The cyberpunk science-fiction genre is one frequently misunderstood; its visual trappings of cyborgs, robots and neon cities are a useful visual tool for game design but as a complete genre, much media ignores its themes. Central to cyberpunk is exploring the limits of technology, not in a reductive sense of debates about “playing God” but about considering the effects of progress on society, the effects of modern industrialisation on social class boundaries and most importantly the role of the counterculture and protest movement in a connected, surveillance state. This is where Remember Me stands out – it is a game which, if not breaking new ground in its plot, shows the most capable understanding of its genre.
It focuses on cyberpunk themes not simply as a visual skin for an action game but makes its entire plot based on moral debates around justifiable disobedience, the appropriate use of technology and propaganda and whether or not it is morally acceptable to give people pleasure at the expense of individuality. In order to explore this, it eschews the idea of choice that leads to games like Bioshock Infinite feeling superficial; there is no capacity to choose a personal response to the world and instead the player is presented with a story to think about themselves. What this does is allow for a more nuanced depiction of the thematic elements; the protagonist is not a cipher on which the player projects themselves and makes choices, they simply progress the story. As a result, Remember Me‘s Nilin is presented as much more human than, for example, the protagonist in Far Cry 3 or Bioshock yet the story is no less about free will and the capacity to choose for this lack of choice. The core plot device of Remember Me focuses on Nilin’s desire to regain her memories and rationalise her violent actions throughout the game with the past that led to them being necessary – she begins the game necessarily as a blank slate and as it progresses will probably move away from what the player wants her to be.
Indeed, Remember Me is a refreshingly amoral game for one about resistance fighters and oppressive corporations; there are no sympathetic parties. Its portrayal of protest as based around eschewing any limits of acceptability seems hard to stomach at first but at the same time it presents its antagonists as, if not entirely evil, so complicit in the creation of its society that accepting that they are “deserving” of violence becomes easy. The entire game maintains an oppressive, self-centred tone which the walkthroughs of Colombia or City 17 touch on – indeed that the most loathsome figures in Remember Me are ultimately unenhanced scientists and business magnates evokes also Metal Gear Rising in showing that the real evil of a science-fiction world lies behind desks. It is a game which effectively creates revulsion in the player both at the acts of the villains (and their eventually-revealed motivations, shown sympathetically but hard to accept) but also in the acts of Nilin herself. What she does as part of the basic mechanics of the game – the touted memory-alteration sequences, the finishing-moves in the combat system – make her no better than the enemies. The act of defeating a boss or enlisting the help of someone requires an act of mental coercion that, when considered at a safe distance from the game, are almost indefensible. Despite not specifically being a game about the disconnect between mechanic and plot, or the function of choice, Remember Me presents a more inventive approach to depicting it than many recent major games which may be wholly focused on it.
So Remember Me is a game which, in its fairly safe plot (which could easily be from the pen of Mamoru Oshii, creator of Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor, in its depiction of the inexorable progress of technology and the transiency of the digital world), offers a far more convincing and nuanced presentation of cyberpunk and its themes. Mechanically it is much the same story; it unambitiously takes the combat system of Sleeping Dogs or Arkham Asylum and adds safe iterative changes to it, then focuses on making this familiar experience as well-executed as possible. By attaching status effects to attacks (either healing or recharging special moves) and rewarding careful construction of combos using the simple combo design system, it offers a very nuanced – although possibly to the point of invisibility – kind of strategy. It is quite possible to win Remember Me by constructing combos at random and simply progressing at a natural pace. However, as the fights become more complex and difficult, and the small but diverse pool of enemies are combined in interesting ways, it becomes clear that understanding how the combo system works will make winning easier.
Similarly the special moves are designed not to be used sparingly but as integral parts of the combat system; each has a useful role and a specialisation against one type of enemy or another, and understanding the rhythm of the combat (switching between special moves, ranged attacks and different combos) is rewarding. Not having the pressure of constant grading between scenes as a game like Metal Gear Rising or Bayonetta has is also a valuable asset; it makes Remember Me less game-like and makes it very clear that room-clearing attacks are encouraged. In a score-attack game, special moves and items are often point-inefficient and keeping up attack chains is better. In Remember Me the attack chains are very limited and structured and the emphasis is on a more inclusive kind of combat that uses all available tools. It even manages to have interesting boss fights; while they are few in number each is well-differentiated both thematically (each touching on a different aspect of the setting) and mechanically. While many games’ bosses seem quite divorced from the flow of the action, Remember Me uses its world of augmented reality and computerised minds to fully integrate both the buildup to the fight and the fight itself into the plot.
To conclude, Remember Me is a game which plays its plot and mechanics safe; it does not overuse its puzzles, or boss fights, or overcomplicate its combat system with new mechanics too frequently. Its plot could be a story from the universe of Ghost in the Shell or something like Gen Urobochi’s Psycho-Pass. Yet in this apparently unambitious framework it has a story which is more subtly nuanced and respectful of its genre than many games, and a combat system which in its simplicity is faultlessly executed. What is more, it is a game which properly uses the idea of the player as cipher, presenting Nilin as a character first with nothing to lose and then exploring where someone may go from there if they see no reason for limits.