My Memory of Us and Our Memory of History

Recently, I had a chance to play My Memory of Us. At first, I really didn’t think much of it. It seemed to be just another indie arthouse puzzle-platformer that is everywhere these days. Limbo, Inside, Ori and the Blind Forest, all similar types of experiences that focus more on impressive art direction and mood with just enough gameplay to keep things moving along.

In fact, the entire game seemed ready to tread this familiar ground. Framed as a dark fairy tale read to a little girl, narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart nonetheless, and primed to begin a melancholic narrative. A story about a boy and a girl trying to endure their home being invaded; fighting against the odds to keep their friendship together. The gameplay a perfectly adequate mix of key-hunting and physics puzzles.

Then, as the game unfolded, I was both spellbound and shocked by what My Memory of Us was really about. The entire game was an allegory for oppression and fascism seen through the lens of children living through the transition of power. People being identified with red paint. Unfeeling robots taking people away to labor camps.  All of it just a step removed from anything resembling proper historical parallels.

The biggest punch to the gut came when I found a collectible in the game, a photograph of someone. Out of curiosity, I examined it in the Extras menu. What I got was a bio about an actual Polish person of importance, the hardships they had to endure from escaping their home. And I kept finding more… and more… and more….

My Memory of Us is a game made to honor what was lost by the German occupation of Poland in 1939. The very beginning of what would become World War 2 and The Holocaust.

It made me re-evaluate what I had been playing up to this point. Historical games have had a tenuous history in modern video games, and ones depicting dark chapters of human history never fully hit the mark. In terms of modern AAA blockbusters, Call of Duty: WW2’s closest attempt to address the horrors by Germany came at the very end of the campaign when you and your team walk through an abandoned concentration camp, with your CO making comments about the dehumanizing ruthlessness of the camp’s layout and living conditions.

In an entire eight-hour campaign full of explosions, car chases, gunfights, and fighting Nazis, only about ten minutes is given to the biggest reason why you’re fighting at all. Even then, it is nothing more than a poignant declaration of the facts of history. This happened. It was horrible.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the smaller-scale adventure about World War 1, Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War. A lot of research went into showing just how many people died on the multiple fronts of the Great War, with multiple playable characters representing the British, French, and German sides respectively. A great focus of authenticity was placed in the environment design, and there were similar edutainment nuggets of info about trench warfare and the like hidden throughout. But when it came to the infamous massacres that war hosted like the Somme, the gameplay defaults to a pulpy adventure romp with steampunk machines and abstract puzzle-solving with the actual body count pushed to the margins.

I’m not discrediting either of these games for attempting to address such subject matter, but it illustrates how difficult it can be to handle such things in an interactive context. Which makes the achievements of My Memory of Us all the more impressive. Not only are the puzzles and challenges integrated better into the overall narrative, there’s a particularly harrowing stealth sequence through some tunnels while bombs are coming down, but there’s an undeniable message spoken throughout the entire game’s runtime.

When it comes to what we lost in WW2, Poland lost the most, and the history books focused more on their oppressors.

It is why the Nazis in My Memory of Us are shown as robots. This is why swastikas are swapped out for skulls. Why people are identified with bright red colors instead of stars. Hitler is never mentioned by name. Why? Because you already know who they are and what they did. The shorthand for cruelty long outliving the names of any officer or facts in a history book. But what about the decades of Polish contributions to art and culture? The game’s developer, the Warsaw-based Juggler Games, makes a clear statement with this distance: this isn’t about the monsters, it’s about the survivors.

As easy as it would be for me to treat My Memory of Us as another arthouse platformer, there is just so much powerful commentary being made that can’t be ignored. While the moment-to-moment gameplay is perfectly fine, it is the commentary made that makes this stand out. The game is currently available on all major consoles and PC and is a powerful teaching tool about this less-observed point of history. Give it a look if you are interested, or want to help someone better understand WW2 a little better from a different perspective.