Read Only Memories
I’ve accumulated enough imagery and details of San Francisco to feel a kind of vicarious attachment to the place, even without having ever been there. So when Read Only Memories comes along and brings Neo SF onto my 14″ CRT, I sure as hell hope the latte sipping liberals have been dealt with (and Fuller House can go, too -ed.).
ROM is a cross between those visual novels that sometimes feature pigeons, and the more classical point and click adventure game. While it doesn’t hit the same nerve as a Gibson novel – SF is still a somewhat humanized society – our struggles with technology, no matter how far we have come, continue to be a central theme.
So what’s this all about anyway? Your apartment is broken into by what becomes your partner in crime – an advanced AI robot called Turing; the equivalent of those mouthy, know it all sidekicks you always wanted to punch. Usually relegated to snarky comments and little else, Turing takes the role one step further in presence and development, and could arguably be said to be the star of this show. But why is it here? You see, your old buddy has gone missing and circuit-brain here thought you were the most likely [please select appropriate gender] to help out. So you set out taking names, getting details, opening up new areas on your map, revisiting the same people all while trying to uncover what really is going on. There are also groups of interest like the anti-technology group, Human Revolution, much like that one in Deus Ex, who prefer we don’t start cramming robotic dildos up our ass. The future is not all 3 seashells and Johnny 5’s though. For example, the developer’s choice of having the protagonist still keep books and paper in an otherwise technological future circa 50 years from now is a bold move, but who knows. Prove me wrong 2064. In any case, whether intentional or not, you haven’t consumed yourself in gadgets and cyborg upgrades.
The first couple of chapters (of 6 total) are relatively restricted in freedom. You grab whatever the game will let you and use it on whatever you can. The map does open up to you, but sometimes there’s just not much going on visually and little chance for interaction beyond a brief description. But, give ROM time and you will be knee deep, solving some cool puzzles and learning more and more about your friends and enemies. And for a game that has a lot of text, there is a lot of good writing; the unique characters, Turing and your own often humorous observations and responses keeps you clicking on whatever you can.
The ironic graphic style is reminiscent of a cyberpunk future of the kind where we’re still trapped in a less dystopian vision from the 80’s. There isn’t a great deal of animation; people come and go via a fade in/out mechanic, and the UI is quite compact – but it is a pleasing, unobtrusive aesthetic with matching beepity-boopity tunes.
For all its interpretations of the future, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen most of it before. AI, hybrid humans/machine/animals, scanning devices etc. ROM clearly gives a knowing nod to those cornerstones of sci-fi; our co-existence with AI; human alteration; our fears and mortality, and general existentialism. Though in some ways it does kind of feel like robots have kind of just been plonked around the city and–voila!–welcome to the future! Nonetheless, even if in the early moments of this game I was a little skeptical, the game does grow on you somewhat; and there is something for everybody here, even if there’s nothing particularly new. In other words, you really need to push through the initial stages to see ROM come into its own.
Read Only Memories | Buy on Steam (demo available)