Trodamus

Remember Me: First Impressions, Metareview and Early Allegorical Interpretations

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on June 6, 2013 at 5:34 pm

focaloverdose

Remember Me is an incredibly ambitious game that seems to have polarized reviewers, having pockmarked its review sheet with scores that defy conventional mathematics, ranging from 40 to 90, with six scores of 80 and eight scores of 70.

Having not yet finished this ten plus hour game, I will refrain from offering too final a verdict, but instead will discuss my initial impressions, the mystery behind the metareview, and what notes this game is hitting allegorically speaking.

From its first moments, Remember Me is true to its ambitions on at least a narrative level. The game opens with an ad for Memorize, the fictional in-game corporation that offers, and has a monopoly on, memory digitization services. Far from Metal Gear Solid 4‘s rather abrupt satire, this piece instead lays bare the simultaneous hopes and fears held by this lofty postmodern, singularity-driven goal.

An aging widow speaks lovingly of her husband and the time they shared. An unsure father debates sharing his memories of being a soldier with his children. A young woman recalls her decision to share her memories with her boyfriend. Each is thankful for the same thing: the choice to remember, to share and to relive.

A savvy viewer might see something else: a woman haunted by a perfect, digital memory; a father who may inflict the horrors of war upon his children; and a relationship for which there can be no secrets or individual identity.

These are presented, as with the best science fiction of ages past, with little judgment. The hope it brings and the fear it inspires are left for the viewer — the player — to decide.

And then the game begins.

borntorun

The game begins with the player in control of a nominally interactive cutscene that details protagonist Nilin’s escape from what turns out to be Bastille prison — presumably rebuilt as the structure today is in ruins. This subtle jab already exists as a value-add about the social and political strife in the game, as Bastille was infamous for being used as a repository for anti-social and political offenses (in fact, the storming of Bastille on July 14th, 1789  is commemorated as something like the US Independence day, and is a good day to patronize your local French restaurant).

As we quickly learn, Nilin is a memory hunter, a specific class of criminal that steals memories, and more importantly, part of the “Errorist” cause. We learn this later, because Nilin was in the process of having her memory erased and has to be told important details such as these.

In addition to sounding like Inspector Clouseau discussing contemporary politics, “Errorist” is actually a term that exists today, meaning “someone that encourages and propagates error,” though whether this is meant to refer to the fallibility of antagonist corporation Memorize or society in general (in reference to their now perfect digital memories) is unclear.

Regardless, Nilin is prompted through the seedy underbelly of the slums before finally reaching her destination in the slums, with apparent past acquaintance Tommy in his bar the Brain Leak, an encounter that quickly segues into the first memory remix the developers were so proud of.

forgetparis

Already I can see why review scores are all over the place. What is breathtaking for one is pretentious for another; subtlety may be accused of putting on airs. And with the far reach of ambition comes an acute lens for what is actually happening on the screen.

Mechanically, Nilin has a kind of momentum to her movements; this makes fine adjustments, which aren’t required often (or under duress), somewhat tricky. She also seems to have a low threshold for walking, with most of the analog stick’s radius being dedicated to running. Jumping seems very contextual; unless you’re making a leap to the next ledge, Nilin will instead do a kind of  skippy-hop, which can make her further contextual leaps seem somewhat unnatural.

However, you can easily forget any of the above as you trot through the ruins and shining spires of a very well-realized Neo-Paris.

Whether exploring on foot or in the rafters of Neo-Paris’s buildings, the game is thus far very linear; this isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but there were early murmurs about this being a kind of Assassin’s Creed and it should be emphatically stated that it’s nothing of the open-world sort. For those that have played it, I would say it’s more similar to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, where the climbing and scrambling bits are just ways to break up the pacing so you’re not on foot all the time, and to give unique opportunities to present the player with some background eye candy.

hightimes

I want to come out and say that this game doesn’t bother me at all with its “random pathway through random environment” usage. Neo-Paris feels very much like a European city: cluttered, full of old buildings with new crap stapled on top and new construction butting up against old landmarks. Suspension of disbelief: maintained. Plus it is so very pretty to see its vistas.

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention is the combat, and I don’t think I’m being inaccurate in assuming that it alone could account for the majority of review discrepancies.

Combat is like a paired-down Arkham style, with some add-ons that are key to the game’s depth and difficulty. You tap out “presens” which are the game’s term for attacks in pre-set button combos. On the 360, your combos are: X X X; Y X Y X Y; and X Y Y X Y Y. Each button press is assigned from one of three categories: damage, healing, cooldown and chain/boost. As you progress through the game and level up, you unlock new presens.

So you start with only a few X’s for damage, and grow your arsenal into X’s and Y’s from each category; you slot these presens into combos the themselves either according to your playstyle or as the need arises. Presens placed further along are enhanced, doing more damage or healing more.

Unlike Arkham, there is no counter button that keeps a combo going; instead, if you want to continue a combo, you need to dodge the incoming attack (telegraphed with a red !) and continue your dial-a-combo where you left off. Switching enemies ends the combo, as does borking the timing.

So already you can conceptually see a place for the short three-hit combo and the risk and reward from the longer combo.

Thus far I have not found the timing to be difficult to grasp and tend to just pull off the longest combo possible most of the time, dodging frequently as needed. Some reviewers have had issues with the timing, and with the game seeing fit to change your target, thus dropping your combo. Other complaints relate to the length of fights, with some enemies needing multiple combos to go down, though I see this less as I tend to successfully pull off the longest combo and make good use of my other special abilities.

As I have not really had these issues, I happen to enjoy the combat. The animations are really quite nice and I find the visual and rumble feedback to enhance the play as well. As well, you do get powerful tools in what the game calls “s-presens” or special presens, which have a variety of uses. One opens up an Arkham-esque combo that does more damage the more hits you get in a row on any and all targets, which is key to progressing through difficult encounters quickly and safely.

Last on my reviewer list are the memory remixing segments. This highly promoted feature surprised me with how frequently critics seem to agree in not liking it.

Mechanics are as follows: you are shown a cutscene, which is what your victim remembers. You are then given control of the cutscene and are able to rewind or fast forward by rotating the analog stick, holding RB to go faster (though it isn’t fast enough by some reviewer’s standards).

In reviewing the memory, you are looking for memory glitches, objects that Nilin can alter the state of to alter the memory itself. Not all such glitches are useful, and some will even kill the host in the memory (leading to a fun achievement for doing so). You can also explore different aspects of the character by allowing a conversation where previously there had been none — a nice touch, though you don’t get the opportunity to do this once you successfully remix the memory.

I had my doubts about it, as I suspected it would be a very simplistic sort of cutscene rewind, but it seems there’s more to see than just a successful outcome.

However, in the same breath as complaining about the mechanics, reviewers let one legitimate bomb drop: there are only four such sequences in the game, which again lasts ten or more hours.

Ouch. So much for easily the most hyped feature of the game.

My big gripe is not in how little this might appear, but how it’s only reserved for remixing. You also steal memories in the game, but it seems that’s just a matter of getting to the right place and triggering a cutscene. I’d have preferred winding through a cutscene or a stack of memories to get the right information.

So it is seen, that with an ambitious project, success or failure under the reviewer’s gaze falls between what is actually accomplished and how willing said reviewer is to give the benefit of the doubt in areas where success is stretched thin. I am fully willing to do so, because through the graphics, aesthetics, Nilin’s excellent characterization, plotting, pacing and voicework, I see a very well-realized glimpse of the future and a story rife with references to today’s issues about how technology, humanity and governance interact.

So this is the part where I talk about allegory and external references, in case you were scrolling for that.

Thus far the game introduces two big pieces of technology: Sensen, and the digitization of memories. Sensen came first, and is your basic cyberpunk neuro implant that grants constant access to the network and augmented reality. In-game documents also describe it as being able to alter and adjust perception and sensation in realtime; while this may be fancy pandering for “augmented reality”, what that says to me is that the implant can alter the user’s subjective reality.

Also stated is that there are a number of configurable aspects of an individual’s Sensen, but contemporary models do such adjustments automatically based upon the proclivities of the user.

This should remind technologically-inclined players of a less-spoken of feature of contemporary search engines: your results are tailored to you and your browsing habits. The common example is that a liberally-minded person will search for information on Obama and find generally sympathetic stories from MSNBC, while a more right-leaning person will see harsher stories from Fox.

Same internet. Different results. With Sensen, it becomes same reality, different perceptions.

Memory sharing itself draws an easy line of comparison to today’s social media; the Errorist cause is concerned over Memorize gaining a monopoly over the world’s digitized memories. Opponents of Facebook fear the same, especially as more and more information and sites are linked to Facebook and the Facebook mall (the suite of sites that allow you to log in using your FB credentials).

If there’s literally one player in the game of social media — or memory digitization and storage — what recourse do you have if they adopt practices you don’t agree with? Especially as using it, as is emphasized in Remember Me, becomes central to operating in modern society?

Even as Nilin fights the good fight, she still uses Sensen; as you walk the streets of Neo-Paris, you see augmented reality menus popping up over restaurants and warnings about dangerous areas ping over shady back alleys.

One feels that opting out of Sensen would have you ordering blindly from a menu you can’t see, or stumbling into the dark having not heeded an invisible warning.

Today, not using Facebook isn’t as severe, but can be quite limiting. Facebook offers a great deal of convenience: users can manage their single set of FB credentials and log into a number of affiliated sites. Those that don’t use it must create logins for any site they wish to use.

On the flip side, websites must weigh handing over control of their business (and access credentials and all the information that might bring) over potentially turning away customers who are accustomed to the convenience.

Pen-and-paper RPG Eclipse Phase (which I love so very dearly) touches on a farther-reaching logical conclusion to such access: people with the implant will think faster and have access to much more information than those that don’t. Withholding the implant is an easy way of controlling the population, who likely will not have other access to information or communication.

On that note we move on to the Leepers, strange mutated humans in the underbelly of Remember Me‘s world. As early as I am in the game, I’ve seen conflicting ideas about where they come from: either Sensen rejection, or becoming lost in a sea of digitized memories that are not their own, shattering their sense of self. Ads you see in the ambiance of your sojourn through Neo-Paris proclaim that they are “this generation’s greatest travesty” which Memorize seeks to fix by making them into “productive servants of society.”

As Nilin escapes Bastille, she does so in a coffin that is let loose in a canal (presumably, the Saint Martin canal that feeds into La Seine). Bastille itself is told to be a place where criminals and such are reformed through amnesia as well, but with so many coffins the process is probably flawed.

The scene opens with a Leeper inspecting and opening a coffin, only to find another Leepr — what your ally Edge calls “the abandoned children of our Sensen age.” So clearly this process not only is sometimes fatal, but sometimes it creates Leepers.

Leepers themselves are sentient, but seem to operate with some kind of near-hivemind like quality. they speak in the third person, proclaiming in this scene that they have “found a new US!” and mutter statements like “He died TWICE! He died twice!” which only seem insane until you begin to imagine how wrong memory sharing can go.

Like I am Legend, I suspect we are meant to withhold judgment from the Leepers; when a new one is found, they seem to soothe each other, murming that “pain is shared, fear is gone”. Obvious benefits in a horrific sort of way.

The last point I will touch on is another journal entry that details mnemonic catastrophe that took place in Nanjing, China. What is described as happening is that pathological memories from a hospital’s memory banks somehow got into the public memory bank, infecting thousands of citizens who are to this day afflicted with neurological problems and an abnormally high suicide rate.

The journal entry notes that this incident is severely under reported and downplayed, with a near-denial that it ever happened, also noting that there’s a clear motivation — a “damning compromise” — in making sure Sensen continues to be seen as safe.

In downplaying it, Memorize claims that Sensen is safe, but that this stemmed from an unlicensed Sensen operator and/or hardware distributor.

This vapid assurance that licensed goods are safer while simultaneously bolstering licensing regulations  and denigrating competing products for not being properly licensed rings a bit too true to today’s patent disputes, especially between Samsung and Apple. And just as you find yourself muttering with indifference as to whether a tap is a zero-length swipe, so too might a denizen of Memorize’s world wonder what the difference between licensed and unlicensed is if a product is fundamentally unsafe.

Thus far, the game raises some very pointed critiques of blind interest in technology or faith in the singularity: DONTNOD is a new developer and crafted this brand new world from scratch and already I’m willing to believe this is a world that could exist because it’s so much like our own, with a heavy helping of their excellent aesthetic design and carried through with and her helpful amnesia.

cellinahell

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  1. I’ve played the game about as far as you described.

    So far, there’s a lot to appreciate about the world, but the way the player moves through it (so far) feels somewhat homogenized and under developed. The camera is a bit to floaty and while I like climb-and-jump gameplay well enough, I don’t feel the game does anything special make such acrobatics as gripped as though could be.

    So far.

    My favorite bit was easily the memory rewriting sequence, and given the possibilities it allows to play out, they clearly put a great deal of work into it. I’m dismayed, as you might imagine, to learn there are so few such sequences in the game.

    I haven’t really gotten back to it, more for being pressed for time than lacking interest, since writing efforts keep me at my desk and near my computer more often these days, even when I’m not actively working away at something.

    At the same time though, I’m not really driven to play the game the way I was hoping to be, and partially want to get back to Xenoblade while anticipating the release of the Last of Us later this week.

    I’ll make sure to finish it eventually, but it’ll probably be a bit slow in the coming.

  2. This is the first game in a long while that really passes my “is the plot worthwhile enough to ignore other flaws” test. That may change as I get further than chapter four, but that probably sums up most of how much I’m willing to truly judge right now.

    The homogenization you talk about I am going to guess is the linearity — stick to the path, see the sights but don’t stray too far or poke to hard. In another game I might call that being a theme park, but I’ve come to appreciate linearity for its advantages.

    For the acrobatics: I read one of the Civilization V developers talk about pacing and offering simplistic activities throughout a game so the player doesn’t get burned out. That is what’s going on here, I think. After a combat segment or a story segment, you get to climb around, rather safely I might add, taking in the vistas and thinking about what just happened.

    The chapter introspectives in my mind reinforce this, with Nilin debating (for us) what has happened and what she feels and thinks about everything. As the game broadly takes place as a critique of the transhuman / singularity dream, it needs these more than one might think.

    I’ll post something else when I get far enough to have something else to talk about though.

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