It's tragically unfair that, at first glance, Remember Me doesn't appear to be doing anything new at all.
It's an action game with the cinematic platforming sequences of Uncharted, a fight engine that apes Arkham Asylum and visual design blurred between Mass Effect and PN03. It's a mesh of old ideas spliced with the occasional poor line of dialogue, and publisher Capcom faces an uphill struggle convincing the world this is a must-have, breakthrough blockbuster.
But that's not all the problems: Remember Me is also throwing in a fair number of commercial risks. It's a new IP set to launch just when the current console cycle grinds to a halt, and a project that won't be coming to Nintendo's Wii U either. It's an action game that bans the player from using guns, features no co-op mode or multiplayer, and refreshingly, stars not the obligatory muscle-bound Caucasian male, but a mixed race female lead.
On paper, Remember Me (a debut game, no less, from Paris studio Dontnod) resembles a significant gamble. So why did its demo, shown at Gamescom last year, compel four separate companies to offer Dontnod a publishing deal?
The answer lies in watching the game in action. When the sum of its parts come together, Remember Me achieves that age old test: It looks fun. It looks interesting. It makes you want to play.
To discuss the game's inception and the ideas behind it, CVG met with Dontnod co-founder Jean-Maxime Moris.
CVG: In July 2008, you and four other people began to talk seriously about establishing a games studio in Paris and working on a new IP. Do you recall that conversation?
MORIS: Yeah I do remember. During that very first conversation, when we were just five guys hanging around in restaurants and fantasising about starting this company, we were talking about this game concept about technology going adrift, the environment going adrift, society going adrift, family going adrift.
That was essentially what we were thinking, and it became the concept for the game. Naturally, we chose the name Adrift for the project. Compared to Remember Me, Adrift was more film-noire, and even more open-world, but very quickly we narrowed it down to something more feasible.
That was back in 2008, and you must have had some significant investment because, the next thing we hear is that you have 100 people on board.
That was the most time-consuming thing I have ever done. That took me two years, hiring all those people.
It's not just about shaking someone's hand at the end of an interview. It's about writing job descriptions, going through all those applications, arranging appointments, first and second meetings. That's so much time.
So Remember Me actually entered in full production in 2010, yes? And by then you had a deal with Sony.
Yeah we talked to Sony as far back as 2008, and we talked to them regularly ever since then.
You even gave your IP over to Sony , but at some point, there was division?
No, well, for their own internal reasons, Sony had to cut a number of projects. And we were just part of that. Honestly there was no ill-will, there was no division; we just had to go our own separate ways.
How demoralising was that? To make such progress and then to watch something fall beneath you?
It was demoralising, yeah, but maybe I'm just a little bit crazy but I thought it was going to happen anyway. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing. The game's idea had evolved with Sony's input - I was fine with walking away from it. With Sony out of the picture we brought the concept back to how we intended it to be.
What do you mean specifically when you say "evolved"?
Well, Sony wanted something that fitted best within their portfolio, and suffice to say they already had an action adventure.
So, Sony wanted Adrift to change genre when it was in production?
Yes, well, we were in the beginning of production.
But when that deal broke down, it all fell back on you; you had to find a new publisher, new funding, new deals.
Actually, we just stopped pitching it to studios. We had the immense luck of having an investor that believed in the project from day one and continued to support it financially. So it meant that we had a luxury that I don't think many other developers get.
So we thought, you know what, let's not find a publisher and change our game again. Let's make our game and find a publisher afterwards.
The deal with Sony ended early 2011, so that year I went to Gamescom with a teaser [trailer], concept art and a speech. The idea was to create some excitement amongst journalists, which creates a feedback loop and catches the attention of publishers.
That happened. Our goal was to get a publishing deal by the end of the year, and by the time we signed with Capcom we had four publishing deals on the table. We chose Capcom because it was the most enthusiastic and respectful towards the ideas of the project.
How much did the pressure get to you when you went to Gamescom?
Well I have a lot of support from my team. I always feel backed up. To me, failure was not something I thought of.
And so you've returned to a game which takes a similar approach to Sony's Uncharted, in that you take tight control of the camera so you can portray a clear narrative.
Yes. At its very core, Remember Me is a third-person action adventure game driven by narrative. In order to tell the story, we need some variation in gameplay. In terms of action, we try to split it fifty per cent combat and fifty per cent adventure.
On the combat side we have features such as performing combos and finishing moves, and there are a secondary layer of actions that players can explore too. And there's a third layer that's going to come on top of that which we think will make the gameplay really deep and accessible, but I can't really talk about that right now.
On the adventure side, we have the classic platforming and navigation, but we also have this unique adventure game mode too. Because there's lots to it, what we don't want is for this game to feel like a collection of mini-games; it needs to feel right and driven by the narrative.
Remember Me's lead character is a mixed-race female, which stands out against the crowd of white male heroes. There's a sense that publishers attach risk to anything other than white male leads. At any stage in development, did you feel you needed to change the lead character's appearance?
No, we wanted Nilin to stand out. I think these sort of issues become self-fulfilling prophesies; people saying that only white males sell so then everyone only does white males. If you start believing these things you get your head inside this cold marketing strategy that you cannot get your head around. It becomes a pretty fucking racist and misogynistic way of thinking about lead characters.
We are essentially directing Nilin's story here - it is a very linear game, in terms of both navigating the landscape and narrative. This was an important conscious choice for us. We want to have much control over the scene - the events and the emotions that the player has to go through.
Which must put even more pressure on making the narrative as good as possible, surely?
That's right, there's a lot of importance attached to the story. The game is a near-future cyberpunk game, but it's about memories and human intimacy rather than a story about physical augmentation as it usually is.
There's nothing wrong in a cyberpunk game or movie of book that's focused on physical augmentations and so on, it's just that we want to do something different.
So the narrative is paramount in this type of game. It may sound like a bit of a contradiction, but within that tight narrative line you want to give the player the impression of choice as well. That's why I think the combat system is important - it's very fluid and gives the player a lot of choice.
Do take this as a compliment, but the combat segments feel a lot like Arkham City, in terms of its flow and how animations blend together. It must have taken a long to implement.
Oh, about two years! I will take it as a compliment, but at the same time I don't want Remember Me to feel like a reference game. I want it to stand out.
I remember at the very beginning of the project, I said we should create an action adventure game, but most of these are third-person shooters. So we decided that one way to differentiate ourselves will be to focus on close-combat, we need to innovate within that space.
When we started to prototype the combat, we realised it started to feel a bit samey when we included guns. We decided that the last thing we want in the game is meaningless violence. The game's central character, Nilin, never kills anyone throughout the game. In the memory sequences, you can change someone's memory to think they have killed someone, but even then they haven't.
What are the game's literary influences?
There is Orwell in there, as you may have guessed. The game is set in 2084, which is one hundred years after [Orwell novel] 1984.
That book depicted a very vertically structured authoritarian society, with the government on top, people at the bottom, and that very blurry mix of bureaucracy in between.
We believe that a new form of control is emerging, one which we define as a horizontal control, where the way you're directed isn't really clear. It's not like it's just the state that controls your life, it is now many different parts of society directing you down a specific route.
I think this is linked to the emergence of social networks, because we are all uploading our lives online. We are telling people what location we are at, who we're with, what we are buying. Our location can be pinpointed with smartphone devices too.
We don't know if bad things are being done with this data, but we tend not to think about it because these networks are very useful to us. That's what I mean by horizontal control.
So, 2084 is considered the next step in where this is going.
Games are notoriously bad at portraying messages.
That's the thing, I don't want this to have a message or meaning that will get in the way. There is no direct statement in this game that we want to hold up. It's a story in the background. The plot is essentially about Nilin looking for her identity, but if just a few people look beyond that into the depth of the story, that would be my fulfilment.