Remember Me and Artistic Ambition 2


Neo-Paris

Epigraph: 3. A short quo­ta­tion or pithy sen­tence placed at the com­mence­ment of a work, a chap­ter, etc. to indi­cate the lead­ing idea or sen­ti­ment; a motto. — the Oxford English Dictionary

Remember Me is one of those games that deserve to be noted for its artis­tic ambi­tion, even if the over­all exe­cu­tion failed to live up to its poten­tial. Its final pre­sen­ta­tion is a gener­ic nar­ra­tive (though not as gener­ic as other sci-fi sto­ries premised on the move­ment from con­spir­a­cy and oppres­sion to free­dom – sto­ries like Deus Ex: Human Revolution), which, when cou­pled with nig­gling prob­lems like a tem­pera­men­tal cam­era and incon­stant con­trols, mark out the game as a fair-to-middling work with a few inter­est­ing touch­es. We can praise its world-building, the aspi­ra­tions of its plot (to quote Arthur Gies’review on Polygon, “Like the best sci-fi lit­er­a­ture, main char­ac­ter Nilin’s quest to unrav­el the Memorize corporation’s con­spir­a­cy and her part in it is sit­u­at­ed amid some big­ger exis­ten­tial ques­tions explor­ing ideas of respon­si­bil­i­ty and iden­ti­ty”), and its unique sound­track. This is, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the crit­i­cal con­sen­sus reached by a vari­ety of game review­ers. And it’s hard­ly inac­cu­rate: the game’s reach is belied by frus­trat­ing or far­ci­cal ele­ments: “This lit­tle Red Riding Hood’s got a bas­ket full of kick-ass!”

But the con­ver­sa­tion does not deserve to end there because these are mere­ly sur­face details. Yes, the pre­sen­ta­tion is, at times, unfor­tu­nate­ly ugly – but below the skin, Remember Me has a series of fan­tas­tic touch­es and a sense of care about its the­mat­ic coheren­cy that ulti­mate­ly mark the game as truly mem­o­rable. For exam­ple, the way in which each chapter’s epigraph pro­vides an ‘in’ to each section’s the­mat­ic idea and the way in which the game’s cen­tral con­flict is reflect­ed by its diver­gent depic­tions of iden­ti­ty are all details that point towards the game’s ambi­tion. Ultimately, it is the game’s the­mat­ic con­sis­ten­cy – the unflag­ging care taken to ensure a cohe­sive and con­cep­tu­al­ly uni­fied work – that makes the game worth a sec­ond look.

The cen­tral premise of the game is the per­va­sive influ­ence of memory-alteration tech­nol­o­gy: painful mem­o­ries can be removed, pos­i­tive ones can be spread and shared like so many YouTube videos through the use of a Sensen (a con­trac­tion of “sen­sa­tion engine”) device plant­ed in the back of the neck. These Sensen devices are man­u­fac­tured by the Memorize cor­po­ra­tion, which is head­ed by the power-couple Scylla and Charles Cartier-Wells. The game’s pro­tag­o­nist, Nilin, is a Memory Hunter – essen­tial­ly a park­our enthu­si­ast with the abil­i­ty to steal, erase, and remix mem­o­ries – and a mem­ber of the Errorist move­ment: a crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tion which seeks to undo Memorize’s memet­ic monopoly. Importantly, this con­flict takes place over the back­drop of a world that has basi­cal­ly fal­l­en apart: refugees from wars caused by cli­mate change are plen­ti­ful, and Neo-Paris has dealt with the prob­lem by build­ing a wall sur­round­ing the city to keep the unde­sir­ables out. But, impor­tant­ly, all this strife is in the back­ground: the point of the game is not to aid in the right­ing of some gross injus­tice or the res­o­lu­tion of a more straight­for­ward con­flict (think Halo’s strug­gle again­st the fun­da­men­tal­ist Covenant or again­st the omniv­o­rous Flood) – the nar­ra­tive arc is sole­ly con­cerned with the demo­li­tion of Memorize tech­nol­o­gy.

It is the way in which this nar­ra­tive is pre­sent­ed that I find so inter­est­ing: the dif­fer­ent lev­els are par­celled out into sep­a­rate episodes, each with their own epigraph. This model is impor­tant to any under­stand­ing of Remember Me, as each epigraph is meant to provide an entry point into under­stand­ing each episode, to sug­gest the cen­tral theme. For exam­ple, Episode Two begins with a quote from Albert Camus: “Man is not entire­ly guilty, he did not start his­to­ry. Nor is he whol­ly inno­cent, he con­tin­ues it.” By itself, the impli­ca­tions are opaque; but, taken in the con­text of the episode, it begins to make sense. The point of the mis­sion is to find the archi­tect Koari Sheridan and steal her mem­o­ries per­tain­ing to the con­struc­tion of a dam that she designed, which is accom­plished by tra­vers­ing an upscale sec­tion of Neo-Paris planned and plot­ted by the same woman. The tex­ture of the Saint-Michel dis­trict is beau­ti­ful, in an antique fash­ion: the streets are cob­ble­stone, the build­ings neo­clas­si­cal, and the stat­ue of Michael Slaying the Dragon (cur­rent­ly at the Fontaine Saint-Michel) is includ­ed in the mid­dle of a rotun­da. The tex­ture of the level is a dra­mat­ic blend of an antique archi­tec­tural style and hyper­mod­ern sci-fi con­ve­niences, and presents, in essence, a liv­ing tes­ta­ment to the spir­it of Camus’ quo­ta­tion: that the liv­ing are par­tial­ly excul­pat­ed by their inno­cence regard­ing what hap­pened before their birth, but at the same time are con­demned by their main­tain­ing the sins of the past. The moral ele­ment of this sen­ti­ment is made clear by the crit­i­cism Nilin’s han­dler, Edge, lev­els again­st the pop­u­la­tion of Saint-Michel: “It’s not their self­ish­ness that I con­demn, sis­ter. It’s their eager­ness to for­get every­thing that both­ers them.” In essence, the archi­tec­tural style of the level is a sym­bol of its prob­lem­at­ic sta­tus: every­thing is beau­ti­ful because it is evoca­tive of the past, but it is pred­i­cat­ed on the all-too repet­i­tive igno­rance of the city’s poor.

The other chap­ters are sim­i­lar­ly struc­tured. Episode Five begins with a quote from Balzac – “The heart of a moth­er is a deep abyss at the bot­tom of which you will always find for­give­ness” – and is ulti­mate­ly con­cerned with Nilin’s hard-hearted moth­er and her inabil­i­ty to for­give her daugh­ter for a caus­ing a crip­pling car acci­dent. Episode Eight takes its cue from Kipling’s cou­plet on the death of his son in World War One: “If any ques­tion why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.” Here the con­text of its orig­i­nal utter­ance is impor­tant: Kipling had encour­aged his son to enlist out of a sense of British patri­o­tism, which stemmed from the – in hind­sight – pro­found­ly naive view that the ‘war to end all wars’ would be a grand and glo­ri­ous affair, full of oppor­tu­ni­ties for hero­ism and glory. In real­i­ty, the expe­ri­ence of World War One was pro­found­ly shat­ter­ing. One needs mere­ly to look at Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” or Timothy Findley’s The Wars, or Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to see how phys­i­cal­ly and intel­lec­tu­al­ly dev­as­tat­ing the con­flict was, and how the best and noblest of ide­als turned to chlo­rine dust at Ypres or Verdun. The par­al­lel between this con­flict and the noble inten­tions of Memorize’s cre­ator, Charles Cartier-Wells (along with their per­ni­cious ends) is fair­ly trans­par­ent. Furthermore, the rev­e­la­tion that Charles’ first exper­i­ment with Sensen tech­nol­o­gy was the remix­ing of his daugh­ter Nilin’s mem­o­ry of a car acci­dent turns the epigraph into a clev­er bit of  fore­shad­ow­ing, as the game’s final remix­ing is that of Charles’ mem­o­ry of this first exper­i­ment, lead­ing him to believe that he killed his own daugh­ter in the process of remix­ing her mem­o­ry. Simply put, it is in lying to Nilin – by alter­ing her mem­o­ry of that acci­dent, and thus lead­ing her to believe that it never hap­pened in the first place – that the father osten­si­bly kills his child.

This empha­sis on the the­mat­ic coheren­cy of each episode makes Remember Me a cut above the usual fare. Details like the archi­tec­tural style in Episode Two rein­force its con­cern with the way in which the wealthy per­pet­u­ate both the beau­ti­ful and the ugly holdovers of the past. Similarly, Episode Seven’s explic­it con­cern with the notions of soli­tary iden­ti­ty – its epigraph is from Simone de Beauvoir: “Humanity is a dis­con­tin­u­ous series of free men irrepara­bly iso­lat­ed by their sub­jec­tiv­i­ty” – is repeat­ed­ly exam­ined in the moti­va­tion­al quo­ta­tions that pep­per Charles Cartier-Wells’ cor­po­rate utopia: “l’inscription de Delphes, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, connais-toi toi-même, n’était que le debut. La fin s’écrit a pluriel” (The inscrip­tion of Delphi, gnothi seau­ton, know thy­self, was only the begin­ning. The end is writ­ten in plu­ral). According to Charles, the newer ver­sion of the older apho­rism would be “know thy­selves,” a ref­er­ence to the sud­den trans­lata­bil­i­ty of human iden­ti­ty that the Sensen and its com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of mem­o­ry allows for: we are lit­er­al­ly able to see through another’s eyes by expe­ri­enc­ing their past for our­selves. This utter dis­so­lu­tion of soli­tude finds its most extreme form in Sebastian Quaid’s plan to abuse Memorize tech­nol­o­gy in order to cre­ate a hive-mind – a sin­gle, uni­fied con­scious­ness free from the con­fines of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty.

But the grand irony that per­vades Remember Me as a whole is the way in which the Memorize tech­nol­o­gy allows human­i­ty the abil­i­ty to define their own selves to an unprece­dent­ed scale: by selec­tive­ly edit­ing and sup­ple­ment­ing their own past, the pop­u­la­tion of Neo-Paris have utter­ly under­mined any sense of per­son­al iden­ti­ty. For how can you have a sta­ble self from which to pro­ceed if, at a moment’s notice, you can alter the very thing that make you who you are? How can Charles cel­e­brate the abil­i­ty of his inven­tion to cre­ate empa­thy, when the selves that can be shared are per­pet­u­al­ly plas­tic? That is not to say that an altered mem­o­ry is a whol­ly neg­a­tive thing: Nilin’s moth­er, Scylla Cartier-Wells, has an untouched mem­o­ry, and she is mired in bit­ter­ness and con­tempt until the play­er alters her remem­brance of a car acci­dent.

But Nilin’s own nar­ra­tive estab­lish­es the pre­em­i­nence of a uni­fied, unal­tered iden­ti­ty: the narrative’s exter­nal momen­tum (the demo­li­tion of Memorize tech­nol­o­gy) mir­rors its inter­nal momen­tum (the restora­tion of Nilin’s past, and there­fore her sense of iden­ti­ty). Her real­iza­tion that she was direct­ly respon­si­ble for the death of a police offi­cer named Frank Forlan comes as a shock, but the truth of it – of her respon­si­bil­i­ty – can­not be blot­ted out. The weight of this sin con­trasts neat­ly with her father’s removal of the mem­o­ry of a car acci­dent for which she (as a child) was respon­si­ble, but for which her moth­er still bears the scars. Both of these tragedies have hap­pened, and to try and white­wash them is a dis­hon­est approach: to expunge the mem­o­ry and ignore the scar is to engage in a pro­found exam­ple of bad faith. In effect, it is the end of sin­cer­i­ty and being true to one’s self. Nilin’s quest to restore her mem­o­ry is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the pri­ma­cy of a self-reflexive hon­esty – despite the fact that every mem­o­ry she recov­ers is a neg­a­tive one.

Of course, Nilin’s sta­tus as a Memory Hunter makes her com­plic­it with the technology’s dehu­man­iza­tion, and it’s frus­trat­ing that the game did not explore this fur­ther. That her quest for truth involves the remix­ing of other people’s mem­o­ries is intense­ly prob­lem­at­ic, and remains one of those unad­dressed issues that mars an oth­er­wise inter­est­ing nar­ra­tive. I can buy the argu­ment that, in cer­tain cases, the mem­o­ry remix­ing is an kind of Dantean con­tra­pas­so: there is a deli­cious sense of inver­sion when the play­er remix­es Charles’ mem­o­ry of his own remix of Nilin. But her alter­ation of her own mother’s mem­o­ry of the same acci­dent dark­ly mir­rors her father’s actions – and how are we to read these prob­lem­at­ic ele­ments, save to explain them by a kind of “jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by being the pro­tag­o­nist?” Or shall we sim­ply end the game by say­ing “All’s well that ends well?” Granted, to a cer­tain extent, these con­cerns are beside the point: the good­ness or bad­ness of an event takes sec­ond fid­dle to its fac­tic­i­ty – how can we make any kind of judge­ment if there is no sta­ble “I” to per­form it, and if the events are sub­ject to a poten­tial­ly end­less rewrit­ing?

Ultimately, Remember Me is an ambi­tious work marred by tech­ni­cal and con­cep­tu­al prob­lems: it is a well-constructed, con­cise med­i­ta­tion on the notion of iden­ti­ty in an age where the con­cept has become unprece­dent­ed­ly fluid, while at the same time it is bur­dened by a kind of moral myopia. As cold as this com­ment is, it is a game that tries to do more than rehash clichés and tired nar­ra­tives of the Hero’s tri­umph. But, more impor­tant­ly, it does so in a con­cep­tu­al­ly focused man­ner: every detail has its sig­nif­i­cance and expla­na­tion, which the Episode’s epigraph tries to draw the player’s atten­tion towards. In short, it’s a sur­pris­ing­ly thought­ful game that makes a few mis­steps. And, for all of this, it deserves to be remem­bered.

 

  • This is a very inter­est­ing analy­sis of Remember Me. And it reminds us just how ridicu­lous the main crit­i­cism this game recieved is: that it was too lin­ear and too short. The play­ers expe­ri­ence of the nar­ra­tive requires tight con­trol by the devel­op­ers and is expressed by the den­si­ty of design, visu­al, tex­tu­al and aural. (A design which is con­stant­ly beau­ti­ful btw). The game is not about the play­er, it is about Nilin and her story. 

    In sand­box games epigraphs are mean­ing­less, and hence you never see them. Remember Me has, there­fore, a speci­fic iden­ti­ty. The more ‘open’ a game becomes the more iden­ti­ty becomes erod­ed and that which can be art becomes mere­ly a toy. Linear games upset, and increas­ing­ly score lower in games media, pre­cise­ly because it is assert­ing the cre­ators will over the play­er.

    All great art is tyran­i­cal, that is, it enslaves us and attempts to change our will dur­ing our expe­ri­ence of it. Games that offer ‘play­er free­dom’ are infact fail­ing us. We are left unmo­lest­ed, unmoved and ulti­mate­ly unchanged. There will always be a bal­ance required between play­er choice and lin­ear­i­ty. For each game that bal­ance is dif­fer­ent. But the increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar notion that lin­ear games are infe­ri­or to open games is utter­ly dam­ag­ing.

    On anoth­er topic. I dis­agree with the author that Nilin’s use of rewrit­ing mem­o­ry is intense­ly prob­lem­at­ic. I wrote my own review of this game in which i explained this very point. It can be read at my blog ever​laster​.co​.uk
    In short, how­ev­er, Memorize, and its SenSen tech is a tyran­ny requir­ing destruc­tion. To bring about the rev­o­lu­tion Nilin must use Sensen as a weapon, But unlike all its other uses (as a tool of oppres­sion or a drug to for­get) she is using it with the one speci­fic aim to bring about the end of Sensen tech­nol­o­gy forever. She is employ­ing this unique kind of vio­lence in order to bring about its per­ma­nent end. To not do so would allow that vio­lence to flour­ish into the future. 

    The final boss bat­tle is her destroy­ing the tech­nol­o­gy. We are not shown it, but her suc­cess means she is, at the games end, no longer a mem­o­ry hunter. That tech­nol­o­gy and all its symp­toms are now gone. Only the Fundamentalist Pacifist can find this prob­lem­at­ic.

  • I think Remember Me would have done very well as a Telltale or David Cage game, which are expect­ed to be lin­ear, short, and intel­lec­tu­al­ly inter­est­ing. It’s hard to keep track of the the­mat­ic con­sis­ten­cy when there’s 15 min­utes of awk­ward face-punching and plat­form­ing between every story beat.