Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Glitch In The Narrative: ROM 2064 Missteps With Disability

I loved almost everything about MidBoss' cyberpunk adventure game, Read Only Memories: 2064. The soundtrack was evocative and well put together, the look of the game nailed the classic cyberpunk aesthetic, the writing was by turns affecting and humorous, and nearly all the characters from the protagonist and side NPCs were vibrantly well written. ROM: 2064 is also a game that takes unflinching looks at issues of morality, disability, gender, and mental illness in society, which is why one character's end game story turns out to be so disappointing. I've set up a jump cut to ward off accidental spoilers, so be warned: the rest of this post features spoilers for the endgame of ROM: 2064.

Near the end of the game, Dekker, Dr. Fairlight's mysterious assistant, heads down with TOMCAT, Turing and the player to sneak into the mainframe building to take down Parallax's nascent Big Blue project. Before everyone heads in, you can speak to Dekker, prompting him to muse on the on his time as a soldier. His dialogue sounded remarkably similar to a veteran talking about PTSD.

Once the group reaches the Parallax building, Dekker turns on the party. He reveals that he is actually not human at all, but a military "brain-controlled android" (BCA)-- a human brain inside an android body that was used decades ago in a war overseas, and that Dekker had managed to avoid being decommissioned. He talks about how frustrated he felt that his creators "...went to all this trouble to make me the best murderer in the world, and I've spent years fetching papers!" After his brain was harvested from his nearly dead body and placed in an android casing for use in war, he Dekker also talks about how his android body has left his brain unable to adapt to the loss of sensations in other ways:
"Wanna know something About being a brain in a box? You forget everything. About what it means to be human, even when you try...
I miss... feeling tired. I miss the smell of my wife's hair. The taste of my Mom's pies... the feeling of a pillow on my face after a long day. All of that was TAKEN FROM ME! When I try to remember,  all I feel are formulas for scents. Pressure in Joules. 
When he talks about about how his wife told his daughter that he was dead, Dekker says, "She's probably right.  wouldn't call me alive either," because the only thing his android sensor let his brain feel is the rush of killing.

In both a response on the official MidBoss blog and later in an email to me, MidBoss said that "...the original intent was to highlight how putting a human brain in a artificial body could mess someone up, and less to do with him being changed from the war".

That's where I think the narrative stumbles pretty badly. What could happen to the human brain after replacing amputated parts of the body is already something that's been widely discussed in the here and now.  The issue of biofeedback-- sensory compatibility between the brain and electronic assistive devices-- is of great interest and application right now to doctors, engineers, and people with disabilities that use that technology.

Yes, ROM: 2064 is set in the future and is science fiction. While science fiction does have its own made-up settings and fictional narratives, sci-fi doesn't exisit in a vacuum, It will always have some sort grounding in the society of the time it was made. This also includes biases, both conscious and unconscious, of its creators. I think Dekker's narrative overlooks that there are already people with disabilities in similar positions. Yes, yes, there are not currently people that have had their human brains placed into a robot body... but there are a lot of people with disabilities that lose parts of their body that then replace those parts with prosthesis or transplants won't be like the "original" parts of their body, that must learn to be adapted to while not being quite the same. Many people with disabilities (whether born with a disability or after acquiring a disability after trauma or illness or injury) have to learn to adjust and adapt to this sensory input/output difference.

The picture that Dekker's narrative paints, though, isn't very pretty. It has the unfortunate implication that even if medical technology can keep someone alive, the loss or change in sensory feedback or dependence on prosthesis that might be radically different means the person with those issues can never experience quality of life. That's a pretty upsetting take on things for people that are, say, already amputees with prostheses, or people that may be experiencing sensory loss as part of an illness or disability.

Dekker's endgame narrative gets worse, though. Throughout the confrontation he talks about the moments where he's not killing being not worth living, about how miserable he is he wants to die, and then, once he's finally fatally wounded, feeling at peace now that he can finally die. The trope of the person with a disability feeling their body is some awful prison that only death can free them from is a tired, worn-out trope in media. It's kind of exhausting seeing disabled suicidal characters dying and finally being at peace over and over again, especially in a game that otherwise discusses other issues in an engaging and thoughtful way.

Dekker's endgame isn't a discussion. It's presented uncritically, it's demonizing, not discussing.  Any struggles Dekker had were only raised in the game as something that made him unstable and scary and dangerous. He was dealt with like so many scary, dangerous people that struggle in media are dealt with: death at the hands of the heroes, and that death being a good and right thing, welcomed by even the scary person.

Characterizing people with disabilities and survivors of traumatic injuries as destined to be either dangerously unstable or miserable forever. Framing life after disability or trauma as a life not worth living. These are tired, bullshit narratives that are reinforced by society as a whole and most media at large, over and over again. There are plenty of ways to make a bad guy evil; reinforcing existing narratives that are already used to malign people with disabilities and trauma is not it.

In what is otherwise a great game with a wonderful narrative, this part of Dekker's endgame struck a sour note for me. I love MidBoss' work & can't wait to see what they do next. I really hope they continue to reflect many themes they've brought up in their body of work. I also hope they'll take greater care and maybe talk with a wider range of people with disabilities in the future to avoid missteps like this.

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