I could cite countless reasons why I adore Read Only Memories, but the one that sticks out most is that it’s the first adventure games I’ve enjoyed every second of in a long time. That’s in large part because it eschews a lot of the frustrating design elements of its contemporaries, but also because it’s a generally lovely, positive game. It depicts a cyberpunk world that doesn’t dwell on the dark and gritty aspects that are so popular. It’s bright and colorful, its cast diverse and wonderful.
It all starts when a robot breaks into your apartment overnight. You assume the role of a journalist. You’ve just completed your last assignment and head to bed, longing for a little more excitement in your life. Then a robot named Turing sneaks in overnight and asks for your help. They’re creator, Hayden – an old friend of yours – has been kidnapped, possibly to steal his research for a side-project of his, and Turing wants to find him. Why you of all people? Because you’re their best shot, statistically speaking, as Turing puts it.
That project, by the way? Turing: the world’s first sapient robot. Robots in Read Only Memories – known as ROMs (Relationship and Organization Managers) – are limited to being mere servants, so the existence of a fully sapient robot is a big deal. Though the story primarily revolves around the kidnapping and the greater mysteries surrounding it, the game doesn’t hesitate to explore the complexities of personhood and the difficulties of navigating that space.
When you first meet Turing, they already start pondering the nature of their existence, positing all sorts of philosophical questions about the nature of free will as it pertains to them. After all, if you were but a machine designed to be sapient, how can you be positive all those thoughts of worry and fear for your creator you feel are real and not something you’re programmed to do to ensure your loyal to them? The rest of the game doesn’t get quite so philosophical, but it doesn’t stray from examining those subjects.
The world of Read Only Memories is a delight to explore. In contrast to most cyberpunk works, where everything’s typically dark and gritty, here it’s bright and colorful; even a little hopeful. There’s a sense of positivity, a jovial attitude throughout that’s refreshing. Even in the more run-down, seedier districts, you always run into generally affable folks. It’s a welcoming place in spite of its troubles; a nice contrast to the greater strife in the world.
It’s also very inclusive, portraying folks of all kinds of genders and sexuality. Hardly surprising given developer Midboss’ many LGBT-focused initiatives, but it still bears mentioning for how well it treats its cast. They don’t exist purely as ammunition to preach morality or come off as mere tokenism. They’re interesting, complex characters who just happen be gay or transgender or whatever. Their gender or sexuality is never made out to be a big deal – it’s never brought up, actually – nor is it ever at the center of their character arcs. It’s a refreshing change from how some media often feels obligated to base the entirety of someone’s character around those qualities and exaggerate them.
You move around Neo-San Francisco’s many districts pursuing leads by chatting with folks, examining objects in the area, and other typical adventure game stuff. The majority of your time is spent in conversation. Turing does most of the talking while you occasionally select from a list of dialog options. Mostly it’s a laundry list of questions to get more information about the case or some background on who you’re talking to, but occasionally they have an effect on how certain scenes play out. Failing to say the right things while sneaking into a restricted area would necessitate knocking out the receptionist, for instance, while talking your way in would only require you to distract them while Turing bypasses the security system.
Read Only Memories uses puzzles sparsely. It’s not an adventure game that relies on barring progress through opaque logic. What few puzzles exist are clear and rely more on your own ingenuity than discerning a singular solution. In one instance, you have to reroute a taxi to your position to prevent a couple of potential suspects from escaping. You’re hooked into the nearby traffic control node and told to lock off any potential exits at each intersection, except you can only lock off two roads per turn. It’s not a puzzle you solve through the trial and error of stumbling on a solution and more the type you examine closely to deduce your own solution. And if you happen to fail, the game keeps moving and offers up some alternative means to still achieve your goal. Maybe that’s calling on your friend in the police to put an APB on them, or asking a fixer to grab them.
It’s a fantastic change from the usual pacing of most adventure games, where puzzles are a constant roadblock. Here, they only arise when it makes sense in the context of the story, which makes them blend with the rest of the game naturally. They don’t feel out of place or exist merely to add “gameplay.” I often get frustrated by adventure games precisely because they often have this incessant need to toss puzzles in every few steps, and almost always they’re an absolute pain. Read Only Memories never felt that way. Every time one appeared, it was a welcome sight because they’re so sparsely used. Because they never felt out of place or relied on obscure solutions.
There’s still the usual “figure out which item to use where” variety of obstacles, but you’re never carrying much in your inventory, so it never takes more than a minute to work out the solution. It prevents Read Only Memories from ever becoming a slog. You’re always making progress in some form, such that the game is over before you know it. It took me around 12-15 hours to finish the game, but it felt shorter than that because of the brisk pacing. Never was there a moment where I wasn’t completely absorbed in what was happening, not a single minute where it felt like it dragged or was padded in some way. From start to finish, Read Only Memories is a delight. Midboss has made a heck of a debut as a developer, and I can’t wait to see what they create next.