I immediately felt at home with Read Only Memories. And when I say at home, I mean at home. Not because it describes itself as a “cyberpunk” game, though I voraciously consumed the early novels of William Gibson in my teens. Not because it’s a point-and-click adventure, though many of my all-time favorite games belong to that genre. But because the beginning of the game quickly establishes that you are a writer living in a crummy Bay Area apartment that nobody ever visits.
But while I may see a few more parallels between myself and the protagonist of Read Only Memories than the average player is likely to, the game goes out of its way to ensure that any player is comfortable stepping into the shoes of the unseen main character, letting players not just input a name but also select appropriate pronouns, with gender-neutral options included.
In the world of Read Only Memories, set 50 years in the future in San Francisco—sorry, make that Neo-San Francisco—transgender and genderqueer people generally have the same level of privilege in society as anyone else. For me, the prominence of queer characters in the game is just another appealing aspect, alongside the cyberpunk elements, the Bay Area setting, and the point-and-click gameplay. I asked Matt Conn, one of the game’s creators, if he’s concerned that some players may be put off by the presence of queer characters.
Conn said that he hopes those people who might otherwise be reluctant to embrace such portrayals will be drawn to ROM by the genre trappings and gameplay elements they are already familiar with, and that if they enjoy those aspects of the game, they might be willing to stick around and have their initial perceptions of the game’s queer characters challenged. And players don’t have to like these characters. “Just like in real life,” he said, “you’re forced to figure out how to interact with these people. You don’t have to be friendly to them.” But just like in real life, being nasty to people can have repercussions. Conn used a character you encounter early in the game as an example. “If you’re a jerk to Jess early on, you can’t go through that dialogue path again.”
I had indeed been a bit of a jerk to Jess.
“Damn,” I said. “I felt like she was a little short with me, so then I was short with her!”
“So with characters like Jess,” Conn said, “what we’re trying to do, without trivializing it, is draw parallels to stuff that’s going on now. In the world of Read Only Memories, trans and queer and all that stuff, no one cares.” But characters like Jess—hybrids—and other characters, called brain-controlled androids, are a different story. “There are people who are like, ‘I don’t want my kid dating an android,’ stuff like that. Theoretically, there’s some parallels there, especially in terms of prejudice and ignorance, they just transfer to the next thing that’s new.” The fact that she’s so often treated with ignorance is why Jess has a chip on her shoulder, Conn said. No stranger to being treated with some ignorance myself, I said that I completely understood.
Conn wants Read Only Memories to explore the idea of queer characters having positions of power in society that it might be unrealistic for them to have today—a transgender chief of police might (sadly) seem like a stretch to us right now, for instance, but wouldn’t be unlikely in the world of ROM—and how their newfound social privilege might affect their perceptions of others. A trans character in that world might refuse to see the parallels between what trans people of the past had gone through and what the hybrids of the world are facing as the game takes place. It’s a society that has made believable progress from the one we currently inhabit, but one in which some people still like to draw sharp lines dividing “us” from “them.”
It’s not just the prominent presence of queer characters, though, that sets Read Only Memories apart from what I think of as quintessential cyberpunk. Neo-San Francisco is not a gloomy, dystopian megacity, and as a journalist, you still type your stories on what we would recognize today as a computer. This is probably for the best, since the once exhilarating notion of people “jacking in to the matrix” seems dated and cliché today.
Conn said that there are a few reasons why he didn’t want ROM to look and feel like another story in the vein of Blade Runner or Neuromancer. For one, he said, the foundations of what we tend to think of as cyberpunk were largely established before the internet changed the world. “We want to look at cyberpunk again from [a post-internet] perspective,” he said. “And also, it doesn’t have to be dystopian. The world is still gonna get weird. I don’t think we’re going to see megacities where it’s always gross, but we’re never going to get our privacy back. We’re always going to be interconnected. And we still want to explore a lot of the tropes that are prevalent in cyberpunk—ramen and neon and all these different things that make cyberpunk cyberpunk.”
One thing ROM does have in common with stories like Blade Runner and Neuromancer is a deep concern with our relationship to technology. “Even now,” Conn said, “you see people developing borderline-relationship-type emotions for their electronics, and they’re really stupid things.” Conn suggested that as computers become more sophisticated in the coming years, people may start developing more complex connections with them, and the potential value of these connections is something Conn hopes players consider. “I think that’s what I want to leave the player with: How do you feel about Turing by the end of it? Do you care about Turing as a human character? Do you just consider them a robot or a possession? And I don’t know if there’s a correct answer for that.” Referring not to the game but to our real world, Conn said, “I think these are things people are going to have to ask themselves eventually, down the line.”
“The future’s gonna be weird,” Conn said. “The future’s gonna be super weird.”
Read Only Memories should be available by the end of the year. It can be pre-ordered on the game’s official site. The beta I played, which includes the prologue and the first part of the game’s first act, is available for free on OUYA; OSX and Windows versions of the beta are available to beta backers of the project via the game’s forums.