Photos: MidBoss, LLC

The Bubblegum Noir of ‘Read Only Memories’

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

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?