Sun sets on Neo San Francisco. Weather control units conjure fresh snow. Robots assist their masters and genetic hybrids take to the streets to protest for their rights. Turing guides me to a local nightclub to meet our contact. If we don’t get a new lead soon, the scoop of a lifetime will be lost.
Read Only Memories is a cyberpunk adventure game developed by MidBoss. It was originally released in 2015. The updated version adds new art and voice acting that turns the game into a vivid and exciting tale in spite of the occasional glitch or uninspired puzzle that keep it from being truly great.
Set in the year 2064, this future world is brimming with possibility. Genetic modification allowed society to cure many diseases and has created “hybrid” humans with animal qualities. Cybernetic enhancements help people rebuild after tragedy. Personal robot assistants called ROMs (Relationship Organizational Managers) make daily affairs manageable. Even in the face of burgeoning biases against machines and hybrids, the world marches ever forward.
You play as a struggling journalist in Neo San Francisco who wakes one night to find a ROM named Turing in their apartment. Turing is the world’s first sapient artificial being. Their creator has been kidnapped, and it is up to the two of you to solve the mystery behind his disappearance. What follows is a journey that exposes tensions underneath the city’s surface that will end up changing the entire world forever.
Structurally, Read Only Memories is more of a visual novel than an adventure game. The majority of the game is spent in dialog sequences that have a minimal amount of divergent paths. The story is punctuated by minor puzzles, but they are brisk diversions. While the dialog sequences can drag on, Read Only Memories compensates with strong characters: this is a game about people.
Voiced by The Walking Dead‘s Melissa Hutchinson, Turing is Read Only Memories‘ delightful emotional core. Turing is enthusiastic and inquisitive, and player decisions affect their development and outlook towards the world. The relationship between Turing and the player is Read Only Memories‘ greatest achievement.
Even when talking about robot murder, Turing is adorable.
The rest of the game’s characters are equally likable. In the course of your investigation, you’ll befriend a sassy Southern hacker, a grumpy cat-person lawyer, and ally with a pair of goofy juvenile delinquents. Every character has distinct outlooks and opinions that paint a detailed picture of Neo San Francisco.
Voice acting is a major addition to this remastered version of the game. The new voice cast is packed with Telltale veterans, popular online creators, and gaming personalities. Dramatic scenes take on an enthralling weight and even minor characters are given energy. However, there are a few less that stellar performances, too: Jim Sterling’s bright vocal cadences feel wasted coming from the mouth of an anti-hybrid bigot. Austin Creed is woefully miscast as a corporate scientist. But at its best, Read Only Memories turns into a mixture of pulp noir and Saturday morning cartoon.
The varied voice cast and wide array of characters highlight the way diversity rests at the heart of Read Only Memories‘ world. This is an unabashedly queer game, and it uses its characters to ruminate on gender and sexuality. On a broad level, it aspires towards Star Trek‘s more utopian qualities. The queer characters exist without any apparent stigma. Bearded women, agender robots, and proud gay people of colour all safely exist in Read Only Memories. The game even takes time to inquire about the player’s preferred pronouns.
The game’s attempts at political commentary often come off as forced.
However, this inclusion can also feel perfunctory. The game regularly uses its human-animal hybrids as a catch-all group for most stigmatization. Their plight ends up containing the body anxieties of trans people, the systemic concerns of people of colour, and the persecution of homosexuality. The result is a mixed metaphor that often fails to coherently talk about discrimination. Overall, Read Only Memories works best as a character drama rather than a robust tale of speculative fiction.
From a gameplay perspective, the game threatens to fall apart during the climax. Players are thrust into a frustrating cat and mouse scenario against a killer android. Long monologues and arbitrary player fragility create one of the worst enemy encounters in recent memory.
The climax is a rare instance where the player can be hurt and get a game over. Failure means completely restarting the sequence. It’s atrocious and feels entirely out of place. Thankfully, the game falls back on the relationship between Turing and the player in its final moments, a smart decision that ultimately redeems the climax’s missteps.
Porting to the Playstation 4 seems to have provided a challenge as well. The interface periodically glitches out. Navigation via cursor isn’t reliable even with the optional use of the touchpad. You’ll click on options and get no response. In one jarring case, an entire section of the display got cropped off, making one puzzle sequence nearly impossible. The lack of auto saves jeopardizes player progress as well.
Ultimately, Read Only Memories provides a clumsy but resonant experience. What it lacks in thematic substance or technical challenge, it makes up for in emotional content, a lush setting, and memorable characters. It’s a story worth experiencing in spite of its occasional frustrations. Come for the robots. Stay for the soul.