2013/08/21

The Vagueness of Being Glitchy: Repurposing the Glitch in Remember Me


The glitch is slowly getting the attention it deserves. After starring in one of the leading roles in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph (Moore, 2012), the glitch is becoming the subject of many discussions no longer exclusive to hardcore gaming communities. The glitch and related topics are also gaining popularity in the academia, from the first try to thoroughly define the glitch phenomenon (Goriunova & Shulgin, 2008) to a whole book dedicated to errors, glitches and noise (Nunes, 2011a). Recently, glitches played a significant role in the French video game Remember Me (Dontnod Entertainment, 2013). In this article, I aim to analyze the treatment of the glitch phenomenon in this video game and its various paratexts. This article explores both the mechanics and the fiction of the game and therefore contains SPOILERS, even including the actual ending. You have been warned! Now let’s delve deeper.

Remember Me tells the story of the future quasi-hacker Nilin who fights against Memorize corporation which established a commodification of human memories. The game is set in 2084’s Paris, in the fiction of the game renamed to Neo-Paris. From the genre perspective, Remember Me is an action adventure with puzzle elements. Glitches, or more precisely intentional glitch-like effects, are a part of its gameplay mechanics, soundtrack and visual presentation. The theme of glitches and errors is also explored within the game’s fiction and storyline.

I will start analyzing individual parts of the game related to glitches in order from the simplest cases to more complex ones. I will proceed without a proper theoretical exposition (which was a substantial part of my Master’s thesis, corresponding article in English has yet to be published) instead I will provide necessary theoretical background when talking about actual cases from Remember Me.

Visual and aural glitching

Due to the fictional setting of the game, visual glitch-like effects appear when the main heroine’s augmented reality implants experience various conditions. While Nilin is low on health in combat, the screen shows various glitch-like effects or what we could call digital noise. Music and sound exhibit glitch-like effects in the same situation and also when the player is hit by enemies in combat. We can trace the origin of this glitch implementation to phenomena as cartridge tilting or different kinds of hardware manipulation. These visual and aural effects represent the aspect of faultiness. Glitch in this case is nothing more than “cool looking” error, malfunction. It is important to note that the word error originally signified aimless wandering, the current meaning of a deviation from the right course emerged during the Enlightenment (Nunes, 2011b).

Remember Me fan art by sektrone.
Various Remember Me paratexts exhibit similar visual and aural glitching. For example, behind the scenes footage about the musical score of the game (Remember Me - Behind the Music, 2013) uses the same visual effects as gimmicks without any fictional grounding. In the same video composer Olivier Deriviere explains why he incorporated glitches into the soundtrack: “It’s a beautiful sound and we will keep this beautiful sound but we will glitch this beautiful sound as Nilin is glitching the world she is in. It’s a reflection of what Nilin does to Neo-Paris and the people.” (Remember Me - Behind the Music, 2013) But as I have described above, in many occasions the visual and aural glitching is connected only to hardware deterioration and has nothing to do with Nilin’s glitching of the world. More suitable word than glitching would be hacking – glitching in Remember Me’s fiction is often just an accompanying effect of hacking.  

In another paratext Antoine’s Journal (fictional interactive journal of the founder of Memorize and a part of transmedia storytelling), visual glitching is used rather loosely. Sometimes it is explained by hacker attacks but quite often it appears just for its own sake as an interesting visual effect.

Memory remixes: binary glitches

In opposition to cybernetic (Wiener, 1988) view of a glitch as an error, there are some cases when glitches are treated as pathways in their own right. Puzzle segments “memory remixes” are based on this idea. Nilin can alter people’s memories using so-called memory glitches. These memory glitches are accompanied by visual and aural glitch-like effects and allow the player to either tap into the glitch and change the given segment of memory or leave it be. These puzzle segments are stylized as a kind of a videotape rewinding (which by itself is also an interesting case of remediation: digitalized memories are approached as a much older analogue technology) – a player has to do circular movements with analogue stick on a controller in order to rewind or fast forward the memory. The goal of these puzzle segments is to activate the right selection of glitches in order to rewrite the memory in one particular fashion. Even though the memory glitch allows for different outcomes, still this depiction of glitches sticks to the cybernetic binary approach of right/wrong and ignores the unexpectedness of a glitch which is attributed to it as a defining factor by various scholars (Goriunova & Shulgin, 2008; Juul, 2005; Krapp, 2011; Menkman, 2011). The opposition of right/wrong is but replaced by real/remixed. The question remains whether this depiction is caused by developers’ view on glitches or just by the nature of Remember Me’s game content which was manually pre-created, not procedurally generated.

While simulation (procedural generation) is in fact not able to create “spontaneous” glitches, it has a potential of emergence as it is explained by Manuel De Landa (2011) and Jesper Juul (2005) on the famous cellular automaton Game of Life (Conway, 1970). Emergence could then be used as a metaphor for a glitch because it is closely connected to some video game glitches which were caused by unexpected interactions between rules and player behavior, for example proximity mine glitch (Juul, 2005; Smith, 2002) from Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) or rocket jump glitch from Quake III Arena (id Software, 1999).

The themes of Remember Me  

Remember Me fan art by doubleleaf.
The fiction of Remember Me is full of allusions to the current tech jargon. One part of Neo-Paris is called Slum 404, side character sports a nickname Bad Request, a player has access to special abilities Spammer or DoS (Denial of Service). Main heroine Nilin is a member of an underground movement Errorists. This wordplay on terrorists also captures the essence of error as a loss of control. Errors and also glitches grant users of a given digital technology the power of aberrant use (Bakardjieva, 2005; Feenberg, 2010; Macek, 2010) – a concept based on aberrant reading (Eco, 1972; Hall, 1973). As opposed to preffered reading or use, aberrant use describes an interaction with a text or technology which goes against the encoded meaning or the regular (casual) use. Aberrant use is closely connected to a power struggle between consumers and producers (in case of Remember Me it is a struggle between Errorists and Memorize) and to themes of consumer tactics and producer strategies (Certeau, 1984), textual poaching (Jenkins, 1992) and excorporation (Fiske, 1989). In this case, Nilin is able to change memories using the memory glitches. The preferred use of Sensentechnology is to relive memories, not to remix them. The use of the word remix throughout the game and its tutorials also connects Remember Me’s fiction to remix culture (Lessig, 2009) and produsage (Bruns, 2008).

Glitches are exploited to further the goals of Errorist movement, but what about the glitch itself? How is it treated, viewed and interpreted by game’s characters and narration? Glitch is mostly a tool to be used, not much space is given to its problematic definition. Let’s now review explicit mentions of glitches in the game’s script. In accord with findings of Mia Consalvo (2007), knowledge of glitches is connected to social status among various communities. Nilin’s tutor Edge describes an arrogant security chief: “He knows the security system inside out – its glitches, its back doors.”

Despite the mechanics of memory remixes, glitches are too often described just as a form of an error. Another quote from Edge describes glitches as deviation from the right course: “True monsters are… anomalies. And Doctor Quaid is riddled with glitches.”
 
The game’s message seems to focus on learning from mistakes and is remindful of Wiener’s (1988) principles of cybernetics or of Shannon’s (1948) mathematical model of communication. People, who erase their painful memories, lose a part of their humanity. Error serves as a correction, feedback. Edge states this view explicitly: “A society whose only goal is to forget its mistakes will not survive…” The story seems to revolve around the need to remember your own mistakes. Leader of Memorize Charles Cartier-Wells is possessed by a notion of fixing everything but his way of doing it lies in erasing the painful memories. But this approach effectively hampers the learning process which is based on feedback enabled by the comparison of predicted and actual outcome. Nilin in the end learns that (in her own words): “And that suffering, like painful memories, is just a part of life.”

The game’s take on glitches is mostly a cybernetic one. But one quote from Bengali philosopher Rabindrath Thakur at the beginning of Chapter 3 of Remember Me strays a little bit from this direction: “If you shut the door to all errors, truth will be shut out.” This view is similar to Shannon’s concept of information. When handling the redundancy and the entropy of a communication exchange, noise (or error/glitch) is new information due to the lack of its redundancy within the message. Noise, glitch and error have potential to tell us something about how any given system works (Hill, 2011) and therefore reveal some kind of “truth”. But in the end this idea is somehow rejected with Nilin’s inner monologue: “Edge died to remind us that some intimate doors are not supposed to be opened.” Quite surprisingly the major member of the Errorist movement is proposing a form of information control.

Discussion

The depiction of glitches in Remember Me illustrates the current vague definition of this phenomenon. The word glitch is used as a synonym to an error and a bug and not much thought is given to the aspects which differentiate it from the related phenomena. The lack of actual empirical research does not help the situation. Paradoxically, the glitch is being exploited because of its buzzword qualities. Outside of the memory remixes, nothing really necessitates the use of the term. Everything else could also be called a bug, an error or a digital noise. When Peter Krapp (2011) likens the glitch to a video game’s counterpart of a brush stroke, it doesn’t mean that developers have to overuse glitches as visual and aural gimmicks without any connection to their emergent, humorous or revelatory properties.  

References

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Certeau, M. de. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and decoding in the television discourse. Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.

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Menkman, R. (2011). Glitch Studies Manifesto. In G. Lovink & R. S. Miles (Eds.), Video Vortex reader II: moving images beyond YouTube (pp. 336–347). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.

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Nunes, M. (2011b). Introduction: Error, noise, and potential: the outside of purpose. In M. Nunes (Ed.), Error: glitch, noise, and jam in new media cultures (pp. 3–26). New York: Continuum.

Remember Me - Behind the Music. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hq0MGHLmiN0&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Shannon, C. E. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal, 27, 379–423, 623–656.

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Wiener, N. (1988). The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society. New York: Da Capo Press

Images

The cover image is an official screenshot from Remember Me.

Fullsized fan arts can be found on authors' deviantART profiles via the hypertext links provided in captions, full details follow:

doubleleaf (2013). Remember Me. Retrieved from http://doubleleaf.deviantart.com/art/Remember-Me-379467888

sektrone (2012). Mix Master Nilin. Retrieved from http://sektrone.deviantart.com/art/Mix-Master-Nilin-345661128 

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