By Jacob Robbins
Like it or not, we’re living in the era of the bombastic blockbuster AAA game. Mainstream games today pride themselves on overstimulation and are often chocked full of gore and guns. At after playing 30 hours, there’s a palpable sense of exhaustion, a desire to be done. But then the cycle runs anew for either the sake of a creativity that overwhelms or big money or both. Counter to this feeling of ‘its-all-too-much,’ A Memoir Blue (published by Annapurna Interactive and the first game developed by New York City’s Cloisters Interactive) is a breath of fresh air.
Branded as an empathetic “interactive poem,” A Memoir Blue is short, devoid of dialogue, and light on gameplay. In summary, it is diametrically opposed to every single major release of 2022 thus far. This is not a game for everyone, but those willing to try something new can find a lovingly crafted diversion amid the seemingly perpetual blitz of violence and action that dominate our current landscape.
Players inhabit the role of a nameless champion swimmer whose bout of loneliness and depression leads to the reflexive and contemplative exploration of their complicated relationship with their mother. The story unfolds through a series of point-and-click vignette “chapters” scattered throughout the nameless protagonist’s life. While the scenes may vary, the mode of control is the same simple usage of using analog sticks to control a virtual pointer.
Most of A Memoir Blue unfolds within a fantastical underwater setting, our protagonists’ memories spilling over into the aquatic world that has dominated her life. As she descends deeper into the complexities of her relationship, she swims deeper and deeper into the dark depths of the ocean.
The game can be completed in one sitting, barely stretching to a runtime of over an hour. There are secrets to uncover in each scene, through it only slightly increases the game’s length. Once the credits roll and you’ve seen everything on offer there also isn’t much incentive to return to it. Therein, lies its beauty.
At its core, A Memoir Blue is a game about evocation—it wants you to feel more than it wants you to participate in its world. What makes the game’s focus on feeling work so well is its depriving the player of, well, any real information or context. There is zero voice-acting, zero words (only a seemingly fake language using symbols), and zero context on when and where our story unfolds.
This dearth of background knowledge actually serves the game well since it allows for a greater focus on the game’s two highlights: its stunning musical score by Joel Corelitz (one of his more recent projects being Halo Infinite) and minimalist visual storytelling. Less is definitely more with A Memoir Blue.
This core conceit usual works well, though it can be confusing and sometimes frustrating understanding what tiny minuscule gesture via gameplay you need to perform to move the narrative forward. The game’s puzzles usually land well, turning these dials and levers to turn on boat makes sense, but then there are some that land extremely flat. A sequence involving a walkway repair was laughably simple while another involving swimming mechanics was confusing and bizarre.
A Memoir Blue is often stunning to look at. The game utilizes an imaginative and fun art style which melds detailed 2D cartoon characters with more basic 3D graphics and models. Its visuals can very much be thought of as a mix between a Disney Pixar cartoon short and Coraline. Interspersed throughout the narrative are standout set-piece moments that exude heart, warmth, and creativity.
To be clear, though, A Memoir Blue is not an overindulgence into wholesomeness and never veers into feel-good overkill. The game is often wrenching and designed to tug on your heartstrings as it explores loneliness, belongingness, and family. Perhaps A Memoir Blue’s greatest achievement is its ability to make you feel so deeply in such a short amount of time.
While it is largely a one-off experience, A Memoir Blue is a refreshingly unique sideshow to the non-stop action era of games we’ve entered. It’s certainly not a game for everyone and there are moments when its execution falters, but it is a delightful experience that demands your attention. If nothing else, it will remind you that there is hope and light in times seemingly dominated by noise and darkness.
Jacob Robbins is an editor for Graydon Carter’s Air Mail. This is his first review for The Circle. Follow him on Twitter at @JacobERobbins.