Creating believable and relatable science fiction is a delicate enterprise. Moderate restraint can extinguish the flames of pretension, itself an inevitable result of the unabated sincerity required to depict a relatable future society. The politics of galactic spice trade set against messianic tribalism sounds farfetched, but it gave birth to six excellent Dune novels. On the other end of the spectrum, Battlefield Earth failed to capitalize on a narrative as simple as man-versus-alien. In either case, an outlandish premise is kept in check by reliable world building and careful direction.
Remember Me, the first game from French developer Dontnod, deals in memories like we deal in oil. Depicted as the backbone of Neo-Paris circa 2084, memory trade dominates every facet of life from personal vocabulary all the way to economic stability. You’re just as likely to hear a friend bid farewell by saying, “Remember you later!”, as you are observing another paying for a desired memory out of a mall kiosk. Memories are everything in this world, which, of course, leaves them vulnerable to corruption by corporations with few altruistic motives.
In the case of Remember Me, the conglomerate is Memorize, the memory-recording technology is Sensen, the defiant aggressors are Errorists, and your particular heroine goes by Nilin. Nilin awakens robbed of her memories and, by extension, some very particular talents afforded exclusively through her Sensen. Through guidance by her detached Errorist brother in arms Edge, Nilin sets out to reclaim her memories, take down Memorize, and brutalize a few hundred Leapers (the deranged populace) and Sabre Force (Memorize’s armed assailants) over the course of ten or so hours.
Because it’s a game and not a film Remember Me defines its interaction through alternating sections of platforming and combat, but it defines itself through a committed rendition of a its beautiful vistas. Remember Me lacks the open-world interface often preferred for absorbing a visually engaging world; linear pathways exist presumably for no other purpose than showcasing the high and low life of Neo-Paris. The dregs of society are awash in garbage and discarded robot parts while plush penthouses with functioning AI servants decorate abject high-rises. Oddly, the future-tech Sensens afforded to every citizen seem to stylize Neo-Paris world without discrimination. Virtual signs spill out of businesses like Jacobs Ladders, while Nilin’s Sensen interface details everything from dangerous pathways to distance between platforms. Luxuries provided through the Sensen are split evenly between clever signposting and pure visual indulgence, but it all comes together neatly to compliment Remember Me’s distinctive and colorful dystopia.
Another layer of texture is added through Remember Me’s eclectic, enigmatic musical score. Olivier Deriviere’s soundtrack is chopped and screwed into pieces seemingly complimenting Nilin’s actions. This is most easily noticed in combat, when glitchy bits of vocals and instruments signify both success and failure, but also detectable throughout Remember Me’s more subtle and somber narrative injections. Heavy samples, alien percussion, and clever arrangements don’t conform to typical (i.e. American) standards, and easily promote a better atmosphere of rebellion than Neo-Paris’ tired instances of resistance graffiti.
I wish the same could be said for the voice acting and writing departments. A caveat of creating a vernacular lies with either bad line reads or poor dialogue, both of which Remember Me exhibits with alarming frequency. Remember Me thinks it’s cooler than it actually is and while the visuals breathe confidence into that idea when you’re taking orders or interacting with guys named Bad Request and Kid Christmas it all starts to feel a little bit silly. It’s not unlike Hackers, a film that got by on faux-cool nomenclature, but also featured a guy named The Plague collecting a floppy disk on a skateboard. I digress, but in the case of dialogue, less would have been more here.
When Nilin isn’t awash in Neo-Paris’ splendor, she’s frequently dispatching loads of aggressors. Remember Me opts for a simpler brand of fisticuffs that’s more akin to Arkham Asylum than Devil May Cry. It only boasts a handful of simple, two button combos, but control over the desired effect of each button is ultimately left to the player. “Pressens” can be assigned to each button in the combo, leaving the player to decide whether the combo wants to deal damage exclusively with Power Pressens or be used to restore Nilin’s health with Regen Pressens – or you can combine the two. The further either Power or Regen are in the assigned combo, the more potent their desired effects will become.
Wrinkles are added to combat through some additional measures. The Chain Pressen will exacerbate the effects of what series of Pressens came before it, while the Cooldown Pressen ties directly to Nilin’s S-Pressens. S-Pressens are effectively Nilin’s super attacks, allowing her the standard melee over-indulgence alongside a few interesting cohorts. D.O.S., for example, creates a universal stun while Logic Bomb uploads a virus to all in range effectively rendering it an area-of-effect attack. All S-Pressens are bound to countdown timers which can be accelerated through, that’s right, combos executed with a Cooldown Pressen.
Player progression is handled effectively over the course of Remember Me. Seemingly every time a new class of enemy is introduced, the game is quick to issue a new ability or Pressen type for Nilin to take advantage of. As a character Nilin is constantly earning PMP that accumulates and unlocks new Pressens, and as the player you’re left with the challenge of finding the most efficient way of mixing them all together. Realistically there isn’t a great amount of choice in how you’re able to handle combat – every encounter seems to have a right way to it – but it’s not without its exciting and rewarding moments.
It’s no doubt that Dontnod intended Remember Me’s combat to be an stylish cocktail of modern melee design, but, while the end-result certainly looks cool, it’s often less than agile than it seems. It’s possible that I never got the hang of dodging, which rendered my combos frequently incomplete and often ineffective. Maybe I wasn’t great at assigning my Pressens to proper combos, despite ample tinkering in Remember Me’s Combo Lab. More than likely, though, was the nuts and bolts of Remember Me’s mechanics aren’t strong enough to support the skill demanded by its level design, often leaving the player as understanding but incapable. Combat isn’t bad, and on normal difficulty there were only a couple instances genuine frustration, but it’s definitely the least consistent aspect of Remember Me’s design.
The remainder of Remember Me’s interaction is exposed through a few puzzles and snippets of platforming. Puzzles are back loaded and surprisingly attached to some decent language riddles while platforming in lifted almost direction from the Uncharted series. Shifting from ledge-to-ledge with little effort would have been boring were it not often in conjunction with Remember Me’s drop dead gorgeous art direction. Platforming isn’t simply a means of traversal, but rather a deliberate opportunity to absorb the sights and sounds of Neo-Paris. It’s a compromise for the absence of true exploration, and, while the outside environments of Neo-Paris are far more interesting than hallways and labs, neither come off as familiar nor analogous to any of Remember Me’s peers.
At several points throughout its narrative Nilin will be prompted to remix a mark’s memory for her own persona advantage. This involves the player viewing a character’s specific memory, adjusting certain variables, and allowing said memory to unfold with potentially new and often lethal consequences. Whenever an easily recognized glitch appears, it presents a variable ripe for remixing. Memory remixes are even weirdly but perfectly adapted to your controller, utilizing the clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation of the left stick to forward or reverse the memory. This was probably a throwaway decision out of necessity, but I appreciated the tactile nature of seemingly rewinding videotape and keeping an eye out for specific instances of potential manipulation.
Trial and error, usually a staple of archaic game design, are actually intended side effects of remixing memories. Something as seemingly devastating as taking the safety off a gun could produce no effect, while an action as simple as turning on a TV screen may have dramatic consequences. Sometimes an adjusted variable won’t be merely ineffective, but also coalesce into a memory glitch of completely unintended consequence. The intended result typically isn’t hard to find, but the path getting there might keep some of Remember Me’s neatest surprises.
It’s unfortunate that Remember Me’s most precious asset is also the least in supply. Most other aspects and mechanics of Remember Me are borrowed and adapted into the game’s burgeoning fiction, but memory remixes felt exclusive to its mission. Dontond’s idea was owned exclusively by and tailored especially for their creation, and rather than a celebratory signature it’s treated more like a coveted resource. The handful of existing memory remixes are undeniably great, but its tough walk away feeling completely satisfied.
No matter how outlandish, any premise can be kept in check by reliable world building and careful direction. Remember Me appropriately and effectively creates a functioning futuristic society that treats memories like we treat oil. This is admittedly preposterous and shouldn’t work, but Dontnod’s art direction sells their fiction with confidence and creates an engrossing world begging for (and happy to provide) rampant absorption. Remember Me exhibits objective problems, especially when it comes to obeying genre tropes, I just didn’t care to notice them until I was finished.