With a Steamboat Willie early cartoon aesthetic, My Memory of Us is an attention-grabbing curiosity. This puzzle platformer adventure is no lighthearted journey, however, but joins that small handful of video games willing to take on that heaviest of subject matter, the Holocaust and in this case, the subjugation of Polish Jews in WWII. If that sounds a little too dark for escapist entertainment, you can take some comfort that the theme is couched in an allegory, the domination of Poland by a totalitarian robot army.
Ok, the disguise is paper thin and it’s pretty obvious what the game is really about, and whether gamifying such a tragic moment in human history is disrespectful or not is something to consider. In any case, My Memory of Us is the story of a nameless boy and girl, told in flashbacks and narrated by Patrick Stewart, who, of course, immediately adds a layer of professional gravitas to the tale. Spoilers aside, the boy and the girl solve a series of puzzles while helping various characters and trying to avoid detection and capture by the Nazis, er…robots. Although never explicitly violent, My Memory of Us does travel to some pretty dark places.
The black and white visual palette is only broken by objects in red, usually important puzzle elements and later, a significant part of the story a la Schindler’s List. Both graphically and musically, My Memory of Us stands apart and the aesthetic choices both give the game an old-time newsreel look while adding some comic distance from the horrific subject matter. There is a lot of character in the game’s vision of 1940’s Warsaw blended with gearpunk robot enemies. Unlike some of the gameplay elements, the look and sound of the game seem well-matched to the historical subject and tone of the story.
As a puzzle platform game, My Memory of Us has some significant and frustrating problems. While many of the puzzles are relatively simple and logical, there are far too many that rely on obscure combinations of elements or chance observation. As a gameplay conceit, the boy and girl pairing — each character has a limited number of specific abilities that complement each other or must be combined in particular ways — works well, but there are control issues with each that get in the way. In particular, a hand-holding mechanic that is key to successful, undetected movement is fiddly and often results in a fail state and replay. There are some timed puzzles that rely on precise button presses that, on the handheld Switch at least, are difficult to pull off. In general, the puzzles can often seem arbitrary and almost never really connect with the story in a meaningful way. They often feel like busy work, like the game had to come up with something for the player to do as the story unfolded.
By its nature, a game trivializes its subject matter to some degree, no matter how seriously the subject is presented. One could argue that making any kind of game relating to the Holocaust is bad mojo, but on the other hand, it might engender some awareness of history and My Memory of Us —made by a Polish developer—obviously comes from a sincere place and not crass commercialism. Philosophy and aesthetic arguments aside, where My Memory of Us both occasionally succeeds but equally often stumbles is in its puzzles and gameplay and mechanics.