Read Only Memories (ROM) was developed by MidBoss, a team of independent developers who actively promote the presence of the LGBT community within the indie scene by organizing events such as GaymerX. In 2013, the team launched a Kickstarter to create a game with a focus on including the LGBT community as an integral part of their game. What they made is an absolutely charming point and click adventure, both artistically and with its cast of characters. With an enthralling story, ROM does very well to accomplish what MidBoss set out to do.
Set in the cyberpunk future of 2064 Neo-San Francisco, players will take on the role of a tech journalist who freelances out of their apartment. MidBoss’ attempts at making the game an all-inclusive experience immediately comes forward as you will not only get to choose your name, but also which pronouns you wish to be identified with in conversation. In addition, your can even personalise little details such as the characters dietary preferences; taking player customisation one step further.
The story kicks off with the protagonist waking up to find a robot named Turing standing in their room. A conversation takes place, and it becomes apparent that a friend of the lead (Turing’s creator, Hayden) has gone missing. It’s now up to you and Turning to set off on an adventure through Neo-San Francisco to find Hayden. Upon doing so, a diverse range of memorable characters will be encountered; including a flamboyant hacker named Tomcat and your sister’s ex-girlfriend, Lexie. As you investigate deeper into Hayden’s disappearance with the help of newfound friends, key characters begin to die under mysterious circumstances. And as a result, the story evolves into a gritty noir that is a lot more sinister than anyone anticipated.
The pacing of the story is great, with a playtime of around 10 hours across seven chapters. These chapters are playable in one sitting, which gives the player an opportunity to step back and digest what they’ve experienced before moving on. Towards the end of the game, I found this pause between chapters necessary, as wave after wave of significant events hit me as the story built up to an epic climax.
Despite the narrative taking a heavier turn, the writing and dialogue remained charming; in particular, your interactions with Turing and the rest of the world. The lighter dialogue helped to nourish the endearing nature of the character, although the humour felt a little flat at times; especially any referential humor. Whether it was pop-culture or self-referential humor, the jokes felt shoe-horned into the dialogue and came across quite awkward sometimes. The more organic parts of the writing, however, kept me smiling throughout my playthrough.
The cyber-punk future of Neo-San Francisco is a diverse, colorful world that is a joy to explore. Drawing parallels to the city’s present-day reputation of being a hub for a diverse range of people with a wide range of identities. The developers did well to build upon this to create a futuristic city housing an excellent variety of characters. While the way in which each character fits in with the LGBT community becomes evident as you engage with them, personal orientation is not their sole defining trait and rarely impacts on the events of the story.
It’s not that the topic is overlooked in any way, it’s that the writers established a great middle ground where these traits are simply accepted. This approach results in a world full of interesting and colorful people from all walks of life, even robot-hybrids; each very distinct and memorable. In saying that, however, the player character themselves are somewhat forgettable. Despite the extensive customisation at the beginning of the game, there is little agency beyond this for players to flesh out their own personality. To be fair, this did provide a suitable vehicle to tell the story, but I personally would have greatly preferred to play as a character such as Turing.
Players will navigate through the world in a typical point and click adventure fashion. As you locate objects and engage in conversation with NPCS to uncover information, more areas will become available. Relating back to the portrayal of the players character, however, not many of the available dialogue options reflect the player’s personality or choices established at the beginning of the game. While this is somewhat disappointing, the various dialogue options do at least pull the game in different directions and have influence on the story. There are also occasional mini-games which pop-up throughout the adventure. However, apart from the final “boss fight,” their integration into the story is unpredictable and the transition can be jarring. It’s not that they are poorly designed, I just think they would have felt more organic to the experience if included in a predictable fashion, such as one mini-game per chapter.
Reminiscent of Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher, the pixel art in ROM is sleek, with the design of the portraits wonderfully reflecting the colourful nature of each character. This approach also works well to capture the vibrant and diverse nature of the world itself in a very charming way. From the colour pallet used to the clothing of the characters, the artwork complemented the ’80s cyberpunk theme perfectly. Coupled with a super catchy soundtrack from musician 2Mello, everything just synergised really well to produce an experience that was simply enjoyable to be a part of.
Read Only Memories is a charming game, filled with interesting characters and an excellent story to tell. It’s certainly clear that MidBoss accomplished what they set out to do and that’s great. While I can’t say ROM is culturally groundbreaking, it’s certainly an important landmark for the indie community; demonstrating one way an all-inclusive cast could be integrated into a game. Further to this, I felt as if this game almost needed to be made as the vibrant and diverse world it creates likely wouldn’t be conceptualised within the mainstream industry anytime soon. Without a doubt, ROM is yet another fantastic example of indies stepping up to tackle topics big studios would shy away from.