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The heady, earnest Remember Me was action game storytelling at its best

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Brawling, memory remixing, and cyberpunk weirdness

Remember Me

2019 is coming to a close, and with it comes the end of the decade. Prestige TV has never been better. Marvel turned on-screen superheroes into the biggest (and most profitable) trend of the era. Streaming is the new battlefield for viewer eyeballs. To close out the 20-teens, Verge staffers break down their favorite moments, media, and what they believe was the most overlooked in entertainment from the last 10 years.

Me, an intellectual gamer, 2013: interactive storytelling needs to break out of big-budget action game conventions. Just stop filtering so many narratives through violence, you know? Retire those old clichés like “amnesiac protagonist.” And ugh, does anybody actually like quicktime events?

It’s been six years, and story-based video games feel stronger and more diverse than ever. But it’s also gotten easier to appreciate how well those old conventions could work. And there’s no better example than Remember Me.

Remember Me is ironically one of the least-remembered titles from Dontnod, a French studio known for the critically acclaimed Life Is Strange and the more recent Vampyr. The PC and console game exemplifies tropes that many narrative projects — including Life Is Strange — have since evolved past. There’s the creative, intellectually heady premise necessarily built around hundreds of barely differentiated people trying to kill you; the bosses with glowing weak points and combat finishers where buttons flash on the screen and you hit them; the box cover art where the hero is facing backward but sort of looking over their shoulder in profile, like no human in real life would ever do.

But while Remember Me never earned the near-universal acclaim that Life Is Strange got, its old, often mixed reviews don’t capture just how well the game stands up. (Well, maybe not the cover.) It’s a well-paced, high-concept, and charmingly earnest cyberpunk allegory with interesting combat and puzzles to boot.

Remember Me takes place in a future Neo-Paris where memories can be backed up, shared, and erased with an implant called the Sensen. The city is starkly unequal and controlled by an authoritarian corporate-friendly government, with some areas parceled out to small-time despots — like a renovated Bastille where inmates have their memories confiscated, leaving them unaware that the outside world exists. Sensen implants let you replay treasured memories or see augmented reality interfaces. They may also mutate you into a violent nosferatu-like zombie. Everyone has apparently just decided to not worry about this too much.

Many worldbuilding details are left evocatively in the background, though. Our story focuses on a Bastille escapee and “memory hunter” named Nilin who remembers almost nothing except that she belongs to a terrorist group called the Errorists. (Every name in Remember Me sounds like something from a Johnny Mnemonic sequel. Once you get out of “Slum 404” in the first level, you’ll fight your longtime nemesis “Kid X-Mas” and meet a cute boy named “Bad Request.” It’s so silly yet straight-faced that it becomes endearing.)

Nilin is fighting for a cause she barely understands while stumbling across relationships she didn’t realize she had. She’s also very, very good at what she does. The game’s main puzzles take place in other people’s mindscapes where you expertly manipulate them by tweaking tiny details in their memories. Change something like the placement of a bottle or the safety on a gun, and it will ripple through the entire memory, affecting how your targets think the past unfolded. Once you’re done, you’ll have gained an ally or demoralized an enemy.

In a game theoretically about free will and autonomy, these are oddly morally ambiguous moments. The game leaves them hanging in a way that ought to seem unsatisfying, but it has actually stuck with me for years, simply because Remember Me doesn’t spell out how to feel about them.

Dontnod would turn the remixing mechanic into an entire game for Life Is Strange, recasting it as time travel. But as I mentioned before, Remember Me is a classic think-y late-2000s / early-2010s action game. So beyond the memory hacking, its pacing goes something like: Albert Camus epigraph -> platforming sequence -> hunt for health upgrade -> dialog about economic inequality and the human cost of revolution -> light navigational puzzle -> dozen-person brawl. Its final boss is the personification of suppressed societal trauma, and you defeat him by decrypting painful memories to gut-punch him in cyberspace. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but once you’re immersed in the game’s logic, it somehow makes perfect sense.

This all might seem more theoretically interesting than fun to play — except that the combat is clever, too. Remember Me combines normal button-based attacks with special powers that hijack robots, break shields, or reveal invisible teleporting enemies. (Invisibility and teleportation are also potential side effects of Sensen. Again, people are surprisingly chill about it.) Instead of learning predetermined moves, there’s a “combo lab” where you fill attack sequences with hits that do damage, recover health, or reduce power cooldown times. While you can beat a lot of the game by mashing buttons, reworking combos for different fights pays off, and it’s so satisfying that I wish more games would iterate on it.

Dontnod apparently once considered a Remember Me sequel. It doesn’t seem to have been on the table for years, and Nilin’s story is so self-contained that it’s unnecessary. But while it may not feel as fully formed or original as Life Is Strange, Remember Me definitely deserves to be, well... remembered — and if we’re lucky, revisited someday.