WARNING: this analysis contains plot details, including spoilers for the end of the game.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been going back to older games recently, and one of those is Remember Me. Remember Me is set in Neo-Paris, allowing the developers to create a rich futuristic dystopia rooted in existing history. One of their most interesting choices is setting the majority of the game’s action inside a prison, in this case La Bastille. La Bastille is located where the original Bastille–a fortress later converted into a prison–once stood. Louis XIV imprisoned upper-class French citizens who opposed him in Bastille until it was stormed during the French Revolution.
The real Bastille was used to support the state in censoring printed media and controlling social norms. In Neo-Paris, La Bastille is where memory hunters are kept, leapers are created and controlled, and prisoners’ memories are stored. Instead of confiscating prisoners’ belongings as they’re processed, Madame and Dr. Quaid wipe prisoners’ memories to keep them complacent and take the memories for themselves, implanting Quaid’s memories in exchange.
The prison uses a panopticon structure, which the French philosopher Foucault uses in his theories about disciplinary/authoritarian societies. A panopticon is a tower that allows a guard to see all the cells in a prison, but does not allow prisoners to see whether the guard is there or not. Foucault used the physical structure as an analogy for the mutual enforcement of social norms even when we can’t know whether someone is ‘watching.’
In the game, the use of Sensen technology and the commodification of memory is commonly accepted by citizens. No person owns their own experiences, and all people are watched by robots, security cameras, and other surveillance technology. Madame, governor of La Bastille, watches over the prison from the central tower and protects the memory servers until Nilin defeats her.
In Episode 4: Panoptic Icon, Nilin pursues Madame. In order to locate her, Nilin enters the prison through the sewers and confronts Sergeant Vaughn–the Sergeant of La Bastille S.A.B.R.E. Force–to obtain the schematics. This episode is brimming with platforming, combat, and collectibles, but it also does some pretty interesting things symbolically. As the child of the memory-control empire who doesn’t remember her own history, Nilin stands in for each of us who is born into society and inherits its norms.
Rarely are we forced to question where these beliefs come from, but in order to succeed Nilin has to. She has to look at the inner-workings of this prison and to engage with both the guards and Madame herself. In the panopticon of La Bastille, Madame represents not just policemen and prison wardens, but also our teachers, relatives, and even our own inner voices who hold us to social norms and punish us when we stray from them.
What elevates this symbolism is the fact that it is the shared pain and memories of society that starts Nillin on this path. Edge, the persona created by the central memory server AI H3O, urges Nilin to explore, subvert, and eventually destroy the system Memorize (and her own family) has created. The soul of humanity itself asks the player to question our own beliefs, to see how even well-intentioned efforts to eradicate sadness can become commercialized and oppressive.
I was drawn to both of Dontnod Entertainment’s currently released games, Life is Strange and Remember Me, without realizing they were made by the same studio, in part because of their use of symbolism and social commentary. Their games are nuanced and it’s clear the developers are fellow television, film, and game lovers, as evidenced by the abundance of allusions in each of their IPs.
More importantly, they never spell it out for you, because Dontnod trusts players to handle depth and complexity. That is such a rare thing in pop culture, and it’s something I really appreciate. I can’t wait to see what else comes out of their studio. What do you guys think of Remember Me? Are you excited for Vampyr and episode 5 of Life is Strange? Let me know in the comments!