Jun 192013

In the wake of Microsoft’s unpopular and ultimately reversed turn towards invasive DRM and daily activation requirements, there has been a renewed discussion of the economic challenges of AAA development and the supposed danger that used games posed to the industry. The standard excuse that it’s too great a challenge to create games that achieve players’ graphical expectations while still selling enough games to be economically viable in the context of a console exclusive has been trotted out, and as usual it is false, or at least lacking in perspective. Cinematic action games (including several that are PS3 exclusives) have steep graphical demands, but the best games in this genre actually come from the previous generation. Games like Ico and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time illustrate the fact that smart design trumps graphical fidelity, even in the games that most closely mimic film.

This point is hammered home by Remember Me, a recent game that clearly belongs to the genre. Remember Me spreads out its brawls with traversal sequences , employs a cinematic camera, and uses the same kind of character-focused storytelling that drives other exemplars of the cinematic action style. Unfortunately, it fails to be an engaging experience despite its skillful execution of a striking visual design. 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.

Like many cinematic action games, Remember Me spaces its combat moments out with platforming-style traversals. Formally these are very similar to the singular pathways found in the Uncharted series, but there are several critical differences. While in Drake’s adventures climbable surfaces tend to be denoted by bright colors (white and yellow primarily), Remember Me has no visual offset inherent to the surfaces themselves. Instead, an orange indicator, diegetically incorporated as a signal from a cranial implant, appears near surfaces that Nilin can climb on. It’s explained that these symbols represent the route to her destination, although the indicators sometimes also lead to dead ends that contain collectibles. Even if a surface looks climbable, unless it has an indicator, Nilin won’t, can’t climb on it. The player’s route from one point to the next is completely set, to the exclusion of even the false starts and dead ends occasionally present in Uncharted.

The advantage of this system, although Remember Me does not do well with it, is that in principle the player’s position at every point along the traversal is known and therefore the path and indicators can be tuned so the player is never in doubt about how to proceed. The downside is that it perversely lays bare the game-ness of the system, something cinematic action games strive to avoid. It seems that an athletic character like Nilin should be able to climb up some of these fences and vault over tables, etc., but the traversal system makes this impossible. The world lies behind unbreakable glass walls until its time for Nilin to climb along the prescribed path. This confronts the player with the restriction and artificiality of the system, emphasizing that Nilin is a construct in a game, not a digital actor that the player physically controls.

The game also reveals itself to the player in the design of the levels. The traversals in Remember Me tend to be linear and often involve tight quarters with vast gulfs yawning underneath. Because these tight spaces are not a good fit for the game’s acrobatic combat (much less its camera), the game is almost devoid of bridging encounters. The game’s fights need large open areas; consequently, entering one of these almost always signifies an imminent battle. Admittedly this is a problem for many cinematic action games, but in general entries in the genre at least attempt to disguise their battle spaces by filling them with chest-high objects that have some apparent function in the context of the area’s visuals. Because Remember Me is a brawler, and furthermore because it is committed to only letting Nilin interact with predesignated hardpoints within the world (she can vault over her enemies but not a table), it is compelled to stage its battles in fairly large, open areas devoid of contextualizing objects. The battle system simply won’t function if there are obstacles, and as a consequence the areas where combat is about to occur are, on the whole, extremely obvious.

Combo-driven brawlers offer a unique opportunity for seamless interface design, because they don’t require targeting reticules or snap-to aiming. Combat therefore could have been a place where Remember Me really pushed itself ahead of its genre siblings. The visual design of the battles, with Nilin’s artful punches and kicks and acrobatic dodges and flips, does the job, showing the benefit of Dontnod’s strong animation work. However, for reasons that aren’t clear, the interface prominently displays a combo progress meter with every strike. Early in the game this can be helpful to teach the player how the timing of the combo system works, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been restricted to a “training mode” display of some kind, however. In play, the combo progress meter is distracting, constantly emphasizing that the player is playing a game rather than physically engaging with a digital world.

The exclamation point appearing over enemies that are just about to attack also breaks from the cinematic realism that is the hallmark of the genre. Moreover, it’s symbolic of an additional problem, which I always think of as “single-ninja disease”. Nilin often fights in a crowd of enemies, but rarely has to deal with more than one at a time. Of course, this is a trope that originates from martial arts films, so it might seem like a small problem in the context of a cinematic game. However, film’s ability to change the width and focus of the shot allows it to deal gracefully with the absurdity of an army of enemies attacking a hero one at a time, by turning each mini-encounter into a small, intimate duel. In a game, where a wide shot is obligatory, the shuffling mass of foes becomes a constant and all-too-obvious presence. The constraints of the ludic camera interfere with the cinematic intention, and again reveal the bones of an inadequate simulation.

I don’t want to say that these design missteps are “immersion-breaking” because immersion isn’t really a goal of the genre Remember Me seems to belong to. Rather, the cinematic action genre aspires to make systems as invisible as possible in order to engage the player as closely as possible with the characters and their stories. Remember Me, however, shows its hand too plainly, not for a lack of pixels or polygons, but because its fundamental design interferes with the cinematic illusion. The staggering investment in ever-more-powerful hardware and graphical engines cannot solve the fundamental problems of engagement, even among the kinds of games for which realistic rendering would appear to be most necessary. Even in the cinematic action genre, design trumps visuals. Remember that.

  9 Responses to “The Mirage”

  1. Great post. :) I’m still finishing up the game and wondered what your thoughts are on the memory-remix mini-game. I wish it was in the game more, that’s for sure. Seeing the different ways the memory could play out with various changes was very interesting.

    I’ve also played all the Uncharted games and agree that Remember Me doesn’t do enough to make the environment seem more interactive despite it being just a series of pretty tunnels. I half-disagree with you on the “single-ninja disease” in that some of the time during larger combats, several combatants in that shambling mass of enemies would throw their punches at the same time.

    Another hand-to-hand combat game (also with a female protagonist and also set in a dystopia) that I really liked was Oni from Bungie West. She did have access to guns, but her combat moves were especially fun, such as the Back-Breaker move which was very satisfying to use on unaware enemies.

    I was hoping Remember Me would be as fun as Oni, but sadly it’s not. :P

    • Thanks, Katy. I really liked the memory remixing, and I felt like there wasn’t quite enough of it in the game, especially since you end up essentially remixing the same memory twice. I would have liked to see the remixing (and possibly also a more involved version of the memory stealing) turned into its own game.

      Bosses and mini-bosses would attack me at the same time as adds, and robots attacked simultaneously with normal melee enemies, but I never had two leapers or two police go at me at the same time.

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. Very insightful post, thanks. I’ve been interested in Remember Me, and while this is a critique of some of its execution, I find it more intriguing as a result.

    I’d be curious to hear how you thought this system compared to the recent Tomb Raider game. Some of your thoughts about Remember Me echo feelings I had about TR, how the immersion of the world was broken up a bit by the game play elements (here is where you can climb, we conveniently left a high tension wire right over here, what a nicely arrayed set of pylons you will eventually come back to once you get the grappling hook arrow, etc).

    TR doesn’t have that augmented reality overlay you mention, and the environments sound a bit more open by comparison.

    Now I want Remember Me even MORE, just to do a proper comparison :)

    • The recent Tomb Raider had a structure I call “pipes and pools”, in which narrow, linear platforming segments (or other kinds of traversals) connect large playgrounds that offer a mix of climbing and combat. This is similar to the structure of Remember Me, but there are key differences in scale and variety. When Remember Me is narrow, it is always a traversal, while when it broadens out it is almost always time for combat, and these are built within the “level” structure. In Tomb Raider, however, although the “pipes” are narrow and almost entirely concerned with traversal, the “pools” are large areas that involve a mix of traversal and combat, so that each “pool” essentially constitutes a level in and of itself. So instead of pipes and pools, Remember Me has beads on a string.

      I felt like Tomb Raider suffered from having a world that wasn’t very richly imagined. There was stuff in it, sure, but that stuff didn’t really tell a story about itself, and that sort of hurt the game. You know, if those oh-so-convenient posts just had the remains of a rope bridge or two hanging from them, if the shantytown had looked like a place where people lived, if there’d been some logic to what the WWII occupiers had managed or failed to build… Instead it just seems like stuff that was put in because it would make for a neat level, rather than from some coherent idea about what this place was or why these things were in it. What really broke my immersion, though, was the way that Lara kept kicking over pots and breaking them without even saying anything. I mean, have you ever talked to an archaeologist about pots? They are really into pots.

  4. Pretty much every third-person melee brawler has the lone-ninja problem. Ironically, Sands of Time is particularly egregious in this regard: you will be fighting six enemies, yet none of them will attack for several seconds, because they are all set to be polite and let you fight them one-on-one. The Arkham games also have giant flashing indicators over the heads of enemies who are about to attack, although they increase the frequency of enemy attacks so that it becomes an integral part of the combat design.

    In fact, thinking of games which don’t have this restriction, they generally result in a feeling of powerlessness and fear on the player’s part. Everyone who plays Dark Souls is mobbed and killed by four low-level enemies at some point, just because they decided to back you up against a wall and attack until you died. This is not the kind of action hero behavior that would go over well in a game like Remember Me.

  5. […] from June, on Ludonarratology, Sparky Clarkson specified design problems revolving around Remember Me‘s combat systems and […]

  6. I agree that the aim of the cinematic action game genre is to “engage the player as closely” but I don’t think making systems invisible is the only, or often even the best way of doing that. “Engage the player as closely” is a matter of ensuring that player and character actions are always synchronized in, intent and context. Cinematic action games that specifically try to make their systems invisible often vacillate between making those systems feel unclear and arbitrary, or obvious and distracting.

    The diegetic overlay of Remember Me is functionally no different to the colour coded signposting of Uncharted. Both serve to denote the usable surfaces from those that, despite being the same size, shape and within a reasonable distance of the character, are not usable. One key difference between Uncharted and Remember Me is that the latter never puts you in a position where you have to make a guess as to whether a surface is usable or whether the colouration is just an aesthetic choice and not a usability one. This is a problem recent Naughty Dog games suffer from. Certain sections of Uncharted 3 featured a colour palette that is heavy on the same blues and reds that are used to highlight usable surfaces. Whereas The Last of Us uses yellow in multiple and often conflicting ways: to signify usable surfaces, to draw the eye to points of interest, or as a means of aesthetic colouration associated with military barricades and warning signs. So within an area two identical concrete walls will be topped with yellow paint, one is scalable the other is not; because this happens frequently the colouration cannot be trusted and the difference between what is and isn’t usable starts to feel arbitrary. The character knows something you don’t (that one surface is functional the other is aesthetic) and the notion that you are going through this experience together begins to break down. This is a problem Remember Me never exhibits because it’s absolutely clear at all times what is and isn’t usable, this helps ensure the synchronization of player and character action and motivation by constraining player actions to those that are relevant.

    The “obvious combat arena” level design is another problem common to action many games, one difference of Remember Me is that it doesn’t try to hide it. At several points during The Last of Us you have the opportunity to explore areas that will later become combat spaces, you are not made aware of this change in function directly but the differences in the spatial layout and the items available becoming glaringly obvious indicators that this is not really a non-combat space despite what it may portray itself to be. Bricks and bottles only appear as items you can pick up in a combat space, so the moment you see them you know what’s coming even if that change in state doesn’t trigger until after a cutscene. The shape, size and distribution of cover objects is immediately identifiable; even before you are introduced to the game’s combat systems. So instead of making the transitions between exploration and combat invisible The Last of Us makes it obvious in a way that gives the player more forewarning than the character thus creating a gulf between the two. Remember Me never falls into this trap because combat spaces are immediately identifiable and combat within them occurs immediately. You, as the player, know something is a combat space the same moment Nilin does.

  7. […] Clarkson didn’t like Remember Me as much as I did; reading his analysis helped me understand my own feelings and why […]

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