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.
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
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.
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.