Remixing Race: Multiracial Identity Work in Remember Me Presented by Joshua Wood PhD Candidate, Clemson University
PCA/ACA National Conference Saturday, April 15, 2017
The visual portion of this presentation can be found here.
For years now, numerous gaming blogs and sites have been talking about something that the Internet has dubbed Same Face Syndrome, a term describing the prevalence of the same or similar character models in any given genre. For games, the standard model is the grizzled white male protagonist, a young-ish man with a hardened look about his face and a few days’ scruff to him. The gaming industry seems to have a predilection for white male protagonists, which gives us an idea of what gaming companies see as their key demographic: white male gamers. But, as Sarah Nixon notes on Not Your Mama’s Gamer, “It should be pretty apparent as to why this is problematic for female gamers and gamers of color. It denies us the opportunity to play as a character who looks like us and shares a basic, but fundamental and important, life experience and stomps all over the importance of representation.”
Enter Remember Me. Remember Me is an action game released in 2013 by Capcom and developed by Dontnod Entertainment. The game was met with a fairly lukewarm reception from critics and gamers. Notably, the game featured a female protagonist instead of a male one, and a mixed-race woman at that. If representations of protagonists of color in games is dismal, then representation of mixed-race characters is even worse. Only a handful of playable character have been mixed-race. This, despite the fact that Pew Research has found that multiracial births are on the rise, up to 10% of all births in 2013. While this is by no means a majority, the last census taken found that 9 million individuals self-identified as multiracial in some way. When we view this alongside data, also from Pew, that Hispanic and Black Americans are more likely to look at games as a positive, the myth of the white male consumer of video games begins to crumble, even without looking at things through gender.
In Remember Me, players control Nilin, a memory hunter who has lost her own memory, is broken out of prison by a nebulous helper named Edge, and who then is guided through the dystopian streets of Neo-Paris by Edge on a similarly nebulous mission to take down Memorize, the evil corporation responsible for the commoditization of memories in this future. The full impact of that plan is revealed over the course of the game. The game clearly has a Big Idea, something to say about memory and what we choose to hold onto, what makes us who we are. And that’s reinforced by a somewhat moralistic ending, where users are complicit with returning discarded bad memories to their previous owners.
Reviews were generally mixed, with most reviewers noting that the game’s mechanics failed to live up to its premise. In their review, IGN called the combat “competent but unremarkable.” Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse writes that the core concept of the game is “surrounded by some rough gameplay and well-worn templates”
One mechanic that is universally praised by reviewers though is the memory remix. Nilin is described as being highly proficient in this skill, wherein she dives inside the memories of another character to change some key moment in their memory and thereby change their actions or their identity. Again, from Narcisse:
“There's trial and error built in to these sequences. You'll find yourself trying to constantly keep track of what the correct first, second and subsequent steps are to make a remix go right. All of this combines into a nice meta-game that has the player not trying to have his own memory betray him.”
What interests me in all of this is the interplay between a mixed-race protagonist and a game that has some very interesting things to say about identity and personal experience. What's more, because multiracial identities throw a wrench into the workings of traditional means of racial classification, I can't help but wonder what this game is saying not just about some abstract general concept of identity, but about performances of racial identities specifically.
The game would seem to support such a reading. Early in the game, players are forced into the sewers of the city, where memory addicts who abuse their implants have gone to live as cast-offs from society above. The more that these junkies abuse their memory implants, the more physically mutated they appear. More importantly, this kind of mutation manifests itself, among other ways, as patches of discolored skin. The result is a “mutant” who seems to have vitiligo. The resulting contrast make the majority of the leapers, the cannon fodder at least who provide only a minimal challenge, appear as if the have dark skin blotched with white patches. And while the rest of Neo-Paris features a diverse cast, the sewers are interesting because nearly all of the enemies one finds there are of this nebulous mottled coloration. In a game that makes at least nominal attempts at diversity or colorblindness, we’re reminded once again that the skin is a key site of differentiation, and not even blurred racial lines can change that.
Similarly, Nilin’s multiraciality helps us read the games message about memory and identity in a different light despite the fact that nilin’s race has nearly no bearing on the plot. Nilin’s multiracial heritage may exist as the game makers intent to show a future unconcerned with race but even Nilin's role as a type of savior who delivers her people from their self-imposed prison by restoring their memories falls into a utopian trap that Minelle Mahanti’s work deals with. “Mixed race people do not possess special talents or abilities simply because they call themselves racially mixed.” Nilin's polished multiraciality stands in stark opposition to the blotched leapers, a purified representation. That should give us pause, but the game doesn't allow a moment to take in this nuance. Nilin's continues to act as savior, albeit unwittingly. The fact that her parents are the heirs of the mega corporation at the heart of the game’s plot only serves to polish her multiraciality.
I depend on Sylvia Wynter for an understanding of race that is influenced by culture and biology. She notes that subjective experience is always always contingent and shaped by culture. “If the mind is what the brain does,” she writes, “what the brain does, is itself culturally determined through the mediation of the socialized sense of self, as well as of the “social” situation in which the self is placed.” Wynter, reading Fanon, puts forth a definition of human that is already hybridized, a combination of the social and the biological--the sociogenic. Desire to be part of a collective and to tell the story of a self is rewarded biochemically. Where the game shines though is in its representations of the performativity of multiracial identity. multiracial individuals often fall into a kind of gap between other races, not fitting into the performances of race demanded by society. Instead, multiraciality sits in an uncomfortable space for observers, for those who would classify races. This uncomfortable space is filled in through various performances of identity. Mahanti notes this kind of performativity in her work: She writes, “Racial performativity relies upon an understanding that informants often actively respond to the ways that their racialized selves are perceived by others.”
The truth of multiraciality is as fraught with instant feedback as Nilin's actual performance in the game. Evan narcisse’s mention of the trial and error nature of the game creates another meta narrative in which gamers, wittingly or not, act out an abstracted performance of the kind of halting, felt out nature of multiraciality. Perhaps the biggest measure of this is the game’s reliance on a combo system which rewards thoughtful play and discourages button mashing. The system allows players to remix combos on the fly, but halting the flow of combat and entering what it dubs the combo lab. The combo lab in its own small way allows the game to escape the typical trappings of its genre. It allows a bit more control for the player, a moment in which the curtain is pulled back. Slots are unlocked to create longer and more powerful combo chains as Nilin's recovers her memory. But we can also say that, as Nilin's uncovers more of her memory, her ability to navigate the world improves. In much the same way, we can understand the mechanics of the game as reflective of the interplay of identity and memory--it is only through experience that one learns how to naVigate the world.
Wynter calls for “a methodology that would take both the way things appear regularly and consistently to us as normal subjects of our order, and are therefore self-evidently evident to our consciousness, and as well...our reflex qualitative mental states and/or sensory qualia, as objects of our inquiry.” Such a new methodology, argues Wynter, would allow us to move beyond the mental states “to which our present culture’s biologically absolute notion of human identity...gives rise” (60-1). It is my argument that REmember Me, through its mechanics, allow this kind of methodology. Remember Me offers through its multiracial protagonist an imperative to create such a new methodology via gaming that would break down the binary view of race. Moreover, I argue that this model can be adopted and improved upon. Game mechanics are unique in their ability to, as Ian Bogost notes, represent one process by means of another. Remember Me is just one example, but if we follow this trail, then video games in general can become a means of communicating the experience of race by means of their abstract processes. An abstract process that is difficult for one audience to understand can be adapted and remediated into another process, one which is more easily digestible, more familiar. This new methodology can serve as illumination both for others and for ourselves, and as a starting point for more conversations that we desperately need to have.