Dontnod Entertainment is clearly a developer to watch. They scored a well-deserved hit with 2015’s Life is Strange, as noted in my end of year list, but it’s worth looking out 2013’s Remember Me to get a glimpse of the studio’s early brilliance.
The game struggled to find a publisher at first – infamously, several publishers said no to the project because the main character was female. According to creative director Jean-Maxime Moris:
We had some [companies] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.’
We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin’s private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.’ (via Eurogamer)
It’s a shocking exposé of the biased, outmoded thinking that goes on behind the scenes at games publishers, as well as the contempt in which gamers are seemingly held – as if we’re incapable of imagining ourselves in a body of the opposite gender, something that female gamers are forced to do quite regularly thanks to the dominance of male lead characters. The fact that millions of men already play as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider seemingly has had little influence on the games industry as a whole. This glimpse behind the scenes also reveals a publishing mindset that still thinks video games are predominantly played by men, even though this is blatantly not the case and hasn’t been so for quite a while.
So, the very fact that Remember Me was released with a female lead – a mixed race, sensibly attired female lead, no less – is cause for celebration. Even though it really, really shouldn’t be in this day and age. But until we get representative diversity in the gaming characters we’re given to play, until the day that playing a game with a female lead character – or a black lead character, or a gay lead character, or any one of the many poorly represented groups in gaming – is so typical as to be utterly banal, until that day we should celebrate every victory of equality and sense over biased, lazy stereotyping.
And seeing as we’re on the subject of female leads, Nilin proves to be an exceptionally well-crafted character. I’ve played many games where by the end I’ve all but forgotten the main character’s name, but by the end of Remember Me I found myself genuinely caring about what happened to the troubled Nilin and her dysfunctional family. She’s a character with doubts, strong yet vulnerable, utterly reliant on the resistance group that guides her, yet never altogether trusting of anybody. She’s interesting, in other words.
And the same could be said of the game’s setting – in fact the developers’ inspired vision of a future Paris is probably the game’s biggest draw. The futuristic towers built on the decaying remains of the sunken, flooded capital are stunning, and I felt compelled to find out more about everything that happened to this once-proud city. It’s the look of it more than anything else, perhaps – the colour palette is vibrant where other futuristic games, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, are stark. It practically looks like a Renoir watercolour in places.
That’s not to say it’s original – far from it. We’ve seen the towers of the elite built over the slums of the poor many times before, notably in Beneath a Steel Sky. Likewise, the amnesiac protagonist has been a trope since the year dot. But it works here because it’s all done with such care, such confidence, such elan. The attention to detail throughout is just exquisite, from the traditional Montmarte cafés with robot waiters to the vending machines for happy memories.
And speaking of memories, these are the game’s raison d’etre. In a dystopian future, memories can be wiped, inserted or traded as currency. The people are addicted to experiencing happiness and wiping out bad thoughts, but the game explores this to its logical extremes, culminating in a prison where the prisoners’ memories are confiscated when they enter and returned when they leave – in other words, they spend their sentence utterly unaware of their crime. I recommend reading Sir Gaulian’s excellent article for more on the social and economic consequences of the corporatization of memory.
As a ‘memory hunter’, at several points you have to steal or remix memories from NPCs, and the remixing in particular is a delight. A scene will play out in the character’s head, and your job is to rewind and remix it to make them think something else. It’s a really clever and original idea that is sadly used far too little in the game, but it works wonderfully when it appears.
Another clever idea is that Nilin has customisable combos with various regenerative, powerful or chaining attacks that can be switched around and bought in a menu screen. I don’t recall seeing anything like it before, and it comes across as a brilliant idea at first. But towards the end I found myself relying on the same set of combos again and again, and ultimately the combat lacked the depth of the carefully balanced combo lists of other brawlers like Bayonetta.
Other criticisms are that the ending was a little flat compared to the rest of the game, and the plot got a little confusing in places. But all in all I thoroughly enjoyed my 10 or so hours with the game – and I’d thoroughly recommend searching it out for something a little different.