The modern video game is inherently a cyberpunk object. An interactive narrative set within a fully-fledged simulacrum of a location, whether real or imagined, is precisely the futuristic vision of entertainment envisioned in Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive or Cadigan’s Mindplayers. Perhaps this intrinsic mechanical “cyberpunk-ness” is why a cyberpunk-themed game is such a rare occurrence. When we do see games in these settings, more often than not the emphasis is heavy on the cyber, yet very light on the punk. The heroes (or antiheroes, more likely) of literary cyberpunk were largely marginalized outsiders looking to make a living through often shady means. A cyberpunk protagonist is not among the comfortably powerful, so it’s frustrating to see the bulk of cyberpunk video games drop players into the shoes of a government agent, a cybernetic übermensch, or both. One wonders if “cyber-authoritarian” isn’t a more appropriate name for these types of stories.
So I couldn’t be more thrilled with 2064: Read Only Memories, the expanded Director’s Cut of 2015’s stellar Read Only Memories, which adds some extra scenes, a few minigames, and nearly full voice acting for the main plot.
Set in near-future Neo San Francisco (Neo-SF), 2064 presents a vision of the future in which the struggle for gender and sexual identity acceptance has largely been won. It’s not quite an idyllic paradise, though; the civil rights issue in this period is equality for Hybrids: humans who’ve had their genes spliced with other species, first as life-saving surgery, but eventually as desired transhumanism. “Purity” group The Human Revolution believe that Hybrids are undeserving of human rights, while Hybrids themselves just try to get on with their lives. At the same time, robotic companions called Relationship Organizational Managers (ROMs, for short) have become commonplace. Within this speculative setting unfolds a detective mystery centered around Turing, the world’s first sapient ROM. After Turing’s creator Hayden is kidnapped by unknown assailants, Turing calls upon Hayden’s old friend, a down-on-their-luck tech writer, for help. Together, the two slink through the underbelly of Neo-SF to look for Hayden, question the definition of consciousness, get wrapped up in a conspiracy, and make a load of cool queer friends along the way. The writer (whose name and gender are determined by the player) is technically 2064’s protagonist, but this is very much Turing’s story; you’re just along for the ride. It’s a little William Gibson, a little Judith Butler, and even a little ORLAN. And it’s fantastic.
As you may have guessed from my preamble, what makes 2064 so special is that it’s unafraid to show the human, countercultural side of cyberpunk. The protagonist isn’t a six-million dollar super-soldier, they’re you, an anonymous everyday civilian in a high tech metropolis. You don’t thrust yourself into situations guns blazing to get ahead (well, okay, you kinda do once), you keep a low profile, pick up leads in nightclubs, befriend hackers, and social-engineer your way into places you have no business visiting. Despite 2064’s technology being far more than fifty years into the future, it’s a believable and intimate, yet still exciting, take on the genre.
A huge part of what makes 2064 feel so authentic is the fact that it was developed by a largely queer studio, and as a result its depiction of metropolitan nightlife is natural and organic. Whereas many titles shy away from queer representation, the crew at MidBoss have brought to life a Neo-SF that’s as refreshingly diverse as it is vibrant. Outer, Outer Sunset is populated by punks, artists, genetic engineers, civil rights lawyers, queens, magical girl wrestlers, and bears (both of the human and animal variety). Almost every plot-relevant character has a detailed backstory to hear if you so choose, and none of it ever feels ham-fisted. This time, they also happen to be very well acted. Erin Fitzgerald (Chie in Persona 4 Golden) in particular gives my favorite performance of hers to date, as the gracefully bitter spinster Melody Flores; 2064’s composer 2Mello has an entire sequence in which the player helps him perform a Christmas-themed rap; and I had a lot of fun picking out cameos from Dan Ryckert, Zoë Quinn, and even Jeff “Gillian Seed” Lupetin, among others. The extensive, high quality voice acting is one of 2064’s strongest additions, and it definitely makes a convincing case for previous players to return to Neo-SF for another go around.
From its visuals to its gameplay, 2064 draws from late 80s/early 90s Japanese adventure games like Snatcher or Dead of the Brain, and it absolutely feels the part. The pastel-tinted streets of Neo-SF are drawn in a sharp pixelated style that would look right at home on the PC Engine, while the player interacts with the world using an interface that functions as something of a fusion of Eastern menu-based navigation and Western object-oriented point and click. The game’s philosophy lies somewhere between the two as well; 2064 is overflowing with reams of text for every object, every character, every interaction, and the bulk of it is completely optional. Whereas Snatcher forced players to repeatedly exhaust options to trigger the next event flag, 2064 allows you to spend as much or as little time as you please. It’s nice to have the choice. There’s even a maze at the game’s climax, in homage to Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken, but it’s mercifully straightforward and fun to navigate. No matter what you’re doing, you’re treated to a killer 2Mello soundtrack that marries FM synth with a range of thumping drum machines. There’s even an instance of dynamic music that becomes more distorted as a computer system is hacked. It’s an awesome moment.
Depending on how you treat those around you (especially Turing), your investigation can lead to six different endings. 2064 includes a bonus chapter called Endless Christmas for players who reach the best ending, in which Turing and the protagonist can check in with their friends on Christmas Day. I was very interested in checking this out, but unfortunately I was immediately kicked back to a glitched version of the prologue. I tried reloading my save, and the same thing happened. This was very disappointing, especially as the game had been out for several months by this point. Due to the vast number of relationship variables at play throughout 2064’s duration, a Chapter Select function would be unlikely, but the ability to select Endless Christmas from the main menu after completion of the game would’ve been appreciated.
Bugs aside, I had a killer time with 2064. Although series like Phoenix Wright and Danganronpa have successfully reinvented the Japanese-style adventure game for the 21st century, there’s a certain allure to the mysterious world of menu-driven microcomputer adventures of decades past. 2064 not only successfully simulates that feeling, it welcomes players of all backgrounds and orientations with open arms. 2064’s future is one that belongs to all of us.