Remember Me: there's a good game hiding inside there somewhere

<em>Remember Me</em>, shares many characteristics with <em>Mirror’s Edge</em>, but lacks the most important; it wasn’t actually good.

I really wanted Remember Me to be a great game. It boasted an original story with interesting characters and locations, as well as some innovative new mechanics. Leading up to its release it reminded me of Mirror’s Edge in a lot of ways. However once I got my hands on it the key difference between the two games was apparent. Remember Me, while sharing a few characteristics with Mirror’s Edge, lacked the most important; it wasn’t actually good.

Similarities between Remember Me and Mirror’s Edge are on the whole a laudable thing. Most games in fact could do to be more like Mirror’s Edge, which should have been a lot more influential than it seems to have been so far and it remains one of the best games of its console generation. Remember Me takes the climbing, running and fighting into the third person instead of the first but despite this they still have a lot in common.

Both games share the sort of ethnic minority female lead characters who haunt the nightmares of those who think that political correctness has gone mad. Mirror’s Edge has Faith and Remember Me has Nilin, a pair of outlaws who seek justice and answers and who might have cause on occasion to kick law enforcement officers off buildings. Also, both games play out in visually stunning futuristic dystopias which you move through by a combination of running and jumping and climbing about. They also feature some unique game elements - in Mirror’s Edge it's the free-running, in Remember Me it's the memory meddling. On top of that, neither game gives the protagonist a gun.

This fourth similarity is what sets both games apart from the action game crowd. Faith in Mirror’s Edge can take guns from people and use them until they are empty and Nilin has a sort of data blaster in the latter half of the game, but it is absolutely clear when playing both games that you’re not a gunslinger. Throw guns into Remember Me it would become essentially a Tomb Raider clone, though one notably lacking finesse in the platform department.

So here we have two games about five years apart but effectively of the same generation, one a classic, one a noble failure. How did it happen that the older game got it right?

The first thing that Mirror’s Edge did well that Remember Me did badly relates to the character. Faith is a unique character in AAA games; she avoids combat by running from everything. It sounds like a simple thing, but most characters don’t get to do that, not so effectively anyway. So instead of just looking different, Faith actually operates differently to other characters.

Remember Me, by contrast, opted for a system where you have to fight, and when you fight it means you’ve got to beat down everybody in the area, with no exceptions and no escape. This is a very standard approach, which might be fine if the combat was better, but alas the combat is tedious.

The boring combat is a product of the way that the game encourages you to build combos. Where something like Batman: Arkham City lets you build combos the old fashioned way by just hitting people a lot, Remember Me makes you design them in an editor. A combo designer? What a great idea! That can’t possibly backfire. . . someone thought during the development process. They were wrong. You can set up the only combo that you’ll ever need with three presses of one button early in the game and that is you sorted as far as the fighting system is concerned. Some special abilities vary things later in the game, but compared to Batman: Arkham City or even the older Arkham Asylum everything feels mundane. In searching for a way to differentiate combat the developers actually made it worse than it would have been had it just been simpler.

Not only is the combat not particularly enjoyable but it changes the feel of the game, compromising the work done to develop the character. Nilin is described as a Memory Hunter, some sort of Inception-style super operative who can steal memories or remix them into something new. Sounds interesting, but how does this profession manifest itself in the game? Apparently it means you scuttle around Paris kicking the shit out of nearly everybody you meet. The craft and guile of the main character and the world she inhabits is ruined at a stroke. Nilin might as well be a military bulldozer for all the finesse she displays.

This is a shame, as the world of Remember Me is where the game shines - quite literally in many places. It is extremely pretty and the characters and animations look good too. The user interface also has a sleek and polished look to it, albeit somewhat intrusive. Nilin has some sort of near-future upgrade to Google Glasses in her eyes, which tells her about shops and things in a way that feels familiar and real yet also convincingly cyberpunk. This display also points out the next thing you want to be jumping on, every platform and drainpipe is marked for you when you need it. This feels excessive, like a Satnav that tells you how to walk up stairs or open a door. Mirror’s Edge used a more immersive system, where your route would usually be marked in red, be it pipes, ramps, whatever. Follow the red and you were set. The bold colour meant that even on your first run through you could play the game at a good speed.

What really sets the two apart though is how each approaches their defining game element. Mirror’s Edge is a game about free running. So you run all the time. To be exact you run, jump, dive, slide, roll, always in motion, always trying to cut that next corner a little closer, always trying to go that bit quicker. You revel in it; it is the experience at the heart of playing a game.

The memory-editing parts of Remember Me by contrast make up a very small part of the game despite being the defining skill of the hero and vital to the plot. It seems incongruous in the extreme that Nilin is noted for her ability to remix the memories of her victims, yet the fact that she is able to defeat an entire army in hand to hand combat is dismissed as irrelevant. If she used her memory remixing skill more than here fighting skill she would be more interesting. Particularly as it seems like such a natural skill for a stealth game, having the ability to make a guard forget they saw you would be a great way to explain the tiny attention span most sentries have in stealth games.

One reason the memory remix sequences might be so rare is because they must have cost a fortune to do. They are essentially cut-scenes that you get to monkey around with, changing minor elements to reshape the memory at a fundamental level. This is the sort of thing that a big budget should be going on and they are properly impressive. Even this feature has flaws to how it plays though and probably wouldn’t want to be done too often without a few tweaks. Your ability to influence small parts of the scene means that you’re often reliant on things happening that you couldn’t have predicted. This coupled to the limited number of options means that you’re often in effect just brute forcing a result through trial and error, which is interesting to watch, but less interesting to do.

Yet for all this I can’t dislike Remember Me as much as it probably deserves. In spite of the flaws it is so close to a classic it’s almost unbearable, you can see the bad decisions that were made, the minor mistakes that bleed problems every step of the way, they all seem so fixable. If the combat had borrowed more from the Batman games and less from Renegade, if the platform sections and movement had been slicker and less regimented, if there had been a better plan for level design than walking straight into every fight then this would surely have been a fantastic game.

Maybe Dontnod will get a shot at a sequel for Remember Me and they’ll get it right next time. Until then, we’ve still got Mirror’s Edge.

A still from Remember Me.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt