Annapurna Interactive have been bucking conventional wisdom for some time now, publishing lavish, beautiful games in precisely the genres that game industry experts say you shouldn’t. They oversee single-player, story driven indie games that you fall head-over-heels with, and that’s hardly going to unseat Fortnite. But we love them for it: some of our favourite gaming experiences from the past five years, from Kentucky Route Zero to The Artful Escape, If Found… to Donut County, have come from their stable.
The latest to pass through our virtual letterbox, developed by Cloisters Interactive, is A Memoir Blue, and it couldn’t be more Annapurna Interactive if it tried. It’s the personal story of a professional swimmer, home after yet another medal, as she lapses into sleep and dreams of what brought her to this point, and why – regardless of the lump of metal around her neck – she feels a sense of disenfranchisement. What is making her feel so listless?
The listlessness and her history of swimming mean that the dream – running for the entirety of A Memoir Blue’s play-time – has a nautical vibe. The unnamed swimmer plunges into her dream, diving into a submerged train carriage to observe her younger self and her mother, running away from an abusive relationship. As she observes, they shift into a pair of dories, one small and one large fish, and flit away. And so the journey continues.
A Memoir Blue is, perhaps as is to be expected from Annapurna, visually and aurally stunning. The mixed-media initially grated on our part – the character model of the swimmer seemed to paddle in uncanny waters – but we soon acclimatised, and the combination of realistic environments with beautiful, hand-painted cel animation was a true winner. The animation in particular left us hankering for a game that used it completely: it is reminiscent of Tomm Moore’s fantastic Irish folklore trilogy – The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers.
A lilting orchestral soundtrack by Joel Corelitz (Gorogoa, Halo Infinite) also surges into songs from Eric Hillman (Ashen) and Imogen Williams, and they elevate moments much in the same way that Life is Strange’s did. They are warmly acoustic and beautiful, but they carry downbeat messages that reflect the feelings of the main character. A Memoir Blue is definitely one to drink in slowly. There’s no rush, so enjoy it.
There is a significant amount of Florence, another Annapurna Interactive game, to A Memoir Blue. Like that game, A Memoir Blue is a light stroll along the length of a relationship; but while Florence was concerned with romance, this is more focused on a mother and daughter.
And much like Florence, the relationship is explored through snapshots. You are given a scene, and the puzzle is determining what it wants from you. A dark road lined with lamp posts will likely want you to turn their bulbs on with a tap of an A button. A radio, buzzing with static, will want you to turn the dial with your analogue stick to find the correct station. Each sequence is littered with affordance: things that feel like they should be tinkered with in a certain way, and the enjoyment comes from seeing what happens afterwards. Complete a scene and an animated sequence will play out between the mum and daughter.
The comparison with Florence is pertinent because, while there is an emotional core to A Memoir Blue, it still never quite hits the highs of Florence. Much of that is because A Memoir Blue opts for fantastical situations: an underwater shopping mall, a seaweed-covered swimming pool. They’re undeniably memorable, but they put an abstract wall between the gameplay and the family’s story. What does the static radio mean? It feels like A Memoir Blue wants to lead you into the emotional riptide of its story, but you keep losing its hand because the scenes don’t strongly mirror the story, or it gets distracted by metaphor or surrealism.
That surrealism, the desire to wow the player, also dominates an extremely short story. A Memoir Blue is no more than forty-five minutes long, and too little of it meaningfully progresses the narrative or ties your heartstrings into a new variety of knot. The relationship rises, falls and rises again (we don’t want to ruin things here, so we’re keeping as thinly sketched as possible), and that’s about the substance of it. A Memoir Blue wanted us to feel very deeply, but there was only enough material to paddle in. Somehow, Florence achieved a resonance that belied its timeframe: in A Memoir Blue, we felt a slight detachment, and it came across as occasionally one-note over the course of the hour.
We should also acknowledge the gameplay, as it is not going to be for everyone. It’s WarioWare at five kilometres-per-hour, and there’s often no more than a single thing to pull, twist or prod in any given scene. That lack of interaction will be offensive to those players who think ‘walking simulator’ are dirty words, but if you were drawn to the game via the Annapurna brand, you will already know that’s coming. We didn’t find it to be a problem, particularly.
What we did have grievance with was the lack of anything new, or even surprising, in the interactions. Wiping mud from a window and turning on lights are obvious enough to be plain apparent: we would have welcomed something that invoked the spirit of Myst and at least got us thinking.
But lest we forget, A Memoir Blue is a Game Pass title, and a single hour of wistful time in its presence doesn’t cost a huge deal for those with a subscription. It might not have quite captured us wholly – it’s too ethereal to say or do anything with any real weight – but we were better for experiencing it.
A Memoir Blue isn’t prime Annapurna Interactive: we liked, but didn’t fall in love. But a mixed-media take on the love between a mother and daughter is wholly endearing, and there isn’t a barb or rough edge in its simplistic gameplay. If you have an evening and a Game Pass subscription, take a dive into the blue.
You can buy A Memoir Blue from the Xbox Store from March 24th.