Before I begin, I need you to understand one thing: Read Only Memories changed my life. The point-and-click 8-bit-inspired adventure game has slowly been gaining some steady footing since its rather quiet release (YouTube vids of the game still hardly crack the four-digit mark). However, as MidBoss have recently teased, the game is gaining some traction with the PlayStation community with a console release and even a Japanese translation on the horizon. Why the sudden interest in a title not all too different in style from a flash game on Newgrounds back in the day?
Read Only Memories (shortened to ROM) finds its primary strength through its earnest execution—in its genuine and heartfelt embrace of its story and goals. From beginning to end, the game takes jaw-dropping care in delivering a story that many might discount from the start: a cyberpunk not-so-far-off future dealing with artificial intelligence. Heard that one before? Snoozefest at this point, right? Well, ROM has the smarts (and the guts) to distinguish itself from your run-of-the-mill sci-fi story by diving into the complexities of gender in its engaging world, a topic that is surprisingly seldom explored by sci-fi fantasy media (shame on them!), especially in the gaming world.
ROM takes place in Neo-San Francisco, a kind of homage to memorable Neo-Tokyos from sci-fi history such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime/manga Akira and Hideo Kojima’s Sega CD game, Snatcher. The city itself as well as its residents are boiling over with personality from the first few screens.
The protagonist is thrust into a quick friendship with a Rom (Relationship Organizational Manager), this world’s version of a robot. The Rom, Turing, requests help when your mutual friend (and Turing’s creator) has been kidnapped. Turing enlists your help and the plot becomes a who-done-it mystery merged with a typical sci-fi dystopian conflict. To give any more of the story away would be a disservice to the game’s on-point pacing.
As I’ve said before, I think ROM’s greatest strength lies in its treatment of gender and human identity. In our present day, alternative identities are increasingly becoming accepted and explored, which is amazing to a queer kid like myself. ROM takes a rather realistic approach to the whole thing, hypothesizing about where our society could actually end up as advancements in technology and social progress merge.
In ROM’s society, human hybrids who have genetically modified their bodies have become the lower class. Some people have bunny ears, some people have fur, and several characters have lightly hinted that they have had gender reassignment surgeries. This genetic progress is juxtaposed with the increasing intelligence of robotics. Gay couples in Neo-Francisco are hardly, if ever, met with animosity. People of ambiguous gender are rarely accosted or belittled for what they identity as. Instead, the bigotry is shifted onto the hybrids and, to a lesser extent, the Roms.
ROM knows that the questions it is dealing with are not easy ones to ask or define. In this way, the narrative tries not to belittle the actual individuals behind the anti-hybrid group in the game, the Human Revolution. Instead—while they are portrayed as bigots—their beliefs are seen as coming from the heart of a genuine fear of unchecked technology (and their views might not be completely unfounded … wink wink). They represent the aging stragglers left behind in society, but they aren’t all painted as “bad guys.” It’s a nice touch to a game that could have just as easily done a black and white interpretation of morality.
So, what does this all mean? Why is Read Only Memories so important? Well, I feel like I am almost too biased to explain it to you, so I’ll simply ask you to play it yourself. MidBoss have outdone themselves, and they deserve your money and support. When I’m playing, this game feels like it was made for me. A queer narrative in a futuristic sci-fi world littered with anime and movie references in an 8-bit retro style. What’s not to like?
One particularly noteworthy accomplishment of the game is its soundtrack by 2 Mello. Blowing most eighties-sampling Vaporwave musicians out of the water, the soundtrack finds great blends of new and old. It takes the nostalgic Neo-Tokyo jazz that has dominated soundcloud accounts for the past few years and blends it with some simple 8-bit sounds to craft an experience that is very reminiscent of a Windows 98 computer game (which I imagine was the intention). Some standout tracks are the motif’ed “Main Theme” (obviously), the noir-like “Scrubbing For Clues,” the uplifting “TOMCAT’s Theme,” the unbearably catchy “Hassy Bar,” and the heart-pounding final chapter’s jazzy “The Final Run.”
Now, that’s not to say that ROM is a perfect or flawless game. There were a few things that I feel could’ve been improved about the experience, but I wouldn’t say that any of them effected my overall enjoyment of the game.
The biggest disappointment upon starting ROM was finding that there was no character creator—very little to distinguish the lens of the protagonist in relation to the game’s beautiful pixel world. The art design for this game is absolutely incredible—as someone who follows a lot of pixel artists, there’s some real creative energy to this game’s character designs. No two characters are designed with the same traits. It’s disappointing to see such a missed opportunity for identification in the game’s world. Perhaps this might be an option in ROM 2?
The other criticism I have of the game actually lies more in its genre, or more broadly, the genre of morality-driven decision-based gameplay. While an important aspect of the point-and-click genre, ROM has far more in common with games like Fable or BioShock than anime romance novels or dating sims. Many of the game’s decisions lie solely in being nice or mean to a character, with very little wiggle room in terms of moral ambiguity. Sure, the characters ponder their moral stance at times, and there are different endings depending on some select choices (keep the plant alive!), but I’m on my fourth playthrough of the game and the multiple endings leave much to be desired in terms of my own personal morality effecting the game.
Much like in Fable, you either have devil’s horns or angel wings. You can either be sweet and comforting to a character or antagonize them relentlessly. And considering this game’s characters are so likable, who would even want to choose the mean pathway of this game? Who could possibly want to keep calling Jess, the hotheaded feline-girl hybrid lawyer, a furball with claws? Or who could reply to Turing’s wide-eyed newborn fascination with nothing but scorn and annoyance?
Perhaps some more nuanced moral choices would make the game a bit more fleshed out, but as always, that’s sequel talk, and Read Only Memories certainly teases a sequel at the end. On January 22, MidBoss is set to release a free DLC, Read Only Memories EX: Endless Christmas, which will continue a bit of the story. I think I speak for all of us fans when I say I can’t wait to go back to Neo-San Francisco!