Gamedec Review

Misplaced potential

Is it any wonder that mysteries seem to fit video games so well? The detective game is a convenient framework to do what the medium has conditioned us to do, often regardless of genre or subject matter: go over each environment with a fine-tooth comb, only now we rifle through drawers in hopes of finding some crucial evidence rather than a collectible or a stray healing potion. In the best detective games, we feel smart; we feel like we’ve forged our own path to the truth rather than just followed instructions until it was time for the answer to appear.

Gamedec has a very long way to go before it could be counted among the best of its contemporaries, but parts of it get close enough to leave me genuinely disappointed in the whole. You play a cyberpunk detective in the strictly virtual sense, someone who enters full-dive VR games that are elaborate enough to function like a second reality. Gamedec has no traditional combat system, hewing to the style of top-down adventure-RPG most recently and popularly seen in Disco Elysium; it’s just you, the other characters, and the environments that range from in-game to out-of-game (as well as, eventually, the question of which is which).

In Gamedec’s futuristic Warsaw City, advances in game technology have upped the stakes for their players—there’s money to be made and pills to take in order to stave off the needs of your pesky physical form. The first case, for example, involves tracking down a boy who has been logged in for days, his body present but his mind lost in some mystery game and unable to be forced offline because pulling the plug would risk a coma or even death. It’s a respectable approach to the now-tired glut of cyberpunk cityscapes, incorporating sights like the floating islands of a wooded fantasy realm, the farms of a sleepy Old West town, and the grungy back alleys of an adults-only sex-and-violence sim (extremely tame, so don’t get too excited).

Sleuthing in a virtual world

Like any good detective game, you have swaths of potential clues and data to sift through and draw different conclusions from, some totally useless and some outright red herrings. The paths through a case can differ widely depending on where you choose to focus and what decisions you make, sometimes letting you bypass rather involved scenarios altogether. But every step of the way, I found myself fighting Gamedec’s appalling interface, which smothers so many of its better ideas in technical issues or an ambition that, while admirable, it typically cannot deliver.

The codex is perhaps the worst of it, an abject nightmare to page through. The information is broken up into five categories, with one showing a series of character portraits and the other four broken into text categories like “organizations” and “reality.” Rather than simply hosting the game’s flavour text or explanations of the sometimes-arcane terminology, the codex also nests each crucial document under whatever seems to be the appropriate topic, which might be further broken up into sub-sub-categories like “gossip” and “darknet” as though this sorting method is anything but a migraine waiting to happen. If you’re not in the habit of checking every single data notification, using the codex at all becomes an outrageous guessing game, and only after you’ve managed to track a document through the maddening soup of menu options will you learn if it’s actually useful.

The deduction screen is a little better—as you talk to characters and collect information, clues fill in around a multiple-choice question like, say, which username belongs to the person you’re tracking down. Oddly, though, a deduction irreversibly commits you to a train of thought. You’ll unlock actions and dialogue options in order to continue the investigation, and there’s no changing your mind—when you decide which of two groups has witnessed a scene, you’re not able to ask about the other one at all, even if later evidence begins to contradict your assessment. 

On some level, this restriction communicates the danger of making decisions based on incomplete information, but you’re often missing pieces even if you’ve investigated thoroughly because some clues are locked to specific character builds; there’s simply no way to tell when you have all you need except to run around the map before every decision and make sure there are no new dialogue options (which I very quickly gave up trying to do).

Poor detective work

The narrative does tend to complicate stories that initially seem morally straightforward, so the story will continue regardless of whether you’ve got the “wrong” idea and you’re never (intentionally) locked into a fail state. But the openness of so many great mystery games is meant to reflect the fluidity of our thought processes, the way we must constantly reckon with new information that can change our understanding. Gamedec feels more like a simulation of stubbornly jumping to conclusions—combined with the sheer disarray of the codex, it portrays a detective who sucks at their job.

In theory, the game’s reactivity is at least impressive. How you respond and what actions you take feed back into a personality system, which doles out a point for one of four “aspects” like intelligence or inspiration that you then spend on the “profession” menu (read: skill tree) to unlock certain contextual interactions. (Hacking, as you might imagine, is quite handy.) However, as much as this system adds weight to even the most inconsequential dialogue choices, it also restricts the process of role-playing—each node on the rather small skill tree requires a combination of multiple personality aspects, so that even the red, hot-headed aspect might be necessary for a certain analytical skill. What this means, essentially, is that sticking to a consistent characterisation will only hinder your progression, netting you one specific personality aspect over and over again. In practice, you’re less playing a role than guessing how the developers have weighted the dialogue options and tailoring your responses in hopes of reaching the next skill that caught your eye.

There are more general problems, too—I ran into multiple instances of quest actions failing to trigger, and characters would sometimes refer to decisions I hadn’t chosen or give information on people I hadn’t met yet. But I do find myself stuck on the idea of Gamedec’s potential; even if we ignore the few moments where the systems neatly and intentionally coalesce, there’s a particularly resonant depiction of existential despair at work. The VR focus allows for a portrayal of human ennui and general hopelessness on a large scale; here is a whole subculture of people running from an unfavorable reality, hoping to eke out a marginally better virtual existence even if the only way to access it is to buy the equipment and pay for a subscription. It’s a good setting that I would be curious to see more of, even if Gamedec’s initial exploration of it stumbles out of the gate and comes alarmingly close to a total faceplant.