Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Read Only Memories: Neurodiver is a cyberpunk game with a fascinating queer world

Read Only Memories: Neurodiver was first announced two years ago via a trailer from Midboss. Since then, news about the game and its development has been slow.

But what came before? In 2015, developer Midboss released one of my favourite indie games, Read Only Memories. It was a fantastic, queer, cyberpunk mystery filled with gorgeous sprite-art reminiscent of classics like Snatcher, an incredible soundtrack that I still listen to on loop to this day, and positive portrayals of characters of a myriad of genders and sexualities. Plus it had robots, lasers, animal hybrids, psychic espers, hardboiled detective noir set onto a backdrop of a cyberpunk war, and the most brilliant example of character design you will ever find in this, or any other game, the one-and-only Starfucker.

What’s not to love?

Well, despite my praise I can think of one thing. There wasn’t a whole lot of game in this indie game. It was a largely story driven experience with puzzles that could largely be boiled down to “rub everything in your inventory on everything else until the plot kicks in.” Don’t get me wrong, I still loved it, but as much as it billed itself as a point and click adventure, it was really more like a visual novel with an odd mini-game here or there.

While I barely had half-hour gameplay in the small, playable demo of Read Only Memories: Neurodiver, it’s clear that they have taken past criticisms to heart. Neurodiver can best be described as a riff on games such as Phoenix Wright. Midboss’s strength was always in their writing, so they decided to make the writing the gameplay.

In Neurodiver you play as ES88, a genetically modified psychic detective who uses a neurodiver, the world’s cutest cthuloid abomination, to enter the psyche and explore the memories of others. There’s a rogue esper on the loose who has been committing crimes and erasing all memory of his existence. It’s up to you to find discrepancies in the shattered memories of witnesses and victims in order to hunt him down.

It’’s clear that Midboss have taken past criticisms of the original to heart

You can feel the Phoenix Wright influence, right? There’s still plenty of brute forcing you can do, but there are also plenty of puzzles that require a bit of thought. When you neurodive, you get to step into the shoes of whoever’s memories you are inhabiting at the time. You then get to, essentially, roleplay as them, choosing what they say and do. Every so often you’ll come across broken, shattered, or corrupt memories and by comparing them with evidence you find both in the real and mental worlds, you can rebuild them, unlocking the truth of what actually happened.

And this is all a blast. Who wouldn’t like playing as a psychic detective? But there’s something else this gameplay loop does. It allows you to see life from their perspective.

The original Read Only Memories was praised for its deep and interesting portrayal of queer characters, but you were still on the outside looking in. The protagonist was a blank slate, with a name, gender, sexuality, and pronouns that you decided. You were you, or at the very least the character you created to act as your avatar. You may have met non-binary androids, trans hackers, angry cat-girl lawyers, gay street punks, and sexually confused roombas, but you were always in the position of dissecting them as an observer.

Neurodiver brilliantly lets you walk a mile in their shoes through its main gameplay loop. You have to be the gay animal hybrid, the non-binary combat android, the differently-abled barfly, and so on.

And you don’t get to change who they are. Neurodiver does let you roleplay, but it doesn’t let you erase these character’s base personalities.

For example, the demo does let you hop into the mind of a gay lion-man and, through reliving his memories, you’ll end up flirting with a random partygoer at a bar. You can choose to portray him as a tough stoic soldier, a cute socially awkward outcast, or a cool (bordering on try-hard) pick-up artist, and that flexibility really gets the player invested. However, his history doesn’t change, his gender doesn’t change, and his sexuality doesn’t change. The player isn’t totally in control nor is the narrative. Rather, the player is constantly in dialogue with the game through their actions, and it’s by those actions that they get a sense of living the lives of the people they dive into.

Read Only Memories: Neurodiver
You have to be the gay animal hybrid, the non-binary combat android, the differently-abled barfly, and so on

The demo, unfortunately, only let us experience one scenario but I can easily see this being a powerful tool for storytelling, especially if the goal is to introduce a wider audience to LGBTQ+ characters.

That being said, the demo really is just a proof of concept. It only shows the barest inklings of a wider plot, not nearly enough to hook you. It’s pretty clear that Neurodiver is selling itself on its unique premise, beautiful art, and the pedigree of its predecessor.

But as a fan of the original, I have to say I have faith, especially now that it’s been delayed until 2022. Every dev is struggling due to the pandemic these days, but a little extra time in the oven couldn’t hurt. They have a winning premise on their hand, and it’d be sad if they didn’t fully explore it.

Will ES88 end up reconstructing the memories of the recently murdered? Will she need to dive into the memories of a killer? Heck, judging by statements made by the dev, we might actually see real Phoenix Wright style courtroom segments starring everyone’s favourite cat-girl lawyer from the original, Jess Meas. In fact, if you are to believe the trailer you’ll end up crossing paths with everyone from the original. The possibilities are endless and my hopes are high.

Another brute-forceable visual novel would be sadly disappointing, even if it was competently written. As long as Midboss dodges that pitfall, I cannot wait to dive into the world of Neo San-Francisco once more. 

Read Only Memories: Neurodiver is set to release sometime next year, 2022.

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