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May 12, 2017

2064: Read Only Memories (Part 1)

They love to sneak in and take centerstage.

Some of the more interesting topics of science-fiction, in my opinion:
-The evolution of society decades, even centuries after what we know today;
-The line between artificial intelligence and sentience;
-Changes to mankind, biologically and mentally;
-The advancement of medical technology;
-How different, and yet how similar, humans are regardless of the era.

Greed, hatred, prejudice, fear of the other, any negative sentiment, name it; it has existed since the dawn of time and will continue to exist no matter how advanced we get. Today’s game sheds a light on a world, 47 years after our current time, where things are both radically different and not all that different.

"How many different drinks do you have?"
Yes, you can do that.
“2064: Read Only Memories”, released in January 2017, is the Director’s Cut edition of “Read Only Memories”, originally released in 2015. I haven’t played the original, so I can’t use it as a point of comparison; but that’s alright, I don’t intend for this review to be a comparison. The game is famous for its deep story, featuring social issues that reminds one of similar debates we currently have; it’s also quite popular for its comedy, its voice acting, and the various paths the story can take, based on your successes, failures, and attitude (as you are often asked to reply to characters, and the responses range from “Nice person” to “Total jerk”). It’s also infamous in the less respectful circles of gamers for featuring these social issues I just mentioned, and for using the voice talents of Jim Sterling and, in a minor role…Zoe Quinn.

If you start frothing at the mouth hearing that name, you better ignore this review. In fact, ignore my entire blog. (She's not even in it for 10 minutes!)

With this out of the way, allow me to say how this review will be done: Part 1 will be the actual review, with a short description of the plot (to keep most of it a secret, so that those of you interested in the game can discover it without me spoiling it all). Part 2 will be a discussion of the game’s themes, with actual spoilers, thus you can skip if it you want. Let’s get this started, shall we?

First, the game asks what you want to be referred as (He, She, They). It’s like asking your gender, but adding the nonbinary option. It sets the tone, doesn’t it?

Just a quick thought: Of course it's "Read-Only Memories".
You don't want to see what happens when you edit
memories. Before you know it, you're a runaway on Mars.

Did I mention that this game has puns? Tons of puns?
Thousands of puns?
We open on Neo-San Francisco. We meet our protagonist… which you get to name. They’re a technology reviewer for a website, and their latest task is to review a new pair of headphones that can be plugged to most electronics to emit voice and music, depending on said electronicsa it's plugged on. Throughout the game, it’s possible to use them to hear commercials, music, white noise… you can even try them on things that aren’t electronics, like paper. It doesn’t work, but you can still try! It’s also an easy access to the game’s soundtrack, so yay.

May I mention that the pixel art that makes up the whole game is wonderful? The locations, the items, the character portraits when they talk! Everything is pixelated, and everything looks great. Especially every emotion that can be conveyed by said portraits.

Might as well. I feel like presenting a  rotten item to
everyone I come in contact with tomorrow.
This is a point-and-click adventure, and every object and person you click on will have one or more options: View, Touch, Talk and Use Item. Most items will have at least two different lines of text for each of these options, and for every object in your inventory that you can use on them! That’s a lot to discover. One of the things you can acquire early on is a carton of spoiled milk – in the protagonist’s fridge – and it can be used on almost everything and shown to almost anyone, always eliciting hilarious reactions. It’s the ultimate running gag. And a harmless gag, too, so that’s great!

You have access to all the information of the world.
Look it up, dammit.
During the Prologue, we learn how to use every function of the game, and finally complete this article about the headphones. Article sent through this laptop – which is apparently an outdated rarity in 2064 – and then we can go to sleep. However, while the main character is sleeping, a strange little robot hacks their apartment’s door, walks in, tries to connect to the laptop, fries it – thanks a lot! – and then stays around, waiting for the character to wake up. And then the protagonist wakes up, and meets the robot: Turing.Yes, like the Turing Test. Clever name there.

So I,m the one with the best chances of helping you?
Just great, I'm stuck with a robot buddy.
The robot states their name, and says that they were the latest creation of Hayden, the protagonist’s friend. Hayden is a brilliant programmer working for Parallax, a grand company with grand projects and even grander aspirations. In a world where most robots – here called ROMs – have a form of artificial intelligence that allows them to respond to humans, Turing is the first to exhibit something closer to sapience. A personality, emotions, aspirations even. And snarky, to some extent. Turing explains that they narrowly escaped from Hayden’s apartment when crooks came in and kidnapped his creator, and then used the list of Hayden’s acquaintances to figure out which person would help them solve this.

Note that I say “them”; well, Turing is a robot, and they know it. They don’t associate to either gender, and thus would like to not be referred to as a he or a she. I mean, it does make sense, being a machine, the default would be the “character gender” assigned to them by their creator, but Hayden seems to have given Turing no gender. Here’s the funny thing about all this; despite being a robot who uses zeroes and ones, Turng identifies as nonbinary. Think about it.

Ah yes, TOMCAT, on the right, they're very helpful.
Definitely moreso than Jess, the catgirl on the left.
Using the reporter’s tricks and tools, our main character goes out with Turing to try and find out why Hayden was attacked. After visiting his apartment, we learn that he was going to meet a person who goes by the nickname TOMCAT at a local bar/nightclub. There, we meet the owners, Majid and Gus, a gay couple. Gus knows the recipe to every single one of the 53 drinks they offer at Stardust, and you can drink each and every single one of them and go on drunken adventures if you drink too many. Did I mention that this game was hilarious? We meet TOMCAT, who’s a nonbinary computer hacker. Interesting. They’ll turn out to be one of the main character’s best allies in the following investigation, as their hacking skill will be needed, multiple times.

One of them could really use a haircut, the other seems ready
to filibuster about an important topic.
I'll let you judge which is which.
At the same bar, we meet another particular element of this world: Hybrids. Sometime before 2064, doctors made the discovery of gene splicing, which allows them to combine human genes with animal genes… effectively turning some people into half-animal, well… hybrids. This turned out to be a lifesaving operation for many people who suffered from diseases that nothing else could cure, like skin cancer or other similar horrible ailments – however, the procedure caught on like a fad, with many undergoing these modifications for fashion, for the heightened senses, and to become even more unique. This… divides the population. Obviously, the hybrids themselves form a tightly-knit community, and can count on the approval of many citizens. And of course, furries are very very happy. The same cannot be said for another group of people, known as the Human Revolution, led by Brian Mulberry (voiced by Jim Fucking Sterling, Son). Human Revolution members range from moderate to extreme, but they all agree on something: Gene splicing purely for fashion is to be stopped. This raises many interesting questions in-universe, revealing a form of discrimination that isn’t that far off from other forms of discrimination seen today (More on this in Part 2). This turns out to be a major plot point of the game, even if it’s technically not tied to the protagonist’s search for Hayden.

There’s also something about cyborgs and how it’s become a fairly common practice to get limbs and parts replaced by machines, but it’s seen as more normal. Oh, the more extreme Human Revolution folks also despise cyborgs, because I guess even in the future, some people needs to hate on multiple groups… but while it’s there, the game doesn’t put as much emphasis on this as it does for Hybrids.

Majid and Gus, owners of Stardust, and a gay couple,
a thing casually mentioned. And not a single homophobe
in sight - that's truly awesome.
Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, by the year 2064 presented in this game, debates on the acceptance of gender and sexual preferences are pretty much over. Whether you’re straight, bi, gay, pan, anywhere on the spectrum, doesn’t matter. You’re respected. Same if you identify as male, female, nonbinary, trans, anywhere on the gender spectrum as well. The inhabitants of Neo San Francisco are also very diverse. Read Only Memories thus presents a world where many debates of our modern age are no longer an issue for anyone… and that’s great! I’m not nearly as hopeful for our future, but… hey, I’m all for an idealistic futuristic depiction of our society. It’s certainly better than what we’ve got now…

Of course, that’s not the only characters in this story; we also meet countless ROMs, all of which occupy the roles they were given. We also meet, not necessarily in that order:
Because it's a good running gag.
-Lexi, the ex-girlfriend of the protagonist’s sister, a detective for the Neo San Francisco Police Department;
-Chad Francis Mulberry and Oliver Meadows, two graffiti artists who often do harder criminal stuff, and who get pulled into the investigation unwillingly;
-Jess Meas, a Hybrid catgirl who’s also a lawyer fighting for the rights of her fellow Hybrids. She’s had a tough life, so you damn better not piss her off with cat puns (but the game still allows you to if you want);
Thanks for telling us more about Hayden, but...
seriously, can we trust you?
-Ramona Rogers, owner of a local Hassy bar, a cyborg with very geeky interests;
-And of course, there’s Yannick Fairlight, an older man who used to work for Parallax before they booted him out, and his assistant Leon Deckard-I mean Dekker, what’s wrong with me misspelling names these days. I’m not sure how much we can trust any of them. Sure, they help a lot, but are there other motives behind their surprisingly helpful behavior?

Of course, I would love to reveal more, but I’d rather let you see the rest of the story unravel by yourself. This game will take you many hours to complete. There’s a LOT of content, even more if you happen to stop by and check the text for every command for every object in every environment visited. Or if you show the carton of spoiled milk to every person you meet. The game doesn’t autosave, so do keep in mind to save whenever you can. There is one problem with this, though; when you start discussing with a character, especially if it’s a major character, you won’t be able to save until the discussion is over. And this can be fairly long. When you’re speaking to an important secondary character, you’ll have multiple dialogue options popping up, and you will have to read them all. Some dialogue options open up more dialogue options, though some of those are additional info that you might not need, so you’ll sometimes be able to skip some of these extra details. You,ll still be talking for more than 30 minutes with some folks you meet.

Hayden’s disappearance is the first event that leads our reporter character and Turing, the adorable ROM, on an adventure where they’ll discover a lot of things that will put them in grave danger. Yeah, things get dark partway into this story. I think I can also reveal that this story has many different endings, all of which depend on the success of the final puzzle and on whether or not you’ve been a decent person to Turing during the whole adventure. (I strongly suggest you stay nice to Turing. It leads to the better ending.)

Quite frankly, even setting aside the social elements of the story, I think this is a fantastic point-and-click adventure. The comedy is omnipresent, and doesn’t entirely leave even after things take a dark turn (the climax does stay tense throughout, but that’s to be expected). Also, so many puns. It’s crazy. The story contains a lot of endearing characters, and we learn the backstory for most of them. From TOMCAT to Jess, passing by Leon Dekker and even the Mulberry family, there will be no secrets left!

I know I say this for just about everything I review, but once again, the art and the music – just awesome. The very detailed pixel art brings something more to this game, and the music, also a chiptune soundtrack, just helps a lot the retro aesthetics. I can’t even start to imagine the amount of work it must have been to draw every single animation for environments and dialogues with pixel art. Very impressive work.

Also of note is the voice acting, which is really fantastic. Melissa Hutchison as Turing, in particular, offers an excellent performance, moving between emotional bits of discussion and more informative sections, since Turing may be a robot with emotions, they’re still a robot and will gladly share their knowledge anytime they can. Of course, the other actors all offer something to their roles. It’s particularly great to see just how far they took the voice acting – even some of the more innocuous or surprising interactions, in particular those that you wouldn’t think would need a voice-acted response. (Also, Jim Sterling, so yay.)

The story is complex, and has many twists and turns – and keeps your interest as things go dark. Along the way, there are many puzzles to solve, whether you need to find out how to enter an apartment by yourself, or how to bring back a runaway car towards you in order to interrogate the people inside… and of course, the final puzzles, which I guarantee you’ll remember. Another awesome part is that, even if you do fail some of these puzzles, you can always find a second way to get anything done. The game is made so that you can move forward, despite failures. As an example, the second-to-last chapter (not counting the epilogue) is all about reuniting the allies made on the way in order to create a distraction while the protagonist and Turing sneak into a secret place. Some puzzles can be failed, other puzzles have multiple solutions (and you can find one item that can be used to solve many puzzles, too), and there are lines of dialogue for every possibility. Truly, a TON of work went into this. It’s pretty annoying that you can’t save in the middle of a discussion with a major character, unfortunately.

That's the latest into the game that I went to pick images
for this part. I don't intend to spoil much - until Part 2,
that is.
I think it’s sincerely a good game, and I really recommend it to anyone who likes these investigation stories, or science-fiction worlds… well, unless you’re the kind to hate “games with politics and social discourse OMG”, in which case, skip it. And if you’re that kind of gamer, and got 2064: Read Only Memories through the Humble Freedom Bundle back in February… Oh, you poor sod, there’s one game you’re never gonna play. Too bad for you, you’re missing something good!

Now, I dedicated Part 1 of this review to the actual review. I’ll do things differently this time; Part 2 will contain a discussion on the themes of the game. There will be a spoiler alert warning on that one, so read with caution.