Is the Noid really the villain this time? Or is he the true hero we all need?
Does a game you like feature LGBT themes and characters? How well does it hold up? Was its representation respectful and accurate? What effect did it have on gaming? In this expanded offshoot of my Queer in Review series, I’ll be examining games both old and new featuring this kind of subject matter and seeing how well they handled it.
If there’s one game I truly regret not getting the chance to play last year, it’s Read Only Memories. It certainly caught my attention when I watched a short playthrough of the game’s 2014 demo on Youtube. The game stood out as something I knew I’d like, but by the time it came out in October 2015, I was too busy and short on cash to pick it up. Thankfully, the game was gifted to me over Steam for Christmas, giving me the chance to play it without the pressure of GOTY breathing down my neck. I already knew I’d end up writing about this game before I played it just based on what I saw in the demo. What I didn’t know was that I’d also want to go back in time and put it somewhere near the top of my Top 10 list for GOTY 2015.
Subtitled A New Cyberpunk Adventure, ROM takes heavy inspiration from Hideo Kojima’s own cult classic cyberpunk adventure, Snatcher. It takes inspiration from other pieces cyberpunk media and graphic adventure games as well, but Snatcher stands out as the game’s obvious primary influence. Of course, one place where ROM stands out from Snatcher is by subverting a trope that is unfortunately status quo in the Cyberpunk genre. This malignant trope is the idea that everyone in the future is white and/or japanese, straight, and cis. It’s frustratingly common in works of speculative fiction, including the cyberpunk genre. Thankfully, ROM deliberately and vigorously avoids touching this trope, intentionally staying as far away from it as possible by including a wide variety of characters with different genders, races, appearances, and personalities.
ROM has an abundance of non-straight characters populating the its setting of Neo-San Francisco. None of the club-goers you encounter in The Stardust, a recurring bar in the game, seem to be straight. My only complaint is that I couldn’t further the potential romance between my lady protagonist and cute bargoer Katelyn beyond some initial flirting. The bar itself is owned by Majid, a gay pakistani immigrant who runs the place with his boyfriend Gus. One of your biggest allies in the game is detective Lexi Rivers, an old friend who used to date the protagonist’s sister.
Strangely enough, I found budding romance between teen punks Chad aka “Starfucker” and Oliver to be the real standout. Initially shown as nothing more than a couple of rude vandalizers, I wrote them off as one-time minor characters who were only there to move the plot forward. The game subverted my expectation when they continued to show up, getting slowly fleshed out over the course of the game and shown to be good kids who are dealing with bad situations in life. They’re also shown to be more than friends, with Chad showing some irrational jealousy and doing some less-than-subtle flirting with the easily-flustered Oliver. It’s silly, but so is real life teen romance. The entire thing comes off as cute and genuine, making what initially seemed like one-dimensional characters stand out as some of my favorite characters in the game.
Similar to Undertale, it dodges the annoying classic “are you a boy or a girl” question, though in a different way. Instead of assigning you a specific nonbinary identity, the game gives you a wide variety of options in terms of identity and pronouns. In fact, the game actually gives you the option to use customized pronouns even beyond its already expanded set of options. This is something all future games with customizable protagonists should implement in some fashion.
This variance in pronouns extends beyond the player character, popping up in the extended cast as well. Your main companion throughout the game, Turing, is a sentient machine who is initially undecided on what pronouns they want to use. They go through much of the game letting people use whichever pronouns they arbitrarily decide fit Turing best. However, Turing eventually decides to go with they/them pronouns, feeling that this best fits for them and how they feel. It’s rare to see a character work through their feelings on gender and pronouns in such a frank and open manner in a story. It stands apart and elevates Turing above more typical examples of robots using neutral pronouns, fleshing them out beyond their peers.
Another major character sporting they/them pronouns is expert hacker TOMCAT. Sporting a flamboyant, androgynous look and a fake southern accent, they were apparently a hacking child prodigy. They use these skills to help out the player character and Turing during their quest to find the truth behind the disappearance of Turing’s creator, Dr. Hayden Webber. They actually open up to the protagonist later in the game about having difficulties with their parents regarding this. There’s also the titular owner of the Sky High Gym, Sky, who also works a side job as a cinematographer. The protagonist also uses neutral they/them pronouns for characters whose pronouns they are unaware of, switching over to their preferred pronouns after learning them.
Gender-neutral characters aside, ROM is admittedly a bit light on explicit binary trans representation. In some ways it’s hard to fault the game for this, since it’d be more than a little rude for the protagonist to go around asking every character if they’re trans. There is one character who is explicitly a transwoman, named Sympathy. She’s a unique departure from usual portrayals of trans women that either pass near-perfectly or are “man in a dress” gags (or both). Instead, she isn’t trying to pass as cis at all, proudly sporting some well-maintained facial hair to go along with her unusual glasses.
None of Sympathy’s friends/coworkers ever slip up with pronouns or treat her as anything other than a woman who is also an expert business owner. It’s extremely refreshing to see a piece of media take on not just gender, but gender presentation and the concept of passing as well. It especially resonated with me as someone who isn’t currently in a situation where I can try and pass in public. Having this kind of representation and tackling these sorts of issues that often get glossed over in even trans-inclusive media is extremely important.
Oddly enough, the character who resonated with me the most as a trans person was both not human and not present during the actual events of the game. Grace, another attempt at machine intelligence by Dr Hayden Webber prior to Turing, is deactivated prior to the events of ROM by her creator. It is mentioned by several characters that Grace was very insistent on using she/her pronouns. She chose her own pastel pink chassis and was persistently nice. Dr. Webber decided to shut her down after coming to the conclusion that her niceness was actually a calculated attempt at manipulation. He believed that everything about her, including her pronoun choice, was an attempt to appeal to him and that her self-preservation routines were too strong. Turing, after learning of all this and looking over stored digital snapshots of her personality, concludes that Hayden was wrong about Grace. She was genuinely kind and caring, wanting to make people around her happy. They compare her need to be nice with their own need to seem intelligent. She actually did have a true consciousness and deserved to live.
Everything about Grace and Turing’s revelations about both her and Dr. Webber’s perceptions of her spoke to me in a way I wasn’t expecting. This idea of gender/pronoun choice being a calculated move to manipulate is a claim against trans ladies that we constantly have to fight against. Those of us who do like pink and other traditionally feminine things are seen as fake, simply performing femininity for personal gain and somehow hurting feminism in the process. Our personalities, kind or otherwise are seen as acted out facades hiding our supposed “true” selves. Despite these outlandish claims, we’re real people and real women. We’re not faking anything or using our identities to try and gain anything. If we actually wanted to identify as something to gain social standing, we’d probably choose an identity with a lower mortality rate attached to it.
While not proper representation, plenty of the language and in-game politics used for hybrids (humans who have spliced their dna with animal genes) rang true with the trans issues of today. The parallels between gene therapy and hormone therapy are more than obvious, as is the similar political backlash that hybrids are facing in the game compared to the current political backlash against trans people. This was also somewhat true of the issues of cybernetic modification show in the game, those these obviously more aligned themselves with ableism and the rights of those with disabilities.
Of course, you can’t have a fight for human (or non-human) rights without someone trying to fight against them, and that’s where the Human Revolution comes in. The Human Revolution is a political movement that aims to limit the use of genetic and cybernetic modifications, viewing them as a ‘step too far’ in the wrong direction. Led by the apparently charismatic Brian Mulberry, they hold protests outside of gene therapy centers and lobby to “protect the rights of normal humans” by limiting the rights of hybrids and cyborgs. They bear more than a passing resemblance to the reactionary protesters of today and are not a well-liked group by most of the characters in the game.
One of the more important recurring characters in the game is the cat hybrid Jess, a hybrid rights lawyer who reluctantly assists you on occasion during the game. During the game, she’ll begrudgingly tell you about why she became a hybrid and ended up getting into law. She explains that she had to get spliced to combat her stage 3 cancer. Thanks to the reactionary Human Protection Act, she was forcefully sterilized after this because she wasn’t “human enough” anymore. She had some of her eggs removed before the procedure so that she could still have kids later on, but her insurance refused to cover the costs of this due to the “elective nature” of her procedure. She then took them to court, won, and decided to keep it up to help out others like her.
Forced sterilization is still something trans people are fighting again today. Many countries require that a trans person get sterilized as part of their transition in order to receive gender-affirming medical treatment and legal recognition of their gender. These laws are starting to get overturned in some European countries, but the fight against this special brand of ugliness is far from over. There’s also the toxic idea that medical transitioning is unnecessary and “elective” in nature. Over 40% of trans people will attempt suicide compared to just over 4% of people in the general population. While inability to medically transition is just one of many factors that make this stat so high, it can be the difference between someone living happily or ending their life. It is quite literally a life-saving procedure for transgender people and should be treated as such.
I’m extremely thankful that Read Only Memories exists. I’ve personally never encountered a game that juggled as many issues as it did while actually handling them well. The gameplay itself isn’t revolutionary, but ROM’s narrative blows its cyberpunk peers out of the water. The casual treatment of its diversity sprinkled throughout enhances the entire experience. I hope other game devs are taking notes on this one and realizing that not every character needs to be a straight white cis dude for their narrative to work. ROM is proof of just how false this idea is.