Nilin

I do not regret spending $60 on Remember Me. I enjoyed the combat, puzzles and world design enough that I look forward to diving in a second time. I also do not regret supporting Dontnod, the game's development studio, which believed a female protagonist of color could carry a game. I want to see more videogame publishers going against what is considered "conventional" business wisdom, instead trusting that the player will be interested in playing more than a generic white male.

The fight to keep Nilin as a woman turned into a widely circulated news story. The developers themselves stated "she had to be a woman" as it fit the story they were looking to tell.

Unfortunately, while I find Dontnod's endeavor quite noble, they have still failed to create the strong female protagonist I had hoped for.

Caution: This article will contain some minor and vague story spoilers for Remember Me. If you wish to go into the game blind, be warned that this will spoil some of the content for you.

The narrative of Remember Me has a lot of potential to tell a very personal story — one that asks questions of things such as regret, what we would do if we could forget our most painful memories, and the ethical questions that arise from such a scenario. There's even room to ask if we are even the same person once you take away all our memories and life experiences. Remember Me is almost a story about a woman who has a chance to rediscover and redefine herself.

Almost.

What prevents Remember Me's protagonist Nilin from being a fully realized character — her own character — is that she lacks agency.

When I checked last week, this is how Wikipedia defined "agency":

Wikipedia Agency (philosophy) wrote:

the capacity of an agent (a person or other entity, human or any living being in general, or soul-consciousness in religion) to act in a world ... . Agency may either be classified as unconscious, involuntary behavior, or purposeful, goal-directed activity (intentional action). An agent typically has some sort of immediate awareness of his [sic] physical activity and the goals that the activity is aimed at realizing. In "goal-directed action" an agent implements a kind of direct control or guidance over their own behavior.

For the purpose of storytelling, agency is more or less the illusion that the character is acting of their own free will. In truth, each character is merely a puppet of the writer, but it is imperative that the characters feel genuine and sincere in order to sell the illusion to the audience. The character must seem as if they are reacting based on their own desires and initiative rather than just following a predetermined path.

An example of a female character expressing such agency is Faith from Mirror's Edge. The main plot begins as she's scanning radio frequencies and hears something suspicious involving her sister. From that point on Faith is doing her best to help uncover a conspiracy and prove her framed sister's innocence, even as other characters try to dissuade her from making rash decisions or putting herself at risk. She becomes involved in the story through her own actions and seeks to accomplish objectives that she herself has set.

Nilin, on the other hand, is led on a leash by a character named Edge, following his quest to take down the company Memorize. On the surface his cause seems just, as Memorize is responsible for creating and controlling the technology to share, delete, and even steal memories. Due to such technology being used by the company to seize great power from the populace while performing other nefarious deeds, Edge has led a resistance group known as the Errorists to fight back.

Nilin — once the top Errorist agent and the only person capable of "remixing," or modifying, memories — wakes up as an amnesiac prisoner of Memorize. At first Edge's role is that of an assistant, helping Nilin to break free. As time progresses, though, he becomes her commander. All of Nilin's objectives are set by Edge — every waypoint, every target, every human she interacts with.

As the game progresses, Edge starts to ask Nilin to perform a variety of morally questionable tasks. Claiming to be fighting for the greater good, he commands Nilin to perform an act that would kill hundreds of innocents. It is at this point that I could not help but wonder what shape the story might have taken if Nilin had told Edge "no." Perhaps that Nilin — motivated by the desire to discover not only who she was, but who she is — uncovers her history, horrific acts she is ashamed to have committed, and in the end becomes a completely different person than who she once was. Perhaps we could have played through a tale where amnesia is more than a convenient device to give contextual sense to providing the player exposition, but plays into the idea of being able to access and erase memories at any time. A story that focuses purely on Nilin herself and whether she is still the very same Nilin.

There are a lot of ideas here that are, quite honestly, surprising for a video game to be tackling. What would you do if you discovered you had indirectly murdered someone? If you realized someone you thought of as an enemy actually had great meaning to you? If you could modify memories and try to cover up all your shame, regrets, and mistakes?

Yet Remember Me spends too much time relying on Edge, a character that seems most shackled to our most basic definitions of what a video game is. At first Edge merely seems to be an attempt to give depth and character to the usual voice chirping in the player's ear, making sure they're always aware of the next objective. By the end of the game, though, it doesn't feel like the story is about Nilin at all. It's all about Edge and his quest, and Nilin's final monologue may as well be a eulogy in his honor rather than a reflection on her own journey and experiences.

It feels like development studio Dontnod, in their effort to make Nilin a three-dimensional character, decided she just needed to be an emotionally expressive woman. She will detail quite frequently how conflicted she is throughout the story, primarily during internal monologues between levels, but never does she act upon it. That, I think, is the mistake made. A female character isn't well-defined simply by having emotions and thoughts. She is defined by the actions she takes, and her volition, as well.

I approached Remember Me hoping to find a complex character to explore in a game about how our actions and memories define us. Unfortunately, I didn't find that strong, willful, determined Nilin. Instead, we got Nilin, a mere puppet of a man named Edge.

Comments

Absolutely agreed. I kept expecting it to turn into Nilin’s story, and when it never did my heart just sank down into my stomach and I was like “Wait... seriously? This is the story?”

It’s okay for the player to not have any real choices, although usually they’re at least given an illusion of choice. But for the main character to not even have the illusion? To just go along with whatever she’s told, even when she’s clearly upset by it?

That’s really disappointing.

Excellent write up. I would much rather play your version of this game.

Edit: Although I'm a little weirded out/amused that, on the main page, the top splash bar (or whatever web design magician people call it) has unfortunately cropped the image used to a boob-shot with the word PERSPECTIVES over it. Is that unfortunate irony or just...unfortunate? I've never been good at identifying irony.

Amoebic wrote:

Edit: Although I'm a little weirded out/amused that, on the main page, the top splash bar (or whatever web design magician people call it) has unfortunately cropped the image used to a boob-shot with the word PERSPECTIVES over it. Is that unfortunate irony or just...unfortunate? I've never been good at identifying irony.

I noticed that as well. I have no clue what the algorithm or whatnot is for determining those thumbnails, but it is indeed unfortunate.

Such a great article. I loved the unique take on the tired post-apocalyptic scenario, and the gameplay was fun. But Nilin's role in this story seemed to be going down the Bioshock road during the middle section-- I was expecting the chance to break from the narrator. Your points about the eulogy and transfer of agency are brilliant. Agency is also seriously undermined by the extremely heightened linearity. I don't mind linear, personally (FFXIII is one of my favorite games), but Remember Me definitely reinforces, through the fabric of its gameplay, the pathological lack at the core of Nilin's character. It's so extreme that it may well be one of the points of the game. Stripping away female agency to replace it with something else (think of the car memory).

ccesarano wrote:
Amoebic wrote:

Edit: Although I'm a little weirded out/amused that, on the main page, the top splash bar (or whatever web design magician people call it) has unfortunately cropped the image used to a boob-shot with the word PERSPECTIVES over it. Is that unfortunate irony or just...unfortunate? I've never been good at identifying irony.

I noticed that as well. I have no clue what the algorithm or whatnot is for determining those thumbnails, but it is indeed unfortunate.

Just dropped in to point that out as well. Someone needs to fix that, stat.

I've got your back. I'll post the instructions in the Guild for you.

momgamer wrote:

I've got your back. I'll post the instructions in the Guild for you.

D'oh! Just went and changed the image altogether.

Sounds like they Metroid:Other M-ed it. :p

The self-definition and memory stuff has always interested me (as when it shows up in Philip Dick stories). I've noticed the trend in games over the past few years forcing player-characters to awful things and then to turn the focus around to rub your nose in it. (I think the idea is to reveal "OMG, I didn't realize I was being evil!") What sets Remember Me up as potentially really interesting is that it swaps in a female protagonist. Too bad they shanked it.

I think the sort of thing you're describing is the "one big spoiler" for Spec Ops: The Line, or at least an example of it. Remember Me doesn't quite do something to that extent, at least not trying to rub your nose in it, but I do wonder what Remember Me might have been like if it had allowed the player more choice as well.

However, I'm also satisfied with their attempt to tell a linear narrative rather than involving player input as well, as the player in this game seems to have no greater purpose than in a Mario game; stomp goombas, finish level, move on to next.

The intersection between the character's agency and the player's agency is always interesting to me. You can give the character strong agency without giving it to the player (Mirror's Edge being one example, on the macro level) and you can play around with the intersection of the constraints (Bioshock). Every game has some limits to both (due to technical constraints and being fictional) but that's part of the medium, and doesn't mean giving up at trying. I haven't played Remember Me yet, but it's unfortunate to hear that even as a PC, the female protagonist doesn't have character agency.

Personifying the player's quest-to-do-list has a long history (Deus Ex, etc.) but that's no particular reason to strip the agency from the player character. For that matter, Deus Ex managed to work in the character turning on his handlers as part of the narrative--pity that the original plan to let the player pick JC's sex was cut due to budget constraints...

I've come around to the view that sometimes player choices are vitally important, even if they end up being meaningless in the long run. As least the player (and by extension, the character) gets to express an opinion the matter, even if the game doesn't listen in the end. You can have your linear narrative and your character agency and at least some player expressivity, as Half Life 2 does a great job of demonstrating.

Gremlin wrote:

I've come around to the view that sometimes player choices are vitally important, even if they end up being meaningless in the long run. As least the player (and by extension, the character) gets to express an opinion the matter, even if the game doesn't listen in the end. You can have your linear narrative and your character agency and at least some player expressivity, as Half Life 2 does a great job of demonstrating.

To me there's certainly a time and place, but it is always interesting to see a missed opportunity. I remember starting up Homefront, and at the very beginning they start you in a room where you should be capable of hopping up on the windowsill and leaping out of the building, which would have been an interesting option as Korean troops were knocking on your door. In fact, my first notion was that was what I was supposed to do.

Even if the end result were the same, I would have liked the option to have tried running. It just made sense to me narratively and as a player.

ccesarano wrote:

Even if the end result were the same, I would have liked the option to have tried running. It just made sense to me narratively and as a player.

I think it's something that more games should take advantage of, since it's a fairly easy way to give the player some agency and expressivity, as long as the player's expectations aren't crushed too much when they get almost the same result. The decision in Deus Ex that affected me the most is pretty much exactly this kind of thing; you get almost the same result, but the very fact that you can choose to stay or run means something. It being Deus Ex, the decision also turns out to have major consequences down the line, of course, but there's no way of knowing that at the time...

More on topic, both Portal games are great examples of things with linear progressions that still give Chell a lot of character agency. Chell's personality is entirely conveyed through the the affordances of the game (and GlaDOS's responses). She's literally being ordered about for the entire game by a being so powerful it controls the very space she is travelling through, and yet we have no doubt by the end that Chell is very firmly in charge of her own agency, even if she has to fight tooth and nail to get it. That's why GlaDOS is so frustrated with her, after all.

There's no particular reason that a linear game should give the character less agency, so it's disappointing to hear that this one does. Especially when lack of character agency is already such a huge problem for female characters in video games.

Valve approaches games in a sense where character agency and player agency are mostly one in the same, though it's thoroughly disguised. Portal is a perfect example of it.

However, I think I'm going to keep some of that material to myself as I plan to use it for a future piece.

Also, one thing I've been teaching myself to be careful of when writing about game design: nothing in game development is ever easy. While I would have loved the scenario above, it would have required additional level design, scripting, and QA testing that would have added hours and hours of work for what might be five to ten minutes of gameplay. In the end, the "easiest" solution would have simply been to put bars over the windows so I would have reconciled being trapped in a room instead.

Gremlin wrote:

I've come around to the view that sometimes player choices are vitally important, even if they end up being meaningless in the long run. As least the player (and by extension, the character) gets to express an opinion the matter, even if the game doesn't listen in the end.

I've been coming to this point a lot lately, too. On one hand, it's I think the most positive way to view Mass Effect. On the other hand, it's a question I face every time I drive and realize that being more or less aggressive really means precious little to how quickly I arrive at my destination.

ccesarano wrote:

Also, one thing I've been teaching myself to be careful of when writing about game design: nothing in game development is ever easy. While I would have loved the scenario above, it would have required additional level design, scripting, and QA testing that would have added hours and hours of work for what might be five to ten minutes of gameplay. In the end, the "easiest" solution would have simply been to put bars over the windows so I would have reconciled being trapped in a room instead.

It's perfectly fine to understand how limitations shape a game or other "whys" of creation, but don't ever let that keep you from talking about what the end result is and is not. It may well be that the recent SimCity was as good as the devs could make it, but that only speaks to the question of how much the quality of their product should reflect back on the creators. It doesn't enter into a discussion of whether SimCity was a good game or an accurate reflection of a particular ideology of government or economy.

Oh do not misunderstand. I have no problem calling out the potential in a section, or calling any other problems when I see them. I may have tried to keep in mind that the developers may have been aware of every criticism I leveled at I Am Alive themselves, but I still made them when I went and wrote about the game.

I'm just not partial to calling developers "lazy" or saying something is "easy". I feel like that belittles all their hard work, especially when you consider how much crunch time there is in our industry. At that point "lazy" starts to sound like you're just a spoiled little kid asking for more without having to pay extra.

ccesarano wrote:

Oh do not misunderstand. I have no problem calling out the potential in a section, or calling any other problems when I see them. I may have tried to keep in mind that the developers may have been aware of every criticism I leveled at I Am Alive themselves, but I still made them when I went and wrote about the game.

I'm just not partial to calling developers "lazy" or saying something is "easy". I feel like that belittles all their hard work, especially when you consider how much crunch time there is in our industry. At that point "lazy" starts to sound like you're just a spoiled little kid asking for more without having to pay extra.

And yet you wonder why I brought you on here.