With the original Read Only Memories video game a runaway success, the follow-up Read Only Memories: NEURODIVER is hotly anticipated. And fans will be pleased to hear that after penning the first comic book set in the series’ cyberpunk future, writer Sina Grace (Iceman, X-Men) is joining the writing team for the sequel as well.
The vibrant cyberpunk world of Neo-San Francisco made a mark when it arrived in 2064: Read Only Memories, a murder-mystery adventure combining artificial intelligence with Noir detective classics, in as queer-inclusive a world as one is likely to find in video game, or any other modern fiction. The former cop turned private eye Lexi Rivers would star in IDW’s four-issue Read Only Memories comic written by Grace, but it’s ES88 taking the spotlight in the sequel Neurodiver. A gifted telepath with the ability to delve into memories, ES88 is hired to search for the elusive Golden Butterfly–a naturally gifted psychic on the loose and wreaking havoc through subconscious minds–using the Neurodiver to identify, manipulate, and unlock information… at the risk of corrupting her target’s memory.
Screen Rant got the chance to talk to Grace about the past and present comics industry, what motivated the shift from comics to a video game, and how the previous Read Only Memories comic series bridges the gap between the original game and the upcoming sequel.
I know part of signing on to write a Read Only Memories comic was playing the first game, but now you not only turned in a comic story MidBoss was pleased with, but you get brought in to write for the sequel. How did that transition happen?
Sina Grace: The whole Read Only Memories experience has been one of those lovely bits of serendipity where things magically align. When I was asked to pitch for the comic series, my main incentive was because I thoroughly loved working with IDW editor Megan Brown. Once I played the game and thought about what I could bring to the already-rich universe, I sort of bet hard on myself and sent an idea that spoke to my interests in the neo-noir cyberpunk world. As a writer, I’ve come to peace with not being one of those gigantic world-builder myth makers. I love focusing on the intimacy of people. So, a world where robots are ostensibly people? That felt rife with opportunity. Luckily, the game spoke to a fandom that deeply cares about how the people live within this wild environment… I was a good fit!
While the process of wrapping the comic series extended into the beginning stages of the pandemic, I ended up having these really nourishing google meetups with the folks at MidBoss, which led to them sharing neat tidbits from the game sequel, NEURODIVER. It started out as “Hey wanna see this cool new character” to “Here’s a neat story beat we’re doing that riffs off your comic” to “what do you think of this idea?”
Since it isn’t a question one often gets to ask, what’s it like going from writing comic books to writing a video game. Is it a completely different beast, or does that collaborative nature of both mean there is some common ground between them?
Writing for a video game is totally a somewhat different beast than writing comics! Jumping back to the notion of serendipity and posi vibes, I had coincidentally got into playing video games when all of this started. I literally took a decade off, then the pandemic happened and I was playing Persona 5 and Final Fantasy VII Remake on my PS4, then Pokémon Shield and Ni no Kuni on my COVID-acquired Switch. MidBoss first started with, “Hey, we have all these pieces for NEURODIVER but would love your input on connecting a few dots, wanna help?” The beginning was very much me looking at materials and offering a take. Little by little, they had me on a few more calls with Director and Lead Artist JJSignal and Lead Narrative Designer Jolie Menzel, as well as Executive Producer Cade Peterson. I’d given them a really detailed outline after all our chats, and they came back asking if I’d want to take on the role of Lead Writer.
Now, I’m not one to ever take an opportunity that would be someone else’s dream gig. It’s why I am reluctant to ever dip a toe in film or tv (outside of producing a web series that promoted my own comics). The ROM universe however became something I started to feel really connected to, and it felt like the opportunity to really be involved with the bigger picture in a meaningful way. We ultimately found a way for me to collaborate with Jolie where I got to focus on weaving the story elements with the puzzles and then write a massive text document with the dialog, complete with variations based on player choices! It’s like nothing I’ve ever done, and it’s the coolest challenge to be handed at a time when I was trapped at home for months on end.
You’ve written LGBTQIA+ characters for both DC and Marvel (including one of Marvel’s most prominent queer storylines ever), but how much does the storytelling process change when you’re talking about a world that is literally built to be an inclusive, queer, liminal space–and doesn’t need to compromise, or justify, or otherwise explain?
What’s funny about writing a world with overtly queer characters is that I spend waaay less time thinking about their queerness, because it’s all so implicit? I think about the word “responsibility,” a lot in these scenarios. When you’re handed just ONE character in a larger franchise, there’s all this pressure and weight to make sure they represent whichever corner as accurately and honestly as possible, without pandering and also inviting outside perspectives a glance at the fishbowl. In the Read Only Memories universe, there are SO many characters all doing a million things, so I’m not stressing about if a sex-crazed hybrid bounty hunter is speaking to a trope, because he’s sharing a scene with a female-identifying lesbian who’s arguing with a non-binary hacker while they digitally loop in an asexual lawyer drinking in Berkeley. There’s no pressure for any of these characters to present and represent any kind of way beyond what their captivating selves need to be for the most compelling story possible.
I genuinely don’t know where to start with the plot of Read Only Memories: NEURODIVER, based on the first details. Players of the first game will recognize many of the characters, but where does ES88 fit into the story, and the world established in the first game?
The best way to put it–without spoilers–is that ES88 is an extremely talented psychic who wants to put her abilities to great use. When a rogue psychic begins serially digging into the memories of Neo-San Francisco residents and messing with their minds, ES88 “dives” headfirst into finding out who this a-hole is. The only other thing I can add is that we turned the game into a cyberpunk ghost story of sorts, and I love every second of it! A handful of familiar faces show up, but this story really exists beyond and after the events of 2064: Read Only Memories, so players are going to see different areas of the Bay Area.
Okay, so now for the mystery in the sequel. It seems people are going to need to wrap their minds around two different things: the Golden Butterfly… and what the titular ‘neurodiver’ actually is. What are people allowed to know going in?
The neurodiver is an exquisite tool that psychics at MINERVA utilize to help seamlessly enter someone’s memories. The Golden Butterfly is an a-hole. That’s all I can say right now.
Even for a cyberpunk detective story, this added depth being brought with NEURODIVER sounds absolutely wild. How much of the story was there when you joined, and how much of this do you take credit for? Is the comic now an even more direct entrance for the full game?
The best way for me to describe the story’s shape before I joined up was like… I’d say it was a Wheel of Fortune phrase that you’re like TWO letters away from figuring out, but then also the phrase needed some words changed after the phrase was solved. The core was there, but then I vamped. There’s only one thing that MidBoss thought would be cool going in and didn’t work in practice. So that thing got completely re-written and is now extra awesome. It’s no secret that I have favorite characters in the franchise, so the comic accidentally has some foundations built in that enrich and inform the game. Wink-wink.
MidBoss made no secret of the inspirations behind the original Read Only Memories, but for NEURODIVER, it feels like there is a whole ‘nother batch of sci-fi (body horror?) material to pull from, so can you call any out?
We watched a ton of Satoshi Kon stuff together because I was unfamiliar, and by “together” I mean we did a synced viewing from our homes on google hangout, hundreds of miles apart! We shared music that inspired us, and I’d basically riff off anything JJ sent my way to better get into his brain. He’s deeply tapped into anime in a way that I’m not, and I’m super into western gothic horror, so our tastes melded the two for this story.
I believe you described your detective story in the Read Only Memories comic from IDW as ‘Veronica Mars meets Westworld,’ which is actually easy to grasp. Is there a similar combination you can assemble for NEURODIVER?
The best way for me personally to pitch NEURODIVER as a comparative? Shirley Jackson goes back to the future.
A very big theme of your comic storyline was underscoring the need to question assumptions, and the reasons behind decision-making. Is that hint of where your storytelling sensibility has led you with writing the sequel, as well?
With my contribution to the sequel, I’d say the main thing I explored was how the developers were already examining notions of selfhood. In this specific game, we hone in on the various ways we attack and belittle our selves… but in a world where memories can be warped, and artificial intelligence has achieved sentience, that gets sexily complicated!
I realize I’m asking you these questions about representation in games and comics on the day that Superman in a bisexual romance is driving sales through the roof, and a black trans woman is DC’s newest Amazon. I’m curious to know how you view these steps being made, as both an audience member and a storyteller?
When it comes to storytelling, major steps are being made in some arenas. Indie game makers can push boundaries and nourish fans with beautiful, complex stories. Are we gonna see a Final Fantasy character be a playable character and fully, overtly “out” as a canonically queer character? Who knows! It’s much in the same way that in the same year I read Torrey Peters’ delicious Detransition, Baby is the same year Dave Chappelle triples down on TERF rhetoric and trans folks get murdered at an alarming rate. The stories are happening, but I don’t want to do backflips of joy when I don’t see huge tides of change in the real world. That all said, people feeling seen in their content, and that does make a massive change in terms of helping a person feel less alone.
Finally, the ending(s) of the first Read Only Memories put players through some rough choices. Is NEURODIVER going to make things easier, or harder?
We’re operating with a few different mechanics in this game, mainly because a lot of the challenges are set within the memories of those affected by Golden Butterfly. I would say that NEURODIVER is going to make things delicious—there’s lots for players to sink their teeth into!
Read Only Memories: NEURODIVER arrives in 2022. The four-issue Read Only Memories is available in paperback from IDW wherever comic books are sold.