Featured: Top of Home Page

The Bubblegum Noir of 'Read Only Memories'

Photos: MidBoss, LLC

Read Only Memories is a bubblegum-happy, brooding and brutal noir about kidnapping, murder, corruption, revenge, and corporate conspiracies.

2064: Read Only Memories

Publisher: MidBoss, LLC
Developer: MidBoss, LLC
Players: 1 player
US Release date: 2015-10-06

Bubblegum. That word keeps popping into my head while playing 2064: Read Only Memories. Bubblegum.

I think it’s because my robot companion has a perfectly round head reminiscent of a bubblegum bubble. Or maybe it’s the upbeat chiptunes that play on every screen, saturating the game with a sweet, uppity, soundtrack. Or maybe it’s because of the colors; I see the game saturated in a dull bubblegum pink, except nothing in the world is really pink like that. I'm remembering an emotion, not an actual color. It’s a bright world, in both color and tone. Everything just looks so inviting and pleasant.

Actually, everything is inviting and pleasant in Read Only Memories. It’s an inviting game because it's very clearly a socially progressive world. Taking place in Neo-San Francisco in 2064, it ups the social progressiveness of an already progressive city into a kind of inclusive utopia. The cast is filled to the brim with gay characters, trans characters, ethnic characters, genetically modified outsiders, and counter-culture hacker hipsters -- the kind of characters that would be a minority or a distinct “other” in any other media are the norm in Neo-San Francisco. You even get to choose your preferred pronoun at the start (him, her, they).

You can practically hear the game telling you to take your typical straight white male sci-fi hero and... gently set him aside so others can take center stage. The game never feels like it's trying to make a radical progressive point. The characters aren't written as symbolic representatives of a minority group, they're just... who they are. It's an understated inclusivity that only makes itself known through its pervasiveness.

It’s a pleasant game because everyone's so nice. Your robot companion is relentlessly upbeat, an underground hacker agrees to help you after meeting with you for all of five minutes, and a random stranger in my hospital room has connections and money he's happy to share. Even the ostensible lowlifes of the world are friendly: A pair of young vandals agree to help after some minor prodding, a thug guarding a door refuses to let you pass… until you help him write a Christmas–themed love rap, and when looking up blackmail on a seemingly skeevy news anchorman the worst you find is that he gave "the bird" to a box of kittens… before adopting one of them. It’s the kind of game in which nothing bad happens when you cross over into the bad part of town.

Heck, even the religious protesters picketing a gene splicing clinic are polite. They may see gene splicers as inhuman, but at least they don’t shout in your face about it. They’re actually very quiet protesters.

Indeed, Read Only Memories is a bubblegum-happy world in which even the prejudiced protesters are polite.

It's also a brooding and brutal noir about kidnapping, murder, corruption, revenge, and corporate conspiracies.

Yea, it's a bit tonally confusing.

Read Only Memories is a sci-fi noir mystery, (it bills itself as cyberpunk, which, depending on your definition of cyberpunk, already assumes some noir influence, but in the interest of keeping things simple and not getting into a discussion of genre, I’m just gonna call it sci-fi noir). You’re a down-on-your-luck journalist who gets roped into a kidnapping investigation when a sentient AI shows up on your doorstep asking for help.

Like the best noir detectives, you don’t solve this mystery by piecing together clues, but by going around asking questions to stir up trouble to see what new leads you can prod out of people. Or rather, the more inviting and pleasant version of that. Which is just you going around asking questions, then thanking people when they give answers. It’s all so… easy.

You never start a bar fight, in fact the only bartenders you meet are a happy gay couple. You never talk shit to someone, at most you'll threaten to call the cops on some young graffiti vandals who immediately apologize. You do get knocked out at one point, but instead of waking up in the street you wake up in a hospital, your costs automatically covered by government care. This is a noir story in which the poor, down-on-his-luck detective gets adequate medical attention.

Read Only Memories is an inviting and pleasant game, and that's no accident. It's pleasant because it wants to be inviting. It wants to portray a future world defined by casual inclusivity, but more important than that, it wants to portray a positive example of such an inclusive world. It doesn't want to fear-monger, and it doesn't want to indulge in negative stereotypes. As such, its cast of "outsiders" are all good people -- trustworthy, kind, and disarmingly quirky.

It’s an admirable goal, but that insistence on positivity means the game lacks the seediness and cynicism of noir, and it feels like the game constantly pulls its thematic punches in order to keep up that positivity.

For example: The official police investigation into said kidnapping is stalled, and one character on the inside makes a specific point that it's only stalled, not stopped. She believes that someone is using their influencing to slow the investigation, but also claims that this proves no one has been paid off. So what does this mean? The system isn't perfect, but it's also not so bad? What a half-hearted indictment of the legal system.

Or: We ally with some vandals to get a fake passport, and learn a little about their hooligan lifestyle, and why they tag buildings with anti-genetic slogans. The game walks up to a dark ledge, especially when we learn that most of these kids have parents in the gene-protesting Human Revolution. There's something to be said here about prejudice and parenting, but then our allies go and prove themselves as good open-minded kids who only cause trouble because their parents agree with the politics of their vandalism. Rather than expose us to some corner of the Neo-San Francisco underworld, we learn that the kids are alright.

Or: At the end of the game you ask friends to help start a riot, and they all agree so fast it makes me question their understanding of the word “riot”. However, then your sentient AI buddy asks them to keep the violence down, and the game exposes its bleeding heart: Start a riot, but don’t hurt anyone.

When people do start to die, it feels unreal, and the game doesn't know how to balance its happiness with the darkness of its story. A murder spree leaves four witnesses dead, and soon afterwards I find myself arguing with an otaku barista over a signed anime poster. When characters start to brood they feel like they belong in another game, one that respects their growing cynicism.

Sure, part of this is on me. We often choose how to respond to people. We can be gruff and thankful, or polite and generous. I always chose the latter, but the game does everything in its power to push us in that polite direction, what with the upbeat voice acting, the friendly characters, the pleasing color palette, the inclusive tone, the bouncy music -- I can be a jerk, but it feels so out of place in this world that I can't believe any player would naturally choose do to so. Combine that with the fact that, as a visual novel, we kind of have to agree with people to progress the story. If I refuse to help someone it won't really matter. I'll still end up helping them. Being a dick is not only out-of-place and counter-intuitive but pointless.

Read Only Memories tells a dark story, but it doesn’t want to commit to a dark tone. Instead, its tone swings between a PG-rated, family friendly Pixar version of a noir mystery, and a brooding, paranoid and violent noir mystery -- albeit it a brooding, paranoid, and violent noir mystery with chippy music, quirky characters, and soothing colors.

Read Only Memories is too afraid of getting its hands dirty to properly tell a story about dirty things. The optimistic politics of inclusivity don't really gel with the cynicism of noir. This is bubblegum noir: Too sweet to be properly bitter, too happy to be properly violent, and too nice to properly drag me through the mud and kick me to the curb and threaten me with a beating if I ever show my face around here again.

Where's the fun in that?






'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.


Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.


Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.


The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.


Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.


In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?


Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.


Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.