2064: Read Only Memories review
Though let down by weak gameplay, Read Only Memories is one of the most human games available this year, which is remarkable for a cyberpunk game dealing with robots and transhumanism.
Note: Since time of writing, this game has been significantly updated with voice acting, new characters, and graphical enhancements. This review is based solely on the original version.
Taking many cues from Hideo Kojima’s 1988 game Snatcher, 2064: Read Only Memories is a cyberpunk point-and-click adventure game set in the year 2064. Successfully crowdfunded through Kickstarter and created by MidBoss, the team behind the LGBTQ-friendly convention GaymerX, the game continues to advance the team’s important breakthroughs in queer and gender representation. But this is much more than a thinly-veiled treatise on sexual identity issues. Set in the futuristic city of San Francisco, it’s filled with human-animal hybrids, cutting edge virtual reality technology, political uprisings, and ROMs (robotic assistants). The game is disappointingly light on puzzles and its distinctly retro aesthetic certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but it nonetheless offers plenty of substance through its narrative themes of existentialism and futuristic social issues.
The story begins with you, the unseen player protagonist and financially struggling journalist, plugging away at a tech review for a pair of headphones. During the night, your home is broken into by a blue robot named Turing, who informs you that his owner and old friend of yours, Hayden, has been kidnapped. Presumably, Turing explains, the kidnappers wished to obtain Hayden’s research notes on Turing’s build, since he is the world’s first sapient robot. This leads you on a quest to find your friend, and on a deeper level, to uncover Turing’s origins and contemplate what makes us human.
Along with your robot companion, you meet a string of characters that lead you to each new point of interest. These include Melody, the wealthy owner of a cybernetics firm who lives with a pet polar bear, as well as Lexi, a police officer who grudgingly bends the rules and previously dated your sister. The characters are only loosely connected, often a “friend of a friend,” but with every encounter you edge closer to the truth behind the mystery involving mega-corporation corruption and robot sapience. It’s a promising concept, though the conclusions feel like a stretch at times and the ending is predictable, which gives the story a somewhat amateur feel.
The gameplay mechanics adhere to traditional adventure design: by clicking hotspots that highlight when you hover the cursor over them, you can touch, use, speak to, and look at any interactive object or character. Trying an illogical combination can result in silly commentary or puns. When I attempted to speak to a book, the game told me, “you try to tell the book a story, before realizing the irony.” It is moments like these that make the game feel reminiscent of comedic adventure titles like Simon the Sorcerer (though in that game, inanimate objects actually did respond).
But while Read Only Memories delivers some humorous lines, its overall tone remains serious and insightful. There is a great amount of detail given to the surroundings through text descriptions, which adds much-needed depth to a world that is rather roughly represented through 16-bit graphics. Even the text itself has a pixelated aesthetic, which grows tiresome on the eyes. In terms of visual design, Read Only Memories differs from most modern games – even other retro-inspired adventures – due to its limited layout. The world is viewed through a rectangular box that fills up only half the screen. With the rest of the screen black, this gives only a restrained, partial view of each scene.
At least there are many places to visit. As new locations progressively unlock on your map, you travel to interesting locales such as a colorful neon-lit bar with hybrid regulars, and a VR implant shop in a graffiti-filled alleyway, with quirky wrestlers slouching against the street walls. With the restricted display screen I often craved for a larger view of these areas. Arrows on either edge of the screen allow you to shift the perspective slightly to view other corners of the room, but these scenes remain small in scope. Luckily, the soundtrack manages to bring vibrancy to the world through its cheerful chiptune beat, adding atmosphere and emotion that is otherwise lacking due to the low graphical fidelity of the game.
When it comes to gameplay, Read Only Memories leaves a lot to be desired. The puzzles are over-simplified and the minigames, though infrequent, are mediocre and unvaried. For example, in one puzzle you must persuade one of two hybrids at a club to escort you to the back-room VIP lounge. They each ask for a different flavored drink before speaking with you. The setup is primed for a clue-driven obstacle, but the drinks are easily identifiable when ordered at the bar, often with the same descriptor in its name that the character used earlier. The only positive aspect of this puzzle is its element of player agency. Depending on which character you approach you will receive a different result, though the sequence itself remains basic with no lasting effect. Choices are more sophisticated in other areas, such as a puzzle that requires you to rid a street of protesters. You can either confront the group head on or through a different, more indirect method altogether. Multiple approaches to these scenarios are a neat addition.
The minigames are slightly better than the puzzles. At one point you try to catch two punks who ran off and grabbed a cab. In cooperation with your hacker comrade Tomcat, you use a map system that hacks the taxi’s GPS, tricking it into driving back to your location. By clicking on intersections, you navigate the cab’s direction before it arrives at that marker. If you fail to catch the runaway punks, the outcome of events differs slightly, but has no effect on the overall plot. This minigame is later recycled, returning during the endgame with minor changes, though failing in the finale results in a game over before being forgivingly returned to the last checkpoint.
While I was disappointed with the easy puzzles, I found that the setting, lore and themes made up for it. The game is grounded by its futuristic world, containing several characters of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Even the player protagonist, whom you name near the beginning of the game, can be addressed by other characters with a gender pronoun you select. Touted as queer-friendly, the game does a good job of not preaching too much, instead portraying all orientations as normative in this world. Rather than being presented as controversial issues or even as main facets of one’s personality, these qualities are simply there. There is no "token" gay character – these people just are who they are: diverse, believable characters. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of Read Only Memories. In comparison to other games that use sexuality as a sole character identifier, or often have no gay characters whatsoever, it is refreshing to see this handled so well.
Rather than fixating on the issues of today, this cyberpunk game is more concerned with the problems of tomorrow, such as discrimination towards hybrids and Human Revolution protests against Genus, a gene-splicing firm. It isn’t uncommon to see human characters with fluffy tails, or people with cybernetic augmentations. Jess, a cat/human hybrid who faces discrimination from her peers, reveals that she sought her gene enhancements to cover up permanent damage from skin cancer treatment. Ramona, a girl obsessed with Japanese pop-culture and virtual reality dramas, has a mechanical limb after a near-death experience in a car crash. It seems that many of these characters underwent cybernetic or gene enhancements for the betterment of their lives. The discrimination and marginalization of such hybrids can be viewed as a direct parallel to the transgender community today, which provides a really thought-provoking experience.
Aside from LGBTQ themes, Read Only Memories provides insightful commentary on existentialism and what it is that makes us human. Conversations with Turing were some of my favorite parts of the game. For example, when approaching Hayden’s apartment to search for clues, you can ask Turing if he’s programmed not to harm humans. This transcends into a conversation about social contracts and independent thought. Later in the game, as Turing learns more about himself, he contemplates the idea of gender identity, which is absolutely fascinating from a robot’s perspective. The game manages to present well-written character development, particularly with Turing, whose emotions and perspectives evolve as you progress. Other characters, including Tomcat and Jess specifically, open up about their past as their trust towards you increases. My one complaint, in a game that requires a significant amount of reading, is the technical jargon from Turing, which can often distract from his unique ideas on anything from gonzo journalism to futuristic cultural elements, such as the legalization of street art in Los Angeles during the mid 2030s.
Player choice is crafted best through the game’s branching conversations, and some responses you select will be remembered later by other characters, especially Turing. Read Only Memories offers different endings, including bad ones, depending on certain decisions you make during your playthrough and – more importantly – the dialogue choices made in the endgame. If you originally receive a bad ending, not to worry as the game allows you to reload the final checkpoint afterwards to try again.
This roughly six-hour game is let down by disappointing puzzles and a somewhat hackneyed storyline, and its blatantly old school presentation will surely put off anyone without a fondness for retro adventures, but for any fans of cyberpunk, 2064: Read Only Memories is a flawed but fascinating adventure that is worth playing due to its unique themes, mature LGBTQ representations, and thoughtful discussions on the human existence.