Remember Me asks big questions about emotion, memories and who we are. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks to developer Dontnod to learn more about the game and the studio.
Formed in Paris, France.
Dontnod consists of some of the industry’s top talent, with ex-staff from EA, Ubisoft, Criterion and many more big names.
Remember Me is the studio’s first title, launching May 2013. It was originally codenamed Adrift at gamescom 2011.
Can we really call our lives ‘private’ any more? What is privacy when eager Tweet junkies and Facebook addicts publicly advertise every element of their waking lives for all to see? When our existence boils down to what’s on a computer screen, what do we have left to call our own?
Memories. Your memory is sacred only to you, but Remember Me asks what happens when even that last bastion of privacy is breached and exposed to the world. The game started live as Adrift, a working title coined by French developer Dontnod Entertainment.
It’s a new studio, with a new IP in an industry dominated by established names and brands. Regardless, fresh ideas must always be supported, and now that the game has a new name – Remember Me – and the backing of publisher Capcom, the studio is on a path to potentially great things.
The gametakes place in Neo Paris during 2084, and stars Nilin, a memory hunter who has her own memory erased. This is a culture where even the fondest of memories can be recorded and sold on the black market via surgically implanted Sen-Sen devices.
Dontnod’s concept sparks many visions of a dystopia where no one’s mind is truly their own. We spoke with creative director Jean-Maxime Moris to learn more about the game, and its ambitious setting.
VG247: I first saw Remember Me at gamescom 2011 when it was called Adrift. How much has changed since then, and how has your partnership with Capcom steered the game’s direction?
Jean-Maxime Moris: Well we’ve actually been very lucky to have been able to stay on the same track, because Capcom was very respectful of the game and the IP when they came onboard.
The game was already there when we came to gamescom 2011, but we just didn’t want to spoil anything then. So actually, apart from the name and the fact that the game is much more advanced now, nothing has changed.
Recently, EA’s Frank Gibeau stated that launching new IP so late in a console cycle is a bad idea. As a developer of new IP, what’s your view on his statement?
Those guys think that people are basically saving up money for next-gen hardware, and that by having your game, your new IP launch at the beginning of that new cycle, that it’s going to be easier to integrate into that cycle.
That’s true, but the install base of the PS3 and the Xbox 360 has never been so big, and if you have something that’s new enough, that’s fresh enough, and interesting enough, you’ve never been able to sell it to as many people as now.
So it’s definitely the right time for us to be bringing Remember Me to the market.
Remember Me’s unique element is of course Nilin’s ability to dive into people’s memories and remix them. Where did that concept come from and how has it evolved over the years?
It’s something that I’m very proud of, you know, so maybe I’m not such a bad creative director after all [laughs]. The first two weeks of working on Adrift, I was working with the narrative director and we came out with five words that were the concept of the game.
On the sheet of paper it said, ‘Remix memories, change the world’. That has never changed, and even though we were tempted to go to many places that concept was always there, so we’re very happy that remained.
The fact remains that it is a new IP. How would you sell the game’s concept to someone who is perhaps unfamiliar with what it involves?
That’s very easy. Remember Me is a third-person action adventure game, in which you play Nilin, an elite memory hunter who has had her memory erased. She embarks on a quest to get it back. She has the power to break into peoples minds, steal their memories, or change them to change the world.
The game also has a deep combat system with a wealth of moves. How has your publishing deal with Capcom – who of course have designed great fighting engines – helped advance your combat mechanic?
Well, the system was very much underway when we signed with Capcom, it was almost finished. So they didn’t have a role in designing the combat, but in fine-tuning it, of course they are having a role. Although ‘helping’ us isn’t the right word.
It’s more that we’re talking everything through with them, we have the chance of having Ono-san as our producer in Japan, so we have many opportunities to discuss our fighting system with the guys who have done some of the best fighting systems in videogame history. So it’s just a bast.
Combat and climbing about aside, Nilin’s main hook is the Memory Remix mode. Because each memory gives you such great freedom to experiment and manipulate, can this change the player’s progression through the narrative?
So, Remember Me is very much a story-driven experience, and it’s a single player, linear experience from a narrative and level design point of view. We have room for exploration, but it’s mainly a linear experience.
This is a very conscious creative choice that we made, because we want to retain as much control as possible over the events, and the emotions that you’re going to go through.
”We have all kinds of stuff that will reward the player for exploring in terms of narrative, achievements, so yes, it is linear but through that we’re always looking at the bigger picture.”
Especially with the Memory Remix, because that was a very complex mechanic to design. You have this overarching objective within the game that you need to achieve by performing remixes.
But then within each remix you have another objective, and you’re achieving that objective to allow you to reach the one across the whole game. I won’t go into details about the main objective because that is very, very complex.
We wanted to keep a level of emotional impact that we had when we showed the game at gamescom – you know, with the guy shooting himself?
Yeah, you could make him think that he was dead, or that he split with his wife, or worst-case scenario, that he killed his wife. There was a lot of freedom there.
That has to be linear at least at this stage, and in the Memory Remix there is only one solution per remix. But finding that solution is going to be fun and there will be various stages.
First you’re going to have to look for glitches to interact with memories, and although you’re looking for that one solution, there will be many branches that you can experiment with.
You can use this to discover more interaction between the characters, or more humorous scenarios – such as the one you mentioned where the guy gets killed in his own memory – so you have to rewind and try again.
We have all kinds of stuff that will reward the player for exploring in terms of narrative, achievements, so yes, it is linear but through that we’re always looking at the bigger picture.
When I met with you last year I was fascinated by your presentation of Remember Me’s ideals. Everyone have memories and they are some of our most precious possessions. How challenging is it to convey the emotional aspect of memories in the game?
It’s very challenging. We always felt the theme would be very strong – well, you know the story – and we we were always more about telling a cyberpunk story of human intimacy.
The last nadirs of intimacy have been brought down by Memory Sharing, which is basically an extension of social networks today. We wanted to have a different angle, and I think it’s a concept that is very easy to look at and go, ‘oh, that’s interesting.’
Because they’re your memories. That is like the last thing that you own that is sacred only to yourself today. You’re tweeting everything that you do – what you eat or whatever – all your friends know you’re friend with on Facebook.
So the last private garden is your memories. The theme resonates with anyone who comes in contact with the game, but then it’s also telling a story, and telling a story in games is extremely difficult.
“your memories. That is like the last thing that you own that is sacred only to yourself today. You’re tweeting everything that you do – what you eat or whatever – all your friends know you’re friend with on Facebook.”
That’s because people are reacting to games in real-time with their nervous system, not with their brains or direct emotions, like in movies or when reading a book. It’s really about finding emotion within interaction – places where the brain is available to digest some more cinematic content.
You’re thinking long-term too, because it’s more than 10-12 hours of gameplay, rather than a one-hour TV episode. It’s extremely hard, it takes a lot of time, and we’ve also been doing a lot of play-testing to see how it all works.
There’s no winning formula from the beginning. It has to be tested and proofed and iterated. So yes, the short answer is that it’s very difficult, but we’re getting there.
Why is it that so many games – when trying to strike an emotional chord with the player – come across cheesy or embarrassing?
The interactive industry as a whole is difficult, as you’re making millions of people interact with your game, and everyone is going to have a different interaction. They’re all going to do different stuff and be disturbed by different things in their living room.
They’re going to be coming at the game from a different day at work, their own past, and they’re all going to interact with your work, so it’s a daunting challenge to make something that will resonate with as many people as possible.
I always think positively. I always think, ‘I hope someone is connecting with this’, because it really is so hard to make games. I never stop and look at a game and say, ‘that was…bleugh!’
I don’t think games have to be emotional. We should probably think of a new word to describe games, because they are as much iPhone games as they are something like Uncharted, as they are Heavy Rain, as they are Angry Birds.
So these are all games, but we’re not trying to tell the same story, or to hit the same emotional sparks as those games. I have a lot of respect to anyone who is making a game today, so I do think sometimes when I’m playing a game that I’m not connecting with it, that’s for sure.
But it’s very hard and I always think positively. I always think, ‘I hope someone is connecting with this’, because it really is so hard to make games. I never stop and look at a game and say, ‘that was…bleugh!’ I sometimes think it, but I won’t mention names [laughs].
This is a game that does prey on something personal to all of us. What would you like people to come away feeling or thinking once they’ve completed the it?
Well, most of all I wanted them to have had fun while playing the game, and to have enjoyed being Nilin for many hours. Ultimately I’d like them to think that the Memory Remix was one hell of an innovation.
If just one of them comes out of and thinks, ‘wait a minute’, and then looks at his Twitter account differently – even though it’s not a message we’re trying to hammer into people at all, as we’re just asking questions – if just one person asks themselves that question, they will have made my day.
Dontnod is a new studio and this is a new IP. Now that you are here talking about the game with the public, how does it feel to look back at your first days, when you were setting up and conceptualising Remember Me?
The short answer is that these have been the best years of my life. My first day at the office, it was a 30 square metre apartment that we were renting in Paris, and there were only five of us. I came into the office with a laptop, and we started the project on paper.
We’ve been extremely lucky to meet people who have believed in our ideas – not prototypes or demos – just ideas. On the first day I came in and wrote a Powerpoint presentation for the French Government’s funding system so we could get money ad start to hire more people.
That was the first day, and talking about it now feels extremely weird because it feels like light years away from where we are now. When you and I last saw each other at gamescom last year, we were not even sure then if we’d be able to do this.
Well, we knew we’d always do it, but the scale of which it would grow was unknown. But now, sitting here with you and being able to talk about the game like this is really awesome.
Can anyone do what you’ve done? Is now the time for budding indies to step up and make it happen?
Oh yeah, I think that if you want to make games, then there are two ways to do it. You can start from your bedroom and work in a project with a couple of friends, and nothing is stopping you from studying computer science, or art. Do it if you want to do it.
The second thing is being involved in a more traditional contract with a developer or being hired by a publisher. You can study to get into one of those companies or just get into them via QA or whatever, just do it and then work your way up.
I see many people doing that of course, and while it’s cheesy, nothing is stopping you from accomplishing your dreams. How many billionaires in the U.S. went there with just one dollar in their pocket, or how many developers today started as just five guys in their garage?
You’ve seen it first-hand, and of course Dontnod staff come from a rich variety of studios such as Ubisoft, EA and Criterion. How does this pooled experience help inform the working culture at the studio? Is it free and open like Valve’s model?
I think Valve is in a very favourable position because they have as much money as you could possibly want. I totally respect their structure and I think it’s amazing from a human perspective that hey can do it that way.
Unfortunately I don’t think that’s something you can do if you have extremely hard constraints, or goals to reach. But yes, you can try to make people feel as free and independent as possible.
It’s even behind the name of the studio, ‘Dontnod’ – you know, ‘don’t think like the others, think for yourself’ – and it’s something we really try to have in the office. Me as a creative director, I’m not the one who has every idea in the game, no I’m just a captain, and we choose from all of our ideas.
You can go the other way through with studios that follow the vision of a single man – Kojima Productions springs to mind. Few people are going to say no to Hideo Kojima.
I don’t see myself working in a structure like that, and if it’s definitely not the way I’d want to lead our company. If they get things done, and if people are happy to work there, then there are different people who like different things. But it’s not for me.
It’s great that you operate so freely, and that you and Capcom are collaborating. We’ve also seen clusters of studios form under Sony, Square-Enix, EA and others. What are the benefits of that model?
You’re absolutely right, you know, it’s something that’s not yet in lace at Capcom, but it’s something we’d love to do – like share tech with Ninja Theory or the guys at R&D in Osaka.
We do get together whenever there is an event like gamescom. We have dinner together and we exchange ideas like, we had dinner with Sasaki-san who was director on Resident Evil 6 last gamescom. But definitely to synergies, especially when costs won’t go down and they keep increasing.
They have increased maybe ten-fold since the last generation, and they’re going to increase a lot more from this generation, so you definitely need to stand together in this industry.
Remember Me is a fringe game. It is releasing close to the end of this current generation. Aside from developing the game are you still looking to what comes next?
We as designers are keeping our eyes out, we know where to take Remember Me if there is to be a sequel. We have other ideas for new IP, and we have a philosophy going into the next-gen, and we are very excited by it.