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Q&A: The retrofuturistic aesthetics of Read Only Memories Exclusive

April 3, 2014 | By Kris Ligman

Ouya's upcoming Read Only Memories is an adventure game in the style of The Secret of Monkey Island or Snatcher. Set in a near-future San Francisco, developer Midboss Games has been vocal about creating a rich, lived-in world that feels as inviting as it is mysterious.

Having had a chance to preview a demo of the game at the recent Game Developers Conference, Gamasutra caught up with director John James ("JJ") and lead programmer Ted DiNola to talk shop about the game's design.

"We start on paper with a rough sketch of each scene," James explains. "Then we hop into Photoshop and flesh it out. From there, we part the scene into assets and bring them into Unity."

Each object is a distinct asset, allowing for fine-tuning of a scene's composition. What appears to be a flat pixelated tableau is in fact a multi-layered image with quite a bit of room for manipulation.

"We also limit ourselves to a small number of colors in order to build a solid color profile for each scene," James continues. "Each color profile is exclusive to that particular scene, to make it unique. We'll start with four or five dominant colors and fill in as much as possible, then bring in four to five complementary colors to round out the palette."

While Read Only Memories draws upon the look and feel of old adventure games, and in particular the graphics of hardware such as the MSX and Sega Genesis, using Unity allows the development team to tailor the color scheme precisely. Each character has a distinct color profile as well.

"Phantasy Star 4 and Bubblegum Crisis each served as a color reference," James says. "Old comic books are also a rich source of inspiration."

"It's much less about being colorful than about the colors we use being very saturated," DiNola adds. "The palette should reflect the richness of the world."

Homegrown Features

The demo on display at GDC is the opening level of the game, in which the player character -- a journalist -- is visited by a colleague's anthropomorphic personal computer (named Turing), who alerts the player that their colleague has disappeared. The player browses through online news articles, explores rooms and uncovers documents relating to the disappearance, much of which points to a far deeper mystery (and widespread social unrest).

DiNola says he expects the full game to offer experienced adventure game players at least several hours of play, although he caveats that the exploration and puzzles tend toward the practical rather than the obscure. Don't expect any cat hair mustaches a la Gabriel Knight 3 here -- while the game is designed to be challenging, ROM favors exploration over obfuscation.

"If you get a key, you're probably going to use it to unlock something," DiNola puts bluntly. "You probably won't be using it as a tuning fork or to derail a train."

On the scripting side, Midboss uses a homespun Unity tool based strongly off of Twine to neatly translate its complex branching scenes into something able to be parsed by the game's engine. While the team looked at several existing tools such as Dialogger to accomplish this work, they found that the "homegrown features" they had built already had everything they needed.

"Dialogger has a similar functionality but it's not feasible to switch at this point," says DiNola. "What we use for ROM is a sort of node logic, like Twine, but instead of Javascript we use ROM's engine to add in stage directions -- actions characters take, objects that move and so on. And it allows us to jump not just from node to node, but from dialogue tree to dialogue tree."

Barring a few last-minute bugs needing to be squished, the demo shown at GDC will also serve as part of the free version of the game when it launches later this year.

"We wanted a nice 20-40 minute chunk for the player to get invested in," says DiNola. "Then we leave you on a suspense hook."

A 'Queer Game'

Frequently headlined as a "queer game" for the prominence with which it features LGBTIQA characters -- and the fact it is the brainchild of many of the same individuals behind the GaymerX conference -- Read Only Memories is better described as a queer-inclusive game that dismantles certain hetero- and cisgender-normative assumptions about the player.

For instance -- although this was not playable in the GDC demo -- the AI companion character Turing will ask the player which pronouns the AI should use in reference to them. Rather than stopping at stock 'he' and 'she' options, players will also be able to select the gender-neutral pronoun 'they' or decline to give an answer at all. This is one simple touch that, together with the game's diverse cast of characters, can go a long way in helping players feel more included while keeping the game focused on the plot and setting.

"The entire idea at the heart of this project was to say, hey, instead of waiting for Sony and other big companies to include gay characters in their games as more than just tokens, we should just do it ourselves," producer Matt Conn shared in an interview with Gamasutra when the game's Kickstarter was launched last November. "We want to make a game that we could have queer characters in, but whose queerness was not the point of their character... They are three-dimensional and have their own motivations."

Read Only Memories is currently set to launch on Ouya, PC and Mac this November. You can follow the game's progress from its Kickstarter page.

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