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.
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.
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":
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.