May 24, 2013 at 7:25 PM ET
Being perched on the precipice of a new console generation has made video game developers reflect about their own relationship with technology. Ubisoft's new open-world game "Watch_dogs" is at once exceedingly ambitious and cripplingly self-conscious, asking players to live in a world where the tech industry's wildest dreams about interconnected smart devices and augmented reality systems are as ubiquitous as they are immediately hackable. It's a fascinating concept, no doubt. But will "Watch_dogs" end up being anything more than an attempt to recast "Grand Theft Auto" with smartphones instead of guns?
The real question here is how, exactly, gameplay weds with storytelling. This is the tension at the heart of "Remember Me," a new game from Capcom and the French developer Dontnod Entertainment that will be released early next month.
At its core, "Remember Me" is a beat 'em up game in the "God of War" and "Batman: Arkham City" tradition. Players control a lithe assassin-like figure named Nilin, mastering increasingly complex combinations of kicks and punches to fell enemies.
Like the "God of War" and "Arkham" games, "Remember Me" excels in this regard. The combat I was able to sample during a recent preview event was incredibly satisfying and deceptively complex. Taking a cue from the cult favorite "God Hand," "Remember Me's" developers pared down a potentially overwhelming combat system by allotting four separate combos at a time. Players can tinker with these combos and create their own with a feature called the "Combo Lab," which leaves the gameplay open to creative experimentation without sacrificing the simple pleasure of being able to punch bad guys in the face.
Thing is, Dontnod doesn't just want "Remember Me" to be a game about punching things. Like "Watch_dogs," "Remember Me" is set in a dystopian near-future that takes some of technology's most pressing moral dilemmas and stretches them to their logical extreme. Only instead of smartphones, this game is about social media and the concept of oversharing.
Jean-Maxime Moris, the co-founder and creative director of Dontnod, told NBC News that his game was originally a similar beat 'em up title with a thematic focus on global warming.
"But then we began to think about the recent explosion in the use of social networks and began to wonder what could happen if this ability to share experiences became even more prevalent," Moris said.
What if our current immersion in the digital worlds of Facebook and Twitter "reached a point where you could digitize these memories and no longer simply share, but actually trade and purchase them? This was when 'Remember Me' became the game it is today."
The reimagined "Remember Me" is set in a futuristic version of Paris unimaginatively called "Neo-Paris." Token giant evil corporation "MEMORIZE" has invented a new gadget known as the "Sensation Engine" (Sensen) that's sort of like a more advanced and neurologically invasive version of Google Glass — users broadcast their memories, no matter how private, across the social Web. And instead of some environmental freedom fighter, Nilin is a "memory hunter" employed by MEMORIZE to steal and alter people's memories. That is, until she wakes up with no memory of her own left and ends up going rogue.
Besides the colorful world of Neo-Paris itself, the main way that this "Blade Runner"-meets-"Inception" expresses itself is in a feature known as "Memory Remix." Essentially, these are interactive cutscenes that the player can fast-forward and rewind, sifting through them like puzzles to find key details to alter. In the one Memory Remix I played through, for instance, Nilin messed with different objects in the hospital room of her victim's husband until she remembered him being murdered, however accidentally, by his doctor.
The scene is provocative, no doubt. But all I had to do to finish the entire "Memory Remix" was press back and forth until I highlighted the right things to mess with — a far less engaging and dynamic experience than the one I was having just moments before punching the living daylights out of some futuristic French cops. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Many games have cutscenes that are entirely unresponsive to player control. But I'd still like to see "Remember Me's" most ambitious narrative moments, like the disturbing hospital scene, brought out in the actual gameplay.
While Moris insisted that other elements of "Remember Me's" gameplay were adjusted to suit a new narrative, he did ultimately admit that he wanted to limit some features in order to tell a clear story.
"While we do encourage the player to deviate from the path to a certain extent to uncover pick-ups, it is true to say that 'Remember Me' is a linear experience," Moris said. "This was a choice we made at the beginning of the project so we could tell the story of Nilin and ensure the player is immersed in the narrative, which does mean controlling the action, and therefore the emotion."
Will "Remember Me's" story be worth these potential sacrifices? Check back on June 4 for our review.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at email@example.com.