With Cyberpunk 2077 having been delayed, I’d be lying if I said I weren’t trying to fill a futuristic-dystopia-shaped hole in my August lineup. So, when Gamedec’s pre-alpha demo rolled into my PC library last week, I was excited to jump into a new take on one of my favorite genres.
Okay, maybe not a “new” take – Gamedec is based on a series of novels and stories by Polish author Marcin Przybyłek that dates back to the mid-2000s – but the concept piqued my curiosity and I was eager to see what the team at Anshar Studios would do with such potentially fruitful material.
The short version is this: It’s the 2200s in Warsaw City, and society spends what modern doctors would call way too much time online in virtual game worlds accessed with personal VR sets (think Ready Player One but without the infinite marathon of pop-culture references). You play as a Game Detective (colloquially known as ‘Gamedecs’), sort of a digital private eye who’s job is to help folks out of various in-game jams.
It’s an interesting premise, one that clearly shows great promise not just as a cyberpunk setting, but also a unique way for Anshar’s team to provide some colorful reflections on the games industry itself. Its art style certainly nails the cyberpunk aesthetic, offering environments that look like they could be pulled straight from a William Gibson novel or the next season of Altered Carbon. Early trailers and demos show a variety of worlds ranging from generic free-to-play farming sims to what looked like a fantasy RPG inspired by feudal Japan, and my demo featured some interesting takes on the concept of cheating and trolling. I’d be interested to see what other genres or gaming tropes this take on the digital future could explore.
For such a potentially complex and diverse world, Gamedec is, mechanically, incredibly simple – you point and click where you want to move, what you want to interact with, and which dialogue option you want to say or action you want to take. You have the option of using number keys and the spacebar to select these options as well, but aside from that and opening up one of the three in-game menus there are no other controls to speak of.
This was both appreciated and somewhat frustrating at times, as I enjoyed the simplicity of not having to constantly manage inventory items or special abilities – being able to instead focus on the story and the world around me – but there were moments where the “one button to [everything]” mentality got a bit stale (like when having to backtrack to a certain area or search a location for interactable items), especially when coupled with its somewhat lacking soundscape.
I realize not every game can have both a complex network of narrative consequences and a fully-fleshed out voice cast, but it feels odd that not only was there no voice work in my demo whatsoever, but there seemed to be very little sound design at all. A gunshot here or the zzzzcchkkk of an old elevator there, sure, but aside from some larger setpiece moments there was very little to hear beyond simple background loops that changed as I loaded into a new location.
However, much like games from developers like Quantic Dream or Telltale, the real focus of Gamedec appears to be the intricate web of narrative options it presents. Like most RPGs, it features statistical progression that’s reflected in your ability to perform specific tasks (like hacking a computer terminal) or pick up on certain social cues when talking to another character (to, say, intimidate them during an interrogation).
Discovering new information – often which is only possible thanks to the abilities granted by your starting background (at least at your initial novice level) – allows you to proceed with a case in different ways, and a variety of challenges were thrown at me during my trial investigation. The most interesting one was an interrogation sequence that would reveal different pieces of information depending on how kind or cruel I was to my interviewee. Playing through twice and adopting both tactics to the extreme ultimately gained me roughly the same intel, but it was especially noteworthy that – should I have chosen to try and remain relatively neutral – I could have walked away with nothing.
The demo consisted of one investigation which I played through twice, and was pleased to see that my choices weren’t just alternate paths to the same outcome. My first run was short – I discovered my client was being blackmailed and a few decisions later got an outcome that saw pretty much everyone’s lives end in ruin. But my second playthrough was considerably longer – though I didn’t feel like any of my choices were unnatural in either run – and, by the end, I’d learned there was way more to that blackmail scheme, there are some super interesting “hacking” sections to be experienced, and (almost) everybody ended up alive and well.
Considering this clear commitment to varied narrative outcomes, it felt strange – especially considering Gamedec’s premise and potential in its numerous digital worlds – that the section selected for our first hands-on demo would seem so focused on one case comprised of especially “edgy” material. My sample investigation was about a pair of teens (legally minors, at least in the US) who had hired a sex worker and snuck into a very NSFW game world… and things just got more salacious from there.
It felt like Gamedec was trying really hard to prove itself as “a mature game with mature themes”, but much of that felt imprudent and – for the most part – like it was included more for titillation or spectacle than anything else. I realize that darker, morally grey subject matter is pretty much inherent to the cyberpunk genre, and can definitely provide a window for a thoughtful exploration of societal issues when done right, but this demo felt decidedly lacking on that end; at least for me.
Perhaps there’s more context in the larger story to assuage those concerns, though, or maybe there’ll be another pass on the English translation that refines some of its language to be less problematic. I certainly hope so, because I’m definitely curious to see more of Gamedec’s world, and how it ends up using its unique premise – hopefully to great effect, but only time will tell.
JR is a Senior Editor at IGN, who is super curious (and a little terrified) to see what Farmville 2277 would look like. You can follow him on Twitter if you like, and please consider donating o the ACLU or NAACPLDF if you’re able