A couple days ago Sparky Clarkson posted this great analysis of Remember Me that immediately generated an emphatic “nuh uh!” like I was some super whiny 90s baby with a huge chip on my shoulder about video games and my oh-so-precious opinions of them.
I let that cool off, but I really do think that I need to step in here to some degree and defend Remember Me at least a little bit.
Clarkson rightly pushes at the tensions between the genre expectations of Remember Me and how he experienced the game. He (also rightly) places Remember Me in the “cinematic action game” genre, which is to say that it is a game that is concerned almost wholly with creating a movie-like experience in which the player steps in to perform combat or boss battles or whatever. The thesis of Clarkson’s piece is something like this following sentence that ends the second paragraph of the piece, and it is from here that my commentary really starts:
Remember Me’s failures have nothing to do with its graphics and everything to do with the design of the interface, the levels, and the game itself.
The rest of the post deal with the ways in which specific mechanics, like the Uncharted-style climbing or the always-displayed combo system, are actively working to push the player out of the game rather than pulling them in and erasing the artifice and artificiality of the game like a Hollywood blockbuster would.
The fundamental impasse between Clarkson’s read of the game and my own is that I see the various problems he points out as strengths in that Remember Me is actively commenting and complicating the cinematic action game and is knowingly integrating artificial, game-y mechanics into the game.
[Note that this doesn’t mean that I think Clarkson is wrong in his analysis.]
Part of Clarkson’s criticism of the game is that the constant pulling out of the cinematic experience messed with his immersion in the illusion of a coherent, “cinematic” product. I understood the game’s narrative to be all about breaking these kinds of illusions–the plot of the game, after all, is to make sure that people can’t divest themselves of bad memories–and I understood these game-y elements to be this constant reminder that the player doesn’t exist in a slick, smooth universe in which the narrative moves elegantly from beginning to end.
When the rhythm of combat is interrupted by an enemy exclamation point, I don’t have the reaction of “oh no, this genre doesn’t work this way!” I hop out of the way, poorly, and I usually got hit or died. This cinematic universe isn’t characterized by the ways in which set pieces are connected but by the ways in which there are predictable attacks patterns, systems, that can be analyzed and adapted to from the inside out.
I know that “mechanics that mesh with narrative” is a passe thing to celebrate at this point, but I think that there’s something to Remember Me‘s active choice to depend on mechanics that actively work against the expectations of the probable audience. The world of the game is one where a closed, coherent narrative is the most dangerous thing you can give someone–if everything is polished, then you’ve remixed. Real life isn’t like memory; games aren’t like cinema.
So when all of that strange visual information popped up on my screen, or when each boss locked into a predictable pattern, I felt the game. I felt like it was a system I could master, could change.
And this was a very fragmented thing.