Despite being hailed as a children’s classic, Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast has been criticized for not understanding how love actually works. Critics say that Belle doesn’t actually love the Beast; she’s just in an abusive relationship where she mistakes the absence of abuse for love. I bring this up because I see very similar dynamics in Amnesia: Memories. Idea Factory’s latest game fashions itself as the ideal romantic story, yet its skewed ideas of romance make it that much harder to see any of the male leads as desirable.
It’s a shame, too, because the game starts off on such a clever premise. The story opens to a spirit named Orion colliding with you and knocking all your memories clear out of your head. Of course he feels bad about this, so the two of you journey from world to world, trying to regain your memories without letting anybody else discover (and exploit) your amnesia. Convoluted as this set-up might sound, it proves to be an intelligent twist on visual novel mechanics. Typically, visual novels center on advancing a narrative through socializing with others.
So by giving you a reason to mistrust every conversation, Amnesia puts these two forces in tension with one another. At least in the early moments, I found myself evaluating my choices in ways that I never would have in other visual novels. How much information have I divulged? How much should I reveal now? Would one choice contradict anything I’d done before? On the one hand, the game’s premise turns dating sim conventions on their head by putting you on the defensive. Yet it also introduces a level of challenge that visual novels don’t normally see. And at first glance, all of this looks intentional. None of your friends ever appear completely trustworthy, and the memories you get back create more questions than they answer.
In theory, at least. The sad truth is that the game ignores the cat and mouse angle in favor of more conventional romantic tropes. I wouldn’t have a problem with that if not for how the game portrays romance. Each romantic lead has this sexy air about them (should I bring up the art here? it’s one of the game’s stronger points), which Amnesia seems to think is enough to sustain a relationship. It isn’t. There needs to be some level of emotional compatibility between lovers that doesn’t show itself here. In fact, the protagonist never appears that enthusiastic to date whoever she ends up with. She holds a worried expression on her face during every kiss, and she can only get these relationships to work if she makes herself as submissive as possible. Worse still, the memories she regains usually reveal a strong disdain for her lover, raising the question, “Why was she willing to stay with him in the first place?” Amnesia’s insistence that the protagonist stays with her boyfriend, despite its inability to answer that question, often results in abusive relationship.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, allow me to explore one of the more ridiculous examples the game offers. One of the storylines sees your boyfriend locking you in his house, drugging you, maybe even lying to your friends so they don’t call the police, and eventually locking you in a dog cage so he can monitor all your actions. Now it is possible to escape the cage, rat him out to the cops, and keep him out of your life for good…if you don’t want the good ending, that is. To get that, you need to forgive him for all his heinous actions, even after finding out he had ulterior motives for every last one of them.
That’s the problem I have with Amnesia: the relationships between characters matter more than the characters themselves. No matter how bad the relationship, and no matter how reasonable her requests, the game still expects the protagonist to bend over backwards to make things work. And if she isn’t willing to do so, then the game certainly is. It’s all too happy to abandon its mistrust angle in favor of an apologetic tone, as if to say, “Really, he’s not that bad a guy. He deserves a second chance.” If I were being generous, I’d say the game was showing how even the most terrible people deserve a chance at redemption. Yet in light of how quickly the game justifies the things your lovers do to you, and how the onus is always on you to forgive them for their actions, I fail to see how this makes the love in Amnesia any less one-sided.
Granted, not every one of your partners behaves as deplorably as the one I’d just cited. Some even put considerable effort into bettering themselves for their love. While I recognize their efforts as sincere, I remain skeptical regarding how much this can affect the game. After all, Amnesia isn’t designed for its protagonist; it’s designed for you, the person playing the game. Ironically, though, that’s part of why it fails. As the player I’m privy to knowledge about these men not even they can know about. The information I glean from alternate endings and other routes consistently warns me against trusting these guys romantically. It doesn’t matter how well they behave this time around. Just knowing that they’re capable of horrible things like threatening to murder me puts me off romancing them altogether. Besides, each story takes place in the same city over the same month. I don’t see how they could change enough in those circumstances as to render what I learn in other routes irrelevant.
There are a lot of reason why Amnesia: Memories fails as a love story. If I were forced to pick only one, though, I’d say it’s because the game the confuses infatuation for love. They’re entirely separate emotions, and confusing one for the other is what allows the game’s poor relationships to flourish. Now I don’t fault the game for wanting to explore infatuate; it has all the power in the world to make that work. Unfortunately, without separating it from love, the game falls well short of that potential. All it has to show for its efforts is a series of flawed love stories.