Gamedec hands-on preview
It’s impossible to discuss Gamedec without mentioning Disco Elysium, the 2019 detective adventure-RPG that launched to critical acclaim for its rich world and combat-free gameplay. In many ways, what I’ve seen of Gamedec so far reminds me of a cyberpunk take on Disco Elysium’s formula, which is certainly not a bad thing.
You play as a game detective, or Gamedec, someone who solves mysteries inside virtual reality video game worlds. As of the pre-alpha version I played, there is no option to choose your character’s gender or appearance; you begin as an unnamed male character and are given the option to choose your background (whether you grew up in “High City” or “Low City”) and your field. There are four fields: Sleeves, someone with ties to the criminal underworld; Glazier, tech whiz and “machine tamer;” Infotainer, a “colorful personality” reminiscent of an information broker; and Scalpel, a surgeon with “extensive medical knowledge.” The game does a nice job of working your area of expertise into the choices you’re able to make, with each field unlocking different actions and dialogue options as you play.
There is no real backstory or introduction to the world given in the demo. Instead, I was dropped into my apartment and led to the computer, where my services were requested by Geoffrey Haggis, wealthy programmer and big shot executive. He says his son Fredo has been inside a game for days now, still in his gaming suit and the high-tech chair that keeps its occupant alive and well as they navigate Virtualium, the game’s virtual world. The tech monitors the user’s vitals, stimulates the senses when needed, and ensures that they’re able to safely enter and exit the game world—at least, that’s what it’s supposed to do. Mr. Haggis’s son seems to be trapped, and that’s where you come in.
Before you enter the game world, however, you have to interview some witnesses to get a clearer picture of the case. When interviewing other characters, there is a bar above the dialogue with a symbol in the center and locks on both sides. These locks represent secrets the characters will tell you depending on how your interaction goes: upset them and the symbol will move to the left, unlocking those secrets; make them happy and the bar will unlock secrets on the right side. What consequences this may have beyond the immediate conversation is unclear from what I played, but the developers say that Gamedec “continually adapts to your decisions,” so I wouldn’t be surprised to see other people’s opinions of you have an impact later on.
Gamedec is a role-playing game in the most general sense, but adventure gamers should find the simple point-and-click controls easy to use, and the lack of combat certainly makes it feel closer to an adventure game than a traditional RPG. I did encounter one sequence towards the end of the demo where I had to stealthily move past enemies and time my movements, but it remains to be seen how many sequences like that are in the full game. Though the controls and basic systems should be easy for non-RPG fans to pick up, there is a skill tree—referred to here as Professions, which you can unlock by spending Aspects, which are essentially just skill points in various categories—that role-playing newbies might not be used to.
There are four Aspect categories: Blue, with traits based on rules, caution, and logic; Red, involving things like determination and authority; Green, representing empathy and compassion; and Yellow, with traits like intuition, optimism, and creativity. For example, making a compassionate choice will get you one Aspect in the green category, while a more aggressive choice will earn you a red Aspect. These are then used to purchase skills for your character that aid in investigations and conversations with other characters.
Aside from Professions, there is a Codex tab with information about the characters, locations, and lore of Gamedec, as well as a Deductions tab. As you progress through the case, you’ll need to make deductions based on the clues you’ve found so far. The Deductions screen will show the possible theories you can form (assuming you’ve found clues that support them, otherwise those choices will be hidden), which you can click to select—unlocking new conversation paths related to the theory you’ve chosen to follow—and then continue with your more focused investigation. It’s hard to tell how deep these mysteries will be in the full game, but the systems in place are intriguing and intuitive.
The video game world is one full of sex, violence, drugs, strong language, and some nudity, none of which feel particularly out of place here, but it would be easy for the writing to go down the route of “edgy just to be edgy.” The video game world you visit is an unapologetically gritty one, and I was left wondering whether or not the narrative will have anything to say about all of its dark themes, or whether it will simply be used for shock value. There’s real potential for an exploration of the themes hinted at in the demo: the intersection of technology and interpersonal relationships, self-identity in a virtual world, and more. If the developers are willing to dive into the realities of the world they’ve created, the result could really be something special.
Gamedec has sharp visuals and a rich atmosphere, with moody lighting and gritty environmental details complementing the isometric 3D art style, while 2D portraits of significant characters appear when you speak with them. I was only able to visit Mr. Haggis’s office, my apartment, and the video game world that his son Fredo is stuck in, but official screenshots show a number of diverse locations, from neon cityscapes to rustic outdoor locations, so we can expect plenty more variety in the full game. All in all, everything looks great, and I was impressed with how polished the presentation felt already. There is no voice acting in the demo, and I encountered some dialogue options locked away in the demo, as well as some typographical errors, but that’s to be expected at this stage in the development process.
After the few hours I spent with Gamedec’s pre-alpha demo, I’m excited to see the final product, which is expected to release sometime later this year. As with Disco Elysium, it is a game that both RPG fans and even strict adventure game enthusiasts can enjoy, as the point-and-click controls should make it easy to get the hang of investigating as a game detective. Here’s hoping this atmospheric cyberpunk mystery lives up to its obvious potential.