This Memory Which is Not One

Nilin standing before the Eiffel Tower on a rainy night, looking out onto a futuristic city scape with the Memorize corporate HQ in the foreground, a holographic advert proclaiming "Trust Us; We Won't Forget You"

Of opera libretti—the text that lays out the spoken dialogue and lyrics of opera—cultural critic Bryan Magee once wrote, “A good opera libretto… must not itself aim to be the finished work of art. A libretto that stood on the printed page as a fully achieved drama, and whose poetry filled out the expressive potential of the characters, would already be a successfully brought-off verse play, and would not need music; indeed, there would be nothing for the music to do,” …and I have come to realise that much the same may be profitably said of video game writing as well.

The text is never the finished product, but rather the matrix of scaffolding that holds up the ludic experience of a game. In other words, the writing must always undergird what you do, for it is this interactive element that distinguishes the medium. It is here that the experience of Remember Me ultimately fails to live up to its potential. The writing, already weak, is comprised of gestures to a larger, more complex world which the game’s fantastically beautiful and creative artwork relentlessly teases us with; the writing hints at a more intriguing philosophical universe lurking just beyond the game’s digital haze—and yet the game’s immersion fails to surround us with that potential world.

It is a tour past the basic elements of complex philosophy, intriguing characters, vicissitudinal subplots, and a magnificent dystopia to hold them all—yet the experience is resolutely “look, don’t touch.” We pass by complex philosophical questions and intricate characters, hungry for more, helpless as we watch the opportunity for depth discarded all too soon like so much tissue paper.

Nilin’s story—that of a peerlessly gifted ‘memory hunter’ who’s had her own memory wiped—could have been so much more. Her quest to reclaim her memory, with the help of old radical comrades in the “Errorist” resistance, at first seems to promise not only a winding journey through the dystopian future of 2084’s Neo Paris, and the corporate republic that rules it, but an all too needful exploration of the limits of revolutionary politics and the stresses it imposes on the most gifted servants of a movement. Instead, the game’s writing makes a gesture that the gameplay fails to complete, letting these filaments of plot dissipate into endless rounds of punch-em-ups that bring us no closer to genuine depth.

The same is true of every character save the blessed exception of Nilin herself. Edge, the cloaked leader of the Errorists, is a placeholder where a character ought to be and is much less than he first appears. Meanwhile, Kid Xmas was an erstwhile revolutionary who defected to the powers-that-be to become the star of his own Cops-like reality TV show—what a magnificent story, if only it were actually told! Unspoken history smoulders between him and Nilin, and the tragedy of the radical who well and truly sells out remains, again, a gesture of the text that the game does not complete.

Or consider Madame, the brutal Warden of la Bastille, a mistress of memory who wields the power of the hideous Panopticon, capable of wiping inmates’ memories at a stroke. Instead, however, she is lost in the static of oversexualisation—ringing hollow with her potential as a villain and existing only as a one note boss and sex object. Her boss fight was, at least, riotously creative—a geometric nightmare of a fight set to driving music somewhere in Nilin’s tortured unconsciousness. Had Madame’s Freudian overtones risen above the level of sexist cliché, she could have been as legendary as KotOR2’s Kreia. With more depth and humanity she would have made a fine villain for the whole game, even, as opposed to just one chapter of it.

Scylla Cartier-Wells, leaning forward and looking over her right shoulder-- a bald, dark skinned woman wearing a futuristic white business suit and jewelled braids on the side of her head.

Scylla Cartier-Wells, one of many women in this game who intrigued and yet, of whom, much too little was said.

This game, I should add, is at war with itself on gender—it could be much, much worse, but it also fails to rise to the hopes pinned on it (expressed in part in my own writing). Women are presented as thinkers and doers, at least when they are bit characters like Kaori Sheridan, a famous architect, Olga Sedova, the falcon-like bounty hunter, or Scylla Cartier-Wells, the CEO of the corporation-cum-regime Memorize. To the extent that they lack depth, they at least share this failing with their male counterparts. But the game falls into the irritating trap of having enemies taunt Nilin with blatantly sexist jibes—apparently 2084 is too soon to hope that men would stop saying “hope you don’t break a nail, little girl!” right before taking a boot to the face. Further, despite all the discussion about why having men call women “bitches” in games (yes, even if they’re the ‘bad guys’) is problematic, Remember Me’s developers thought this was a fine trend to continue.

The saving grace is Nilin herself who is as remarkable and interesting a character—at least in her potential—as I’ve seen in recent years. While not the deepest character, she is still a distinctively compelling figure well suited to fighting her way across the stage. First and foremost, she is a woman who comes into her own and reclaims the unique talents that make her who she is. In addition to all of this, she’s mixed-race, an extreme rarity in a gaming world where women of any race are vanishingly thin on the ground as protagonists; it’s not often that I can see someone with a background even remotely similar to my own, like Nilin.

As I alluded to earlier about the nature of game writing, sometimes the writing is at its minimalist best when one lets the artistry native to the medium take over and complete the brushstrokes. Nilin, like Mass Effect’s Shepard, has just enough writing to distinguish her from the NPCs, while the rest is left to be filled in with gameplay and the player’s own imagination. She draws you in—particularly during the interludes between each chapter when you are treated to her (beautifully voice acted) monologues that seem to lay the

A full body shot of Nilin herself, a dark skinned woman with an intense gaze; she has short auburn hair with white streaks in it, wearing a cropped white leather jacket, brown camisole, jeans and boots.

Nilin

groundwork for those philosophical explorations of activism that never come. But they nevertheless betray a keen and thoughtful mind that could expand yet further if only the game would let her. I should also say that while her story arc suggested that she transformed from a woman at the command of others to one calling the shots for herself, this was undeveloped and unremarked upon. There was little narrative weight behind it, leaving the uneasy impression that Nilin is always at someone else’s command. Still, she’s worth seeing and hearing in action.

And for its narrative failings the game was, nevertheless, addictive and fun. It had the feel of a pulp novel that became a page turner. For all the limp prose, you did want to find out what happened next. This is an oftentimes truly exhilarating game, the camera ingeniously twisting and turning to create cinematic landscapes with Nilin’s parkour adventures one moment, or perfectly framing a shrouded claustrophobic corridor the next. One particularly dramatic scene saw Nilin escaping a helicopter gunship across rooftops and ledges—it was magnificently paced and balanced, at once cinematic and interactive. When Nilin made a lifesaving jump I cheered, despite myself. As the game progressed, I always found myself more and more on Nilin’s side, even when the story seemed to fail her. I cheered for her, I wanted her to win. She was my hero.

The artistry of the game’s visual design, so seamlessly woven into its beautiful digitally ethereal soundtrack of remixed classical music that seems to give form to Nilin’s memory itself, is one of its great strengths. Make no mistake, this is a world that is haunting in its beauty and lovingly rendered down to microscopic detail—I think this beauty, in no small measure, is what has occasioned my complaints; how could I not chafe at being unable to explore this place? Lore entries scattered throughout the game close up a bit of the gap, filling in narrative blanks, but so much more could have been done with a game less firmly on rails. I will show my cards here and confess that I sorely wish Remember Me were an RPG, but I’m not really reviewing it on that basis—that would hardly be fair. Even judging it for what it is—an action-adventure game—it could have lent more depth to a world that the developers clearly cared about and sketched with great care. Bioshock’s Rapture teemed with life—you could look and touch. Neo Paris deserved the same.

At the very least, however the game works in the mode of the best science fiction as a conversation starter about the present—and its emphasis on a panoptic world without privacy, where even your memories are commodities, feels remorselessly timely in the wake of seismic revelations about the NSA.

Nilin standing in a Parisian market square with a classical fountain and statue in the centre, the postmodern cityscape rising above her, festooned with floating advertisements.

Nilin in the St. Michel neighbourhood of Neo Paris. A richly detailed world, but not one that you get to explore very much of.

In a way, the foregoing criticism is a kind of compliment. The developers are clearly very literate people; the spirit of French philosophy is thick in the walls of Neo Paris. Erudite quotes from thinkers like Balzac, Simone de Beauvoir, or Rabindranath Tagore, serve as epigraphs to each chapter. There was a certain shiver of joy I felt at watching the works of, say, Foucault be given life here in creative ways. This game was a creative risk—the type I want to see more of and that, for what it’s worth, you ought to give a chance to and spend time in.

But there is a ludonarrative bridge the developers ultimately fail to cross. The game is reaching for something beyond its grasp. While Remember Me should be praised for the sweep of its ambition, the game is still akin to a gymnast who needs more practise to pull off the signature moves that will one day make her world famous. The writers wove a magnificent world, the artists drew it to chilling and breathtaking perfection, but the bridge between the two was built poorly.

Nilin, a heroine for our time and that rarest of protagonists in which I saw a bit of myself, deserved better.

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at quinnae.com and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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16 Responses to This Memory Which is Not One

  1. Pingback: State of the ‘Corn: “Eat the Press” Edition – Nuclear Unicorn

  2. Cordate says:

    No comments yet! You’ve left everyone speechless :) Thank you for the article as I’ve been curious about how this game was going to turn out. It definitely still looks worth a go, but I’m waiting till the price comes down a bit.

  3. Ari says:

    Honestly, I thought about giving this one a pass after seeing the protagonist. I read an article where the creator was banging on about how different his leading woman was and how hard it was to convince his team to make her, but… …she’s rail-thin but has relatively large breasts, is young, and has just enough visible ethnicity to be exotic, but not enough not to have entirely Caucasian markers of conventional beauty. Faith from Mirror’s Edge is, frankly, a hell of a lot better example of going against the grain and EA not only green-lighted that, but also a sequel, even though the first underperformed.

    The mediocre reviews were the nail in the coffin, though.

    • Lucia says:

      I doubt you meant to come off the way you did in your response, but I’d like to point out that Nilin is biracial (black and white) and has mixed features. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say with your comment about her ‘exotic’ looks, but I do know that part of my spouses excitement when the game came out was that Nilin was like him. A person of mixed background whose features reflected that.

      What you see as “exotic” and “Caucasian markers of conventional beauty”, he saw as someone who looked a lot like him (they have similar facial features as he’s white, black and blackfoot native american) but didn’t have her background questioned, remarked on, stared at or ignored because it was assumed she was white in the game.

      I do agree that she appears designed to be appealing in a generically beautiful way, but I felt like your comment came off as dismissing half her ethnicity simply because she didn’t appear black enough to you or that she looked too white.

      • Quinnae says:

        Lucia,

        Thank you so much for writing this comment. Seeing Nilin was like seeing a reflection of myself in some ways, and as a Puerto Rican woman who is “racially ambiguous,” I also felt Ari’s comment was perhaps less than mindful of the experiences of people of colour like myself or your partner. Not being considered “Latina enough” or “too white” (despite the fact that I’m fully Puerto Rican on both sides of my family) has been a feature of my life and it’s rather interesting to see that the same things are being said about Nilin, in a sense. Another way I can relate to her, what a happy surprise, hah.

        Nilin was someone who looked more like me than any character in recent memory, and I rather liked that.

        Again, thanks so much for writing this. I know these sorts of heartfelt critiques are the hardest to write. I’m the *author* of this review and I felt like I didn’t have space to say all of the foregoing until you opened up that conversation. :)

        ~Quinnae/Katherine

        • Lucia says:

          You’re welcome. I will fully admit that came from my own personal experiences and I worry about putting those experiences into words because sometimes I feel like I have an unfair advantage by using my emotional response as leverage against someones non-emotional response.

          That said I think sometimes it is easy to simply not see these situations (where someone might be critiquing what appears to be a trend in making a character palatable to white male expectations and not realizing there are people who look like the character or have similar experiences in erasure being hurt by their words) because there’s not a personal experience or outsiders memory to draw from. No matter how carefully I put my thoughts into words I know there’s always a chance I will accidentally hurt someones feelings be not thinking carefully enough or following my guts and ignoring something that in hindsight is hurtful.

          That said I think the Latin community gets hit pretty hard in this regard (when it comes to feeling other or not fitting in). If you’re not, I guess I would have to write stereotypically Latina looking as decreed by some nebulous narrow definition, then you obviously aren’t really Latin or Latin enough.

          I think for many Americans they’re too used to putting people into boxes by skin color not realizing or choosing to blind themselves to the reality that the general population of Central and South America are amazingly diverse, in addition to not all countries speaking Spanish.

          Then there’s the internalized situation where sometimes the most hurtful comments can come from within the community itself where people decide that a person simply doesn’t have the correct hair type, eye shade, skin color, accent. Or worse if a family migrates that the children who try to straddle the line between being part of their new countries community while also honoring and existing in their family traditions are not doing it right. Either by having too strong of an accent for the new country and being shunned by the people around you or being perceived as fitting in too well with the new countries rules and being corrupted or not properly respecting where they’re from by more traditional or older members of the clan.

          Speaking from an American sense the Latin community has been firmly placed into the immigration mentality by many people so they’re forced into the same stereotypes that are placed on many newcomers who are disregarded by the general population and that bleeds into media, in many ways, inaccurate and gross misconceptions.

          To be personal for a paragraph, a lot of what I hear people disparagingly say about Latinos are the same things I heard people say as a child about Vietnamese, Cambodian, Italian and Portuguese immigrants (of which I’m part of the last) such as not being able to speak English properly, being lazy, out only to take away money and jobs from hardworking Americans and so forth. When I was a child I was told I had to check off the Portuguese box on all the population questionaires issued by my school. I was not allowed to check off white or to check white off with Portuguese just as my Cape Verde friends weren’t allowed to list themselves as Portuguese, but had to check off black to be ‘correct’. I was not seen as white just as they were not seen as Portuguese by some nebulous consensus of the American population. My parents were obviously taking away jobs from hardworking Americans despite the fact that they worked in factories that couldn’t entice locals to work for the low wages and lack of benefits packages offered. By the time I was a halfway through high school there was no Portuguese box on the form anymore and I was told to list myself as white, because obviously I wasn’t Latino (who were the new migrant population in the state) since my family came from Europe and everyone knows Europeans are always seen as white. Nothing had really changed and yet everything changed because we were no longer part of the ‘outcast’ population. Now I’m part of the privileged white, no one knows word one about Portuguese people, though those Brazilians are pretty exotic, amirite? I try to never forget that sense of helplessness and outright intolerance I went through as a kid, because I feel like it’s important to remember that and remember no matter how good I have it, there are people going through the very same intolerant bullshit all around me for simply because it seems to be encouraged. The BS I don’t have to face simply because someone said, ‘Hey your skin is white enough for us after all! Oh and we don’t even recognize where you’re from as something to be stressed out about now. Run along and enjoy your white privilege we’ll send you a newsletter with who you should feel intolerant towards now!’

          I truly wish Remember Me was a better game (that camera makes me nauseous and the fights are boring) that wasn’t so linear. I think it’s a fascinating game and I liked a lot of aspects to it. Also I liked the joy on my husbands face when he saw someone like him on the cover. I hope I didn’t overly generalize your situation. I wish people weren’t so obsessed with how a person looks = where they must fit in socially/culturally. The world is so much more diverse then those narrow check marks.

      • Ari says:

        Sorry, that was insensitive of me. I didn’t mean to offend. It’s just that, as came up in the White Hands discussion below, a female character of colour is so often mixed-race or not fair from what would be considered conventional white standards of beauty. Take pale, light-eyed Sheva for example in comparison to the much darker-skinned male members of the African BSAA in RE5. Something about how often this happens doesn’t sit right with me, even though I’m sure they do look like people in the real world.

        • Lucia says:

          I apologize for the late response (I was moving and setting up). I do see your point, but there are plenty of light skinned black women and I feel like many video games seem to fixate on one shade instead of exploring the range of skin options. I think a lot of that comes from the weird Captain Planet attitude that developers (in several forms of American entertainment) refuse to let go of where there is approximately one of a few ethnic/racial backgrounds for men (you get the darker skinned black man, perhaps a Latino and/or maybe an Asian man (usually of Japanese descent) and maybe one or two women, who range in the blonde, redhead and brunette/black hair white women (or one woman who does ‘double duty’ of being both the woman and biracial and/or Asian thus removing the ‘need’ for an Asian man) …and about three to five generic white men with possibly two or three body sizes (the women usually get one). It all comes off as very box ticks to me and it becomes simple to become jaded to it.

          Or worse it runs into the frustration of getting so used to only have a limited amount of ethnic characters ‘allowed’ in a game and getting upset because for example the new GTA trailers show one black man and two white men and there was already a GTA with a black man in it so pick a new diversity. I think that kind of thinking is dangerous because rather than being upset that there’s another black man people maybe should have said, ‘why do we need any of them to be white?’ Especially in a game that appears to be set in California or at least on the west coast. Why wouldn’t they have a Chinese or Japanese (or Cambodian, Vietnamese and so forth) character and a Latino (so many countries to choose from) in the cast as well?

          I do believe there are some aspects of mixed race women in video games that are meant to appeal to the white male demographic, but having grown up in a really racially diverse neighborhood (that had multiple black/white biracial families with kids with blue eyes and blonde hair) and having a husband who has black hair and blue/green eyes I just think they look like a person I would have grown up or lived with. I believe it really comes down to how often someone is exposed to or comes into contact with people and how prone people are to erasing or simply not seeing ethnicity. My husband just ran into a weird situation where some of his Indian co-workers as him where he’s from because they’d noted his ‘blended’ features and one of his white co-workers stepped in and informed them he was obviously only white. After he corrected her she was shocked she had never noticed his non-white features. She’d simply never noticed because he wasn’t ‘ethnic’ enough to her.

          I’d love to see more true diversity that isn’t hidden behind the BS of ‘well a woman protagonist wouldn’t sell’ mumble because we won’t put nearly as much into their marketing and also will have random restrictions on how much the game can cost and what you’re allowed to do in it or that there has to be a white male main character or else how will our white male gamers be able to identify with them? I always get so confused by that. Shouldn’t the answer be obvious? The same way that women and non-white people get into white male main characters; by investing into the story or finding aspects of the character that are either appealing or identifiable?

          To wrap up my (I’m so sorry) incredibly long response, I feel like the answer isn’t to deride or find fault in the few characters of color we get, regardless of what their background is, but to instead encourage companies to add more diversity and to stop (intentionally or subconsciously) sabotaging their own games to force this weird self fulling prophecy that says a non-white character and/or woman can’t succeed.

          • Lucia says:

            * Find fault in their racial/ethnic background. Not never find fault in a character ever because we should be grateful regardless of how that character is portrayed or handled simply because a company dared to include them. If a character is problematic that should obviously be discussed and pointed out.

  4. Kimiko says:

    Thank you for a very thorough review. I wish regular gaming news sites had reviews like this.

  5. Kimiko says:

    Thank you for a very thorough review. I wish regular gaming news sites had reviews like this.

    (Is this comment getting through? First I got a 500-internal server error, then I’m accused of a duplicate comment.)

  6. Riley says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful review. I was super-curious about this game, but every video I’ve watched makes it look like “Cut Scene: The Game,” and I think I would be driven to fury by having such a pretty and interesting world but not being able to touch it. Another of those ones to pick up during an eventual $5 Steam sale, I suppose.

  7. Ezekiel says:

    This is unrelated to this posting but I could not comment on one of your previous articles.

    I just wanted to say thank you for your article on Kreia. You have no idea how happy it made me to find such a well written article that expressed exactly my thoughts on Kreia and Kotor 2, while also giving me more insight into her as a character. Thank you!

  8. Alex says:

    This is a really great review. It sounds like a game I’d find interesting, even if it is pretty flawed. Thanks for writing about it, Quinnae!

  9. Orix says:

    Great review, you’ve accurately managed to portray how I feel about this game. I did enjoy this game (and tried with limited success to formulate my own thoughts of it on my community’s forum), but there was so much left undone.

    “will show my cards here and confess that I sorely wish Remember Me were an RPG”
    This point in particular holds so much weight, because I lament the fact that the game WAS going to be so much more! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xZ31YN-vyC4#at=439)

    AFAIK, Capcom had a hand in having the game made as a very directed and limited experience.

    I wonder if Remember Me will get a second chance, like Mirror’s Edge, the opportunity for an amazing first impression has passed. The game will never have the same chance to be extraordinarily unique.

    Now we can only hope to experience what the game was meant to be with more use of the IP.

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