Read Only Memories is a point-and-click adventure game about the future progress of technology and its impact on society. Developed by MidBoss, the group behind the gaming convention GaymerX, Read Only Memories was a project designed to include LGBTQIA+ characters within a compelling story. What makes Read Only Memories interesting is the depth of thoughtfulness that went into constructing the history of how technology has impacted the idea of humanness and identity.
Set in the year 2064, you play a broke journalist writing whatever comes your way so that you can pay the bills for your small, grubby apartment. During the night, an intruder breaks in and you wake up to find a cute blue robot named Turing who seeks your help to find his missing creator, a scientist named Hayden. As Hayden is an old friend of yours and you are somewhat desperate for a scoop, you decide to help. You explore the vibrant world of Neo-San Francisco looking for clues, solving puzzles, and speaking to other characters.
As it is almost fifty years into the future, there have been some major technological developments. Advancements in computers and machines have made robots called ROMs (Relationship and Organizational Manager) a common occurrence, used as both tools and companions. Artificial intelligence research is on the brink of making ROMs sapient beings, and Turing is the first fully sapient machine intelligence. Medical research combined with these technologies has given people access to body adaptations through cybernetic prosthesis and gene therapy, which makes them look like a fusion of flesh and machine.
Coupled with detective work, shady corporations, and mysterious happenings, Read Only Memories is a crossover of cyber-punk and neo-noir presented in vivid pixel graphics and a bubblegum-esque color palette.
As MidBoss set out to do, Read Only Memories is a celebration of diversity and features many LGBTQIA+ characters. You work with a detective who is your sister’s ex-girlfriend, two street punks are hinted as being boyfriends, and a character who flaunts a big moustache and a beard uses she/her pronouns. Every character’s sexual and gender identity is not made completely obvious and, more importantly, it does not define their character.
The game even makes sure that the player is involved by asking them to chose their own pronouns; she, he, they, ze, xe, or you can set your own by using the custom settings. Read Only Memories highlights that it is not only essential, but also that it is easy to be inclusive of identities—and you can even get playful with it. At one point, Turing questions their own gender and if the concept of gender can be applied to a machine. They allow ‘he’ for convenience because they are blue, but ultimately, they don’t mind.
In the world of Read Only Memories, the definitions of sexuality and gender are moving away from being strictly about the body. Turing asks people to address them how they feel. It’s a much more fluid notion of sexual and gender identity. However, with human-machine bodies, ideas of identity are a tad more complicated.
This is a future where cyber augmentation and genetic modification are the norm, and many of Read Only Memories’ characters are some fusion of body and technology. Any part of the body can be enhanced or replaced with cybernetic improvements, and with medical sciences mastering gene therapy, you meet characters with artificial limbs, green skin, rabbit ears—all kinds of enhancements.
However, there is tension within the city. An organization named the Human Revolution are protesting against body adaptation on the grounds that humanness is lost. Labels are used such as ‘hybrid’ and ‘genotypical’ that separate those who use technological enhancements and those who do not. There are hints that non-humans and hybrids have different rights than genotypical people.
However, some questions and ideas proposed in ROM are not pushed as far as they could have been. The Human Revolution argue that people are loosing the very thing that makes them human—but what does make us human? Furthermore, Hayden was working on a way to transfer human consciousness into a machine. Is Turing now a human because they possess consciousness? While it is a pretty complicated topic, it would have been interesting to see these ideas explored further like ROM does in other areas.
If you choose specific dialogue options and ask the characters about the past of Neo-San Francisco, you get detailed answers about its political and technological history. Without giving too much away, a quick history lesson from Turing explains that major developments in medical treatments led to military intervention and the creation of brain-controlled androids that replaced human military troops, which were subsequently barred by international law. These histories make ROM feel more realized and its ideas more fleshed out.
In Read Only Memories, the entanglement of humans and technology is at the forefront of social and political concerns. ROM highlights that new technologies bring new ideas about identity and asks if cybernetic augmentations are part of what we perceive as the body. Read Only Memories asks the player to question the way that we think about humans in terms of a ‘natural’ body. It creates parallels with today’s issues concerning body and gender to a future where the issues lie in body and humanness. Is technology going to create alienation from other people and reality, or is it destined for humans to create a union with technology?