Gamedec Review: Solving Actual Crimes in Virtual Worlds
I'm not sure who I'd recommend Gamedec to, but I'm glad something like it exists. Based on a long-running Polish science fiction series by Marcin Przybytek, Gamedec is self-billed as an isometric cyberpunk RPG. It has no combat system and its gameplay is mostly based on gathering clues and making deductions.
I think every gaming webcomic in the 2000s made a joke about this at some point, but Gamedec plays its premise dead straight: you're a freelance investigator who takes cases in and around virtual worlds, to track down runaways and solve in-game crimes.
Gamedec is an ambitious, sprawling project with a lot to say, but it's buggy and the translation still needs a little more time in the oven. More to the point, it's an interactive detective story set in a sprawling science fiction universe, which throws a lot of world-building right at you from the jump. It's a high dive into the deep end, and it's got a few things you'd want to see, but it's a messy trip.
Gamedec Review: Solving Actual Crimes in Virtual Worlds
The key aspect is that Gamedec doesn't really have a hard failure state. You can still bulldog through much of the game as the world's worst detective, who draws the worst possible conclusions in every instance, but the game will still let you get through it.
You'll be treated like a particularly dumb dog by most of the NPCs, and you won't actually understand most of what happens around you, but you can't screw up badly enough to end the game.
It's the late 22nd century in the futuristic city built on top of what used to be Warsaw. Actual reality's degenerated into your typical cyberpunk technocracy, so many people turn to fully immersive life sims for recreation, escape, and occasionally full-time reality replacement. At this point, the difference between virtual and actual life is mostly down to a matter of opinion.
When people are spending this much time inside game worlds, that means eventually, some of them will commit crimes there. Your created character is one of the freelance investigators who're called in to handle that sort of thing.
The official job title is "gamedec," which sounds like "game detective," but it's a slight misnomer. You're closer to a fixer (a "Mr. Wolfe for video games," to quote the head of Gamedec's development studio, Lukasz Hacura), who's paid to solve problems. That might mean doing detective work, but you get paid just the same if you simply make the issue go away.
You begin the game as an experienced gamedec who wakes up to a job offer from a very rich man, who wants you to find out why his son either can't or won't log out from whatever game he's playing. As per cyberpunk rules, you can't just pull his headset off, or it'll do the kid some real damage, so you have to figure this out the hard way.
This is where Gamedec's interactivity comes in, and to its credit, it's much more elaborate than a lot of choice-based narrative games I've seen. Your character's starting outlook generates some points you can use to buy professions with, and you earn more points by selecting appropriately related conversational options over the course of the game.
If you're always threatening and intimidating witnesses like a cyberpunk Mike Hammer, for example, you'll earn the right types of points to buy professions that make you better at both violence and the threat thereof.
I did my usual thing, where I try to be a social engineer, and ended up with an assortment of abilities that let me trade on my personal fame to get information from people. Gamedec is pretty good overall at wrapping itself around you. Imagine Phoenix Wright if you didn't have to be a nice guy.
It's not a perfect system, however. My first couple of attempts at Gamedec met with early disaster because my starting point totals didn't let me buy any professions at all, so the first 30 minutes of the game was nothing but a broad assortment of greyed-out options. You may have a false start or two, as well.
Once I had a character I could work with, though, Gamedec got interesting. It's entirely choice-based and never holds your hand; you're likely to fall for lies, screw up royally, get people killed, and end up with clients angry at you. There's a certain working-without-a-net sensation here, as there's no real "golden path". It's just a question of what kind of mess you're most comfortable with.
Combat can occur, but it's resolved via choices from a menu, the same as anything else. Some of your cases have a certain adventure-game logic to them, where you get an item for one character so you can trade it for a favor for another in order to manipulate a situation that involves a third, but you're still always slowly building a case, then making a deduction and seeing if you were anywhere near right.
The end result ends up as a mixed bag, though. The first two cases are wild and fun, although setting the bulk of Gamedec's first investigation in a virtual world that's basically one big porn set is certainly a choice. It's not explicit in any significant way, but I did end up submitting to (virtual) knifeplay at one point to get information out of somebody. That is a thing that happened to me in Gamedec. So it's got that going for it.
After that, the game feels like more of a drag, with a couple of long periods of tedium interspersed with some interesting story hooks. There's one case that's set inside what's essentially an MMORPG, complete with actual reputation/quest grinding, which can be as boring as that sounds if you don't have the right skills from the start.
Gamedec in general feels like it's heavily weighted towards technician/hacker characters, but it really kicks in once you're faced with some tedious repetition that you could bypass if you had the Cheater or Cracker professions.
Gamedec Review — The Bottom Line
There's very little else like it
An elaborate story that isn't spoonfed to you
It's not using "cyberpunk" as a synonym for "splatterpunk"
Really sells its weird premise
- The virtual-worlds gimmick means its environments are varied and colorful
Interrogations are frequently counterintuitive
It's easy to screw yourself over at character creation
If you didn't pick the right abilities ahead of time, some parts of the game are a huge drag
- The translation has a lot of strange word choices
I had more fun with Gamedec than I initially expected I would. The premise sounds goofy when you try to describe it, but it never exactly winks at the camera, and its world feels very lived-in and real.
While some of its big deductions feel like you're making a leap of faith, or worse, randomly selecting a conclusion based on insufficient data, that actually goes a long way towards selling the overall premise. You aren't a genius detective, after all.
Gamedec has a few irritating glitches at the time of writing, including a couple of soft lockups, and its overall translation into English could use another couple of drafts. It often has a navel-gazing quality to the prose, which feels like an attempt at a hardboiled detective's inner monologue that didn't quite land. (If it reminds me of anything, it's Blacksad, which is about half parody.)
Gamedec is trying to do something interesting and mostly pulls it off, but its pace is strange, its tone is all over the place, and it's got a few significant mechanical and pacing issues. I'd argue that what it's doing with narrative design and interactivity is worth checking out, but I can't give it an unqualified recommendation for being fun.
[Note: Anshar Studios provided the copy of Gamedec used for this review.]