Aardman are a film and animation studio well known for their stop-motion animation work such as Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. Something they’re not known for is developing video games (unless you count the one time they made short films for Nintendo’s Flipnote Studio). That’s changed now with 11-11: Memories Retold, a first foray into a new medium for the studio and a stark departure in tone from their previous work, too.
11-11: Memories Retold begins, appropriately, on November 11, 1916. Harry, a young apprentice at a photo studio in Toronto, pines for the affection of the studio owner’s daughter, Julia. When an army major stops into the studio looking for a new frontline war photographer, Harry jumps at the chance to make something of himself and impress Julia, and enlists. Meanwhile, across the sea in Germany a military technician named Kurt hears word over the radio that the infantry unit that his son belongs to has run afoul of trouble. Determined to learn more about the fate of the squad and his son, Kurt requests a transfer to the frontline.
Memories Retold follows the journeys of Harry and Kurt, played by none other than Elijah Wood and Sebastian Koch, respectively, as they navigate the perils of the tumultuous last two years of the Great War. Through circumstance and often sheer dumb luck, the two paths cross and clash as both wrestle with the harsh realities of war and their own humanity. It’s an undeniably grim subject matter for a studio such as Aardman to be tackling, but it’s handled brilliantly, and similarly to Ubisoft’s fantastic Valiant Hearts, video games are a seemingly perfect fit to tell war stories from typically untold perspectives.
Cop an ‘eiffel’ of this view
Set across three ‘parts’, Memories Retold switches between the views of Harry and Kurt in different, self-contained scenes played out in a linear fashion. Playing like something between a point and click adventure and a ‘walking simulator’, each scene generally involves moving through or wandering about an area fulfilling simple objectives or just interacting with other characters. Transitions between the two concurrent storylines are often quite rapid, moving at the kind of pace a film studio would naturally be familiar with, which is refreshing in a video game and lends it a great sense of pace. There’s an element of player choice in the story as well, with a few pivotal moments and a peppering of smaller decisions leading to a pretty tense finale.
Both Harry and Kurt have unique talents that become their own gameplay mechanics. Harry’s skill with a camera means that he’s able to take photos at any time, with objectives often requiring he capture specific people or places. Kurt, on the other hand, is an engineer and so is adept at fixing electronics, operating machinery and so on. Kurt also enjoys writing letters home to his family. As the story plays out, Harry and Kurt are able to send their photos and letters to their loved ones, and choosing which photos to send or which words to write becomes a considered choice that further affects the story. Most of the gameplay on offer in Memories Retold is fairly shallow and basic, but it’s never boring thanks to the pull of the narrative and the promise of consequence in each little choice.
Most scenes in the game are fairly linear and progress briskly, but as the game progresses and Harry and Kurt’s stories begin to intertwine, sequences involving both characters start to emerge and allow for switching between the two at will in order to explore and solve basic puzzles. In these parts, it makes some sense that there’d be a smattering of hidden collectibles and distractions to make thorough exploration worthwhile, but for some reason those things are present in almost every scene, no matter the tone. It’s one thing to go scouring an underground bunker for optional hidden documents, it’s another to take a break from an active battlefield to go find them.
What do you mean I can’t bring my pigeon inside? I was told there was plenty of ‘birds’ in here
How I’ve managed to get to this point with talking about 11-11: Memories Retold’s visual style is beyond me, because it’s without a doubt the game’s most striking and memorable feature. Aardman are obviously well known from stop-motion animation but not for CG graphics, and certainly not in video game form, so it makes sense that they would choose to adopt a style that plays more to their artistic strengths over technical prowess.
The game has a very distinct and very strong ‘painterly’ look that reminds me quite a lot of the film Loving Vincent. While clearly some kind of filter/shader applied to what are probably very basic 3D elements, everything looks like it’s been hand-painted and magically brought to life, to stunning effect. Furthering the look is the studio’s filmic experience, resulting in some remarkably composed scenes, whether in canned sequences or in gameplay. Animations across the board are a little on the stilted side, but it’s easy to see why less attention would be paid to them when the overall frame is more important.
Similarly benefitting from Aardman’s film work is the game’s audio. Beautiful and evocative soundscapes punctuate each scene, backed up by a cracker of a score from Olivier Deriviére, John Kurlander and The Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded at Abbey Road Studio. Rarely do small games like Memories Retold get such a wonderfully cinematic and legitimate musical score as this, likewise the excellent Hollywood vocal talent at hand, and it all comes together wonderfully. I did notice one weird bug come up repeatedly, where NPCs would sometimes repeat old lines of theirs about problems I’d already solved, but it never caused any serious issues.
By November 11, 1918, the war ends, as does Harry and Kurt’s story. Whatever that means in any player’s particular version of the game, it’s a gripping and emotional tale that takes the best of Aardman’s skill as a film studio and marries it to an appropriate flavour of video game. Basic gameplay and some rough spots aside, 11-11: Memories Retold is a tale worth retelling.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher