Memory is fucking weird, man. The other morning I woke up with “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)” in my head, a song I hadn’t listened to willingly in at least a decade, and whose melody and “lyrics” I didn’t realise I had expounded precious grey matter to retain. On the other hand, sometimes I can’t recall the name of a friend I’ve known for the better part of ten years, which is as inexplicable a phenomenon as it is highly embarrassing. As with almost everything that goes on up in our craniums, nobody can quite agree on how memory works, or who we should trust when they start theorising all over the place: psychologists expound on short-term, long-term and context-dependent memory; neuroscientists put people into big machines and look at what parts of the brain “light up” when recalling particular subjects; and writers expect readers to pick up multi-volume reminisces about the first time they ate madeleine dipped in tea or got their end away. Memory in video games is a comparatively simple affair. Everything is remembered for you, whether it’s through a system of passwords or memory cards or auto-saves backed up to the cloud.
One of the most disquieting things about memory is how it can change. There’s a well-known cognitive bias wherein we reflect back on instances where we had to make some choice, whether banal or life changing, and more often than not we’ll characterise the decision we came to as the correct one; of course we were right! Else we wouldn’t be here! Except at the time you might have been fraught with indecision, entirely unsure about what you should do, and might have instantly regretted your eventual choice. We rewrite our histories to fit a more pleasing narrative. Then there are the details we just just plain forget. We lose things, misplace the names of passing acquaintances, completely erase the experience of films we weren’t paying particular attention to, and try to fill in the blanks with our best guesses.
Stuff goes missing in the shuffle, an experience not particularly comparable to the corruption of memory cards, loss of hard drives or Sony’s bungling of your uploaded saves thanks to the crumminess of their network servers. That’s more like the kind of amnesia you see in Bourne movies, not real life. Otherwise, games offer a perfect recall which is almost creepy in its competence. You can pick up a game you haven’t touched in months, even years, and provided you never deleted your progress, you can be instantly transported to the exact moment where you left off. It’s like a form of time travel. Proust would’ve shit a brick.
That said, it’s not all perfect. How many times have you leapt back into a quick-save in the middle of some game, halfway through a mission or sub-plot or something, and have no recollection of what you’re supposed to do? The game has provided everything exactly as you left off: your character model is identical, your inventory all in place, the enemy spawns just as they were when you last put down the controller. You falter because human memory is comparatively crappy, and being faced with such flawless recollection can be intimidating. The game is all like, “oh, I remembered literally everything else about your place in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and you can’t even remember who you’re meant to shoot/have a poorly-written argument about 3D-printed prostheses with? Tsk.” Maybe I’m projecting.
I am of the belief that more or less any game mechanic, any system which on a purely technical level makes the game work as a game, can also be used in pursuit of some thematic or narrative goal. Mostly we see the graphics and sound do the brunt of this heavy lifting, in the form of cutscenes or character barks or musical score rising and falling at particular points. Sometimes the whole design is making a point, as in Jonathan Blow’s games, or the relative paucity of mechanics necessarily focuses you on the point being made, as with the simple text interface of old adventure games or current Twine releases. Never have I seen the ability to save your progress in a game somehow integrated into the action on screen. The notable exception are the immersive first-person PC games of yesteryear (and their modern day ancestors, mostly made by Arkane) which encourage you to save scum, to have a dozen different points of progress saved in case a choice you made turns out to be the wrong one, allowing you to return to an earlier fork in the road and take a different path that might prove to be more advantageous.
In fact, that is a mechanic that makes a clear delineation between game memory and human memory. We might not be able to stop our brains reminding us of our past mistakes, of constantly running simulations as to how we could have approached conflict or break-ups or somebody calling us a dickhead with greater emotional maturity, poise or caustic wit, but we cannot go back and change it. Presumably, the reason for raking over these old wounds is to better prepare us for when a similar situation arises in future. Learning from our past failures. You could say it is the Dark Souls of cognitive science, if you still think comparing things to Dark Souls was a funny joke (and to break the second person for a moment, I 100% do). The From Software titles not only encourage but force you to play through sections of the game again and again and again, improving each time based on what you’ve learned. That’s an example of how your own memory is tested in playing a game, how you absolutely have to make sure you retain this information, lest you fail, similar to the memorisation needed in playing the bullet-hell arcade shooters of the 20th century. You made sure you knew enemy patterns so you could advance, and so you wouldn’t have to pay more quarters than you had.
We used to be able to spend some time “within” our video game memories. I remember spending idle moments between play sessions exploring what saves I had on my Playstation memory card, navigating between the icons which represented the progress in different titles, something which continued with the PS2 but was lost as soon as we moved to built-in hard drives and, increasingly, data backed up in the cloud. Otherwise, we pay little mind to the process of saving progress. Memory has been a mechanic in games before, but in different ways. Dontnod Entertainment’s Remember Me was a flawed gem, from a more adventurous time in Capcom’s publishing philosophy, where you use cyberpunk tech to enter people’s heads and screw with their memories in a way which suits you. Which is phenomenally creepy and invasive, but also kind of brilliant. Psychonauts, too, involved climbing into the memory banks to figure out how exactly damaged folks got that way, to help them overcome their present fears and personality defects whose roots can be found in that past trauma. I like the promised feature of upcoming point-and-click PC title No Truce With The Furies, whose small studio are working on a world which is geographically wee but dense with possibilities for exploration; amongst those possibilities is an inventory system which contains memories and personality traits, with the suggestion you might find certain facets of your character’s mind have changed or evolved since your last rummage.
Relying on players to memorise things themselves has certainly been a mechanic in games; in the pre-computer days there was the old memory game where you see a tray of items, have that tray concealed by a sheet and an item removed, and you’re supposed to rack your brains to identify the absence. Which is more or less how the enemies in Arkane’s recent Prey reboot work: the alien Typhons possess and/or mimic inanimate objects, hiding in plain sight, before attacking you when you get close, like loaded traps. If you’re canny, and you realise that a mug on a desk wasn’t there when you last passed through an office, or a chair has moved to the other side of a conference room, you can give them a clobbering with your space-wrench before they have chance to strike.
I remain a big fan, too, of that first Prince of Persia reboot, where a “Game Over” screen was replaced with the eponymous hero, who narrates the adventure in the past tense, says, “No no no, that’s not what happened,” before plonking you back at the place in the level before you got impaled on some floor spikes. But again, these are games where memory is a narrative focus, but which does not in any way exploit the “memory” of the games themselves, of the systems working in unison with your console of computer to retain your progress.
The most we’ve ever gotten out of screwing about with memory cards was Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid, reading the files on your Playstation memory and saying things like “You like Castlevania, don’t you?” (duh, everybody knows that) if you’d racked up a lot of hours in Symphony of the Night. Or Silicon Knights — who would later remake the original MGS — with their fourth-wall-breaking Eternal Darkness, pretending like your save has been erased to scare you, something Batman: Arkham Asylum pinched for its Scarecrow boss encounters. More recently, Nier: Automata had you willingly “sacrifice” your game save to achieve the story’s true ending, something which plays on how unwilling gamers are to lose their progress; it was also a false choice, because after seeing that final finale, you could just re-download your save file from the cloud. In the original Animal Crossing for GameCube, failing to consciously save your game (or attempting to “reset” after you made a mistake, or simply wanted to spawn a new town) resulted in a pages-long dialogue diatribe from an obnoxious mole called Mr Resetti, who would then recover an autosave. In real-world terms, he was you slapping your head and trying to remember your banking password before realising you wrote in down in that filofax in the computer desk draw.
In its endless memory, games once again offer us power that we lack in our own lives. But just as it is wearying to always play as bulletproof badasses mowing down everything that stands in your way (although it certainly is fun to do sometimes), so to would I like to see some of the powerlessness of memory make its way in amongst the power fantasy of perfect recall. Not necessarily a return to the imperfect save function of the original Metroid on the NES, a string of numbers and letters which would more-or-less return you to wear you last played but would sometimes boot you to a completely different part of Zebes with an incomplete arsenal, but a game which somehow takes advantage of how it controls your “memory.” A version of Chrono Trigger where the bad guy is travelling through time and messing with history, which sometimes results in changes to the cosmetic looks or actual stats of your carefully-crafted player character. An indie title about dementia which needs to be played all in one go, or accessed regularly, less all of your progress is eventually lost or you find yourself unable to properly interact with the game. A triple-AAA narrative about clones which taunts you by producing duplicates of your save file, but ones where your nefarious doppelgangers are an impossible number of hours ahead of you, with way better equipment and a higher score.
In 1992 wet nurse of cyberpunk William Gibson, experimental artist Dennis Ashbaugh and publisher Kevin Begos Jr released a collaborative title called Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). It consisted of 300-line poem by Gibson ruminating on the ephemeral nature of memory, stored on a floppy disk, and contained within an artist’s book produced by Ashbaugh. The floppy was encoded with encryption which meant, after you read the poem once, you would never be able to access the file again. The book it was contained it was made of photosensitive chemicals, so any exposure to light would cause the text and images within to fade into nothingness. It was as intelligent a use of technology to highlight the fallibility of human memory in comparison to solid state as has ever been, and that was several decades ago. Delete our saves, but do it for real! Corrupt them! Duplicate them! Simulate the fact that our recall is far from perfect. Screw with our game memory as our brains do our memory. Unless you’re talking about my 100% completion save of Vice City, in which case, back off. My own memory of the hours spent, as a fourteen-year-old, in front of that game are fuzzy and incomplete, but the Memory Card persists.