Remember Me and Artistic Ambition

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.

 

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