Expectations are high for Capcom’s upcoming “Remember Me.” Developed by freshman studio Dontnod, “Remember Me” has made a big splash in the gaming press thanks to the decision to move forward with a game featuring a female protagonist. However, despite potential publishers citing it as a reason to pass on the project, “Remember Me” eventually found a home at Capcom, and the Cyberpunk-themed action-adventure is now set for release June 4 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
“Remember Me” casts the player as Nilin, an amnesiac memory hunter, in the streets of Paris in a dystopian 2084. Nilin searches for a way to restore the memories that her former employer, Memorize, took from her. While the game features exploration and combat not unlike “Batman: Arkham City,” the most compelling storytelling technique in “Remember Me’s” arsenal is the Memory Remix, which allows players to view a memory of an in-game character and change aspects of it to cause a butterfly effect that allows for a different outcome.
CBR News spoke with Dontnod Creative Director Jean-Max Moris, Art Director Aleksi Vriclot and Capcom Senior Producer Mat Hart about the challenge in creating and applying the new storytelling technique, the choice to stick with Nilin as the main protagonist of the game despite pressure to change, the humble beginnings of Dontnod and “Remember Me” and the challenge of telling stories in games as real-world technology continues to advance.
Looking at the way the game is told as a story, what were the inspirations that you looked to in order to tell story or “Remember Me”? It’s a unique way to tell a story, even for a video game.
Jean-Max Moris: In terms of overall universe references, we didn’t copy anyone, but obviously people working on the video game bathed in their own influences. It’s fair to say that [George] Orwell and Phillip K. Dick [played a role]. In terms of story, we went in a rather accessible, recognizable mission-giving, walking around getting missions on your interface. That’s something easily recognizable for action-adventure fans, but on top of that, we added the Memory Remixes. This is something to us that is very compelling and very new as to how it drives the narrative forward. It’s really a piece of gameplay, remixing memory by changing slight elements and seeing how the sequences are going to affect yourself. We also use it to reveal major things in the storyline. There are major turning points in that. The narrative stakes going in, going out of those Memory Remixes are always turning points in the story.
Mat Hart: It’s a good example of storytelling in video games maturing. Maybe before — five, ten years ago — you had a cutscene, then you’d play some game, then you had a cutscene, then you’d play some game. The more you can blur those lines, the more powerful the storytelling experience is. The Memory Remix is a good example of the player actually playing as the story unfolds. The player feels directly connected with the story at that point, and these memory remixes happen at critical moments in the narrative. It’s one of the things I’m really excited about specifically in terms of the storytelling.
Aleksi, what elements did you look at while building this world from a visual standpoint?
Aleksi Briclot: I’m not the only guy making pictures, I’m working with another director, Michel Koch. I think nothing came ex nihilo, so we have to look at Paris right now and we try to think about what could be in 2084. The main challenge was to create some believable world. You have to keep some kind of sense of history. For example, we used some current buildings and on top of them, we’re adding some slight futuristic elements, some futuristic plugs. We’re not dealing with a space opera world with spaceships and stuff like that. You always try to keep the ride balanced.
Nilin, the main character, is really the best example for our approach, because she wears some futuristic gloves and futuristic boots, but she’s also wearing a leather jacket and jeans. I was talking about it during the last panel — jeans were a fabric created at the end of the 19th century, but right now, it’s still not old-fashioned. People are still wearing jeans. For us, it was always [about] not diving into something too fancy and losing our audience. It’s about intimacy, humanity. If we’re doing too much, we lose all the audience. There are a lot of different influences.
The Memory Remixes are certainly an exciting aspect of the game, allowing the player to become intimately involved in each of these characters’ lives. How do you go about constructing something like that for a game? What’s your approach and how do you organize a sequence?
Hart: Action figures and dolls, wasn’t it?
Moris: Yeah, we went through a couple of things. The final version of the Memory Remix, the one that you see, is just the last one in a series of iterations. It started out as something quite different. We went some other ways and we finally managed to narrow the gameplay down to this type of interaction with the set cameras, looking for the glitches, interacting with them until you reach an outcome. If it’s the desired outcome, you get out of the memory; otherwise, you rewind and try it again. It started with me and my dad playing with action figures and recording the prototype. It’s half narrative, half math — a combination. A lot of it was about choosing interactions that would be in the collective consciousness. For instance, there’s a Memory Remix in the hospital where you have to make the doctor kill the guy that’s on the bed. We could have interacted with anything — a shoe on the floor, the door, or whatever — but I always made sure we were picking things that meant something. What are you afraid of as a person when you go into a hospital? You’re afraid of the wrong machine being plugged onto your arm or you’re afraid of the wrong medicine put into your IV drip, that kind of stuff. This is true of all the other memory remixes. Then, it became a matter of our lead writer laying out all the possible outcomes. We had extremely stringent constraints for the motion capture. We had to make sure every branch in the memory remix was being recorded from exactly the same pose, or almost the exact same pose, and that the actors never got tired and always acted the same way up until the point where it branched. It was hell, but it was fun as well.
Every time something comes up about this game, I’m surprised at the choices made in service of the story, rather than to appeal to a broader audience in the name of sales. “Remember Me” seems to be taking a lot of risks.
Hart: From Capcom’s perspective, we recognize that there are risks in launching a new IP, but we also recognize you need to take risks in order to reap the benefits. Establishing a new IP is about games for the future. It’s a question of what time you bring it to market, what risks you take on. My personal history is working on games that have had strong female characters. I worked on “DMC” with Kat, and before that, “Enslaved” and “Heavenly Sword.” I think Jean-Max is far more eloquent than I am when describing why these choices were made, but they were made for the game and for the game experience and for the end user, for the consumer who’s actually enjoying this world and this story. That’s the person who’s considered when these decisions are made. The marketability or the financial side of it doesn’t really come into that. But it does, because you make a great experience, people are going to end up playing it and of course you’re going to end up selling it. I think there’s a circular relationship, but first and foremost is the game experience these guys have created.
Creating a female protagonist for an action game like this is certainly atypical in today’s market. Jean-Max, why take that route?
Moris: A lot of it right now is post-rationalizing it. It just felt right for the game. As Mat said, we were building our experience. In the beginning, we had four characters that were laying around and we were not sure [who to use]. At some point, we narrowed it down to Nilin, who was then named Kirsten. It just felt right, because we had been studying many different — the codename for the game was “Adrift,” and that was a game about more types of technological dangers or threats. There was Global Warming in there, there was what would later become in “Remember Me” the digitizing of memories, and it became a cyberpunk story of memories, human identity and intimacy. If you look at cyberpunk games or works of literature, there are some that focus on human augmentation and human strength. Our story was to be, again, a story of intimacy and that felt like the yin and the yang and strength was to respond emotion. It felt like to male was to respond female. It doesn’t mean that female characters can’t be strong, it doesn’t mean that male characters can’t have emotion, not at all. But post-rationalizing it, I think we just felt it needed to be a female character to have these themes really shine.
Briclot: Maybe from a different point of view, we can go back to the origin of the project in the studio where it was all about vision — we were just five at the beginning. Our goal was to create the game we wanted to see, wanted to play. At this time, we faced a lot of questions, a lot of difficulties, but we always tried to do something different. Even if we were dealing with cyberpunk subjects, we tried to find another way, something different, and choosing a female character was part of it, I think.
Something like “Remember Me” would be very hard to do, even as recently as ten years ago. As technology continues to advance in the gaming realm, and the storytelling potential for games continues to rise, do you feel more of a responsibility to tell really incredible stories using this technology?
Moris: I think, to be quite blunt, that technology doesn’t have anything to do with that. It allows you to do more kinds of stuff and interesting fancy stuff like the Memory Remixes, and we love that part of the job. But back in the Nintendo era, the 8-bit or 16-bit eras, great narratives were already being fostered. Technology is just one parameter. So, yes, we feel it’s our job to advance the craft of storytelling in games. Going into next gen, next gen isn’t going to be as much about technical performance as it is going to be about sharing with your friends. Granted, that’s another form of technology, but it’s the pure interactivity of games — that single thing that’s been true since the Atari 2600 and is still true today — that makes it interesting to build a narrative around. That’s never going to change. You’re a human, there’s a machine, that’s how you interact with it.
Hart: It’s interesting — I was thinking the exact same thing. Technology really shouldn’t have any bearing on how powerful a story you can tell. I think what the technology does do is give you more ways of hooking the player into your story, with fantastic lip-sync or believable eyes that glisten with tears. The interesting thing that happens with technology is, as you get further into uncanny valley, you don’t really want to come out the other side, and suddenly it’s so realistic that it pops you out of there. I think technology could be a little bit dangerous in that regard. Again, fundamentally, games of this nature must have strong characters with meaningful conflict and interesting situations that they’re put into, and you can see the growth of good characters. Those are the tenants of good storytelling that have been in existence since the dawn of time. I think the technology just makes it easier to hook the player into the story. But if you have the the story there in the first place, then it doesn’t matter how hi-tech you’ve got.
Briclot: If you’re only driven by your technology, in most cases, you’ll have some bad results. I could do a comparison with software and with picture. I’m using digital tools. There’s a lot of really powerful tools. You can work faster, you can get better results, but even if you’re using a digital tool, the goal is to create a picture. For the game, it’s the same thing. If you think too much about the technology, at the end, you’ll have some shit. Always keep in mind your goal and making sense and getting something profound, then it’s all about dealing with technology, using more of it, some kind of backward/forward using the top ideas and reality constraints. But if you rely too much on technology, most of the cases in my opinion will be shit. [Laughs]
True, but as technology increases, it also increases the ability to get players more immersed in the experience you’re trying to sell, the story that you’re trying to tell. “Remember Me” seems to do that in a way that other games haven’t tried — putting players right into the heads of its characters using the Memory Remixes, which is on another level. As that immersion progresses, do you think there’s a danger of that immersion becoming too immersive?
Moris: I used to have a girlfriend back when I was sixteen. Her parents didn’t own a TV, and she had probably never played a video game. She was totally out of our reality, she was reading books all day long. She was sixteen, and she knew more about literature than most 40-year-olds or 50-year-olds. In a way, she had lost a form of grip on reality thanks to books. I think the fact that it’s a video game and there’s a virtual reality around you, it may speed up the way you can get lost in something, granted, and the addictivity of the rewards — human beings tend to be addicted to the immediate rewards and not long-term plans. That may speed up things, but I think with the right education and people taking care of you — parents, friends, etcetera — you’re not going to lose your grip on reality, you’re just going to get even more immersed in the amount of time you cut yourself away from the world if you’re playing a single-player game on the oculus rift, or playing with friends over the internet. But I think with the right people around you, it doesn’t change anything.
Hart: I’ve never played a video game that’s given me the same sense of feeling that a book has. I can remember three different books that physically affected me, that actually made me cry as a part of reading them, and I’ve never played a video game that’s been able to do that. I think there’s a long way to go to get that immersion, to really, really connect you with those characters so you’re physically affected by what happens to them. Whether it goes out the other side, I don’t know.
Circling back around to the game itself, is there a particular moment in development that you knew you had something really special with “Remember Me?”
Moris: From my perspective, it was when that video of the Memory Remix came together and the look on people’s face once they had seen it. They were trying to piece it back together and — it was like when people walked out of “Inception.” “What’s true, what’s not true? Oh, I get it and I feel smart about it. Oh, that was powerful.” All those things coming together and seeing how much work went into making it simple, like that. That was the moment I knew that it would be great.
Briclot: I can’t remember one specific moment, maybe it was some early memories. It could sound strange, but when we focused on a memory and made the early memory remixes and making our character a memory hunter. The step when we were focusing on memory. After that, it was a lot of small details everywhere. When you’re looking at the fights, we are not dealing only with physical fights, we fill them with a lot of details that refer to memory. For example, when there’s a physical kick, there’s a small square of memories coming from the head of the protagonists. That’s one main and strong initial idea and then developing everything.
Moris: Aleksi’s way of providing a concise answer is drawing a picture. [Laughs]
Hart: I wasn’t part of the first team that saw this when Capcom and DONTNOD met each other at Gamescom, but I know the guys who did see it and were at that initial meeting were incredibly excited by the visuals they saw and the potential they saw. The one moment that stands out in my memory is, Aleksei and I were at New York Comic Con and we were showing the trailer for a Memory Remix where you get a man to kill his wife. There’s a hushed silence through the crowd as it’s playing out and he kind of stumbles and you’ve moved the whisky bottle and he stumbles and he pulls the gun on her and she says, “You didn’t even take the safety off.” The thing plays out and then it starts rewinding. It comes up with the label that says, “Remove safety,” and the whole crowd went, “Ohhhhh!” They could see that and it played out — BANG! and she dies — that was the moment where you knew you had something really magical, where the crowd saw it and all of them reacted to it and it played out exactly as they thought it was going to. That was a fantastic moment.
Briclot: You’re making me aware of the fact that we’ve been developing this in the studio for five years.
Moris: In the beginning, there were just five of us, the same number of people here. It took us two years to build a team. It hasn’t been five years in development with five hundred people, it’s been realistically two and a half years with a hundred people.
Briclot: There was something a little bit painful about keeping everything and not showing anything. We are proud of a lot of different things — fighting, and the game was going in a good way, but we were unable to show everything. There were some really nice and exciting moments when we first showed with Capcom, the first time at Gamescom, the name of the game and everything to the audience, it was brand new. But for us, it was five years of work and having the feedback of the audience was something really awesome.
“Remember Me” hits June 4 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.