed all over again. Fortunately, it didn’t actu­al­ly end there.

The game­play is at both its best and weakest when it comes to the set pieces where you get to fid­dle with people’s mem­o­ries direct­ly. Each scene is set up with a clear objec­tive in mind, leav­ing the play­er to fig­ure out how to achieve that goal. ‘Make the per­son think their hus­band died when he didn’t by mov­ing a table to the left.’ ‘Make the per­son think they said one thing instead of the other by turn­ing off the tele­vi­sion’. The weak­ness comes from the lin­ear­i­ty, with only one viable result from the player’s actions. The strength comes from the fact it’s still pret­ty damn neat to lit­er­al­ly fast-forward and rewind through a person’s mem­o­ries look­ing for clues. Even though these all only have one out­come, it was fas­ci­nat­ing see­ing how adjust­ing the most minor of details could yield entire­ly dif­fer­ent results. Had the char­ac­ters been given a chance to become more fleshed-out and we got just a few more bits like this, I think the title would’ve been stronger already.

(spoil­er alert)

Remember Me starts to stum­ble severe­ly near the third act, with so many criss-crossing plot lines and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and ques­tions tum­bling over one anoth­er it’s almost hard to keep track. The lead char­ac­ter is revealed to be the daugh­ter in line to inher­it the Cartier-Wells lega­cy, respon­si­ble for the memory-altering tech­nol­o­gy you’ve been using all along. A sig­nif­i­cant com­po­nent of Nilin’s moral­ly ambigu­ous actions is found to be most­ly due to an influ­en­tial moment that occurred early in her life. When she was just a girl she got into a car acci­dent with her moth­er on the way home — it had been her birth­day that night and, in an excit­ed fit, she had dis­tract­ed her moth­er from the road by beg­ging for her favorite robot­ic toy Jax still in its gift box. Nilin’s father later tried to remix her mem­o­ry from the result­ing crash, to dis­cour­age her from devel­op­ing trau­ma from the inci­dent and lead a happy life. As you can see, this clear­ly didn’t actu­al­ly come about.

The game later requires you to remix your mother’s and father’s mem­o­ries in a rather strange not-quite-payback seg­ment. That issue of there not being enough char­ac­ter devel­op­ment or expla­na­tion? It shows up here, too. We see her moth­er bare­ly. We see her father bare­ly. Yet both of these peo­ple were a major (trou­bling!) influ­ence in her life, a mas­sive fac­tor that lead Nilin down her path of destruc­tive rebel­lion. Her par­ents end up chang­ing for the bet­ter due to her mem­o­ry remix­ing and what was once a hos­tile and detached fam­i­ly unit is now hap­pier and more wiz­ened for it. Good? Bad? I don’t think the game want­ed to answer. Heck, her lit­tle ani­ma­tron­ic bear still remem­bers her despite Nilin now being an adult and, like usual, the game rejects a prime oppor­tu­ni­ty for an inter­est­ing com­men­tary on the nature of mem­o­ries and waltzes right into cred­its mode. A lot to swal­low? I thought so, too.

The cream of the crop is when it’s revealed that the omnipresent voice that’s been ‘guid­ing’ your actions through­out the game is some­thing of an anti-villain, with an orig­in that’s as inter­est­ing as it is sud­den and unex­plained. Edge is an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence birthed from the dis­card­ed mem­o­ries of the thou­sands of peo­ple in Neo-Paris and, due to the excru­ci­at­ing­ly trag­ic and painful nature of many of these mem­o­ries, has actu­al­ly want­ed noth­ing more than for you to destroy him. While I won’t pre­tend the twist isn’t neat (how does an arti­fi­cial per­son­al­i­ty form from dis­card­ed human mem­o­ries?), it wasn’t built up very well. It’s as if the devel­op­ers were so keen on it being a twist they for­got to leave the pre­req­ui­site trail of bread­crumbs for the play­er. The robots you see in the back­grounds of the world? Mere win­dow dress­ing for the sci-fi utopia. An NPC you can pass by and eas­i­ly miss on your way to the next mis­sion that talks about ‘God man­i­fest­ing through humanity’s mem­o­ries’? Optional. The game has never want­ed for ideas — it was orga­niz­ing and pac­ing them that was the prob­lem. One could even say it need­ed a remix.

(end spoil­er)

If I had to pick I’d much rather a flawed and inter­est­ing piece than a pol­ished and bor­ing one. The bril­liant sound­track, stun­ning art direc­tion and inter­est­ing ques­tions alone are enough to make me want to check it out again, if only for the bits and pieces I may have missed in my first run. But I don’t have to pick. In some ways I can see why Remember Me got such a mixed respon­se — while some of it is ye olde aver­age big­otry, what caused such a fas­ci­nat­ing mess of a piece is no doubt as hodge­podge as its ambi­tion. An uncon­ven­tion­al pro­tag­o­nist in a toxic indus­try, the first step for a bur­geon­ing stu­dio, an attempt at a new IP in a field far more inter­est­ed in fran­chis­es and sequels to sequels. All of these and more are no doubt the ingre­di­ents that cre­at­ed this clum­sy, tan­gled, beau­ti­ful soup.

Even now it stews in my mind as a mess of poten­tial and eas­i­ly avoid­able slip-ups. A mem­o­ry I’ll look back on when craft­ing my own work, both for where it suc­ceed­ed and where it failed. That’s got to count for some­thing.


Ashe Samuels

About Ashe Samuels

Illustrator and writer happily resigned to be forever obsessed with all things fantasy and science-fiction. Trying to make my mark on this world, however small, while I'm still here.