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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle