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’.
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.
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.
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.