My Memory of Us Review
In My Memory Of Us, Juggler Games has created a thoughtful adventure puzzle game with a gorgeous art style and well incorporated mechanics. The only trouble is that it is set in Nazi-occupied Poland — and is unable to levy the weight that the backdrop demands from the atrocities committed.
The game takes place as the narrator — a wizened bookshop owner voiced by Patrick Stewart on top form — tells stories of his youth to a young girl who has wandered into his store. And what a gruelling childhood it was for the Boy and his new friend the Girl (for the characters are never further named), as war and persecution sidesteps their chance for a happy childhood. The game starts with gentle scenes of collecting apples in a basket or earning a coin to ride the train together, but as you progress through My Memory Of Us, the city and their lives change altogether until they are both hiding from Nazi guards, searching for medical supplies, and sheltering in an air raid shelter.
Controlling both the Boy and the Girl, and switching between the two at the touch of a button, you’ll quickly come to appreciate the different abilities each has at their disposal. The Boy is slower but smaller, and can crawl through vents to access different parts of a level. The Girl can run quickly, and use her slingshot to flick switches and cause distractions. Opposed in skillset, together they can overcome insurmountable odds as their asymmetrical halves form a perfect whole (assuming you’re up to solving the puzzles at hand).
The buttons used are minimal, and you’ll chiefly be using one to switch character, another to grasp hands (and so move together), and another to perform an action. While this button mapping works well, the input feels a bit slow on the PS4; I was often unsure as to whether a long press or a short press would register my action. When you need to sneak out of cover, operate a lever, and then take your partner by the hand to sprint to another area — and all before a guard turns his head — you’ll begin to wish the controls had been made a tad more responsive.
The sound quality is fantastic in My Memory Of Us, and the music team and voice directors deserve special praise here. Patrick Stewart as the narrator speaks with sweetness and sadness by turn, fully delivering on the at-times tender script. His voice is rich and warm, begging you to stay just one chapter more to hear his tale to the end. The accompanying score is pleasant in the background, but the diegetic music is marvellous; a klezmer band plays their infectious songs in a park, and the ominous operatic music being pumped through loudspeakers at a Nazi rally is chillingly strident.
You might notice I haven’t really moved onto the visuals yet.
Did I mention that the Nazis are cartoon robots?
As retold by the narrator, the world has been changed radically to replace the fascists with clumsy, squawking tin-can robots, borne of his childhood imagination. Telling yourself a story in a transformed state to make sense of it is nothing unheard of — titles such as Pan’s Labyrinth and I Kill Giants both show their protagonists throwing themselves into a fantasy realm to escape from the chaos of their real life, while simultaneously finding a way to give their personal demons a face they can make eye-contact with.
My Memory Of Us is definitely not set in a different world though, and it sat uneasily with me throughout my six-hour playthrough that the enemy would be so defanged, and in doing so reduced the severity of the acts they were carrying out. Coupled with the peculiarity of some of the tasks you’re faced with — such as completing a PaRappa the Rapper-style dancing minigame to get past a Nazi commandant — makes it ridiculously tone-deaf, and not helped in the slightest by the ever-beaming smiles on the faces of the Boy and the Girl.
In his graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman drew his readership into the telling of his father’s Holocaust experience by using anthropomorphic animals as stand-ins for people, but then sucker-punching with the sickeningly human cruelty carried out against them. My Memory Of Us fails to replicate that storytelling device as well, as the violence has also been transferred into this world of off-kilter machine overlords: the game has machines of war and abduction with eyes and tentacles; surreal biomechanical creations that can even look somewhat cutesey. Throughout, the game is not played as metaphor — the rest of the world is otherwise unchanged, and the specificity of the setting means it can only be read as a cartoon re-telling of the Holocaust.
Character models are reminiscent of a child’s picture book, and each screen is detailed and interesting, with movement in background and foreground to make you believe the world is alive and breathing. The black and white colour scheme is ran through with splashes of red to indicate interactive objects and to differentiate the Jewish population from the oppressive drab of the Nazi enforcer — a look borrowed openly from Schindler’s List. In almost any other setting this would be a joy to play through, but the realisation looms heavily at every turn that you’re taking part in something which should not be sanitised and cannot be translated in this way into a video game. Films like Django Unchained or Inglorious Basterds, or in gaming terms, the Wolfenstein series of first-person shooters, have been more successful in their depictions of some of history’s ugliest moments, but only by viewing them through the lens of hyper-violent revenge fantasy.
My Memory Of Us feels inappropriate.
A game like This War Of Mine demonstrates that real-life serious subject matter can be treated in an informed and honest way, but this is not it. I don’t doubt the good intentions at work here, as one in-game collectible states; “In these memories we would like to remind you of our forgotten heroes.” Indeed, there is a bitter-sweet tale of friendship, compassion, resistance, and equality at play here. However, it’s the unfortunate decision to fill the game with quirky art stylings and ill-judged comedic puzzles that doesn’t allow you to take it as seriously as the overall narrative and subject matter demands.
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