Gamedec Review (Switch)
Release Date: July 1, 2022
File Size: 4.5GB
Publisher: Untold Tales
Developer: Ashnar Studios
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Dialogue-driven computer RPGs are a specific breed of game that thrive on strong dialogue and usually operate on some sort of modified Dungeons and Dragons ruleset for their combat and skill checks. This subgenre has had its ebbs and flows in terms of releases over the years since its inception, from Interplay’s Fallout, to Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic and Obsidian Entertainment’s sequels to their titles. More recently, the subgenre has expanded with a new slew of titles ranging from the familiar (in the case of Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate 3) to the more experimental, such as ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium. With more of a focus on lore and moral discourse, this newer breed of computer RPG is primed to take role-play into a new era, something that Ashnar Studios is embracing with Gamedec.
Drawing inspiration from author Marcin Przybyłek’s sci-fi short stories, Gamedec is an odd blend of detective work taking place within simulation, with players taking on the eponymous profession in order to solve crimes of a complex sort: those that can take place within games. In marketing, Gamedec has pushed its non-linear narrative and committed dialogue options as strengths, and the attention here results in a strong product that communicates its themes without requiring intense action or complex combat. If those are elements of this subgenre that you prefer, you might find yourself underwhelmed. How does this strange transhumanist dystopian title fare on the whole? Read on below.
Gamedec is all about deduction through conversation, so it stands to reason that the majority of gameplay is accomplishing just that. Based on some initial choices, such as your perspective, upbringing, and stat distribution, you’ll begin a series of cases where you will need to use previously-acquired and -fostered traits in order to learn more about the world around you through conversation with other characters. As a Gamedec, you have a bit more perspective on simulations and the characters that inhabit them than others, which means you can choose to assist or manipulate many of the characters you encounter throughout the game’s various vignettes.
It is important to understand how strictly linear Gamedec is, as you won’t be returning to its various simulated environments once you have completed all the necessary tasks within them. Every impactful dialogue choice, known in-game as deductions, will bring you closer to moving the narrative along in permanent, meaningful ways. While earlier vignettes will give you a bit more freedom to explore and find clues, later environments will present you with very narrow choices that will demand committed responses. This says little about the actual controls of the game, however, so let’s detail them here:
Most of Gamedec‘s menus are smartly mapped to specific D-Pad inputs, allowing you to pull up your skill tree, case clues, and world database in a flash. You’ll navigate the isometric worlds using the control stick and engage characters in conversation using the A Button. From there, you’ll pull up dialogue trees with various options, some locking in specific attribute gains and granting new intel, while others are locked behind certain class restrictions. As you make choices, you will add points to specific personality traits, which can be spent to acquire new class nodes that can unlock further dialogue options in the world. The game mercifully will show you dialogue options for class nodes that you have enough points to unlock, but only for your line of questioning.
In any case, you can unlock these nodes mid-conversation and then select that option, should you deem it potentially valuable. While each of the four main personality traits are broad, they align with certain kinds of characters and actions that you will encounter and perform in the world, so careful study of what sorts of dialogue would paint you as compassionate or analytical will net you points in those areas. If you are not strategic with your decisions, you may find the upper echelons of the skill tree blocked, but this seems to result from particular kinds of play. For example, in my first playthrough I chose to approach nearly all circumstances from a compassionate perspective, which hindered me from taking full advantage of the more aggressive, muscle-oriented class nodes.
Aside from engaging characters, you will also find certain environmental details to interact with, which will also pull up dialogue trees for manipulation or unlock case clues for your deductive conclusions. Once you exhaust dialogue options in a specific area, you will be forced to make a deduction in order to unlock the next stage in your investigation. If you want to play as a good Gamedec, you might want to try to collect as many clues as possible in order to make the right assumptions… but the game does allow you to make the wrong ones, too.
Exploring these options is essential to Gamedec‘s appeal, so it’s good to see that many of your choices can and will have lasting impacts on the narrative down the line. There are specific dialogue instances that will have you navigating the positive or negative mood of a character, which is telegraphed by a conversation “bar” that can be manipulated by actions you have performed outside the conversation as well as choices made within the dialogue tree. Getting on the good side of any character will often lead you to valuable information, although you may have to compromise your moral code in order to obtain such rewards.
As a compilation of simulated realities, Gamedec leans into absurdity and grimy realism in its aesthetics whenever possible. The Realium superstructure, which is a bastion of tech-based society that looms over the ruins of a dilapidated Warsaw, is clean and minimalist, until you descend its heights and enter into its cyberpunk underbelly. Here you’ll find Blade Runner-style streets paved with trash, advertising drones, and suspect establishments. This world directly contrasts with the carefully constructed simulations you’ll delve into, and further highlights the strengths of Gamedec‘s visuals. Despite its isometric perspective an vignette-oriented design, the worlds you will find yourself engaging with are both aesthetically varied and richly detailed, presenting vastly different sorts of simulated realities that are not overly-fantastic in nature, but stand strongly enough in contrast with one another that they truly do feel like different games.
The visual language of what exists in the game world and what is interactive is well-telegraphed, with indicators highlighting the elements that exist for the purpose of the player and those which are meant to flavor the environment. There is a particular exception to this in the second half of the game, but a careful eye will know what to do with these various elements that gain interactivity once the player possesses an item in their inventory. There is also a late-game instance of a clearly pre-rendered animation serving as a backdrop for a rendered environment that might come across as off-putting. The quality of the animations is overall serviceable, depicting actions in a grounded manner that roots the game in reality and further accentuates the silliness that can occur in some of its simulations. There’s not much else to say on the matter, but watching a character get brutally killed and respawn moments later sells the illusion that Gamedec wants to communicate.
Where Gamedec slightly falters is its audio, which cycles through some environmental music that does well to evoke the various explorable simulations, but comes across as overly repetitive and lacks thematic heft or recognizable leitmotifs. Not all video game soundtracks need to be united in instrumentation or grandiose, overarching composition, but for a game to have tracks that loop as often as this and fail to sell the emotion of its scenarios, one might hope that a more unified or at least constant compositional element might be present. Likewise, some of its sound effects feel similarly repetitive and poorly-mixed, and while I don’t personally believe that voice acting is required for the entirety of the game’s expansive script, the choice to only voice the starting line of dialogue is an odd one. Sometimes, shorter voice clips that give a sampling of a character’s persona work better when peppered throughout a dialogue tree instead of at the front.
Gamedec is not simply a depiction of a digital dystopia, but also a commentary on specific kinds of games, although this second aspect of its world-building is much more hit or miss. Characters toss around tons of slang and jargon, to the point where one might need to refer back to the in-game database in order to make sense of certain scenarios. The base world, known as Realium, has specific rules for engaging in simulations, and the technology is well-illustrated and given decent exploration in medical and psychological terms throughout the narrative.
The simulated worlds of Gamedec are another matter, however, with only one- the farming and ranching-simulation Harvest Time- feeling like a direct commentary on gaming culture and the predatory nature of free-to-play models, as well as in-game economies. The other simulations instead explore the seedier sides of online culture instead, like Twisted & Perverted’s strange, hyper-sexual escapism and Knight’s Code’s strangely cult-like, second-job nature. While there’s not a direct comparison with specific games in the latter two examples, they speak to the potential that exists in simulated retreats, and the sticky sorts of scenarios that might arise from over-indulgence.
Because Gamedec is part simulation, part detective role-play, you’ll need to indulge the coding/simulation parts of the game as often as you look for clues that pertain to human nature. It’s a delicate balance that the game attempts to maintain, and the script is definitely at its strongest when these two elements are in sync with one another. It is difficult to illustrate this balance without dipping into the finer details of specific cases, so I’ll try to stick to side-quest material as much as possible: eSports stars risking their mental and physical health in order to be more cognitively alert during their matches, and the effects that it has on their interpersonal relationships, children using the escapism that comes from digital worlds in order to cope with traumatic experiences, and people creating digital personas to live out their darker indulgences, or perhaps creating digital replicas of a person that represent the “perfect version” of that individual after their real-life relationship has deteriorated. There’s plenty of ground to be covered in a simulation-based role-playing narrative, but Gamedec doesn’t always stick the landing. Some narratives feel superfluous, such as the troll/sleeves turf war that has you picking sides in order to… go up a flight of stairs. The nebulous nature of an online cult that you only hear about from two recurring NPCs across several cases. One of the game’s biggest narrative curveballs is so blatantly telegraphed in multiple instances that it feels somewhat cheap in execution.
For a game that is as deeply-centered on conversation as Gamedec is, its dialogue gives an excuse for overly-analytical explorations of relationships and lore, but the game’s conversations don’t always flow in the way one might expect. Gamedec doesn’t quite maximize its detective premise, and instead hopes to rely on long-standing relationships for the purpose of unraveling a larger conspiracy rather than select favors that compound upon one another. One of the strongest examples of side-quest decisions having a positive impact in a later case is an excellent example of neo-noir character storytelling, especially with how episodic in nature the narrative comes across, but as the writers attempt to dove-tail various characters into larger events, they end up dehumanizing and further proving the limitations of their carefully-crafted dialogue trees. There are some well-developed and easily recognizable characters to be found in Gamedec‘s world, but the frequency at which you cross paths with such individuals sometimes feels a bit too-carefully scripted.
Impressions and Conclusion
With a game so focused on its aesthetic variety serving as a visual backdrop to what are essentially a series of dialogue trees, Gamedec manages to keep its narrative and visuals engaging enough throughout its roughly ten-to-twelve hours of gameplay without ever needing combat or other complex mechanics. However, this focus on dialogue and environment interaction does make the overall experience feel much more like a glorified, non-linear adventure game than a role-playing one. While the ability to advance the narrative without obtaining a proper “correct” answer is welcome, some routes are locked behind convoluted puzzles that seem to exist only to pad out the playtime.
What I appreciated the most about Gamedec– namely, its in-depth glossary of terms, locations, and characters that have multiple entries based on what you’ve gathered during investigations and what can be found on the internet- also ends up feeling like an awkward crutch, as there are several puzzles in the game that require the player to read this glossary- not necessarily for answers, but for an explanation on how the puzzle operates. This feels especially strange due to how frequently Gamedec is willing to tutorialize itself, as you’ll gain a new set of contextual mechanics with each new, visited simulation.
Considering how light and unobtrusive some of these mechanics are in the early game, it is a bit frustrating that they become more prevalent and essential in the latter half, particularly with the cycle-based, action-management portion in the Knight’s Code portion, which limits the amount of interactions you can have with the game world in order to artificially enhance the difficulty of finding clues. The game fails to telegraph what elements are logged in your database, which means you can waste several actions re-reading something that was easily accessible in menus.
While this was a frustrating moment, it did not detract from the overall engaging nature of Gamedec‘s narrative, which I will once again say is strongest when tackling smaller cases and exploring the intricacies of particular simulations. Once the game escalates to its cliched overarching plotline, it struggles under its own weight and fails to create meaningful stakes. What further undermines this narrative is the “choose-your-ending” dialogue tree found at its very conclusion, which not only tells you exactly what decisions would be required in order to get endings that your choices locked you out of making, but also serves as a cliffhanger regardless of your decision. There is no ending cutscene, no epilogue depicting the consequences of your final actions. While nonlinear storytelling and role-playing doesn’t always require a definitive conclusion beyond what those final choices offer, it feels as if the story runs out of steam in its final act, standing in contrast with the rich world-building that was previously established.
Gamedec presents some truly tantalizing ideas and explores dark and uncertain corners of the use of technology and the risks of simulated reality, as well as the responsibilities of those who are able to manipulate it. While there are decisions made from a mechanical and narrative standpoint that I’ll never be able to reconcile, I am glad to have spent time with the game and explored its various worlds. As a shorter, replayable RPG with plenty of dialogue options, it begs for the player to experiment with its deduction system in order to live as truthfully or dishonestly as possible, if only to see how many different decisions can be selected. If exploring all of those options and seeing how many decisions can hinder you from certain paths sounds like a role-playing experience worth having, Gamedec might be up your alley. But if you are looking for action-packed, responsive or strategic gameplay, you would be wise to look elsewhere.