Anyone familiar with upstart media studio MidBoss will be immediately aware of their unique company characteristic: their fervent endeavour to make the gaming world a place where diversity is embraced. Their community-oriented activities have particularly gained them both attention and traction: self-produced documentary Gaming In Color, as well as their running of their own gaming convention, GaymerX, both center on LGBTQ contributions to the video games industry. Making both sexuality and gender-neutrality within games a topic of little consequence is no simple task though. The Internet-incensed inferno that comes from their mere mention at present is well-documented, and the attempts of most individuals to directly quell the pitchfork mobs on both sides of the debate have fallen on deaf ears.
Games like Read Only Memories - MidBoss’ first foray into software territory - just might have a chance of making a difference though. It is, admittedly, an indie adventure with a typically retro presentation, obvious nods to other titles from yesteryear and too much of a leaning towards being a linear visual novel than a fully interactive experience. But the commendable level of maturity with how it approaches its themes of identity mark it as a key landmark in the development of socially-focused, game-driven storytelling. Better still, there’s also a pretty fun little cyberpunk escapade to go with it all.
It’s impossible to mention Read Only Memories (ROM for short, you non-techies) without at least mentioning Snatcher, one of Hideo Kojima’s earlier masterpieces that was part interactive story, part glorified homage to Blade Runner and The Terminator. Snatcher was a game that thrust the player into a world of neon skylines, tech-noir intrigue and deadly consequences, where the player assumed the role of a detective assigned the task of eliminating a group of body-snatching androids terrorizing a future version of Kobe, Japan. They’d do this by travelling from location to location, and rifle through a list of on-screen commands to interact with whatever they encountered in their investigations - and ROM utilizes this exact same blueprint for its own story as well. This time though, the setting is far less derived from popular sci-fi tropes, and instead takes inspiration from the rampant speculation surrounding the future of our current tech trends, leading to a world that has a notably more-educated idea of where our world might actually be headed.
It is the year 2064, and Neo San Francisco (heaven knows what happened to the regular ol’ San Francisco adage) is your home - you being a struggling journalist trying to make ends meet as society continues to march in lockstep with the thunderous pace of tech advancement. Both cybernetic and genetic augmentation are in the hands of the everyday citizen, and the revolution of fully-immersive virtual reality is also finally realized - leading to colossal changes with how society organizes and entertains itself. Specifically, the freedom for people to pursue genetic customization and drastically alter their appearance has also led to the introduction of a completely new subculture movement - or ‘hybrids’ as they are known. And naturally, society ostracizes them for making such daring choices, especially those who loath the idea of the human body being altered in any way to begin with.
In amongst this hullaballoo of cyberpunk fantasia, VR dreams and continued social angst though, there is still yet one question that our current world would require an answer to: what about our mobile phones? Where do they stand? Well, Neo SF’s answer to the cellphone’s evolution is the advent of the Relationship Organizational Manager (yes, ROM again for short), a loose term for a wide range of AI-programmed robots designed to assist you with your everyday needs. Big, small, cute, dumb, they come in all shapes, flavours and duties. Everybody’s got one too, but even if you don’t, don’t worry…
...one decides to turn up on your doorstep right at the start of the game.
Turing, as the little bot promptly introduces themselves to you as, clearly isn’t like other ROMs. It’s got a rather confident sense of its own vocabulary, and stranger still, it seems to be aware of itself. It comes to you with a dilemma: its owner, Hayden Webber, has been abducted - a worry revelation for the pair of you. Being a crack AI developer for mega-corporation Parallax, Hayden is Turing’s creator. He’s also a good personal friend of yours, which according to Turing’s analytical subroutines makes you the perfect candidate to investigate and find the truth about his disappearance. But where to even begin finding a trail is difficult in itself, especially with the NSFPD swiftly descending on the case to discourage any maverick journalists from running their own investigations. Staying out of the sight of more than just the bad guys is paramount, but the path to truth - a path that leads on to corporate sabotage, media wars, Turing’s real origins and the full consequences of AI revolution - is out there. And with the world’s first sapient AI by your side, you might just have the one wildcard you need to find Hayden and blow open society in ways you never previously thought possible.
ROM’s ingredients are therefore the archetype of any good cyberpunk crime yarn - an interesting situation in an interesting world, given vast potential for its resolution. Its world genuinely does feel the part too - as you embark on your search for justice, Neo San Francisco slowly rolls itself out as a convincing glimpse of a future dominated by hyper-connection and self-expression - a place where anyone can lose themselves in, or be, whatever they wish. The game’s predictions for the future seem very shrewd, but the fact that the city is essentially a high-tech overlay on top of old SF’s foundations - streets, neighborhoods et al - definitely also adds credence to this setting as well. I’ll admit there were a couple of times while I was roaming the in-game city chasing leads that I was looking up certain places to see where they’d stand in the real current-day San Francisco. It probably is something I got a little overzealous with as well, considering MidBoss’ own San Francisco-based origins. It’s not like they’d have to go to great lengths to instil such a depth of knowledge into their setting, but nonetheless, the effort put into creating ROM’s world has resulted in something that doesn’t just feel believable, but is quite immersive to explore too.
Along with this, Read Only Memories has plenty of funny to go along with its fun - it’s a game that prizes its humour just as much as its techno-societal philosophizing. ROM’s writing is frequently interspersed with glib one-liners, silly audio-visual gags and ample helpings of self-awareness that combine to keep its light-hearted atmosphere flowing, especially in moments when the narrative threatens to come unbuckled under moments of unexpectedly verbose, tangential exposition. A lot of these jokes also stem from just interacting with the world too - with the game giving you the ability to look at, touch, talk and use items on almost anything you find in the world, there is ample potential for amusing situations to arise. Running jokes are also a theme - you’ll find that plugging your headphones into everything you see is not only possible, but reveals some surprising things about the world you take for granted. Not to mention too, that the game comes with its own league of red herrings for you to pick up. I’m still certain there is a puzzle somewhere within it that can be solved with the carton of spoiled milk you pulled from your fridge. There has to be - I’ll be damned if I was able to palm it off to any of the numerous Neo SF inhabitants I encountered, just to get rid of it.
And let's make one thing clear - for a game whose company is primarily about inclusiveness for all, Read Only Memories’ cast is about as diverse as you can get. Race, sexuality and gender are all catered for on an equal, non-discriminatory footing, and the character landscape is variable enough to make any Tumblr activist cry with joy - as well as any Gamergater fume at their own perceived forcedness of it all. But the manner of how the narrative treats all of this variety is key - in the sense that it doesn't give any of it special treatment at all. It doesn't matter that the ace NSFPD detective is a lesbian, because the only way you know this is because it’s mentioned in passing that she’s your sister's ex. It doesn't matter that the hottest bar in town is run by a gay couple, because their history as petty criminals is way more colourful. It’s a presentation of LGBTQ characters as it should be - where a character's sexuality is merely one of a number of traits, instead of their one defining feature. It's mature, understated and a wonderfully subtle way to implement such characters and themes into storytelling, and ROM makes it work very well indeed.
Whom ROM offers its center stage to instead is a character that is one of the more fascinating of recent times, robotic or otherwise. Turing, your gender-unspecific investigative sidekick-in-need, might initially come across as a walking bundle of tried AI tropes done before (complete with musings on sentience, machine-logical understanding of human customs, etc.). But this is very much more his/her/their journey than it is yours. It is through the lens of Turing’s growing sense of its own self-awareness, and the strange world they now find themselves alone in, that many of ROM’s emotive moments take shape. It helps hugely that the plucky, diminutive automaton is thoroughly endearing and a hoot to talk to about practically any topic that comes up in-game. But it’s also the influence that the human realm slowly begins to have on their own personal development that also provokes, being a wonderfully reflective mirror image of humanity’s own transformation in the opposite direction, as tech continues to envelop our society. By the game’s climax, the quest to find Hayden will have taken a toll on you both. And it’s primarily through Turing’s own ceaseless determination to find not only their creator, but also themselves, that you will have found the trip to be assuredly rewarding.
At its best, Read Only Memories’ writing is up there with some of the most sophisticated there’s been in gaming. Where it stumbles is at the moments it tries to coordinate this plot development with actually delivering a game. On the surface, ROM plays very similarly to numerous classic-styled adventure games - point n’ click here, interact there, solve a puzzle or two to keep the story moving on. It even has that all-essential feature these days of possessing multiple endings - how you treat your fellow characters in-game, especially Turing, has a massive bearing on how things will go for you, and there is a huge array of conversational choices for you to definitively set your stance. Where the problem lies is that, for all the mysteries that are laid in front of you, half of them end up getting solved without your input. There just aren’t enough puzzles for a game that promises a great cyberpunk clue hunt, and a lot of the time when you’re expecting one to come up and challenge you, the game either provides an elementary solution for it or just has the plot push it over so you can progress. As a result, the whole experience plays out as more of a novel than a game, and certain chapters definitely feel rushed. However you choose to play, Read Only Memories will still give you an ending worth the three-to-four hour playthrough effort. But it will leave you feeling, despite the strength of its story, that it still could have given you something more.
Aside from this, ROM also genuinely feels raw, presentation-wise. This doesn’t include the in-game soundtrack, which not only comes with an iconic main theme but also comes with a number of other enjoyable chiptunes that chug along unobtrusively in the background. It also doesn’t include the sound FX, the character designs or the conversational animations, which are remarkably stylish and suitably quirky. But it does include the game’s overarching stillness, and its curious insistence to adhere to a certain aesthetic that is way too minimalistic. With location scenery taking up a mere third of the screen, the game window has way too much unused space and dedicates it all to a black void. It feels like such a waste of what is a pleasing visual style when said space could have instead been used to render the game’s scenes with a lot more detail. It also makes the game unnecessarily difficult to interact with at times. Certain elements on screen that look clickable instead fail to respond, making the main interface bitty and cumbersome to work with. Obviously, retro austerity is a viable approach for a number of small game studios who cannot afford the tools or the talent needed to produce better-looking graphics. But it is pretty disappointing that large parts of ROM’s surface cannot live up to the depth it has underneath - it would have unquestionably been all the better for it.
As it is, Read Only Memories succeeds in squeezing a satisfying interactive cyberpunk novella into its $12 price tag that is both amusing as well as poignant. Fans of visual novels, light adventure games and especially those of a netrunning disposition will still find plenty to enjoy here despite its lack of real challenge and uninspiring visuals. Most importantly though, its mature, levelled approach to the LGBTQ-friendly themes of its story indicate great things for how such social commentaries might be approached in future games. It may not set the world on fire as an interactive adventure - but it could definitely influence the voices of games to come.