Over the past few years, I’ve developed a real fondness for video games featuring detective protagonists. There’s just something about getting stuck into a murder or missing person case and seeing if you can find all the clues, piece the evidence together and outsmart the culprit.
This explains why I’ve backed several Kickstarter campaigns in the genre since last summer. There’s Missing in Jericho, an online mystery which aims to bridge the gap between reality and the digital; and Key Enigma: Hack Forward, a physical box of puzzles where you play as an investigator who’s looking into a worldwide cyber-attack. Let’s not forget about Chinatown Detective Agency too, a pixelated point-and-click featuring an intelligent female lead that impressed me with its demo back in April.
And finally there was Gamedec by Anshar Studios, an addition to my wishlist last year and part of my list of 20 games for 2020 in January. The promise of being able to solve crimes inside virtual worlds and discover the relationship between them and their inhabitants made it an upcoming game I was keeping an eye on, so I jumped at the chance to help crowfund the project. The developer is now gearing up for release and sent out keys for the backers build of an individual case called Twisted & Perverted at the beginning of August.
I originally tried to stream this on Twitch a few weeks ago but it didn’t work out as planned for two reasons. First, the demo is rather text-heavy and there is no voice-acting at present (although an option in one of the menus implies there will be in the future) and so it was rather slow for viewers. Second, the storyline contains adult themes and, even though the ‘mature content’ setting was enabled on the Later Levels’ channel, I got the impression that some of our audience felt quite uncomfortable.
This explains why I took the decision to cut the stream early and instead play the Twisted & Perverted build offline last week; and despite its strong nature, I was left curious after almost three hours of play. If you’re prepared for subject matter that covers drugs, sex, violence and murder, and are a fan of detective titles where your choices have consequences, Gamedec could be a cyberpunk RPG worth checking out when it’s published later this year.
The game takes place in Warsaw City at the end of the 22nd century. Many people choose to escape into virtual worlds to enable them to fulfil their fantasies forget about the horrors surrounding them in real life – Virtualiam versus Realium. These digital lands have therefore given rise to the problems of human nature and their residents often call for specialist private investigators to aid them. You are one such gamedec, and the case featured in the demo is given to you by a character called Geoffrey Haggis.
Your internet searches may reveal him to be the director of a software conglomerate called Blue Whale Interactive (BWI), but there’s something about him which screams ‘creep’. This is made even more obvious when you’re called to his office to check on his son Fredo. The teen has been stuck in an unknown Virtualia in a permanent state of unusual arousal for four days now and, unable to wake him for fear of permanent damage, Haggis has hired you to pull the kid out of whichever sleaze-pit he’s trapped in.
The Kickstarter page advised that players will be asked a series of questions at the start of the game to determine the most fitting background for their character and some of this was evident in the demo. When asked to select a previous Profession, I picked a Glazier: someone with knowledge of hacking, firewalls and virtual security. I found that this unlocked certain responses when examining items or speaking to people, but other options remained locked to other professions.
A couple of hours later though and I had been awarded Aspect points of various colours based on my interactions with the world. Three green points enabled me to unlock the Scalpel Profession and gain knowledge of medical equipment and various diseases. The way character development works here feels like our fortnightly tabletop Shadowrun sessions: you can choose to learn information in certain fields which affects your future actions, potentially in ways both positive and negative.
I got straight down to business when I arrived at Haggis’ office and it soon became apparent that your actions really can have unintended consequences. In my incomplete playthrough on Twitch, I tried to save a girl who had become trapped in the Virtualia with Fredo by connecting with her virtual reality (VR) helmet; but this time around, the chance to assist was taken away from me because I made too many hesitations after what had happened previously and she sank into a coma.
I fared better when talking to his friend Timmy though. Instead of messing up by not gaining his trust again, this time I stayed clear of subjects that made him feel uncomfortable and managed to get him to admit they’d gone into the Twisted & Perverted online world. This was represented on screen by a bar with several padlock symbols at various intervals, along with a gauge that moved from the middle to either side. It therefore seems as though you can choose to be kind or cruel when it comes to getting the details you need out of people.
There was nothing else to do but strap myself into a couch and immerse myself in the Virtualia once I knew where Fredo was stuck. This one takes the form of a dingy street and alleys lit with neon lights, where players come to indulge in fetishes and mix pleasure with pain. It’s full of weird non-player characters (NPCs): a designer who’s looking for his cheating wife, a man who died in Realium but lives on in Twisted & Perverted, and a troll who takes great pleasure in appearing as a unicorn and asking everyone ‘rub his horn’.
You’ll need to question these NPCs and often do favours for them in return for information to progress the investigation. Each piece of evidence gathered unlocks a section on the Deduction screen and it’s here you decide the direction for the case. It’s easier when you’ve might the right choices and all possible options are open – but, as I found out towards the end of the game, more difficult if you’d made some bad decisions and blocked off some routes as you have little information to go on.
I think this is perhaps my biggest issue with Gamedec so far. The shortly-worded options provided on screen during conversations don’t always fully represent what’s going to happen and you can find your protagonist responding in untended ways. Also, if you’re the sort of player who prefers to gather as many as details as possible before making decisions, you could end up being penalised as you’re frequently able to make a single choice only or have options are removed through your perceived lack of inaction.
I’ve read a few other accounts of the Twisted & Perverted demo and it certainly seems as though this title is going to give you the freedom to approach situations from multiple angles. In addition, the consequences I’ve discussed in this post for the kind a detective would often find themselves up against. But I’ve written before that putting myself under huge pressure to make the ‘best choices’ in video games has led to some unenjoyable gaming experiences and my concern is that could potentially be the case here.
It’s also perhaps a little strange that the Virtualia selected for the backers build is one so focused on darker subject matter. As mentioned earlier, some of our stream viewers felt uncomfortable with what was being covered and I guess it’s possible that Gamedec is trying too hard to prove itself as a ‘mature’ game. I understand that morally-grey topics and seedy characters are staples of the cyberpunk genre, although it still feels that Twisted & Perverted was a strange choice for the demo.
But the developer has said that the finished release will feature online worlds of varying kinds and so the themes covered in these may be completely different to what I’ve seen in my three hours with the title so far. There’s also the possibility for Anshar Studios to provide some interesting commentary on the way we use video games, how much of our lives we choose to live online and whether certain actions in the digital world are acceptable because they’re not ‘real’.
Hence the reason why I said at the start of this post that I was left feeling curious. Gamedec certainly has a lot of potential and I don’t feel we’ve seen it all yet. Perhaps things will become clearer when the full game is released and there are more crimes in virtual worlds just waiting to be solved.