This post contains spoilers for Remember Me.
Fuck videogames, right?
It’s a Thursday afternoon. It’s hot outside, you’ve had an awful day, you want to go home and play something, take your mind off all the crap going on for a couple hours. In fact, you want to treat yourself. It really has been an awful day. So you make a beeline for your nearest game store, ready to experience the best that games have to offer. No expense shall be spared. You heard about this game a while back, it’s got some Phillip K. Dick style premise, and is all about the relationship between our identities, our behaviour and our memories. It’s safe to say, you are hype. You walk into the store, you scan the shelves, you pick out the box. The cover is a young, conventionally attractive woman, posed and framed in such a way that the focal point of the picture, right next to the title itself, is her ass.
You sigh. Fuck videogames.
In an alternate universe, not all that different from our own, Remember Me is a beloved cult classic, one that dares to be different in an AAA gaming landscape that’s somehow grown more and more homogenized with each passing year. In an alternate universe, Neo-Paris is a rich and full world in which you can spend hours merely existing. In an alternate universe, the story is a wonderful mix of pulpy B-movie sci-fi and a serious exploration of high concept ideas. In an alternate universe, Nillin is a fully realised character with an arc that tackles poignant themes with an impressive amount of emotional heft.
In the universe we’re stuck in, Remember Me is a failure. An interesting failure, with many ideas that are worthy of analysis, but a failure none the less. It is emblematic of the issues which plague big budget games, visually astounding, mechanically shallow and thematically incongruent. Even the elements which separate it from the pack aren’t anywhere near as standout as they need to be. Simply, it could be amazing, but it’s too busy being a videogame.
And seriously, fuck them.
As you meet Nillin, she screams in unimaginable pain. Her body convulses as she lies face down on the floor, a red beam pulsing out of the back of her neck. Her entire sense of self is removed before your eyes. She whimpers as a scientist enters her cell, grabs her face, and forces her to answer his questions. Remember Me introduces protagonist to player in a moment of explicitly violent dehumanisation, placing the player in a voyeuristic role as they watch her scream and squirm. The scene falls completely flat, and not just because the imagery is as unnecessarily charged as it is trite; at no point in it do we feel what Nillin feels. All you know, is that she’s in pain.
Immediately after this, you take control. You walk through the prison, waiting in line with other hollow people in identical clothing. This moment is incredibly effective as you follow the arbitrary instructions spat out by the robotic voice, walk along the orange line. Here, we are not seeing Nillin’s pain from afar, instead the game mechanically and clearly demonstrates Nillin’s lack of agency and dehumanisation to the player. You proceed to break out of this oppressive system, and for the rest of the game, you walk along the orange line and follow instructions spat out by a robot voice.
Therein lies the central dissonance of Remember Me, the ideas that it wants to explore are 180 degrees at odds with the big budget game it wants to be. This isn’t to say that a game of this type cannot be interesting, far from it, but more the specific ambitions of Remember Me are antithetical to the game they went and designed.
It’s main ambitions are narrative. The game wants to be about something, it wants to use its central conceit to tell a story both pulpy and philosophical. And that’s an ambition I can get behind, sci-fi shouldn’t be afraid to be both at the same time, in fact I encourage it. The wider story is a standard take-down-the-dystopia revolution, but surprise, you’re an amnesiac. Double surprise, you’re secretly the daughter of the antagonists. But this reveal isn’t just for shock value, it’s actually the game revealing it’s main thematic core, which is essentially an exploration of Moral Relativism. It wants to use its central memory conceit to ask why people do bad things? What causes these kinds of thought processes? What actually is a ‘bad person?’
As you proceed to the final level, the game lays out a series of twists, in a rare example of something being improved by an ending consisting of multiple reveals. You reunite with your parents, and through changing the memory that caused their decisions, convince them to atone. You then meet up with Edge, who is revealed to be a supercomputer named H30, created from all the memories people didn’t want anymore – all the hate, all the anger, all the regret and sadness, piled into one being, who’s only motivation is to die. For as ridiculous a concept it is, it’s handled deftly, as you slowly walk towards his chamber, and meet him as he explains that state of being is too painful to continue. Remember Me argues that people’s memories are their own, good or bad; it’s central thematic thrust is one of self-acceptance.
None of this is reflected in the gameplay, as you engage in Uncharted style platforming and Batman style combat. It’s fine, it gets the job done, in which the job is give you things to do before getting to the next cutscene. Remember Me’s combat gimmick is that you can assign properties to each of your attacks, to either damage, heal or recharge your power metre. It’s a system that turns combat into almost a rhythm game of sorts, a fun distraction which doesn’t even attempt to cohere with other elements of the game. But Remember Me’s lack of coherence goes deeper than that. The one gameplay element which ties into it’s conciet is remixing memories. The game makes it clear that remixing memories is morally abhorrent, that ending arguing that changing another person’s memories is a base violation of self. The first memory remix you perform, where you convince Olga her husband is dead, is one of the most uncomfortable moments that I’ve ever experienced in a video game. It feels cruel. It feels wrong. On one level, this works, Remember Me tips its hat in inter-mission cutscenes to examine the ethics of revolution: when fighting for a better world, one must get their hands dirty.
But this falls down instantly – Nillin feels no remorse for remixing Olga’s memory, Nillin murders characters in cold blood and it’s played as cool and badass, then in a flashback she’s torn up over a remix that drives a character to suicide. Nillin is perhaps the perfect protagonist for Remember Me: she has moments of being an interesting, excellent lead for the story, her situation inviting multiple moral questions for the audience to ponder — but she has no agency of her own, following Edge’s every command without question, at any given moment can flip between empathetic and sociopathic. If the game’s in cool fight mode, she’s a remorseless snarky killing machine. If the game’s in allegorical sci fi mode, she’s a scared little girl looking for answers. She has no centre, existing as whatever the moment calls for depending on what market the game is catering to right now.
The combat and platforming are serviceable, but meaningless. The world of Neo-Paris is intriguing in both visual design and backstory, but the level design is so cramped and small that you never get a sense of what life is like outside the ledges and drains from which you leap. The narrative has things to say, but lacks the courage of its convictions. Nillin’s character design seems positively progressive by video game standards, but the game itself is one of the most egregious examples of the Male Gaze. It all adds up to a game that wears a coat of being worthwhile, but hides a core that is worse than rotten, a core that doesn’t exist. For a game so focused on the building blocks of self to end up as a game with no real identity of its own is perhaps the most tragic ending.