Memories Shaping Identities

An Overview of Dontnod's Games

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Gabin Jirodet is a cheerful narrative designer with a game design master’s degree who likes to talk about what he likes mostly on Twitter and why. (Can be summoned with a cup of tea). Follow Gabin on Twitter

While French studio Dontnod is still releasing new episodes of Life is Strange 2 and is teasing a new project, Twin Mirror, they have already developed four games in five years. To me they all bear a common theme which leads the experience: memory and how it defines identity. Let’s see how each game uses these ideas in their themes and gameplay and what it could mean for the studio.

Remember what happened

Dontnod released its first game Remember Me in 2013. In the future, the company Memorize has found a way to allow people to digitally stock, share and delete their memories, but some called Errorists refuse this. They pirate others’ memories to steal or modify them, altering their identities and behaviours. Nilin, the protagonist, is an Errorist who has been betrayed and left with her memory wiped; she is now looking to find out what happened to her.

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In this game, it is more than obvious how memory is important: Nilin is amnesic and people can manipulate memories which can even change the very core of a person. But that it is not just a fancy element of the story world; it is also a game feature in the memory remixes. During these puzzle scenes, players revisit a memory and can interact with it and then identify the branching points and key details in order to change an element, like the position of an object for example which will have a ripple effect on the person’s mind. They will now remember something that never actually happened, which will alter their attitude toward the main character.

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Doing so allows players to progress further in the game, but at the cost of altering a stranger’s mind, like faking a death or causing a suicide. In a way, the same is happening to the players. They are changing memories of others while Nilin is looking for hers; during the game they learn more about her which redefines her persona the more she learns about herself, questioning her past actions. The appealing control over memories turns into a dangerous dependency; it opens a direct door to a person’s mind. Used as a plot device and a feature, memories are the keys to the identity of a person. They highlight how the slightest change might have consequences, a reflexion pursued in the studio’s bittersweet next game.

 

Life could have been different

Two years later in 2015, Dontnod released Life is Strange. Back where she grew up, Arcadia Bay, Oregon, Max Caulfield is overwhelmed by this new life, feeling alone until she meets Chloe Price, her childhood best friend and realises that she has a power: she can go back in time.

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Here, the main feature and the core of the game is the time travel: how and when to use it, for what reasons, and all of this is related to growing up, making decisions, and deciding who Max wants to be. Ultimately, it leads to one question: what will be remembered?

Using Max’s power, players can test several dialogue options or actions and select one which will become canon. Characters will remember that choice and behave accordingly, but players will remember that there was another option, a choice refused. This creates strong emotional responses for players. As a spoiler-free example, the ending of the first episode shows Kate Marsh crying; here players can feel guilty for not having helped her, sad because it was not enough, or even indifferent to her pain and may think of the next time they will meet her. Having the possibility to change an event is a profound and relatable human desire; how often does a person think “what if…”? The game lets players experience until they accept their decisions. These choices, these events will haunt the player with questions: Have I done the right or wrong thing? Is it what I wanted to do? What will happen now?

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Only Max has this special ability; only she will be tormented by her actions and the consequences of what could have been different, which fits Max’s melancholia. Other characters will only remember the choices and actions players made which will shape their behaviours, and vice versa since players will have knowledge and feelings about what they know and tested.

While Remember Me is linear and does not allow players to affirm their personalities through their choices, Life is Strange lets them express their will in its branching mechanics. Vampyr is the synthesis of Remember Me’s experimentations and Life is Strange’s branching system.

Feeding on information

Dontnod’s third game, Vampyr, was released in 2018. Dr. Jonathan Reid is a blood specialist who has been turned into a vampire and left for dead during the Spanish Flu in London. Waking up with no recollection of what happened to him, he must understand his new condition to learn more about his kind and his maker through dialogues and documents which inform the players of the lore and help them understand what it means to be a vampire in British society. In the game, information is everywhere.

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If the main character is on a quest to learn more about himself, he can also learn more about NPCs. Each neighbourhood of the game has several unique people the players can interact with and feed on. They will talk about their life, their relationships to others or sometimes unlock a quest; the more you hear things about them, the more you can question them. By feeding on an NPC, the players hear the final thought of their victim, the last thing that crossed their mind before dying. This is the moment when they are the truest to themselves and no matter how the players are playing (a pacifist run, a chaotic run etc.), they will learn something about characters who hide themselves behind secrets. There will be the old woman realizing that her delusions were in fact true, the father wishing his son won’t join a gang. That might change players’ perception of a character. There is something to remember about everyone.

    Vampyr is the spiritual heir of Remember Me; if the latter was about playing with and tweaking memories during puzzle phases, the former lets the players dig out the secrets about people’s pasts and mesmerize them whenever they want, using Dr. Reid’s supernatural charisma to force them to reveal their truth and impose his will on them which will alter their personalities. For example, the greedy old man wishing to live forever and cruelly rule over the poor will accept his death and give his money to charity if the players want him to do so. Vampyr’s system will remember each choice by adjusting the neighbourhoods’ and NPCs’ attitudes, modifying forever the dynamic of a zone.

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Dealing with the past

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, Dontnod’s latest production is a prologue to Life is Strange 2. The game is about Chris, a young boy, spending the afternoon waiting for his father to take him out to buy a Christmas tree. The main goal of this demo is to be curious, to be attentive and complete the puzzle of the events.

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There is little exposition at the beginning to establish the mood and themes of the game, and not much after. The game starts in medias res, before players press START. Chris’ mother is dead and the memory of a lost loved one is hard to accept. Charles, the father, also has trouble accepting that he can’t be an athlete anymore, as the environmental storytelling suggests (posters, trophies, articles, etc.). Both characters are having a hard time letting go. Chris escapes reality by dreaming of himself as a superhero who can help people; it is hinted that his alias is a shield against the trauma of his mother’s death (while Charles is pushing the police to investigate more and more).

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The more the players explore the environment, the more they are rewarded with knowledge, but the game doesn’t reveal everything. It is hinted, but not fully stated that Charles hurt Chris when he was drunk and caused the deadly accident which took Chris’ mother.

This teases players into Life is Strange 2 since Captain Spirit is a promotional demo, but it also allows room for players to figure out what they learned. Understanding the subtext, context and story of Captain Spirit is done by experiencing Chris’ life; recent ongoing are shape the relationships and personalities of the characters. In a way, this is why the game seems to be frozen in time: a snowy afternoon like any else, where pieces of memories are still there, unresolved tensions still haunting, both waiting in the coldness and warmth of inner peace.

Each of Dontnod’s protagonists goes back in time literally and/or figuratively: Nilin retraces her path while manipulating others’ memories; Max comes back to Arcadia Bay and in time and rewrites both; Jonathan returns to London from the war as a newborn vampire. Only Chris does not go back in time, because he is at a defining moment of his life; the events of the game are the memories that will shape his identity while he grows up. Life is Strange 2 follows brothers Sean and Daniel dealing with a recent traumatic event while they are running away from their hometown. On their way, they will meet new people, like Chris, who also have to let go, move on, learn about themselves and grow.

Shaping Dontnod’s identity

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These games, with different references and systems, could be a mirror of the quest for Dontnod’s identity. Remember Me and Vampyr are nothing like Life is Strange and Captain Spirit in their gameplay–torn between beat-em up games and point and clicks–but they are related by their themes and quality of story.

As a studio, Dontnod might still be learning and growing thanks to all the different people involved in production. This may not reflect a struggle at all between action and slow paced narrative, but rather the result of a studio eager to try new things. Dontnod acknowledges how a single person is the construction of various elements through the uniqueness of feelings and understandings (aka memory); this mirrors the themes of their productions, trying to explore new variations of this motto. This is what players remember about the studio.

Memories shaping identities

Changing others’ memories while looking for yours; altering time and choosing between the possibilities; learning people’s deepest secrets and deciding their fate; shielding yourself from a traumatic experience while hoping you could have done something. Each main character and key feature is related to memory and identity, and having to face the consequences of actions (or inactions). Each character has an identity, a background, and relations before the game even starts, but it us up to players to understand who they are as a person, who they will be, and ultimately how they will be remembered.

In each of Dontnod’s games, I found something worth being remembered. Through their characters, features and plots, I questioned myself and what I am doing and who I want to be in the game and outside. I started to naturally think about this leitmotiv after I played Captain Spirit. As I was making a Twitter thread on its narrative design I slowly realised that some of the reflections I had were working with Dontnod’s other productions. Learning how they work is interesting for my own work but also as a person. Like movies, books or even people, video games helped me growing up toward understanding myself and others, accepting memories and how they shape me, and how I am changing. When I was younger, I had trouble opening myself up and talking about me, but the lesson Dontnod teaches us to accept ourselves. I am trying to be a better person, true to myself and others, accepting what is happening in my life and how it is changing me, shaping me.

To quote the French writer Stéphane Beauverger in an interview about Remember Me: “There is nothing more intimate than memory. It is the last bastion.”. Pieces of memories can be shared or hidden. There is no memory alike for each sees the world differently through their lives. In pain and joy, shame and humility, memory is the key. Accepting, embracing, making peace, dealing with the past and learning from it is important. That is the beautiful message Dontnod is delivering, and perhaps Life is Strange 2 and Twin Mirror will share this legacy.

ADDENDUM: Life is Strange 2 – Episodes 1 & 2

Life is Strange’s sequel follows in the footsteps of the first game with a cast of two children, Sean and his younger brother Daniel, leaving their house and life behind after a tragic incident. On the road, the two of them meet and sometime face other people, have to understand each other, and grow until they find a safe place.

The game follows its predecessor in its gameplay system, but makes a few changes. While Max had the power to rewind time, Sean, the player character, is powerless while Daniel seems to be telekinetic. With no rewind, it is now impossible to change a choice, to know what branch we left behind or how it would have been, which makes every decision in the new season harder since players have no idea, no hint, if their choices were for the best or not.

As in Captain Spirit, the two brothers are at a turning point of their lives for two reasons: like Chris, they are children and have to deal with traumatic experiences; and because the game seems to be focused on long term decisions. How Sean acts and his interactions with Daniel seem to shape their future behaviours such as Daniel becoming aggressive. Life is Strange 2 gives players responsibility over control two people, but where most of the prequel’s choices were there to personalize your experience, here you have to make tough choices with no more knowledge than your own and see how they influence the plot, slightly or drastically. Each interaction is like planting a seed; a few episodes later, a flower blooms.

The game’s goal may be to help these two children grow up as best as they can, trying not to repeat the same mistakes, doing the best we players can. We are shaping their identities.