Point-and-Click Cyberpunk Excellence.
In recent years developers like Telltale Games and Dontnod have taken the choose-your-own-adventure way of gaming to unbelievable heights with The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange. Both are smaller production companies that use their limited resources to highlight their strengths: strong writing, unforgettable characters, and impactful player choice. Has the time come to resurrect the text-based adventure? Midboss thinks so. I was wary, at first, since I had no idea if this meant I would be typing full sentences like in Zork. Read Only Memories, thankfully, is not that kind of trial-and-error experience. In fact, it's one of the most memorable ones I've had all year.
Back in 2013, Midboss, the group that runs the LGBT gaming convention GaymerX ran a Kickstarter project to fund the making of their foray into gaming. They set out to tell a futuristic tale where LGBT characters face less discrimination. While openly gay characters have been around for years in RPGs like Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls, traditional adventure games, at best, merely hint at a character's sexual orientation. (Another good example is Ellie from The Last of Us who shares an intimate moment with another girl, but only in the DLC Left Behind.) If ROM succeeded in doing only that it would be an unqualified success, but this story set in Neo San Francisco 2064 is so much more.
The start of the game has your character (who's not named until later) waking up in their crappy apartment in San Francisco. (Clearly, housing prices haven't gotten better in the future.) After a quick scan of the items in your room, you're informed via text that you need to file a review. Turns out, you are a tech journalist. The review in question is for the pair of headphones that not only plays music, but can offer info on most objects you will interact with in the game. It's sort of a cheesy ad version of the advice Revolver Ocelot dispenses in MGSV. Soon enough, a robot named Turning shows up at your dingy home to inform you that your pal Hayden has disappeared. Turing is Hayden's creation and figures that your keen reporter skills can be put to use to find him.
As you make your way through Neo SF, the game’s screen is divided into three parts much like most text-driven adventure games. The left of the screen shows the character you’re interacting with or otherwise acts as a heads-up display with a map, save options, etc. The top portion features a wonderfully blocky 2D sprite-inspired graphic representation of the area you are visiting. The bottom features the text to be read as well as the various answers that can be given to such questions like why you insist on keeping a carton of spoiled milk in your knapsack.
Each time you highlight a person or object to interact with you have the option to look, touch, speak, and in some cases take. There are plenty of moments where taking or speaking to inanimate objects will reward your curiosity with clever remarks by Turing. While the robot only bleeps and bloops as his text pops up, I imagined Turing as an American-sounding version of C-3PO.
Read Only Memories started out as a project for the inclusion of LGBT characters, but regardless of where one leans on the political spectrum, it's so much more than just a good-intentioned story of equality for all. You’ll have the option by way of your answers to tailor your own issues of identity and throughout the game’s ten-hour length you’ll encounter plenty of gay and straight, trans- and cis-gendered people. (Along with the folks that are considered hybrids.)
That everything feels organic and genuine in futuristic SF is an incredible feat, especially considering the entire game is just text and deliberately low-tech visuals. As for replay value, no matter what decisions you've made, the game has several branching paths and different conclusions to the story so there's plenty of content to play the game all over again. The highest compliment I can bestow upon developer Midboss is that I look forward to more tales told this way. And who knows, maybe other developers will follow. Plus, it's only ten bucks!