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Q&A: Inside the social futurism of MidBoss's Read Only Memories Exclusive

November 29, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

Gamasutra contributing editor Kris Ligman speaks with GaymerX founder Matt Conn about the formation of MidBoss and the studio's first game, the queer-inclusive adventure game Read Only Memories. It is presently pursuing crowdfunding under Ouya's Free the Games initiative.

Gamasutra: How would you describe Read Only Memories?

Matt Conn: There's two different ways of talking about it. For most people -- and this is the way I want people to see the game, ideally -- is that it's a cyberpunk point-and-click adventure game in the style of Snatcher, Gabriel Knight, or even I would say Phoenix Wright. It's very dialogue- and puzzle-heavy. And the most interesting part for me is that we're setting it in a location that hasn't gotten a lot of attention in even mainstream games: San Francisco. I thought it would be interesting to make SF its own character, the way Tokyo, New York or Los Angeles features as a character in so many stories.

I imagine a reason that a lot of cyberpunk tends to get set in these more prototypical metropolises -- like Los Angeles or New York City, like you said -- is how it bears out of the noir tradition, and what cities those authors were writing about, and often where they were living. But it's surely possible to bring that noir feel to such a densely urban setting like San Francisco.

MC: Yeah. Growing up I dreamed of games that took place in other cities, like Portland, for example. Games that don't normally get games made after them. Think of how visceral Grand Theft Auto V's representation of Los Angeles is, like it feels like a miniature version of that place. That's how I think about the relationship between Read Only Memories and San Francisco. If you're familiar with SF, even on a tourist level, you can appreciate just so much. We want the city to play a big part in the story, similar to New Orleans in the Gabriel Knight games. What would San Francisco be like in 50 years, when the prejudices of today have all faded?

And that leads into the second perception of the game, I guess, which is that it's a 'gay game.' It's not but that's the hook a lot of the press are using. Because it takes place in San Francisco, because it takes place 50 years from now, [the game projects the idea that] not as many people will be prejudiced against those who are queer, or transgender, or any of that. And it allows us to have characters who are queer, of any gender identity or sexuality, and present them on an equal level with their straight counterparts. Instead there are different crises that everyone is worried about: overcrowding, synthetic implants, things that we can draw parallels to struggles that happen today while at the same time not trivializing them. It's a way for us to introduce diverse characters in a strong way without them seeming 'shoehorned' in.

We want to make a game that we could have queer characters in, but whose queerness was not the point of their character. No 'oh, let's just throw some gay guys in there.' These are people that exist all around you. A lot of these characters are not good or bad. They are three-dimensional and have their own motivations.

This is a subject I find myself returning to a lot these days, the idea of using a setting somewhat removed from everyday life in order to normalize queerness. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale comes to mind, in that respect: when everything's strange, the fact that the narrator is in a relationship with another man is the least strange thing about it. It's utopian in a way. Certainly it's the sort of utopianism that I craved quite a bit, personally, growing up as a queer kid.

MC: Yeah. I genuinely believe that as new generations rise and old prejudices drop away, we'll see far more people being more visible with who they are, without fear of backlash or marginalization. Especially in a city like San Francisco. I like to think that this city will always be socially liberal.

But the city also has this darker side that is just as tangible, especially when you look at the tech world. That's where the noir theme comes in.

Before working on GaymerX, I co-founded a company and ran through that tech side of things for a while. I saw how evil Silicon Valley can really be -- the kind of data that these companies want to grab off people, and the sorts of things that they want to do, in just five years from now. There are a lot of companies after things that are not necessarily ethical. I want to draw parallels between what is going on right now, with the kind of data that is being collected, and extrapolate on that into what a city like San Francisco will look like in 50 years' time, when there is literally no privacy.

So, in the game, there are these devices called ROMs that this company has developed. They are in a way parallel to our smartphones, there to take care of and anticipate their human owners. There is a lot of convenience that comes out of that, but it's also super creepy, how these devices and the company that makes them knows people in and out.

That's the gray area this world is treading, I think.

Shifting gears here -- or perhaps not really -- I noticed that your Kickstarter is participating in Ouya's Free the Games fund, which has come under a bit of scrutiny after a few of the games involved were accused of fraud. Did you have any reservations about coming aboard?

MC: I have an Ouya, it's a fine little console. I really don't care that we'll have to wait an extra six months to get the game onto other platforms. If someone is willing to double our funds in exchange for short-term exclusivity, that's acceptable to us. All it means is a better game for everyone.

Realistically, I don't know what's going to happen with the Ouya platform. Obviously I hope that the company sticks around and everyone stays in business. They haven't been in touch with us at all, actually, except to confirm our submission.

I would not have expected that.

MC: I've been trying to get in touch with the CEO, Julie Uhrman, for a while actually. I think visibility is important, and that someone in her position could be a great role model for young queer people to see. But the company isn't interested in that, I guess.

You're headed into the final stretch of your fundraising campaign now. Any worries?

MC: We timed the Kickstarter when we did to get in on the Ouya fund, but it's been rough, launching a campaign with two consoles launching.

That said, I feel like if this were to fail, it would be unexcusable for me personally. It's not about the money, it's not about even working on the game -- if this fails, what kind of message would that send to other game developers? Will it tell them that there isn't a strong market for including queer characters in games?

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. There's no reason to wait. But if the campaign ends up failing or the product isn't very good, I just worry that's going to send a really bad message. That there's no market for this, or that the market for 'gay games' is pretty much limited to sexually explicit stuff. And not that there's anything wrong with porn games, but there needs to be more. We need to just exist.

I think we did a good job with GaymerX, by showing companies and the greater gaming community that we are here and we want a place at the table. Doing this game is the next step, so I hope it turns out.

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