2064 isn’t all that far away. Yet a lot can happen in a piddly half-century of rampant technological and cultural upheaval. The problems of today aren’t likely to go away in that time, but you can bet there will be a whole slew of new ones to split our attention between them as the decades tick by.
2064: Read Only Memories understands that. The point-and-click cyberpunk odyssey — itself a remake of the more simply named Read Only Memories from 2015 — doesn’t peddle the promise that time will, in fact, heal all wounds. Instead, its sometimes goofy, sometimes deeply depressing vision of the future blends today’s real problems with tomorrow’s (maybe) fictional ones.
A roboticist has gone missing. His blushing, sapient robot companion — aptly named Turing — is looking for him. Being mostly naive to the ways of the world, they turn to their creator’s old friend (the player) to help navigate the mean streets of Neo-San Francisco, circa 2064.
Those are pretty exotic problems to have. But they take you and Turing on a tour of characters with unfortunately mundane issues of their own— like paying rent on time, battling the government and special interest groups’ attempts to control their bodies, or both.
In the age-old sci-fi tradition, a lot of these social problems are steeped in metaphor. Chasing after Turing’s missing person, you’ll bump into half-human, half-animal “hybrids” butting horns (no pun intended) with the Human Revolution — regressivist protesters looking to keep humanity “pure.” Assuming you haven’t missed the last 50 years of world history, you’ll quickly tie these encounters which make up the bulk of the dialogue-driven game to everything from economic and emotional burdens on transgender folks, to the rights of women who need abortions to live.
It’s heavy stuff. The problem is that sci-fi metaphors like these run the risk of unfairly making light of their loads. It’s easy to tackle racism, homophobia, transphobia, and the evils of capitalism without actually including black, queer, transgender, and poor people. Video games especially love to use elves and aliens to relegate these real problems to the realms of fantasy.
2064: Read Only Memories has itself a novel solution. It includes the people it wants to talk about as key components in its narrative, rather than just wringing out their struggles for an extra ounce of drama. The player’s contact in the Neo-SFPD is a woman who used to date your sister. Another woman sports an A+ beard and mustache combo. Other characters don’t subscribe to gender norms at all. It’s rarely, if ever, treated as anything other than perfectly innocuous. In fact, the game sets that precedent early and clearly simply by having Turing ask for the player’s preferred pronouns at the start.
These characters (besides the player, of course) may not always be at the heart 2064’s ideological conflicts, but they don’t have to be. Just by being there they create a bridge between the world of today and the game’s sci-fi intrigue— and surprising amount of murder.
Speaking of which, 2064 can be a bit all over the place in terms of tone. One minute you’re interrogating Turing on their love for Bob Ross, or helping a wannabe rapper-slash-bouncer come up with new rhymes. The next, people are getting thrown out of windows, or stabbed in their homes as part of propaganda conspiracies.
The game’s blocky, blobby pixel art comes to the rescue here. The retro style isn’t exactly unique among mid-size indie games in 2017 — not even among throwback adventure games, for that matter — but the Impressionist style leaves a lot of wiggle room for range in attitude.
Obvious and chunky chrome plugs — like something from an 80s Shadowrun rulebook — jut from a back alley cyberneticist’s forehead. Meanwhile, the smooth-talking head of the Human Revolution is topped with a gelatinous pompadour as big as a bread loaf. The cartoonish look makes it much easier to rebound from gut-punch dialogue about hybrids being sterilized by the government, to mid-21st century pro wrestling jokes, and back again.
Besides some rejiggered puzzles, and other goodies, 2064 adds voice-over to this version of the game for just about every line and character. That said, some of the voice-over is better at selling the lighter and heavier moments than the rest.
Turing, for example, conveys the perfect, androgynous blend of emotional naiveté and expression you didn’t even know you expected from a maybe-probably-almost-definitely self-aware robot. One minor nitpick is that a few of their non-critical lines are still text-only. Which actually interrupts 2064’s cohesive voice-over more than when an entire bit character isn’t voiced at all.
Speaking of which, some of the bit NPCs that do have voices don’t always scan as well as others. The V.O. in 2064 is predominantly good, but you can certainly tell who among the speakers (which include a large number of video game personalities, rather than traditional voice actors) are the most experienced actors.
Even the worst of the acting adds emotion and substance to the cast. That’s great, given that 90 percent of 2064 is chatting up allies, enemies, and strangers. You’ll pick up items from time to time, and less frequently solve those aforementioned puzzles redone from the 2015 game. Actually, the puzzles’ scarcity is a blessing, since even these altered tasks are mostly busywork. Usually amount to picking up one thing and putting it somewhere else, or selecting bits of text in the right order. Always, they distract from the far more entertaining citizens of Neo-SF.
Mostly, though, it’s the player’s job to help Turing chase down leads and information by chatting up those NPCs. All of whom do a wonderful job bridging that gap between the diversity and friction of present, with the kidnappings and conspiracies of its future. 2064 might not use its sci-fi setting to smooth out the friction of the 40-odd years in between, but it does spin a colorful thriller to drown those troubles in. At least for a little while.