What does it mean to be human? Almost every sci-fi work seeks to answer the question in some form, whether through the eyes of robots, mutants, or normal humans dealing with irregular situations. Although a typical question, the answer always seems elusive and ever changing depending on who is providing it. MidBoss, the makers of the sci-fi adventure Read Only Memories, attempts something altogether different by changing the nature of the question—what does it mean to be human when humans accept themselves and others without prejudice?
Set in Neo-San Francisco 50 years after the present day, Read Only Memories (ROM) is a point-and-click adventure game that follows the protagonist as he attempts to uncover who murdered his friend Hayden. Taking place during a time when people are divided between those who accept and those who reject genetic enhancements as the next step in human evolution, ROM drops the player into a retro-future world that pays homage to classic sci-fi games (Deus Ex, Snatcher), movies (Blade Runner), and books (Neuromancer). The soundtrack, an assortment of original 80s-style electronica, pairs nicely with the environment—a colorful, pixelated world filled with robots, outdated (but strangely futuristic) tech, and bizarre haircuts.
There is an incredible amount of listening that the player does throughout the game. More often than not, your character merely acts as a conduit through which the other characters showcase their pasts, fears, and feelings. Although your character does interact with others through choosing predetermined dialogue options, your adopted robot, Turing, essentially acts as the spokesman for your party, suggesting what to do, where to go, and what the correct course of action is throughout the game. Your role as listener and counselor extends to a wide variety of personalities, including a human that had genetically modified herself into a cat-like creature, the homosexual owners of the local bar, your sister’s ex-girlfriend, and the androgynous friend of the man you are looking for.
Read Only Memories focuses on the social acceptance of alternative sexualities and constructions of gender. The producer of ROM, Matt Conn, is the CEO and founder of the GaymerX, an organization devoted to providing a safe space for LGBT gamers. Throughout ROM, I encountered a variety of individuals who professed to being attracted to the same sex. However, this isn’t a world where there is conflict over sexual identity. Instead, the people that you meet seem to treat the issue of gender and sexuality in a blasé manner. There is no soul searching, no struggle, no worries about “coming out.” In mid-21st century Neo-San Francisco, everyone has accepted and moved past any controversy surrounding alternative lifestyles. The battle has moved on to the fight over self-inflicted human genetic evolution and the question of abandoning what makes us human in order to advance ourselves as a species.
The subtext of the game actually weakens the point that the developers are trying to make. Although humans may have moved past the culture wars over human sexuality, by mid-century we are still arguing over the proper bounds and limits of human morality, only this time it is over the right to become something wholly inhuman. In that sense, the developers are exposing the very Augustinian doctrine of total depravity: that no matter how hard we try to improve ourselves, we are still bound (predetermined?) to be at war with ourselves and with one another. In a world where we are masters over our genes and our bodies, Augustine’s pears are still there, and we always take up and eat.
However likely it may be that MidBoss’s world of gender- and sexuality-blindness will come true, at the core of the premise stems an invaluable truth, that the sins that keep us apart from one another do not stem from outside ourselves, but “cuts through the heart of every human being.” Our desires for things to be made right will never happen—unless somehow, mysteriously, the heart itself can be changed.