Review: Don’t Forget Me

At the centre of Don’t Forget Me (The Moon Pirates, 2021) are ethical questions about memory and mind control technologies, further conversations about these questions, and then, ultimately, the game’s ‘save the world’ scenario.

The most engaging aspects of the game however are really away from this part of the plot, in its cast and the spaces they inhabit – the player avatar Fran, a competent, likable amnesiac and the world-weathered scientist Bernard, who takes her in to his Jazz infused world of copied memories and brain chips. Knowing nothing about herself Fran is happy to help Bernard in his unique profession of for-hire memory archiving, which is soon co-opted by a radical group looking to destroy a powerful technology which will replace simple brain chips and wipe out free will.

While the game chooses to take the journey it’s on so quickly to the logical conclusion of a tropey science-fiction plot – despotic technocrat trying to destroy the world for peace – it wastes its success at creating a comfortable, cozy environment in which Fran has even the sparest moment of time to express her desires.

The delicate detail and warm colouring of the pixel art of Don’t Forget Me’s central clinic and bar play well with the early intrigue and the aspects of noir-like moral situational drama, as the game introduces the mechanics of memory-duplication.  Fran never really gets to explore her place in the arrangement however, since her world is filtered through the directions and decisions that Bernard makes since she unwittingly became his live in helper, making her self-depth conditional only to the moral quandaries presented.

A key moment actually distinguishes this, as Fran finds out about the possibility of using memory hacking to stop a dangerous technology, she can choose to not get involved, to walk away, with the credits then rolling on the story. This is the only autonomy she really has outside of making choices while investigating patients, so there was something satisfying and valid about this ending, though I was spurred on by the glimmers of interesting depth in Bernard’s past, and the mechanics of traversing memories via a keyword decryption game.

Carrying on from here the game presents other interesting ideas that aren’t fully developed, with the second act hinging on the clinic now operating with the dangerous technology it is trying to stop, in order to research it, but also using it to now erase patient’s experiences Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind style. Fran can dive into physicalised versions of the target memories to try and unhook them from their source and remove them.

While all this happens you meet a couple of rogue scientists here to aid you in using this technology against itself, who have their own typically shady motivations. Pear is perhaps the standout character, if only because her repeatedly exclaiming “fuck” is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the game, brushing up against the bright and more soft handed approach of the approachable neon noir. She is the inventor of the memory sharing/erasure technology which neither the game nor Fran seems to want you to use from a moral standpoint, and so which you can, like me, refuse to do.

There is both a mob connected murder that is more than it seems, and a conflict over helping a woman to forget her dead child (or perhaps she’s a spy). This second incident is so tightly wrapped in its own self-awareness of being an important moment, and of its manipulative nature in the circumstance of suspicion that Bernard and Fran are in, that instead of any kind of interesting philosophising about what the choice to forget means, every branch seems to insist the woman is lying, to dissuade you from intervening in the memory. It then however packages that as a moral conservatism about preserving the memory of the dead child over her bodily autonomy, ending with the woman threatening suicide and Bernard announcing, “I hope she’ll realise one day how we’ve helped her.” All of this feels like it’s meant to mean something yet is overwrought to the point that I was trying to work out what exactly the designer wanted this scene to mean, in a way that the worst David Cage directed moments feel hollow of any actual point.

The tropes of what counts as morality in the case of altering memories ultimately holds back the game, buying into our expectations about how someone would react to these problems based on science fiction that has come beforehand. By trying to pay homage to the ideas of fiction and games of the past Don’t Forget Me refuses to let itself explore these spaces fully and present its own distinction, which escalates quite suddenly to a confrontation with the game’s big bad, the world CEO.

Trapped with said technocrat in his mind zone, Fran endures a long and arduous conversation about the ethics of mind control that plays like a Twitter debate where someone is increasingly convinced of the possibility that extremist conspiracy theories may have a point. She is able to either refute the ideas, or say “yes, maybe total sublimation is the way forward.”

While we can clearly see that this guy isn’t good, and Fran eventually escapes, you still have the choice of maybe agreeing with his absurd points about population control, and the game falls foul of giving unnecessary choices that defeat it’s protagonist’s attitude. The CEO here is a “martyr”, he is “mentally unstable”, and yet we discover he “means no harm”, and is unironically presented sympathetically as being naïve and tragic by Bernard. Fran, however, can join him based on his less than compelling best argument for trying to control the world, and the game loses not only its charm by going so big, but also any recognisable internal character logic

Games are about play, and play has a lot to do with choice, but when the choices presented are so convoluted and tied up that it isn’t clear what the narrative voice of your story or characters is, then you’re just going to leave the player with themes. Don’t Forget Me ends up being a game about themes, a visually excellent one with a melodic jazz-synth soundtrack and easy play experience, but that misses out on the promise that it has in characters I’d be interested to see again, freed from grand moralising and given more of a meaningful interpersonal connection to let the narrative really get its hooks in.

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