Read Only Memories
E3 2014: Hands-On Preview
"It's incredibly refreshing to see a developer tackling themes outside of the norm in this industry."

There's a certain charm to the adventure games of yore: a player's imagination, not sophisticated visuals, drove the action forward, creating sprawling mental maps out of pixelated cityscapes and projecting expressiveness in the gaps between low-frame animations. Fledgling developer MidBoss, creator of the upcoming Read Only Memories, is a company full of passionate people who know this sentiment well. As their debut project, ROM is a brain-tickling adventure game that isn't shy about flaunting its inspirations — cult classics Snatcher and Policenauts, to name a couple — while maintaining a wholly unique identity with fascinating thematic material that many game writers are still afraid to explore.

Read Only Memories was unveiled to the public last year via a Kickstarter campaign, and development has been in full swing ever since. Billed as a "cyberpunk adventure game starring queer-friendly characters," ROM is one of a small handful of games to prominently feature LGBT themes. Set in Neo-San Francisco in the year 2064, the game depicts a time and place where issues like homosexuality and nontraditional gender expression are no longer contentious. As a result, queer characters are able to exist in a more three-dimensional space. In other words, instead of creating a token "gay character," the writers would rather craft a character with his own quirks and aspirations who merely happens to be gay. This difference is key in bringing the game's cast closer to reality — never mind the talking robots and cyborg journalists.

While queerness is an important aspect of Read Only Memories, just as it is an important aspect of queer persons' identities, the overarching narrative is not necessarily focused on sexuality and gender expression. At the heart of ROM is a tale of corporate mystery and social revolution; the player is a journalist investigating Parallax, a company known for the creation of all-in-one, smartphone-esque companion tools called ROMs (not to be confused with the game's title). The player soon comes into possession of Turing, one such device that is actually the world's first sapient AI. With Turing at his or her side, the player explores Neo-SF in search of information about a missing friend, encountering colorful personalities all the while. MidBoss CEO Matt Conn explained to me that he wants Neo-SF itself to feel like a "character," especially for those who are familiar with the city in real life. This method of ambient immersion is one of several design philosophies that sets Read Only Memories apart from its peers. Throughout the game, the player can make small-impact decisions that affect the flow of the story. Although the narrative is mostly linear, there are several branching paths and endings to discover, adding a tantalizing incentive to crawl Neo-SF at least twice over.

The game's interface and control are fairly genre-standard; the player speaks to NPCs and cycles through inspectable objects via a text menu. The developers aren't aiming to include esoteric item combination puzzles, and instead plan to have the story advance contextually based on the player's progress and current inventory. The world at large is made up of crisp, 16-bit background landscapes populated by vibrantly-colored people. The dialogue portraits are evocative of yesteryear's Sega CD classics, with large, emotive character busts that feature charming facial animations. Rounding out the game's audiovisual feature set is a dystopian, retro-inspired soundtrack by several prominent composers, including lead musician Matthew Hopkins (2mello) and Jake Kaufman (virt). "Neo-SF Nightlife" makes me all tingly in my chest, and you should go listen to it.

It's incredibly refreshing to see a developer tackling themes outside of the norm in this industry. Read Only Memories boasts sharp character designs and an incredibly intriguing narrative in a colorful, nostalgic package. It's not often that I truly see myself when I'm playing video games. I hope ROM makes substantial headway towards changing that.

© 2014 MidBoss. All rights reserved.

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