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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How feminist was Disney's original Beauty and the Beast?

A critique with hindsight. 

In 1991, Susan Faludi’s Backlash was published. A blistering attack on the co-opting and misrepresentation of feminism in US politics and popular culture, it made clear what many had long suspected: the second wave had already broken. That phase of thought and activism was in retreat.

One year later, Rebecca Walker, daughter of the writer and activist Alice, wrote Becoming the Third Wave for Ms magazine. A radical call to action, prompted by the confirmation of controversial judge Clarence Thomas by the US Senate, it provides a taste of what third wave feminism might have become: radical, intersectional, uncompromising.

“Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger,” wrote Walker. “Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.”

It’s a powerful call to arms, and one to which many women, especially working-class women and women of colour, have responded and continue to respond on a grassroots level. Nonetheless, had we been looking for a predictor of how the third wave of feminism would play out in popular culture and the mainstream media, there’s something else we should have been studying – Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast, first released in 1991.

I was 16 at the time and certainly thought of myself as a feminist. I hadn’t read Faludi – or indeed any feminist literature – but immediately latched onto Beauty and the Beast as a feminist film. It seems strange to me now, but it tapped into a mixture of impulses – teenage vanity, a mistrust of older women, a need for reassurance that I was unique – that I mistook for feminist principles. Perhaps they were, in a way; in a world that doesn’t see women as human, I knew I wanted to be seen as human. Only I didn’t really push it any further than that. There was a feminism, I was finding, that didn’t ask you to think about women per se. Just being a woman, and acknowledging that you had desires, was enough.

I don’t think I’m the only woman who felt that way, and 26 years later, I’m not especially surprised to see a revamped, more explicitly “feminist” Beauty and the Beast being sold to a new generation. Today’s young women are nothing if not primed for it, with self-esteem and intergenerational trust at an all-time low. The original Beauty and the Beast helped capture and nurture the disappointment many of us felt at the feminism of our mothers’ generation, at least as it had been presented to us - humourless, rigid, tactically naïve. Second waver Adrienne Rich wrote of looking at her own mother and thinking “I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” We looked at women of Rich’s generation and thought the same. Beauty and the Beast was inspiring, not least because of its mainstream credentials. Second wavers were evil stepmothers with bad PR; we’d show them you could win the battle by playing the princess.

Last night I sat down with my eldest son and rewatched the film that inspired me all those years ago. I thought I might be surprised that I’d ever found it liberating, but in fact it all made sense. So much of it predicts the path that mainstream feminism would be about to take, drifting away from the shit-and-string-beans mundanity of everyday exploitation to be dazzled by the glamour of individual inner lives. We’d given up fighting the wolves that lurked in the dark and taken to gazing into magic mirrors. The future lay in false hope.

“She’s nothing like the rest of us, is Belle”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the 1991 film is that Belle is nothing like the “little people” in her “poor provincial town”. Then again, you would be unlikely to forget this because she never shuts up about it. She literally walks through the streets singing about how unique she is, painfully conscious that “there must be more to this provincial life” (unlike the boring old plebs getting on with their boring old work). “Papa, do you think I’m odd?” she humblebrags. “It’s just that I’m not sure I fit in here.”

What is so different and special about Belle? Like all the other young women of the town (charmingly dismissed as “the bimbettes”) she’s tall, white and thin, with large breasts and eyes. Unlike them, however, she has brown hair. You know, just like Andrea Dworkin. So far, so feminist.

Belle also reads books. This is feminist, even if said books are about “far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise!” (hence not exactly the Scum manifesto). It doesn’t really matter what you’re reading, though, as long as you’re reading, preferably while walking through a busy market square, completely oblivious to other human beings and their pathetic little lives.

Like most fairy-tale heroines, Belle doesn’t have a mother. One presumes her mother must have died while engaged in some second-wave, biologically essentialist activity such as giving birth. Thankfully Belle doesn’t need an older female role model – or indeed any female role model – because most women are rubbish, lacking the imagination even to question their fate. If they’re not fancying Gaston, they’re faffing about with babies or getting old.

While I doubt the creators of Beauty and the Beast had been reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (published in 1990), I think the overall shift in mood is obvious. This is the beginning of a new style of feminism, which is not about one’s social position, but one’s inner identity. It’s not for rubbish women, who marry local heartthrobs and have babies and get old and shit. It’s only for special women, like Belle. This makes it more inclusive (no, I don’t know why, either). More importantly, it makes it more marketable. Sod the sisterhood; as long as you have the right accessories, liberation is yours.

“Gaston, you are positively primeval”

In order to have this new feminism, you still need sexists. Fortunately, Beauty and the Beast provides us with the character of Gaston, who is your classic, out-and-out, unreconstructed chauvinist. Indeed, he’s so stereotypically chauvinist you might forget for an entire hour that he’s not actually the one keeping a woman prisoner until she falls in love with him. Gaston might attempt to use Belle’s father as a means of coercing Belle to be with him; the Beast is the one who bloody well does it.

Structurally, it turns out there’s very little Gaston wants to do to Belle that the Beast doesn’t actually do. However, the latter is excused because he does it while being a beast and hence has identity issues. Not only that, but the Beast’s sexism isn’t as clichéd and common as Gaston’s. If the latter reads FHM, the former reads Julia Kristeva. If Gaston stands for the easy-win, obvious, pussy-grabbing misogyny of the right, the Beast stands for the left’s more refined, complex, long-wordy woman-hating. It’s not for Belle to challenge it, but to listen and learn from it.

This is, I think, one of the most insidious aspects of Beauty and the Beast, and the one which marks it out as a fundamentally third-wave project: it remarkets femininity – by which I mean female accommodation, empathy, self-sacrifice on behalf of males – as not just a female, but a feminist, virtue. Belle is sneeringly dismissive of the Bimbettes’ adoration of Gaston, yet quite prepared to embrace self-effacement for a more unusual male in a more unusual setting. Why, then it starts to look like empowerment! Watching this now, I can’t help recalling my own feelings about leaving behind the “coarse and unrefined” men of my own town to go to university, where I met men whose sexism I chose not to see. I associated misogyny with a lack of education and an uncritical embrace of stereotypes. Surely men who looked different and read books couldn’t hate women, too? Perhaps all they needed was a woman who understood them.

“Why, we only live to serve”

Feminism makes no sense without a meaningful analysis of work and class. I didn’t realise this back in 1991. As far as I was concerned, sexism was simply a massive, global misunderstanding, the unfortunate outcome of the mistaken belief that women were inferior to men. It never crossed my mind that it might all be the other way round: that the dehumanisation of women could have arisen as a means to justify their exploitation, an exploitation upon which countless social, political and economic structures depended. That would just have been too depressing, not to mention terribly second-wave.

While my analysis made little sense, it did make solving the problem of sexism a whole lot simpler. We could explain to men that women were people, too. We could show them that we were people, too. Job done. It did occasionally strike me as oddly fortuitous that I should have been born at just the right time for feminism to succeed. I would have pitied the women of my mother’s generation, were it not for the fact that most of those I knew were not feminists anyway. They were, if not happy with their lot, then at least accepting of it, or so it seemed to me. Women my own age, on the other hand, were more enlightened (or at least the Belles among us were).

Belle rejects Gaston’s vision of her future as his wife: “A rustic hunting lodge, my latest kill roasting on the fire, and my little wife, massaging my feet, while the little ones play with the dogs.” As she keeps on reminding us, Belle wants more to life than unpaid domestic labour. While second-wave feminists had an annoying tendency to remind us that such work never actually goes away – someone still has to do it, and surely it should be everyone – third-wavers had a better idea: pretend there still exists a class of people who are born to do all the boring old tasks no one else wants to do, only this time, said class doesn’t have to include you personally. This is the solution to which Belle turns.

The likes of Betty Friedan may have fretted over how to liberate middle-class women from domestic servitude without piling the labour onto other women. One solution Friedan didn’t count on was an enchanted castle, with the staff who claim to “only live to serve”. In modern feminist terms we would call such people “cis women” (singular version: your mum). Such women’s relationship with their class status is not conflicted; on the contrary, they apparently identify it. This means feminists don’t have to challenge an exploitative hierarchy after all. Rather they only need ensure that they – as individuals wanting “more than this provincial life” – don’t find themselves wrongly positioned within it. 

This was my kind of feminism, one based not on the world I wanted for everyone, but on the women I didn’t want to become. It was and remains incredibly appealing. It’s only now it strikes me that feminism as flight from stereotypical womanhood into one’s own perceived exceptionality isn’t reaping the rewards one might have expected, at least not for female people. It’s only now that I can’t help wondering whether Mrs Potts wasn’t such a happy teapot all along. Maybe she was seething with inner resentment. Maybe she and Babette the feather duster – tired of her unpleasant, Benny Hill-esque, rapey relationship with Lumière – dreamed of running away together. The sad fact is, we’ll never know.

I don’t take the view that Disney films are an unmitigated anti-feminist evil. Frozen (along with Tangled) is the film that inspired one of my sons to turn up to the school disco dressed as Elsa, to grow his hair long, to become the kick-ass, non-conforming seven-year-old he is today. The truth is I enjoyed watching Beauty and the Beast again. It’s comforting to be reminded of a time when sex-based inequality seemed like an easy problem to fix, when I believed I could identify my way out of my mother’s fate. But that is a fantasy. What’s worrying is the degree to which fantasy feminism is now winning out over reality, while real, live women continue to suffer.

“To be a feminist,” wrote Rebecca Walker, “is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fibre of my life. it is to search for personal clarity in the midst of systemic destruction, to join in sisterhood with women when often we are divided, to understand power structures with the intention of challenging them.” In other words, it’s more than simply stepping beyond the barriers that still hold other women back. Let’s not spend the next 26 years pretending otherwise.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.