Remember Me is the first project to come from the Paris-based Dontnod Entertainment—but you wouldn’t know that from playing it. The near-future look at memories—and how their existence or loss affects us as human beings—is as smart as it is stylish, and the game’s long and sometimes difficult road to release will finally come to an end next week when Remember Me hits for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.
To find out more about what went into creating the game—and what the team at Dontnod wanted from their freshman effort—I sat down with Remember Me creative director Jean-Maxime Moris to talk combos, main characters, and concerns over how players outside of France would take to playing a cyberpunk adventure set in The City of Light.
EGM: I wanted to ask about Remember Me’s combat system. From what I expected the game would be before I played it, this aspect—the combos, the Pressens, and the depth that they hold—was probably the most surprising. Where did the idea to do combat in this way come from, and was it something that was always going to be part of the game?
Jean-Maxime Moris: It was an idea that actually came very early in the development process, but which went through so many iterations that it’s now totally different from what it was in the very beginning.
The idea was, we were going to do a third-person action-adventure game that was about telling the story of a strong character, and we wanted to differentiate ourselves as much as possible from other action-adventure titles. That meant not going for third-person shooting. So, I wanted to do a melee combat system, and that meant going combo-based. At the time, Batman: Arkham Asylum was very successful, and we didn’t want to copy its mechanics. That would have been a rip-off, and that wasn’t what we wanted to do.
I looked at combos—and with combos, most of the time they’re about learning sequences of inputs, learning the timing, and then being able to reproduce them. I thought, let’s try to do something that’s more accessible and, in a way, deeper. Let’s have it so that the player teaches themselves their own combos, and learns their own combos. In the beginning, you could actually change the inputs of the combos any way you wanted, but that created so many possibilities that it was not manageable.
So, we went for fixed inputs, and the idea was that the customization element would be put on the managing the effects of your combos, managing the powers of the Pressens that you can put into those combos. The idea was that, each of these four combos—because eventually you get four in the game—they would act like, you know, four weapons that you would carry in a third-person shooter. So, for an example situation, I have my combos, one to quickly gain health again, and I have this combo that is more suitable to this type of enemy, and I have this combo that’s more likely to help me in this particular situation. Then, as you progress through the game, we keep challenging your management and strategy by presenting you with new situations that are going to ask you to re-think the way you’ve build your combos.
EGM: There are plenty of games out there now that allow you to create your own custom characters, or games like Call of Duty which allow for customization of weapons—very few games, however, let you customize combos. It’s an interesting concept. Do you think that that customization will help players connect more with Remember Me’s combat? Because, unlike characters, it can be hard creating that connection to fighting systems for players.
Morris: Exactly. Remember Me is a linear narrative experience; it has linear level design, and we decided—very early in the development process—to have as much control as possible over the events and emotions that the player would go through in term of narrative.
But, I definitely wanted that level of freedom within the combat system, and when you play the game for hours, you start to realize how free you are, and how even though the combo inputs are set, there are millions of different combinations of Pressens, and there are more advanced rules that we introduce. For example, you need to dodge inside a combo at some point, because otherwise you’re always going to get your combo interrupted. The fact that the further a Pressen is in a combo, the bigger its effect is going to be, you’re going to have to think with that rule in mind. Then, later in the game, we introduce the fact that six-hit combos and more give you an additional PMP bonus—which are those orbs that you can gather—which unlocks more Pressens.
So, there are so many ways to play the game. Some people will complete Remember Me using just two combos, but they won’t get the full experience. Some will use three, some four. It’s very interesting watching people playing it, and play testing it, and seeing journalists playing it, because no one is playing it the same way in terms of combos. I think that’s a really cool thing.
EGM: I was going to ask about that—that different play style people will have. If I’m playing the game, and I set up my combo, and I like how it works, and I don’t continually update them, is that okay? Do you want people to be continually updating their combos?
Moris: No, not continually. It’s a tough balance that we’ve had to reach, that I think we’ve reached. It has to be challenging, the way players are thinking about their combos, but at the same time, not wanting them to have to stop in the same fight to go to the interface to update them—because then you lose the whole momentum of the game.
For instance, if you build a five-hit combo, at some point we’re going to introduce an enemy that, basically, damages you when you hit him. The only way you’re going to be able to beat that guy is by building combos that are only made of regen Pressens. So, that’s going to ask you to rebuild that combo, because chances are it was most likely built of several different types of Pressens. You can keep a combo for quite some time in the game, but as some point it will need to be changed.
EGM: Is there any danger in making a fighting system too fun in a game that’s supposed to be about storyline? Is there ever a balance between “this is a game about fighting people” and “this is a game about telling a story”?
Moris: I think that’s one of the key questions videogames have to answer. Is Nathan Drake believable as a cool guy when he has killed 800 people in the past eight hours.
That’s an incredibly deep question, and… this game was build with the idea of keeping some arcadey fun to it, while also exploring some pretty serious themes throughout the game. We have some very heavy narrative stakes, and we’ve tried to say, this is not a comedy or a pulp movie—this is something that is more serious. So, we really wanted to have that counterpoint of pure fun, but in terms of games in general, yeah, it can pull you out of the experience. I hope it doesn’t pull you out of Remember Me.
EGM: I do find it interesting that, I feel like I can see some inspiration taken from fighting games in the combat system for Remember Me—and then the game ends up being published by Capcom, who is known for their long history of fighting games. Was there any inspiration taken from games such as Street Fighter?
Moris: Actually, no—we didn’t come from fighting games at all.
I think there are a lot of themes in Remember Me that are appealing to a Japanese company, such as cyberpunk. The Japanese have been eating cyberpunk for breakfast for 25, 30 years. It’s still hard, with some Western publishers, to tell them that sci-fi or cyberpunk can sell. That was one side—that I think the game has some Japanese DNA to it.
And then, when it came to the combat system, one game that had done it before and that we looked at was God Hand. That’s not a fighting game per se, but he whole game was about just that. The game was extremely hardcore, and you had to balance the height of your hits, things like that. We definitely looked at God Hand, but we didn’t copy it by any stretch of the imagination.
It’s like, if you imagine the first-person shooter genre, there are so many games you can list in the genre. And then you take third-person shooters, and there’s so many that you can list there. But, then you’re a melee combat game, and you do your thing, and many people compare you immediately to Batman or something—and there are only five games in that spot. You do one thing different in an FPS, and people are like, “Oh, wonderful”; you have a totally different system in a melee combat game, and people will still find it too similar to the next one. There’s kind of a double standard thing that keeps amazing me. I don’t know why I’m talking about this, but… [laughs] We did study God Hand, we did study Batman, these are amazingly great games.
EGM: One thing that’s definitely noticeable while playing is that you’re doing interesting things in communicating information to the player. There are a lot of games that have very similar UI elements, but you’re doing some really cool things in this regard. Do you think there’s more potential for games to connect with players than what we’re seeing a lot of the time? Like, a movie can only do so much to connect with a viewer, books can only do so much, but games have so many different layers and possibilities.
Moris: We’re like the pilgrims discovering the new world; this is just the beginning. Who knows where this will all go. Currently, videogames are still very much about your nervous system reacting to stimuli. For instance, in play testing, so much of the information is lost on the player. There’s this rule that, 1/3rd of the center of the screen is looked at, and then the rest is almost like it doesn’t exist. You’re so focused on beating the machine, and so focused on that that it’s hard sometimes to create emotion, it’s hard to create interesting narrative. The games that create the most emotion to me are the simplest ones, the ones that require you to focus less on what’s going on on the screen. Games like Flower, like Limbo, like Journey, all those kind of games. It’s a very different way of creating games, but I can see what people like David Cage are trying to accomplish, and it’s very interesting to me.
In Remember Me, we have a new team, and we wanted to do this game that was a third-person action-adventure game that had a well-anchored recipe that people could relate to. It has action, it has big enemies, and then we wanted to build upon that with the memory remix mechanic, the combo lab mechanic, and the message about social networks and the way they might expand in the future. I definitely know that we will try to do things that are pushing the envelope forward, because it’s just the beginning.
EGN: I want to ask about the main character, but I don’t want to take it down the route it’s been going down lately. There just seems to be a lot of drama created around the main character—and not just Nilin, but in games in general. Any time you feature a main character outside the norm it’s a really big deal, but, should it be a really big deal?
Moris: No, it’s not a big deal. If people can connect to female characters in books, comic books, or movies, why couldn’t they in a game? It’s as simple as that. And more and more women are playing videogames, and I have no trouble connecting with a female character.
I just think, I don’t know, that topic just amazes me. I don’t know why we’re talking about it, but I guess the fact that we’re talking about it so much these days means that people are changing in a way, and the fact that it’s on the table means that people are not avoiding it anymore. What I’ve heard lately, first of all, Tomb Raider being released with a new Lara Croft, and the Assassin’s Creed guys saying that they might be concentrating one of the next installments of the franchise to feature a female character—which they have actually done in the Vita version—I think that’s great news. I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re the ones leading it with Remember Me. Not at all—many other people are doing it, and I think that’s great.
I just want more diversity in games. I want to be able to play a male character if I want to, or an alien if I want to, a little kid if I want to, and I don’t want it to all be boiled down to pure marketing segmentation realities, which are just self-fulfilling prophecies, and many times just bullshit.
EGM: Another thing I think is interesting in your alignment with Capcom is that they have a strong library of female characters. To me, had this been a Capcom game from the start, I never would have given Nilin a second thought—but there’s still this conversation out there.
Moris: In our game, it was very simple: answering that question is just post-rationalizing something that was not even a choice in the beginning. The way I post-rationalize it was that we were doing a cyberpunk game that was about social networks and how they can impact memories and intimacy and identity—as most cyberpunk games are about physical augmentation and physical strength—and it was like the ying and the yang, the body versus the soul. Most of those games are done with male characters, and for some reason, we went to the female character to go to the other side of that ying & yang. Yeah, I don’t know—it was just her. It was her. It was Nilin.
EGM: Another question I have about connection to players is the setting of Paris. A lot of times, games and movies not only focus on Western settings and people, but America and Americans specifically. With Remember Me, you have the setting of Neo Paris, signs written in French, etc. Kind of like Nilin, was there ever any, “Oh, we have to worry about these elements,” or was it always a thought that you wanted to make what you wanted to make?
Moris: No. There was much more debate over the setting, because we didn’t want to be seen as the French guys doing a French game with French concepts about the French capital. As Remember Me evolved, and we went through many iterations of its early concept, we decided that it was just the city to go for.
In terms of sci-fi and extrapolation, one strong point was the traditional architecture of Paris, and the way we could build upon that architecture—because the skyline in Paris is so flat. The way we could build upon it, and the fact that we had all of the reference matrials just in front of us, and thinking back and just saying, “it’s one of the most visited cities in the world.” It’s like a brand, and everyone knows about Paris.
So, you know what? Let’s do it. It’s seldomly been done, but that didn’t stop people from watching Ratatouille, that didn’t stop people from watching Inception—where a lot of it is based in Paris—so why not in a videogame? In the end, we were just very confident, and we went with it.
EGM: On the lighter side—or, perhaps not—Remember Me deals heavily with the loss and regaining of memories. If you had the choice, would you remove the bad memories you hold inside you, or do you think it’s important that you retain those?
Moris: One of the messages of the game is that, definitely, we’re more than the sum of those memories. I wouldn’t take anything out, no. No. Everything that you live, good or bad, brings you to the point that you are today. That’s pretty cheap philosophy right there, but I think it’s true.