Humanity has a long and complex history with the notion of social progress. Our methods for interfacing with the people around us are informed by a collective understanding of social constructs like gender, social class, and heteronormative sexuality. Most people in Western society are socialized in such a way that we are forced into tacit compliance with these concepts, problematizing identities that do not fit the normative mold. This lengthy preamble serves to highlight the importance of representation in media for people like myself — people who grow up feeling out of place, wondering why we so rarely see reflections of ourselves in the popular culture we consume. Throughout my life, I have turned to video games as a primary source of entertainment, but I have also learned much about myself via the stories and characters depicted in the role-playing games of yore. I didn’t know it then, but what I needed in my youth was a game like Read Only Memories.
A cyberpunk adventure game that includes many examples of queer characters, Read Only Memories represents a wide range of modes for expression of gender and sexuality. More importantly, it presents these characters organically, admirably performing the precarious balancing act of discussing aspects of their identities without making it the one-note crux of the game’s story. If anything, Read Only Memories is far more focused on the social issues of tomorrow: themes of cyberterrorism, transhumanism, and musings on the potential of machine sapience dominate its gripping narrative. In this world, queer identity is simply identity, and social discourse has shifted accordingly.
The year is 2064, and robotic personal companions called ROMs help regulate the minutiae of daily life. As a journalist in Neo-San Francisco, you catch word that a close friend and programming genius, Hayden, has gone missing. Your only lead is from Hayden’s ROM, Turing, who appears to possess the world’s first-ever sentient AI. Together, you dig deep into Neo-SF’s seedy underbelly in pursuit of the truth, your decisions dictating how the tale twists and turns. And twist it does: not only can people die in the course of your investigation, but your actions could ultimately incite nothing short of a cultural revolution.
As a primarily text-based adventure game, Read Only Memories depends on its writing perhaps more than any other aspect of its presentation to draw the player into its world. Fortunately, its script is polished, quirky, and full of personality. The residents of Neo-SF, human and non-human alike, exhibit unique behaviors and hold strong opinions, both about your investigation and the society they inhabit. The script is saturated with neologisms and can occasionally feel slightly clumsy, but behind all of the technospeak remains a great deal of character. The city itself is dripping with atmosphere, feeling at once authentic and convincingly alien. It’s the kind of place you don’t want to leave, potential dangers be damned.
Deliberately presented in low-fidelity but dazzlingly colorful 16-bit graphics, Read Only Memories pays visual homage to the Sega CD classic Snatcher. Its pixelated art is chic and stylish, sometimes playing with minimalism to heighten player imagination, other times putting emotive character portraits front and center. Turing and their wide variety of expressions defines them as perhaps the most authentically emotional character of all — no small feat, considering they’re not even human. An unfortunate and perhaps unintended consequence of the game’s retro interface is the scaling of its text; the font is incredibly chunky and hard on the eyes. I found myself unconsciously leaning back in my chair to put some distance between me and the screen, lest a burgeoning headache put a premature end to my session. (It did on more than one occasion.) I would have appreciated some additional scaling options, and next time, I’ll probably play using a wireless controller from the comfort of my couch. The build I played was also a bit buggy; my client froze several times, and there seems to be an issue where old saves begin to delete themselves. In spite of these issues, Read Only Memories remains an intriguing experience throughout, and its five possible endings ensure plenty of replay value.
While initially marketed using a central message of inclusivity for LGBTQ players, Read Only Memories is not simply an assemblage of queer characters engaging in conversations exclusively about queerness. These characters exist in a world with new and pressing concerns, where the line between human and non-human is beginning to blur. Read Only Memories’ representation of non-normative identity is a light in the darkness of mainstream game narratives that won’t dare to break the mold. As a gay man, I certainly have a deeper investment in this kind of tale, but I would argue that the game’s commitment to inclusivity serves to heighten the effectiveness of its story for players of all backgrounds. A cyberpunk thriller first and foremost, Read Only Memories is a worthy addition to the library of any player willing to explore its vision of a bold and dangerous new future.