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Read Only Memories: Neurodiver Interview with Midboss' Cade Peterson and John "JJ" James

29 Mar 2022

Things sure have been busy at developer/publisher Midboss these days. We’ve been introduced to their cyberpunk world through 2064: Read Only Memories in recent years, and things are starting to expand with the upcoming release of Read Only Memories: Neurodiver. We recently covered the prologue/demo for the game, dubbed Pilot Memory, and also had the chance to sit down with CEO Cade Peterson and Creative Director John James (AKA JJ) to do our own dive into what we can expect to see from this follow up.

Based on what we played in the Pilot Memory, players are in for a bit of an adjustment with a new protagonist by way of esper ES88 and the psychic dives she’ll be undertaking when this game eventually drops later this year. It’s not an extreme shift, but it’s not quite the game you expected to see following up 2064. With that in mind, we dove in wanting to see what they were trying to expand and accomplish with this new title and the franchise.

Gamer Escape: Like others who played 2064, I’m excited to dive back into the cyberpunk world that you’ve constructed. Since we’re dealing with a change of protagonists, were you thinking of how the shift in perspective would affect the game and story going from Turing (an android) to ES88 (an esper)?

Peterson: It is a change from the last game, for sure.

JJ: Yeah. So as you might know, the first game had a protagonist that was nameless/faceless/completely invisible. So the player could put their own name, personal pronouns, and their dietary preferences. But at the end of the day it was Turing as the main character as they acted as the vocal and visual presence throughout the entire game. So in some ways the narrative is still first-person, and you’re still making choices in 2064, and you’re kind of a weird second- or third-person from who the actual main character is. It provided a lot of difficulties. It’s something in maybe a future adventure game we’d want to revisit.

It was kind of difficult writing and building the game around that, and I wanted to do something a bit more focused with Neurodiver. So having a character already there and lived in, with their personality up front and center as the character you’re playing. The shift from “this is my decision” to “how exactly will this main character react to the decisions I make” is something I was really interested in.

Visually speaking, it also differs. Because now what you’re seeing is not your buddy and how you’re reacting, you can actually see your character there. You do have a little partner, Gate, who’s actually quite large. We get to also kind of have some nice banter back and forth between them as well. The main focus here is character development, character interactions as well, and a more humanizing experience with all of them. Not just someone plowing through the plot and hitting all the major points.

Gamer Escape: Indeed. I do appreciate the approach mostly because Turing had a more commanding presence in 2064. ES88 is not Turing, though she’s definitely a compelling character in her own right.

JJ: Right, and I’m really excited to see how players will react to ES88, specifically returning players who played 2064. Because a lot of them really love Turing; they were kind of a slam dunk as far as characters go in that game. Turing will be here, but they won’t be front and center like they were in 2064. They’re not going to be the main character, but rather a secondary character that you’ll meet later on. I guess that’s a spoiler, maybe not. Our writing team and I worked really hard to with trying to make her (ES88) as charming as Turing was. I’m hoping we deliver something good for returning players who might be missing Turing.

Gamer Escape: I’m sure they’ll be excited. Based on the playable prologue available on Steam right now, ES88 is definitely a compelling character on her own. I’m excited to hear there’s going to be some cross pollination between the 2064 and Neurodiver cast.

Peterson: Oh, yeah. There’s several key lead characters in 2064 making an appearance in this game in different levels. Like Lexi, the Neo SFPD officer. TOMCAT, the super hacker. Turing, obviously. We’re making sure that fans get to see their favorite people, [laughing] it’s just that Turing always steals the show. There’s several that are coming back that I think everyone’s going to appreciate.

Gamer Escape: I love hearing that sentiment from you, Cade. Shifting to Pilot Memory now, it focuses on ES88’s first dive. She’s trying to uncover the mystery of a closely guarded memory. We do use the classic adventure game formula of sleuthing and doing what needs to be done to help move the plot forward. Given her esper-in-training disposition, how deep will these dives go in regards to the overall gameplay?

JJ: That’s kind of a tough question. The Pilot Memory is just a sliver into how they’ll work. Though it gives you an idea to what you’ll probably end up doing throughout the entire game. Even though it was just one area, there were also a bunch of little sets inside of it. So whenever you clicked on the bar, you had a much more detailed view of the area. Whenever you clicked on the Old Birds, the characters you’re with in the memory, you get a nice detailed view of all of them together. Whenever you meet the Hybrid Stranger, you get an extra detailed set there as well.

How you’ll be experiencing subsequent memories in the full game can differ in scale from something about that size or a bit larger depending on the character. With these dives, the goal that we have in mind with them is something that I wanted to do in 2064, which was have more characterization of certain lead characters like TOMCAT, Jess, and Lexi. While they were there and they did have some character development, they were kind of just there to monologue and dump exposition on you as opposed to being real characters. These memories are there so you can learn a bit more about them, get more personal with them, and understand more about what they do and have done in their own past. It’s kind of tough to say because there are some smaller and larger memories in the game.

Midboss Creative Director John “JJ” James

Gamer Escape: Oh yeah, for sure. This might be a bit of a retread, but there is a noticeable difference between ES88 and Turing. In between the different characterizations of these two and how Turing’s story panned out in 2064 (re: the “canon” ending), were there any lessons you learned from their story that made its way into ES88’s characterization?

JJ: I think the thing that makes Turing charming to players is that they’re a quirky, cute, and kind of fun character when you first meet them. This is despite the fact that their whole thing is that they’re searching for their lost creator. The story kind of gets a little darker with them, yes. But Turing has such a wide range of emotion, and it’s done without melodrama or Turing being a “fun” quip machine. That’s something we wanted to recreate with ES88. We wanted to find that same balance that Turing had that people enjoyed. They’re very cute and have a wide range of emotion while also not being comic relief or not just some angsty melodramatic thing that takes themselves too seriously. There’s a nice balance between them. I think we at least reached that point with the demo, and we’re definitely getting there with the full game as well.

Gamer Escape: Oh yeah, I definitely got that vibe. My first impressions with ES88 were more layered than I was expecting. Though I wasn’t expecting 1:1 characterization of Turing from her, either. It’s good she stands on her own, but she has a more robust and bubbly personality in comparison. Though I am comparing a ROM (re: android) to a flesh and blood character. Regardless, I’m excited to see how ES88 handles herself in Neurodiver.

JJ: Oh, yes. I’m very excited to see how people will react to her, outside of just the Pilot Memory.

Gamer Escape: Oh, for sure. Since you did mention characters from 2064 will be present in Neurodiver, the cross pollination is pretty obvious. Given this is more of a sequel/spinoff, do you think there will be a chance to expand the universe you’ve made if you get the opportunity to do so?

JJ: Yes, most definitely. We’ve actually already kind of started doing that. Right now we have 2064 and Neurodiver, but we also have a 4 issue IDW trade paperback that contains each issue. The idea we have with these is something I kind of wanted to touch upon whenever we first started working on the series. Specifically the namesake; Read Only Memories. Originally, before we started working on Neurodiver, there were plans to work on a direct sequel to 2064. This was eventually shelved and we shifted focus to working on Neurodiver. The idea is that Read Only Memories is supposed to be, in some ways, a different story or a different iteration from a different character. Whether it be a returning character or a new one, it’s their memories throughout this world that we’ve created.

So we have 2064 at the start of this, with the IDW comic series canonically taking place a few years after the end of that game. The main character in the story here is Lexi Rivers. She’s investigating a strange cult that she’s stumbled upon after receiving a missing persons case from a different robot that isn’t Turing. Since this is post-ROM awakening, every ROM in this world is now sapient. This particular one has a partner that recently vanished, and it’s up to Lexi to find them.

With all of these, we want people to not be intimidated by the legacy of Read Only Memories. So they can jump into any of these without having to look at or play the other entries. But for those who have played or read these entries can definitely understand what’s going on and having a more complete picture and more treats to find whenever they go into these. Familiar faces, specific occurrences, that sort of thing.

Midboss CEO Cade Peterson

Peterson: Regardless of media, be it game/comic/other projects we’re working on, we wanted all of them to be good entry points into the franchise we’re expanding. But we wanted it to be accessible enough so new fans aren’t required to know all the lore and characters. That was a strong directive when we were working on the comic with IDW. It does have some characters from the first game, but it’s a whole new story. Though we are closely looking at the canon, so the times and dates are logged in a way we can refer back to. We’re definitely expanding the franchise with purpose in mind. We have two other non-comic or game things in the works that I can’t talk yet. But it’s an active thing that we’re doing.

JJ: Yeah, and there is a timeline we’re working on with it. 2064‘s story ends at the tail end of that year, and the comic is within 2067. The Pilot Memory is about two years before Neurodiver, and Neurodiver itself takes place in 2070. With the different memories you’ll be diving into, you’ll be jumping around to different points in time. So in the Pilot Memory, you’re in 2058.

Gamer Escape: It’s good that you have a cohesive timeline in mind here. I will say that it’s also good that there are multiple entry points into the franchise as well. Especially with how easy it is to get into any series of games and not know where to start. It feels salient to point out that I’m a big fan of the Yakuza franchise. That series is huge and has multiple entry points. Being a big fan of that series, I can point out those different entry points out to new players that they might enjoy.

JJ: For sure.

Gamer Escape: What I’m getting from this is not only a Final Fantasy-esque approach to your own IP, but it’s also a way to give people different ways to approach and enjoy the stories you’re writing.

Peterson: Exactly, and the core our franchise is heavily based in our narrative. It’s nice being able to tell new stories through these different mediums. Though regardless of the medium, we do like games because they offer the most interactivity. We’re storytellers at the core, though. There’s no need to alienate fans that might not have enjoyed prior entries to enjoy the latest stories that we tell.

Gamer Escape: The approach you take for that is admirable, for sure. I would like to highlight the work your company does for the LGBTQIA community at large. Not only do you give visibility for this community in your games, but you’re doing work in the community to increase that visibility elsewhere. One such event is your annual “Season of Pride,” where you highlight the community in different ways. Anyone who played 2064 knows of the representation in that game and how that helps increase normalized visibility. Like with Turing, for example. They’re explicitly written as a nonbinary character despite being a ROM. The aforementioned pronoun choices are worth mentioning here as well. What should we expect in terms of this visibility when we go to play Neurodiver when it releases?

JJ: Since ES88 is already an established character in this world, we won’t be going in the direction of inputting name and pronoun entry for the benefit of having an already existing character. We do sort of have a pining, romantic B-plot of sorts.

Peterson: There’s kind of a romance between two characters, yeah.

JJ: Yeah, between ES88 and a colleague. On top of that we also have our returning cast of Lexi and TOMCAT, who is nonbinary. Cade, do you have anything to add to this?

Peterson: Sure! Just like the first game, a significant portion of the characters are queer/nonbinary/gay/lesbian. Specifically in Turing’s case, nonbinary. We’re definitely continuing that angle. It’s a little different for those characters who aren’t in the forefront. If they don’t necessarily the right exposition included in the game to expand on who they are as a person to give them depth, then their sexuality or love life might not be explored.

So, for example, there’s one character where we queer coded the way he was written. But because he doesn’t have a large part (in the story), we didn’t go into that. What we wanted to do is to avoid some of the things we don’t think are examples of good representation. Just slapping a gay label on a character [feels disingenuous], especially when you don’t have a rich understanding of who they are or what their background even is. That lack of depth doesn’t benefit the story. Unless it comes up in natural conversation, you may not know for certain if that character is queer. But we did write the characters with authenticity as best we could throughout. Two of our main characters do have a flirtation/romance that’s sizzling under the surface and absolutely front and center. It’s hard to miss!

Some of the other bits of representation that we did consciously put front and center was, in addition to other queer content, we have two female characters that are Mexican American. They’re both main characters as well. One is first generation born, and the other is born in Mexico proper. Both are now living in America. We made sure they were written as true to their life experiences as possible. We also took specific care with the assigned voice talent to nail the pronunciation and accents for the roles they’re cast for. People who exclusively speak English may not realize the word choice can differ between Mexican Americans, Mexican citizens, or even people living in Spain. We took extra care to nail that. There are three Black characters in the game; we made sure to screen that through sensitivity readers since our writing staff is not representative of this group.

One thing we want to be above and beyond in is ensuring authenticity and holding ourselves to the high level we try to show to the rest of the world. What we do is try to build media that’s a great example for others to hopefully do the same. That’s part of why Season of Pride exists, so we can help spotlight games we think are underserved but also authentic and wonderful. “Lead by example” is one of our ways of operating and the games we make are an extension of that. This is one of the things at the collective forefront of our minds. Sorry that’s a bit verbose, but that’s a a thoughtful back end of how we operate.

JJ: I’m bad with words sometimes.

[both laugh]

Peterson: JJ’s good with creative vision, and I can sometimes best summarize the operational thought process.

Gamer Escape: It’s all good perspective regardless of how you get there. I love to hear this sort of thing from a dev team because it opens a door to the ins and outs of game development and the minutiae of the artistic process.

Peterson: Indeed. All this stuff is important. You know, I love retro games and I’ve been watching interviews with the guy who was the lead actor in Sierra’s Phantasmagoria. In there, he’s been highlighting certain parts of the game that were considered groundbreaking for the time. This was one of the first games that featured a strong protagonist that was queer in a big-time AAA title. It’s also interesting to compare it to what’s not considered acceptable in terms of language nowadays. Like how one may refer to women and the misogynist undertones that were way more normalized 25 years ago. So it’s interesting too look back with a modern lens, but we want to be sure what we make can stand the test of time and won’t be in the position where we look back and go “oh, that’s cringey” years down the line.

We never want that to be the case, so taking the extra time to do it right is so important. Making sure that the voice acting accents are as solid as possible because the fans who understand that experience will recognize it. Hopefully they’ll appreciate it. Representation matters for everyone! No matter where you’re from, who your family is, regardless of orientation. All of this matters, so doing it right is just going make every fan that plays the game appreciate it more.

Gamer Escape: I’m sure the people who feel seen in these games, especially for those in the LGBTQIA community, can feel validated through genuine representation like this. Hearing that sort of thing come from a game developer at all is great to hear, and the depth and dedication to authenticity is appreciated.

Peterson: We have to lead by example, even as an indie studio. We are seeing our influence and dedication to authenticity trickle up to the bigger studios. Stakeholders in these bigger titles are taking notice in the push for more authenticity. Writing dialogue that’s not forgettable or cringey in five years, and they’re taking extra time to nail it. I think we’re changing the world for the better through our work.

Gamer Escape: It’s definitely not going unnoticed. One thing I did really enjoy about 2064 was the voice acting, so it was a little jarring not to hear any in the Pilot Memory. This kind of thing is normal when you’re in active development, so it’s not exactly a big deal.

Cade: When you work on an “indie process,” we don’t have the resources that bigger developers have. This forces us to work efficiently. Voice overs are generally not recorded until the end, and we just started recording dialogue not too long ago. But I think people know that’s coming down the pike. One thing about the voice work I’d like to note is that when we released 2064, it was released with just an English cast. Neurodiver will release with both an English and a Japanese dub for the first time. I know that our fans in Japan will appreciate that considering we have a large fanbase there. I’m excited that we’re making that happen.

Gamer Escape: Visual novels are really popular there, so I’m not surprised to hear that they’re excited.

Peterson: I think they’ll really appreciate it, for sure.

Gamer Escape: I appreciate for your time, and thank you for the chance to talk with the both of you. It’s been fun!

Peterson: Thank you very much, hope we can chat again sometime!

Interview has been edited for clarity and length. Publicity photos provided by developer. Screenshots and header image taken by interviewer.