Remember Me: Human Revolution, Part 1

There are things we just don’t talk about. And, no, I don’t mean the things we here in Canada would rather you didn’t know about us. I mean, there are things we don’t often associate with each other outside of their respective genres and fan-boys, like horror and science fiction. Yet, these two things are inextricably linked. They can tell different parts of the same story. Any given tale is interwoven with opportunities for genre play. For example: A man murdering his wife. That’s a little SH2, but what site are you reading this on, really?

The portion involving their meeting is a romantic love-story. The trials and tribulations of their everyday lives are a slice-of-life Woody-Allen movie. The story leading up to the murder is a psychological thriller. The murder is a horror story. Then, CSI procedurals mop up. I don’t know whether that would be an awesome movie or just a play on what Simon Pegg and the gang have been accomplishing since Spaced. Either way, depending on what you focus on, the narrative can flip-flop in any direction.

The same goes for games. Without Master Chief, the Halo universe would be a terrifying sci-fi story. Half-Life would be an experiments-gone-wrong extinction story. (And given HL2, I don’t think it turned out peachy, even with the intervention) Because, the strange, the unknown and the apocalyptic are pretty terrifying in the right context. I’m sure we’ve all looked up at the heavens and had that existential moment of ego-shattering obliteration while considering the vastness of forever. Looking up and thinking, “I don’t matter in the slightest,” is rarely life-affirming and hardly true. Were you really expecting nothingness to care? That’s a bit much to ask of the infinite cosmos, regardless of what’s in it.

So, that brings us back to where we started. Science Fiction and horror have had a long-standing relationship. Horror is usually the place where someone can make a political statement or satirically skewer society in a safe, bloody space, while sci-fi eschews the blood for white and chrome. Think of Frankenstein, Aliens, Jason X… no, I’m kidding, but these represent very real fears that bubble below the surface. Frankenstein makes us question the very nature of life and forces us to confront the animal within when the farmers go-to with pitchforks. Aliens is a little more post-industrial, but it’s not a coincidence that it shot into prominence during The Space Age. Are we all on board with this?

Good, because we’re going in a direction that might seem a little weird at first, but it makes perfect sense once I’ve explained a bit more: Neuro-ethics. You see, I study psychology (But, you probably knew that by now). As a result, I have to try to keep up-to-date on all of the weirdest things we’re learning about and thinking about people. That helps tremendously, because, as I’ve already suggested, new shit is perfect fodder for scary shit. …that’s the basic idea. But, before it becomes condensed into thematic form, it has to pass through a barrier of general awareness and social unease. Let’s start with the awareness.

Most horrors begin their lives as social issues. Zombies: consumerism. Vampires: class system. Were-wolves: puberty… and the animal fury that bubbles below the surface of humanity. Remember Me: identity. Plot-twist: That’s right, we’re talking about Remember Me. And, what the hell, a little Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as well. You see, I firmly believe that bio-ethics and neuro-ethics are going to be at the heart of some pretty important up-coming debates. As a result, they’re going to see a lot of play in horror circles. Might as well be ready now.

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Yes, that’s the art book, but it’s a little less, “Look at how nice my butt is!” than the game-case cover. Come on, that’s not even subtle, guys. There’s even a little protrusion from the title that points to it. These are thoroughly designed products; you can’t tell me that wasn’t on purpose. Okay, you could, and I would believe you. Anyways, Remember Me’s most applicable-to-this mechanic is one where you go into someone’s brain and re-write their memories so that they remember an event differently. And if that was it, we’d have stuff to talk about until your eyes-lids drooped far enough to cover your nostrils, causing you to develop a hitherto-unknown snoring problem. But, there’s more.

In the game, at least, this power re-writes how people understand and approach you. Let’s talk a bit about why this wouldn’t work using an example, and then have a little “fun.” The first time you use this power, you’re reaching into someone’s memory of a medical procedure. Then, you change a few details about the memory and completely alter the outcome. In this case, a bounty-hunter is on your ass to claim a reward that she’s going to use to pay for her husband’s memory treatments. Yeah, it’s a whole thing. Just roll with it. Just before she’s about to kill you (Nillin), you change her memory so that her husband was killed during the procedure, rendering her motivation for killing you moot.

From there, she starts to make decisions based on that new memory. Now, she’s here to recruit you to help her take down the corporation that is responsible for the memory tech that drives the plot. This all makes sense, until you really look at it. And it becomes the defining difference between human memory and this conceptualization of how memory works. That’s why we’re tearing it apart here; it’s not JUST because I’m churlish.

First of all, you alter people’s memories by changing the memory’s details. Which, on its face, is ridiculous. How many memories do you have with explicit, unimportant details? We don’t remember everything. We remember important things and things that grab our attention. For instance, you can undo her husband’s mask in the memory. This causes him to start speaking. So, I ask you, where is the new dialogue coming from? Why would the assassin have a specific memory for the state of the mask?

Let me explain why that’s weird. When you remember things, most often, you take a lot of stuff for granted. Sounds bad, but it really isn’t. If you attended (paid attention) to everything you saw, then you’d be incapable to processing it quickly enough to react to it. A keyboard is a complicated device, but you can conjure one to mind. If you looked at one off-handedly, it would take you a while to notice if the I and the L keys had been swapped. However, you would notice if home-row was missing, because that’s a pretty glaring departure from a standard keyboard. If it was half squid, you’d start to wonder if it was a keyboard at all. This is part of the schema theory approach to memory. You have a schema(tic) for the general attributes of an object, from the essential to the out-of-place. This forms part of your long-term declarative memory. Your memory for general things.

BUT, as a sub-set of declarative memory, you have semantic and episodic memory. Semantic: facts you know about stuff; Episodic: things you remember that happened. So, your keyboard is both a keyboard and your particular keyboard. You know that E is beside R because of semantic memory. You know that the R key is sticky because of episodic memory. This is where things get tricky, though, because your keyboard becoming sticky is in both your semantic and episodic memories. You know “your keyboard is sticky” as a concept in semantic memory that’s attached to your particular keyboard. You also remember spilling soda on it, so you know why it’s sticky. Making sense so far? This is all standard, and this is why things usually work out without you noticing.

What if you stuck your hand in there (ie. your brain) and started fumbling around, though? Well, if you changed your memory of the spillage, you’d still have the pesky memory, and even peskier proof, that your keyboard is sticky. You wouldn’t know why, though. This is where things get interesting. You’ll start trying to figure out why it’s sticky. You’ll make attributions to other spills, wonder if it’s just getting old… You’ll try to explain the dissonance, or you’ll just forget that there is one.

Let’s get off your keyboard for two reasons: to let you type and because assassin memory-remixes are more interesting. (Sorry!) Okay, we’ve altered her memory. Now, she remembers that he’s dead, but she also knows that she came here for some Nillin Killin’. Or, at least, came here for Nillin. In the game, she wants to take down the corp, as I mentioned, because of her husband’s death. But, what about the last little while that’s she’s been planning on killing Nillin during? You don’t just waltz into a place and abduct someone, especially when you’re executing a roof-jacking. You have to know, then, that the assassin has hours of memories where she’s sitting on a roof, envisioning the plan she’s about to execute.

Where does that memory go? Where are her feelings of grief over her husband’s death? What about her feelings of animosity towards Memorize Co.? Why are they so fresh? Why is she still depositing cheques for Memorize? Why does she feel a sense of gratitude floating in her memory towards the doctor that (saved) killed her husband? We all know that, eventually, she’ll find out that she was played, especially when the hospital bills keep rolling in, but, at this point, she’s experiencing some pretty intense cognitive dissonance.

I know what you’re thinking: can’t we create new artificial memories already? Wouldn’t that do the same thing? Sort of. Elizabeth Loftus is the name you’ll probably want to Google if you’re unfamiliar with this work. As part of an experiment, people were showed old images of themselves at the carnival when they were a kid. Soon, they began generating new memories about the event and became sure that they had actually been to one. The thing is: the pictures were 100% fake. The new memories that they created were also fake, natch. How does that work?

Well, in simple terms: you know what happens at a carnival. You’ve been to a carnival, so you have those memories. It was a long time ago, so the details are going to be fuzzy anyways. There’s no reason for you to believe it’s not true. You’ve got visual proof. Often, the newly created memories would start out being related to a portion of the picture. “Oh, I remember that balloon.” or “We rode the tilt-a-whirl that day!” Seems pretty sinister. Let’s dig deeper.

How does such mad science exist in today’s modern world?! Well, it’s something your brain does. A lot of the time, your brain is generating your memories as you review them. It combines the salient points of episodic memory with the knowledge from semantic memory and makes a thing. Not quite a new memory; not really a faithful reproduction. However, you need those other memories for it to generate them. You can remember that you went on the tilt-a-whirl, but you probably won’t remember the event itself, because it was made up. You could, however, imagine the event. Or, more likely, if you’ve ever been on one, you could just make a quick memory substitution.

Let’s apply this to the assassin. She has the new memory in her head. But, does she have the memory of the physiological reactions that go with it? The game won’t let you kill people in their memories, because it wouldn’t make sense for the brain to remember itself dying, but you have memories like that. We’ve all had the “falling to our death” dream. The memory wouldn’t make sense, but neither does anything to do with the husband’s death. But, okay, you can’t new-memory your way out of being dead. Unless it set off a mind-shattering existential crisis, but that’s just me being imaginative.

And this is actually where the game makes sense. Her husband’s dead, so she goes on a mission to save him. She has all of these events: going to get Nillin, great personal loss (comes with being an assassin), and a strong feeling towards Memorize (TM). Her mind reconciles her position, near Nillin, with her new motivation, anger at Memorize (R), and synthesizes a memory that makes sense.  She’s here to take down Memorize (RX). So, what’s my problem again? …Why, in that particular memory, does she notice what position the strap on her husband’s arm is in?

Seriously. If you’re creating a memory, and you don’t keep track of the details, then why is that detail a part of the memory? Yes, you could create an entirely new memory using the same parts, but then you’d have to erase the old memory and all those pieces associated with it. If you erase them, then you can’t use them as a reference. If you just cut them to pieces and move them around, then they’re not properly associated with the neuronal matrix that makes the whole endeavour work. The memory remixing works more like a simulation. These are the things that happened. If you changed one thing, this is how the whole situation would have played out, even the parts you were unfamiliar with, like the Quarantine protocol from the game.

But, maybe everyone in this world is familiar with that protocol by now. And maybe the memory creation power lets you hi-jack the whole mnemonic system, including the feels. With all that, there’s still the problem that that’s not how human memory works. It’s pretty robust in some ways, and it’s not nearly that logical. The only time that you might remember that the strap was undone is if it was important. You’d remember it if the patient strangled the doctor, sure, but not if nothing went wrong. Even if you reconstructed the memory in your head, you’re more likely to wonder why the strap was undone than accept that it was. Unless you already accept it, because of Memory-Magic, so let’s talk about that.

Let’s accept the game-world on its own terms now, because I’ve been forcing reality down its throat long enough to wonder where it’s getting oxygen from (And by reality, I mean theories I’ve slap-dashedly applied). Computers work based on logic. If you change one thing, then a subsequent thing is guaranteed to change. Humans, however, don’t really work that way. We all hold conflicting opinions; cognitive dissonance means holding two of them at the same time. That would make a computer go to bat-nuggets. However, we also don’t do logic as well because of it. So, what if you combined the two?

It’s pretty clear that the protagonist of Remember Me is using some kind of woman-machine interface. Yet, everyone else is, too. I know that I’ve got a digital halo hanging out on my body, but it’s become increasingly obvious that the rest of the world does not. Except in the game. The ability to jack-in and alter memory implies some kind of neural infrastructure that allows it. The pop-up memory cues around the level reinforce the idea; they’re sure as hell not holograms. (ARGs. We’ll get back to that…) There is a machine component to this business, and it makes sense of the problem I brought up earlier.

If the machine is the portion responsible for re-assembling the memories, then it would do so logically, just like a simulation. Every time you recall something, your brain would work together with the computer to reconstruct it as accurately as possible. It would probably give people something approaching eidetic memory under normal circumstances. It would also explain how Nillin could so perfectly re-write  the assassin’s memory. Now, we’re back to the neuro-ethics.

We all know it would be unethical to re-write someone’s memory, but what about augmenting it? Well, if this game suggests anything, it’s that we have to be careful how we do that. Keeping any portion of declarative memory outside of the body would fundamentally change how people remember things. And, if you’re ahead of the class on this one, it would also fundamentally alter how people understand themselves, both legally and philosophically. Part of the reason you know who you are is that you remember what you’ve done, how you felt and what you wanted to do. Many of our favourite memories hang on assumptions too fundamental to question. Hooking ourselves up to a computer would force us to do just that.

This isn’t entirely theoretical, either. We can create new memories in lab rats. We’re working on ways to create augmented memories using neural implants. Google Glass is creating an augmented reality environment already. That’s going to be used to scaffold memory, too. This places us firmly in the realm of neuro-ethics. If you can alter memories, then can you sell them? Are witness statements now more reliable or more suspect? Is it appropriate to delete a memory that’s hurting someone? What’s the line between improving someone and killing them? I don’t mean that facetiously, either. If you alter someone so drastically that they’re no longer recognizable as the same person, then what happened to that other person?

Or, more sinister than any of that, what if you altered people’s memories so that they remember enjoying something they hated? That would raise all sorts of frightening implications for sexual assault. Or even murder. What if you kill someone, but then transfer all of their memories to a new body? Was that murder or the gift of a new body? “Who says you even wanted a new body? Oh, you do, now? Okay!” What if you could change people’s minds on a massive scale? Why vote on issues when we can agree on issues? Who are we being altered to agree with? “Why, it’s everybody… now.” You could make someone a slave for an entire year and then make them forget it. Put someone in prison and wipe away the memory. Or, you could save on space and time and make them live out their sentence in a memory-prison.

Under these circumstances, what is free will? Of course, the more frightening implication is, what is it now? Some of these seem obvious or hyperbolic, and they are, but these are the sorts of things we need to consider when implementing new technology. We don’t want to end up in some Total Recall-V for Vendetta hybrid-movie.

That’s Nillin’s frankly terrifying world. And, if you’re still with me, we’re going a little farther down the rabbit hole next time. There will be more about Remember Me, something about procedural memory, the Human Revolution thing will become a bit more prominent, and we’ll get to how our current technological overlords (Google, Facebook, Twitter…) are already controlling our minds. Think about that lot, and I’ll see you on the other side.

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