Read Only Memories is beautiful in its willingness to embrace its most earnest parts. Cyberpunk as a genre seems obsessed with the grimy underbelly of technological utopias, social disorder among megacorporation overlords, and the dangers unregulated scientific breakthroughs create for humanity at large. Rarely is it even discussed that maybe there’s room within cyberpunk for more than government induced terror and futuristic narcotics. Where, if I may be so bold, is the cute side of cyberpunk?
In the not so distant future of Neo-San Francisco, AI assistants (known as ROMs, hint-hint; nudge-nudge) have risen to the forefront of the public consciousness, with Parallax single handedly leading the charge in robotic advancement. Vying for news worthiness is the growing disorder among hybrids (which in this sense are primarily anthropomorphic humans) and the rebel group The Human Revolution, who see this kind of bodily modification as an act against God and humanity. None of this is of pressing importance to you, however, as your only preoccupation as of now is writing up tech reviews for a non-paying blog, hoping their promises of “exposure” pay off (it was at this point that Read Only Memories became far too autobiographical and I had to take a moment to calm down). Everything changes when Turing, the first fully sentient AI, shows up on your doorstep (or more accurately hacks their way inside your apartment).
Thanks to the goldmine that was 80’s science fiction, it seems a little too easy to see where this is headed. Uncover the dastardly plot, enlist the help of the cities least wanted, and save the world from a massive corporation that seeks to enslave it. Throw in some futuristic tech and this is cyberpunk 101; easy, effective, and more than a little played out. And this is where Read Only Memories begins to shine. Developer Midboss has taken the essence of cyberpunk as a genre and flipped it inside out, showing the bright and charming side underneath.
Read Only Memories rides the fine line between playful awareness and self-indulgence, letting its humor and love of the 80’s as an aesthetic show through without dissolving into a string of references and in humor. Characters are slyly charismatic and witty, endearing despite their transparent shallowness through strength of writing alone. Read Only Memories might only be surface deep, but it’s an intentional prioritization toward individual conversations over character studies. It isn’t as important who these characters are so much as what they’re saying, an understanding that allows Read Only Memories to mask the simplicity and convenience of its plot by creating memorable encounters which standalone but are no less entertaining because of it.
Words cannot describe how thankful I was to discover how unconcerned Read Only Memories is in wasting your time asking you to solve bizarre item based puzzles. Arbitrary logic-less conundrums are the bane of my adventure game loving existence, but Read Only Memories is far too invested in its dialogue and world building to force you to carry around an abundance of junk which will somehow become useful later on. Even when it seems like the game might be falling into that trap, it immediately flips it back around as a knowing jab at the insanity most adventure games put their players through, despite being almost universally derided for it. Read Only Memories isn’t hands off the way a visual novel is, but it never asked for anything more than for me to care about investigating its world and characters, something I was more than happy to do.
As curious as I was to get at the heart of the mystery which drove Turing to my apartment, it’s the world of Neo-San Francisco and the quirkiness of its inhabitants that caused me to fall in love with Read Only Memories. The synth heavy soundtrack set the tone for a low-scale technological metropolis, charming in its familiarity while still retaining a suitably futuristic vibe. It’s also a wonderfully queer city, allowing LGBT characters to exist without it needing to be a point of discussion. While overt representation is importance, there is a lovely sense of acceptance in how Read Only Memories doesn’t treat being gay or gender fluid as something that needs to be said; it’s just part of who someone is.
Read Only Memories is less subtle in the clear analogies that can be drawn between its hybrids and the social climate LGBT persons face in modern society. There is a rightful anger in many of the discussions concerning the lack of dignity and humanity afforded hybrids by those who see them as less than human, and these moments are perhaps the most raw and impactful. Read Only Memories isn’t really a game about LGBT rights, but that doesn’t mean it can’t become a platform for discussion, or at the very least a notable example of a game that recognizes LGBT people exist and doesn’t treat them like a buzzword to put on the back of the box.
Read Only Memories begins to fall apart a bit as it comes to an end, when circumstances become so convenient as to defy even the limited restraints of the universe they’re happening within. But even recognizing the contrived nature of much of its plot, Read Only Memories never asks that you take it seriously, and doing so would probably only be to your own detriment. This is a game that is at home discussing the implications of mass artificial life as it is asking you to write a deliciously terrible Christmas song for an up and coming pop star. Read Only Memories is adorable and cheesy and holds itself together with an acute awareness of tone and by subverting a genre it clearly loves to death. It might be fluffy and lack a satisfying payoff, but Read Only Memories tries so hard and has such an enormous amount of heart that I’d sooner embrace it than write it off for such comparatively meaningless qualms.