There are two types of science fiction, and Remember Me can’t decide which one it wants to be. The first kind imagines new discoveries and tells a story about how they change what it means to be alive. The film Moon imagines a world where cloning is easy and asks, “Why are we the way we are, and what are we becoming?” Patience and insight are required to pull off this kind of sci-fi. Quicker is the second style, which imagines the future as the answer to the question, “You know what would be crazy as balls?” Take the movie Equilibrium, which is all like, “Dude, in the future, all emotions are illegal! So, like, terrorists horde art and antiques, and the kid from Newsies has to shoot them until he feels some stuff.” Remember Me, the debut game for the Parisian game studio Dontnod, has the opportunity and the setting to ask big questions, but eventually it gives up on those questions in favor of straight adventure.
The world is weird in the year 2084. After society collapses in the mid-21st century, France is on the mend thanks to a little piece of kit called the Sensen. This little device is ubiquitous, an all-in-one computing tool plugged into everyone that can store, remove, and share your every memory. Painful breakup? Take it out. Want to remember your first date? Load it up.
According to the little history books that you sometimes find in the game, the Sensen tech started as a social networking tool before becoming the foundation of society. As you can imagine, the technology is susceptible to large-scale abuse, but fascism isn’t the biggest threat. The Sensen is causing human individuality to disappear, so Errorists—revolutionaries adept at altering people’s memories—rise up to fight the man. You control Nilin, Errorist extraordinaire, after she’s been captured and her memory partially erased.
From the moment Nilin wakes up in the bowels of a prison to the second she infiltrates the core of the Sensen industrial complex, Remember Me doesn’t slow down to smell the roses. This doesn’t lessen the impact of its imagined future. The developers at Dontnod are capable visual storytellers, letting their techno-chic metropolis inform the player rather than resorting to exposition. Neo-Paris is a remarkable place, from its rotting slums to the rooftops of the privileged class, and it’s all awash in color and light. Even when you get into the back half of the game, when Nilin is wandering the comparatively bland halls of prisons and corporations, the world is still convincingly full.
The world has to be communicative since Nilin is constantly pushing forward toward the goal in each of the game’s nine chapters. There’s no exploration, just clambering across awnings and scaffolding. It’s superficially similar to the rote pathfinding in games like Uncharted, but this is more involved. When you’re not jumping over things, you’re fighting Leapers (mutated people suffering from identity collapse) and cops.
Remember Me’s rhythmic brawls are strange. Rather than just mashing buttons to string together punches and kicks, you have to slowly unlock and put together strings of specific attack. For example, a three-button combo with a red, a yellow, a purple, and a blue X would respectively do damage, then heal, and then speed you up. It sounds more complicated than it is in practice.
Between all the jumping and fighting, it’s easy to miss the parts of the plot don’t make any sense. Why has the rise of Sensen technology created such rigid class distinctions in the future? It makes sense that Nilin has to steal an architect’s memory to figure out how to blow up a dam, but why does she suddenly have to fight a giant wrestler at the end of the stage? It’s fun regardless, but like Nilin, I found it hard to maintain a clear sense of why I was doing anything at all.
Which brings us to the mealy core of the story. Remember Me shows us villainous doctors and prison wardens obsessed with controlling people’s memory, but it never truly looks at what’s happened to society as a result of their deeds. Your guide and leader talks about how evil it all is, but you never see it in a meaningful way.
The closest the game comes is when you get to do some memory manipulation yourself. At key points, Nilin dives into people’s brains to alter their perceptions in her favor. This is the Errorist way, “using the tools of the enemy to demonstrate their danger.” Early on, you have to enter a bounty hunter’s memory and make her think that the authorities killed her husband, so she’ll help your rebel cause rather than having you arrested. You rewind her memory like a movie and alter bits of recollection in a particular order, like you’re setting up a Rube Goldberg machine in real time. It’s a fascinating moment that demonstrates the creepy reality of post-Sensen living, but then the results don’t make any sense. The bounty hunter’s husband didn’t actually die, she just thought he did. So why is she still helping you at the end of the game?
Remember Me overflows with rough edges like this, deflating its most interesting ideas as they get off the ground. It keeps you guessing as to its true nature. Is it an imaginative but thin adventure or sci-fi with an anti-technology message? On the whole, it seems to be more the former.
Remember Me doesn’t have much to say about the human condition and the nature of memory, even though those concepts are used to start the conversation. The game just tells the story of its hero. Dontnod’s first time out is laudably ambitious and beautiful to look at, but it’s ultimately less than what it could have been. Is it crazy and cool? Often. Is it profound? I don’t really remember.