From The Conversation to Tales of the City, San Francisco has been well-represented in film and literature. But as Matt Conn, producer of the upcoming adventure game Read Only Memories, told me recently over coffee at Haus in the Mission, there are hardly any games that let you actually explore San Francisco and experience its history and culture in a meaningful way. A few racing games have been set in SF, but in these, the city serves as nothing more than a backdrop for Bullitt-style car chases. With Read Only Memories (or ROM for short), Conn is interested in giving players a richer experience of San Francisco.
ROM, which was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, is a game in the classic point-and-click adventure mold, a genre with a focus on storytelling and puzzle solving. Set in the Neo-San Francisco of 2064, ROM casts the player as a journalist—you get to specify the character's name and gender, with both standard and genderqueer pronoun options available—who is enlisted by a robot named Turing to help find Turing's creator, an old friend of the player's character who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
At Haus, I ask Conn what he sees as the role of San Francisco in Read Only Memories. Referring to a classic adventure game, Conn replies, “After playing Gabriel Knight, I was really impressed with how the creators made New Orleans its own character. That game was really good at incorporating real history.”
Read Only Memories incorporates some real San Francisco history, too. Examine the carousel building in Golden Gate Park, for instance, and Turing will rattle off some facts about it. But while you might learn a thing or two from the game, Read Only Memories doesn't go out of its way to educate players about buildings and landmarks. The game is more concerned with capturing the spirit of San Francisco's neighborhoods, and, most importantly, its people.
Conn's primary goal in developing Read Only Memories was to make a game that featured a diverse assortment of queer characters in prominent roles, but wouldn't be aimed exclusively at queer audiences. Instead, it's a game that should feel approachable to anyone, particularly fans of sci-fi and of classic point-and-click adventure games. In fact, Conn hopes that some players who are resistant to the idea of engaging with queer characters might find their perspectives challenged by their time in Neo-San Francisco.
“In a way, I do want it to be subversive,” Conn says. “You don't have to like the queer characters, but you do have to interact with them and sometimes rely on them for help. And I think a lot of people don't get that exposure. Speaking from a gay man's perspective, growing up, I was desperate to play games that had gay characters.”
Through conversation options, Read Only Memories lets players determine just how much they learn about a given character's personal life. Hence, many of the game's themes of queer identity can be ignored or sidestepped, but Conn hopes that players will want to get to know these people.
“The player can skip past a lot of that stuff if they don't want to talk about it,” Conn said, “but then they're really not gonna get the full story. And also, this is only one part of who those characters are. So players won't just look at Lexi and think, 'She's just a lesbian character,' because she's also a police officer. The characters have other facets that come before they introduce their sexuality or talk about their gender identity.”
Given San Francisco's history as a bastion of queer culture, it only made sense to set the game here, and by setting it some 50 years in the future, Conn and his team have given themselves the freedom to imagine how the city might evolve culturally and technologically. The world of Read Only Memories is less hostile to queer folks than our world is—in ROM's world, people wouldn't bat an eye at the idea of, say, a transgender police chief—but that doesn't mean that it's a utopia in which everyone is on more or less equal footing in society. There are still marginalized populations in the form of hybrids and androids, and there are still people in positions of power and privilege.
“We're trying to talk about what we think San Francisco is gonna look like in the future,” Conn said, “and there's a lot of interesting tensions here, like between the city's inhabitants and the tech culture.”
ROM is still in development and much of the story remains under wraps, but having played through the first act via the free public demo (which can be downloaded from the official site), I see some of these tensions manifesting in the form of a resistance group called Human Revolution, which opposes the tech companies' work to fundamentally change what it means to be human. Conn isn't willing to reveal much yet about what impact these tensions will have over the course of the game's story, but he does say that he doesn't want to paint the Human Revolution as purely evil, or to present a morally simplistic view of the conflict at the center of the game's narrative.
Read Only Memories is billed as a cyberpunk game, and its world is far from idealistic, but what I like most about the San Francisco of ROM is that it's not a typical gloomy cyberpunk dystopia in the vein of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. Rather, it's a vision of San Francisco's future in which the beauty and the diversity of the city I know and love today are plainly visible.
Read Only Memories should be available by June of this year.