Released over a decade ago in early 2001, Shadow of Memories is a deeply flawed, deeply rewarding game that just SHOULDN’T work. Its story is told entirely through cutscenes. The gameplay consists of running around an overcast German town trying to trigger these cutscenes. It controls poorly, the graphics were considered dated a decade ago, and the voice-performances, with a few exceptions, are embarrassing. But the game DOES work, and I’d like to talk about why it does, why I love it, and why I still think about it ten years later.
Shadow of Memories? Never heard of it.
Shadow of Memories begins with its protagonist, Eike, being stabbed on his walk home from the local café. He is brought back to life by a sinister, half-male/half-female being that calls itself a ‘Homunculus’. The Homunculus grants Eike the power to travel through time and alter the past to prevent his own death.
The time travel mechanic is a marvelous hook, and one that facilitates many clever puzzles and plot twists. The game isn’t completed if you prevent Eike being stabbed, lord no. He is being hunted by a startlingly persistent murderer, and avoiding their attacks is merely delaying the inevitable. You must discover who the murderer is, why they’re hunting Eike, and be careful not to tear up the history of the town and its people, as you try to amend your own.
Look, I should say now that I hope you’ll forgive me if I abandon the usual formula for a review, because I don’t really want to do a comprehensive overview of the game. Shadow of Memories was released a decade ago; there are plenty of other reviews that have all of that covered well enough. I’d just like to give you some reasons why I think the game deserves attention, either for being executed well, or holding potential that wasn’t fully realized, or just being interesting to me.
How the hell did anything good come out of this?
Firstly, I’m just astounded that I enjoyed this game to any degree- and make no mistake, I loved this game
Firstly, I’m just astounded that I enjoyed this game to any degree- and make no mistake, I loved this game. But I really wasn’t exaggerating when I was describing the gameplay. The game really is 90% cinematics, and the other 10% is running around trying to find another cutscene to watch.
But it wasn’t a problem! Honestly, it really wasn’t; its overuse of cutscenes is so horrific, so excessive, that it actually comes out the other side- they’re very enjoyable! If the game had been, say, 40% cutscenes- that would have been an unbearable, because they would have been interrupting the bulk of the experience. But cutscenes are the bulk of the experience. And as horrific as this sounds; gameplay is more of an interruption.
Gameplay holds that peculiarly empty feeling that you get in sandboxes when you’re driving from mission to mission. But here, the complete lack of challenge, of preoccupation, of game to focus on, allows you to just…soak up the atmosphere. The music has been crafted, not as something catchy you’d listen to outside of the game, but as a filter that sets the tone, and the feel, just right. The art design wonderfully undercuts the sinister plot and music with a sort of rustic coziness, and the townsfolk you might talk to on your way to Cutscene #312 have an insistence on being completely oblivious of your fight for survival, which creates a rather lovely absurdity.
Look; do you think you could adjust to all of this?
This is not a game to hold up as a standard for interactive storytelling.
I know, I know: narrative should be incorporated into the gameplay, that’s rule number one- but shut up. This is not a game to hold up as a standard for interactive storytelling. It doesn’t ever pretend to be. It is what it is. At the very least it doesn’t arbitrarily tag on a pretence of interactivity; the infamous Quick Time Event is absent from this game.
If you can accept that this is more of a passive experience than you’re used to, and that a game trying to be an interactive movie isn’t necessarily doomed from birth, you should find plenty to enjoy in Shadow of Memories.
That being said…
I think the major reason I’ve given Shadow of Memories so much thought, is my frustration at seeing how it could be so much more!
Shadow of Memories was written by its director, Junko Kawano, so there’s a definite singular vision at the heart of all this. The central premise, the art design, the wonderful music- it all promises an intelligent, well-told, thought provoking tale.
The plot is legitimately clever, and there are chunks of dialogue and voice-acting that really are brilliant but- and I say this with a heavy heart, because I’d like to be able to wholeheartedly celebrate this as a success- more often than not, it failed to be emotionally engaging. The voice-acting, and what I suspect to be bad translation, dilutes the central vision, and the true depth mapped out for the characters in the game, doesn’t materialize in the diluted final product.
Although there are plenty of minor NPC’s, the narrative is essentially driven by three main characters. Charles Martinet, of all people, gives a truly creepy, standout performance as the Homunculus- it’s not a performance that’s “good for a videogame”- it’s just bloody good, and not to be missed.
I can’t say the same for the characters of Eike and Dana. They’re both from the present day…well, 2001 at least. Dana is a waitress who works at the local café, and while Eike is honestly a bit of a blank slate, Dana has been given a personality.
The manual describes Dana as being “slightly self-centered”, and concerned that “she’s alone in a world where nobody really understands her”. I can project those qualities onto the character in game, but it doesn’t quite ring true.
If I squint, I can just about see the skeleton of her character. Eike and Dana’s first substantial conversation hints at depth and hidden meanings, but I can’t truly BUY that the game is that sophisticated, because it’s all undermined by clunky dialogue, and voice-acting that’s completely out of harmony with normal human behavior.
I just can’t look past the bad voice-acting. It’s not as though it’s uncommon in video games; in 2001 it was the norm rather than the exception- there are plenty of excuses but frankly, we should be demanding more. It doesn’t destroy the experience, but it cripples it, and it’s heartbreaking to see a game with so much heart behind it, stumble because of something so basic.
The bad voice-acting does reside ONLY in the main plot, however.
Oh, did I mention that that’s not the only story being told?
Because this is where Shadow of Memories really shines.
Why I Love Shadow of Memories
You are granted the ability to travel through five centuries of history. That’s an incredible freedom. But paradoxically, you can only physically travel within the parameters of an average, common-or-garden town. The game’s scope is actually very limited, and I cannot stress enough how much I love the game for restraining itself like that.
it’s the details that make the whole game sparkle.
I love its self-imposed limitations; it takes a tiny, tiny chunk of the world, cordons it off, and fills it as fully as it can with lots of little stories, lots of tales woven in and out of the game’s main narrative- it’s the details that make the whole game sparkle. There are plenty of minor NPC’s to get to know (with bloody good voice actors behind them), plenty of subplots and individual dramas to unearth.
The time-travel adds a level of gravitas and importance to the mundane setting. It’s like visiting a local museum, one that documents the history of your local area- you can see the generations that have played out their lives in your town, how many relationships have blossomed and withered, how many stories a small community can produce over hundreds of years. There are lots of heartbeats skipped, lots of little smiles smiled as you trace the origins of your friends and neighbours and see how much of the past has survived to the present day.
In Shadow of Memories, influencing what sort of public buildings are built, or what inspires a local artist, feels no less meaningful than changing the fate of an entire country- it’s all in the little pleasures. That’s what this game is. This game is fiercely grounded, and fiercely human. The real pleasure to be had in this game is seeing the simple charm in everyday life.
I love the mix of the fantastic with the stubbornly ordinary, how ideas so big, and themes so universal, are contained within this tiny unremarkable town. The game was developed by KCET, the same studio behind the Silent Hill series. I can see the similarities.
Ultimately though, unlike Silent Hill, the town ISN’T the central character- it’s merely a backdrop for the events of the game. And although I like the “main” plot, I feel a real opportunity was missed here. I don’t think it was the primary, or even secondary ambition of the developers to create a community with a realistically complex history hitherto unseen in games but…well, they sort of halfway stumbled into doing just that.
Because don’t misunderstand me- not much effort was put into fleshing out these NPCs. There didn’t need to be, it was a natural side-effect of the time-travel mechanic. The environments, the people are inherently rich with detail. You’re travelling back in time; an overarching story of the town and its community had to be written by necessity. The history of the town exists as a backdrop for the central events of the story – it wasn’t the focus of the game.
But imagine if it had been.
It’s a very quiet game, very understated, and it’s infused with a very gentle, natural warmth, and a LOT of heart.
I want to draw your attention to this game, not so much because I wholeheartedly recommend the overall experience (although, for the record, I do), but because there are ideas nestled in this game with potential that I’d love to see fully realized. It’s not something to be dipped into mindlessly- this is something you will want to sink into over a weekend.
The game grew out of ideas, characters, and a story the director wanted to tell, not because of market demand for a popular gameplay mechanic. It’s a very quiet game, very understated, and it’s infused with a very gentle, natural warmth, and a LOT of heart. Shadow of Memories is far from perfect, but it’s an authentic forgotten classic, and I think it’s worthy of your time.