Videogames have their own unique language to tell stories. However, as Andrew Barber pointed out in an earlier post about The Last of Us, the ability to weave narrative into gameplay is an art that seems out of reach for even the most experienced developers. Independent studios have done much to bridge this gap but they are operating with a fraction of the resources. However one AAA game from France has taken great strides toward delivering its story through gameplay by giving the player the ability to both steal and manipulate the memories of its characters. The result is an ambitious game about playing God.
Remember Me, developed by new studio Dontnod, features two primary game mechanics: acrobatic combo driven combat and memory manipulation.
Imagine a game where you can manipulate memories and the potential that affords the stealth genre. For example, if a guard sees you, your character can dive into the guard’s memory making them believe they killed you or never saw you at all. This is sadly not the case–the combat is relegated to filler content. Flipping over and pounding your enemies merely serves to gate your progress. In terms of advancing the narrative, the combat might as well not exist.
As a memory hunter for a resistance group in Neo-Paris, Nilin has the ability to steal specific memories from her targets. A police captain’s memories of access codes allow her to gain access to heavily guarded facilities or see a way around a minefield. Still her most powerful ability, “memory remixing,” gives the game’s narrative depth and consequence.
Nilin can not only remove memories, but tweak them to her will. In other words, she can make you remember what she wants. For example, a mother loses her leg in a car crash because the young child wouldn’t stay buckled in and the result is a fractured family and crushed leg. The mother comes to hate her daughter and eventually the whole world.
Nilin can go into the memory and with her, we watch the entire scene play out. From there, we rewind the scene and watch it again and see things that can be changed. A cup of coffee that was in a holder is now free standing. As the scene continues we see the coffee spill. Then the mother’s tablet is able to be moved from the safety of a purse to directly under the coffee. The scene continues and other little events are manipulated by the player so that the mother, not the child, is responsible for the crash.
In that one moment, a character’s entire motivation and philosophy is drastically altered. What other games will accomplish by non-interactive cut scenes, Remember Me does by letting the player manipulate the very core of a character themselves.
Nilin, at one point, comments to herself early in the game, “In my chest, my throat, on the tips of my fingers, I can feel the throb of the power that scares them so. It scares me too. The power to take what someone is – their memories – and bend them to my will. To re-write their history. To play God!” In many ways the theme of playing God is the thread that binds both this mechanic and the narrative together.
While Nilin has the unique ability to modify memories, nearly everyone has the ability to share or delete their memories at will. A widow can relive in perfect detail a date with her late husband. A loved one can share their memories and feelings with another. A son can see through his father’s memories what war is truly like. And for the memories they would like to forget, it is as simple as dragging a file to the trash on a computer.
The desire to manage good & evil on our own is not a new concept, but this is difficult to illustrate mechanically. Where Adam & Eve thought they were like God because they could internally justify their sin, so do the people of Remember Me by removing that which is a problem or inconvenience. While we do not have implants in our skulls that allow us to forget memories at whim, many people attempt to do so by simply justifying their actions. Phrases like, “Everyone else is doing it!” or “This doesn’t apply to me.” These are examples of how we can try to manage our own sense of morality.
In the end, Nilin realizes that suffering, like painful memories, is a fact of life and to rewrite our memories is to deny who we are. Remember Me gives us a glimpse of what a world based on this internal justification might look like. Unfortunately that glimpse is clouded by countless forgettable brawls with throw away enemies. The result is a game with tremendous potential to expose our tendency to manage our morality that too often settles for exploiting us instead.