Welcome to An Adventure in Small Games, a monthly series focused on games that cost less than $20, ideally less than $10. In this series, Eve Golden Woods will focus on indie games and what they have to offer the world of gaming. This month’s focus is Read Only Memories from MidBoss.
Read Only Memories, or R.O.M., is set in the colourful, robot-filled world of Neo San-Francisco in 2064. This is not cyberpunk as we tend to imagine it. Although it has certain echoes of traditional cyberpunk narratives, like Blade Runner or Neuromancer, there are no murky streets here and no dark alleys filled with roiling fog. The style is closer to the wild explosion of colour and chaos seen in comics like Transmetropolitan. You play as a down-on-their-luck journalist, someone trapped writing fluff articles about new products. When the sapient Rom (the game’s word for robot) Turing turns up at your door asking you to help him investigate the disappearance of his creator, your old friend Hayden, the narrative takes the opportunity to shake you loose from your self-imposed isolation and force you to confront the world around you. It’s not an easy world, although there is beauty in it. It is mired with the many conflicts our own world faces today. There are tensions between massive mega-corporations and the communities they control and serve. There are tensions around people’s access to healthcare and necessary treatments. There is discrimination and violence.
If the heart of cyberpunk is the feeling of isolation engendered by corporate dystopias, then R.O.M. proposes that the only way to resist corporate power and insidious authority is to form connections with others, to seek to understand them and accept them. It’s a beautiful marrying of theme and form. In a visual novel, the influence of the player exists mainly in their choice of dialogue. In R.O.M., your words echo out from you, changing the dynamics between the people you meet and speak to. The game doesn’t let you off lightly either. I offended one character on our first meeting, and it took me the rest of the game to make amends for my mistake.
[pullquote]“There are queer characters—almost every relationship mentioned in the game is queer, actually.”[/pullquote] This concern with connection is evident in the diversity of the world, too. R.O.M.’s narrative focuses on a conflict between people who have chosen to augment themselves, either through genetic modification or cybernetic enhancements, and a group of protesters who want humans to remain “pure.” The question of who is allowed to exist comfortably in society and who is ostracized is central to the narrative. And this is backed up by a richness of other kinds of diversity among the characters you meet. There are characters of all genders, including more than one genderqueer character and at least one explicitly trans character. There are queer characters—almost every relationship mentioned in the game is queer, actually. (Read Carly Smith’s review of R.O.M.‘s gender representation here.) There are characters from many different ethnic groups and characters with disabilities. Characters will tell you this about themselves when it’s relevant, but it only becomes an issue when it relates to their conflict with others around them. For example, Ramona has a prosthetic arm and leg. I only know this because she was explaining her opinion of the anti-enhancement group, The Human Revolution. It all adds up to one of the most nuanced expressions of diversity in a game that I’ve ever seen.
This all ties back to the theme of connection. By presenting us with a huge variety of characters and situations, R.O.M. highlights the idea that understanding people—who they are, where they come from, what their desires are, and what they need—is crucial to committed resistance to evil and injustice. The disappearance of Hayden, the event which sparks the narrative of the game, is bound up in corporate espionage and secrecy, in the silence that corporations use to protect their own interests. As a journalist, the main character’s actions involve communicating the truth of the situation to the world. This is a narrative that contrasts silence with speech and argues compellingly that all voices must be heard to make a just world.
In spite of its serious themes, R.O.M. is not a stuffy or serious game. It strikes a marvelous balance between wry humour and genuine emotion. Almost every object gives you four options—you can look at it, speak to it, touch it, or use an item on i—and buried in the tangle of possible responses is a wealth of jokes, sarcastic commentary, and witty observations on the world. My personal favourite was a fern in a pot that is described as looking like an anime head with ridiculous hair.
At the same time, R.O.M., though self-aware, is never ironic about its own premise or its characters. Irony, while good for a cheap laugh, tends to become exhausting quite quickly and almost always makes games challenging to replay. Instead, although R.O.M. revels in the more absurd aspects of its own word, it knows when to give the characters room to breathe, and it never shies away from letting them feel strong emotion. By the time I got to the end of the game, I was deeply invested in the struggles of Turning, Lexi, TOMCAT, and the main character’s relationship to all of them. Turing in particular is truly compelling. Though they start with an already clear sense of self, their development of opinions about the world around them and their place in it is fascinating to watch.
This is not a game without flaws. The interface is a little buggy, the mini-games can be challenging in a slightly irritating way, and some of the puzzles are downright frustrating. (Especially the one that involves figuring out which cocktail, from a list of about twenty-five, a particular person in the bar wants.) You can’t save during conversations, which can be inconvenient if you get stuck in a long dialogue tree when you have to stop playing and do something else. Presumably this was done to stop save-scumming on dialogue choices, but it meant I sometimes ended up skipping interesting discussions just so I could save and quit.
[pullquote]”Games like R.O.M., made with care by small teams, deserve a space and a voice within the critical community; they deserve detailed attention and commentary that they rarely receive.”[/pullquote] R.O.M. chooses a bright, colourful palette, and the accompanying soundtrack is a mixture of synth and funk that combines that brightness with an undertone suggestive of the Noir elements of the story. The visual style of the game follows a 16-bit aesthetic, most heavily echoing games like Snatcher. Everything, from the menus to the soundtracks, feels like a reference to an earlier era of games. Like Shovel Knight and Joylancer, however, the aesthetic feels less like a cheap invocation of nostalgia and more like a desire to explore certain set of creative limitations. These games will step outside those limitations where necessary, whether that’s in Shovel Knight’s use of parallax, or R.O.M.’s modern save system, and their stories are of the moment in tone and outlook.
R.O.M. is the longest and most expensive game I’ve yet reviewed for this column. My first playthrough took me five hours, and I’m already planning a second. There’s probably about twenty hours of gameplay there total. It’s $14.99 on Steam, though at the moment you can get it for less on itch.io. It’s scraping against the edges of the small game definition I set for myself, but I wanted to review it, because it’s such a beautiful example of what a bigger “small” game can be. Games like R.O.M., made with care by small teams, deserve a space and a voice within the critical community; they deserve detailed attention and commentary that they rarely receive. That was what I hoped to do when I started this column, and I hope that in some small way I have succeeded.
I’ll leave you with something small, which seems appropriate. I think, ultimately, the tone of a visual novel is far more crucial to player enjoyment than the plot, so let me give you an example of R.O.M.’s tone. In the very first scene, you find yourself in your dismal, dingy apartment. You can look around and interact with the different objects. There’s stale coffee, a dying plant, a stack of papers for your unpublished novel, and a poster your friend Hayden gave you. If you try and touch the latter, the game warns you “careful, that’s a load bearing poster.” This is a game in which humour is a wry acknowledgement of the painful truths of life, a way of accepting them without being crushed by them. “Maybe,” it suggests, “you would feel better about talking to your coffee cup if there was a picture of a cat on it.”