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May 15, 2017

2064: Read Only Memories (Part 2)

I spent Part 1 reviewing this game. This, today, is a special; I’ll discuss some themes of the game. As I mentioned previously, 2064: Read Only Memories is a game that touches on a lot of social topics that are still controversial, especially among gamers. I mean, I don’t have a high opinion of people in general, but I’ve seen some gamers exhibit the worst kinds of behavior. A certain event in 2014 But I digress. Long story short: Don’t like this game and the subjects it brings up? Don’t read this, simple as that. Also, if you do read, be aware that there is a spoiler alert; I’ll be spoiling details of the plot here.

Race, gender, orientation… and ROMs

The world of 2064: Read Only Memories shows a society that has moved past many of the questions of our time.

Lexi is offhandedly mentioned to have dated the protagonist's sister.
Yes, a lesbian, but never is it ever glorified as a wonderful or mystical
thing, nor is it used to allure viewers in any way.
In other words, it's banal - and that's what we should look for, a world
where one's sexuality matters not to the world at large. Same goes for
gender, as shown by TOMCAT or Sympathy in this game.
If there’s still racism in that world (outside of the Hybrids case), it’s not depicted. Homophobia and transphobia also seem to be a thing of the past, seeing as various people throughout the game are revealed as being either gay or trans, without any form of discrimination affecting these characters – nobody seems to mind. Majid, one of the owners of Stardust, is from Pakistan, and his origin is a problem to no one. And no one bats an eye when it’s mentioned that the second owner, Gus, is his boyfriend. Meanwhile, Lexi Rivers, the ex-girlfriend of the protagonist’s sister, occupies an important position at the Neo San Francisco Police Department. Sympathy is a woman sporting a beard and cool glasses, and if everyone around her didn’t keep referring to her with female pronouns, I’d be certain she’s a trans man, or a woman currently transitioning. In fact, that might be the case, her fellows maybe just didn't start calling her with male pronouns (and we could argue it's still not very respectful...). TOMCAT is nonbinary, and is always referred to with the correct they/their pronouns… which is also an option for the main character. In other words, this has all become normal, banal even, which is pretty great.

I actually applaud Turing for being a three-dimensional
character, as a robot that is still struggling to comprehend
all of the emotions they can use, and as a machine that does
not yet know proper etiquette for interactions in society -
also for being sometimes a smartass that runs their mouth
with pointless trvia when they can slip in some of that info.
Interacting with the world at large, not only with Hayden,
helped greatly their character development.
Where do ROMs, that world’s robots, factor in all this? Well, for starters, Turing also wants to be referred to as nonbinary, having no personal concept of gender nor a desire to identify as either gender. Their design and voice leads some people to assume that they’re like a young boy, and use male pronouns. Here comes the major spoilers: Turing is the second ROM made by Hayden to exhibit emotions; the first one, Grace, identified as female. Also, the best ending in the game sees Turing transmitting Hayden’s emotion matrix code to all ROMs on the planet, leading to widespread machine sentience. Or, at least, as close to sentience as robots can be. And with this ending, we can see that a) not all robots are happy with it, b) many struggle in dealing with these new emotions, and c) all robots can now make choices in line with the ones done by humans in 2064. I think one or two robots even mention what they want to be addressed as from now on, with which pronouns. The advantage being, ROMs having no gender to start with, they’re free to choose how they want to be identified: Nonbinary, male, female... I’ll discuss machine sentience later.

Hybrids (and cyborgs) versus the Human Revolution

Arguably a good idea; in some science-fiction stories,
too much cybernetics on a single person would make them
go insane.
In my opinion, one of the more interesting parts of the plot is the struggle of Hybrids (and, to some extent, cyborgs) against a group of protesters known as the Human Revolution, led by Brian Mulberry. The game attempts to portray various things realistically; among them, prejudice and protest groups. See, the Human Revolution isn’t a homogenous group where everybody has the exact same goals. The whole group is against drastic modifications to humans that can turn willing subjects into half-animal beings known as Hybrids… but its members show varying degrees in their demands. The more accepting members state that they want to cease gene splicing when it’s used only for fashion; after all, the procedure is irreversible. The more extreme Human Revolution members, on the other hand, are against any and all gene splicing, and are also starting to go against cyborgs too. Their basic argument is that “people who undergo these changes aren’t as human as everyone else anymore”, which they seem to believe gives them a pass to discriminate them.

My personal stance on the matter? Choosing to become a hybrid only for fashion isn’t really worth it. It’s a major decision that cannot be taken lightly. As the game shows, this treatment will radically change the life of the person undergoing it. Doing it just to look cool is overlooking all of the potential difficulties that can result from such a drastic change. And a person becoming a hybrid “for fashion” must be ready to face these changes in the eyes of the people around them – since hybrids suffer from discrimination. However, there are some people suffering from rare or otherwise untreatable diseases who survived through gene splicing.

What if it IS the only way to cure them?
Speaking of, this is also portrayed realistically – or, at least, the game tries to depict the hypocrisy of people who call themselves “accepting” of a change while actually encouraging hatred of said change. Take Brian Mulberry, as an example. He’s the leader of Human Revolution, one of its moderate members – or so he says. He claims to be fine with those who go through it to be cured from a disease, and adds that he’s only against the gene splicing treatment being done on someone who requested it for fashion. That is what he says. However, a little later, he actually approves discrimination against all hybrids – nearly celebrating that a hybrid was thrown out of their apartment by their landlord. Y’know… a hybrid who could have been one of those who had to become one to be cured from a disease. This highlights Mulberry’s hypocrisy… a form of hypocrisy he doesn’t seem to realize, much like various people in real life, supposedly holding accepting views with caveats that contradict that image of acceptance they are trying to convey.

Oh, Jim Sterling may have a voice to make this guy sound as trustworthy as possible; doesn’t matter, Mulberry is a jerk. Good work from this game to realistically portray this kind of thought process.

Big Brother is watching… and editing

That woman was just thrown out of a third story window.
We don't find out by who until the final chapter...
...not counting the epilogue, of course.
One of the secondary arcs of this game involves the media sources of Neo San Francisco. It’s actually important in discovering why Hayden was kidnapped – and killed, as we learn. For, you see, the main character’s investigation brings them to speak with other people from news sites… and most of them are either found dead, or are killed during the investigation. Even at least one other person who helps the heroes gets run over by a truck, in a time period where cars are all computer-controlled, and built to avoid hitting people unless their system is overridden.

It thus turns out that someone or something is aware of the protagonist and Turing’s investigation. And indeed, something is aware. The sparse leads are eventually tied together – and bring the two to Parallax, the enterprise Hayden was working for, and the most important ROM manufacturer out there. We learn of Big Blue and Baby Blue, two projects set up by Parallax. Big Blue is, basically, a program that will extend to every single ROM through the network and keep a complete database of every person’s preferences… in anything. So, you know, a less subtle version of social media that keeps track of everything you talk about and makes ad suggestions to go with these preferences. Except all of this data would go to Parallax… and considering all the people that died to bring this project to fruition, they’re not doing it for the good of mankind.

Obviously, if someone is plugging these leaks , then the
heroes are getting into far more trouble than they ever
thought!
But is Baby Blue really responsible for this?
Meanwhile, the other program, Baby Blue, was sent through the network already. Its purpose? Spy what’s said about Parallax on the new Internet of 2064, known as the Meshnet, and correct anything that may paint a negative picture of the company. Articles that critique Parallax, reports that shine light on the controversy around them… sometimes words are edited, other times big sections are modified. Yup, say hello to actual attacks on freedom of speech. That’s basically what this amounts to. That is entirely too much power for a company, now imagine if a government had both Baby Blue to edit critiques towards its leadership, and Big Blue to know everything about everyone and have the possibility to sell people’s secrets… One could say we’re already living in a world where Big Brother exists, but the situation barely avoided in Read Only Memories is even worse…

Machine sentience

At the end of 2064: ROM, the player and Turing spread the latter’s sentience-replicating code to all ROMs in the world. I discussed it earlier, machine sentience has a lot of effects that nobody saw coming, in particular Turing and the protagonist on this quest to stop Big Blue.

The program transmitted to all robots truly acted like they suddenly gained a personality and emotions – or, basically, as if they had a brain. A sudden acknowledgement of sentience has to be disorienting. A sudden surge of sentiments, this new creativity… The ROMs of the world were clearly not ready for this.

This concept draws parallels to other instances in fiction of robots developing something that feels eerily close to sentience, like Sonny in I, Robot (I still need to read the damn book, I only saw the movie with Will Smith). An artificial intelligence so powerful it makes a robot more like a person than a machine. This is reflected in the playable epilogue of 2064: Read Only Memories. Since Turing was the only one living with this new program so far, all the robots are asking him for advice. Some robots who were designed to fulfill certain purposes no longer want to, they either want to do something else or just be lazy.

For the record, it's that tiny spherical thing on the floor
speaking. It now has intelligence... but not many ways
to use it!
A floor-cleaning ROM at the hospital, who’s little more than a half-sphere sliding around, is not very happy about this change, saying he’s an old model and will probably be replaced sometime later – and that this new humanlike intelligence is useless to him, since all he can do is clean floors, he doesn’t even have arms or legs. It raises another question – the protagonist and Turing did share this intelligence with all ROMs, but did all ROMs want it? Not all of them are equipped in such a way that they can benefit from it. At least, the ones who are can now pursue careers that would have never been possible for robots before, mostly in art. But some others realize their important role in society and decide to continue doing what they were doing originally; that’s an option too. Although I have to wonder, would they ask for money? What could any of them desire now? They don’t need to eat, they can’t access most forms of entertainment (almost all video and gaming is done through VR in that depiction of the future, and that requires a human brain to work)…

You keep offering water, Alphie. If that makes you happy.

Long story short, an artificial intelligence that is strikingly similar to sentience sounds incredible – and it is, but we’d have to keep in mind the other possibilities brought by it. If machines become as intelligent as humans, or gain a similar “emotional intelligence” or “creative intelligence”, must we start considering them as people? That’s the conclusion 2064: Read Only Memories reaches, and draws parallels with the Hybrids. In a way, the two situations aren’t all that different. This new intelligence opens ROMs to discrimination from humans (“Why would you want that? You may be smart but you’re just a stupid machine!” type of comments), not all that different from the kind of things Hybrids often hear in that world (“Why should I consider you a human anymore? You’re more of an animal anyway!”). Granted, it gives Jess plenty of work since she's a lawyer who defends cases of such discrimination, but still...

I guess, the entire point is that, whenever there’s a major change to the world, there will always be people who hate that change and everyone who gets something from it.

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Well, that was quite the analysis! I still suggest you play the game, though. On this, I say, see you next Friday for the next review on Planned All Along!