Games are an extremely unique medium of storytelling. Movies, TV, books, comics – they all get to choose how the story is presented. How it’s paced, the order it unfurls, the way it unfurls – all a reader or viewer needs to do is sit back and have it happen. Video games, however, require a lot more active participation from their audience, and Gamedec especially so. I was left wondering just how much of my unsatisfying experience with the game was my fault…until I clicked through to the new content in Gamedec: Definitive Edition.
The original Gamedec is a mess, but the new Ken-Zhou-focused chapter that’s included in the new edition makes it entirely worth the price of admission. To talk about what makes that so good, though, I’m going to be reviewing the original game, so if this is all a bit of a retread for you, feel free to skip ahead to the discussion of the New Edition.
A Mess of Worlds
To start off with, Gamedec has a great concept, and its biggest failing is that it’s an ambitious one that feels severely underexplored. Once you get past the game’s specific, cyberpunky jargon, you come to understand that you’re playing a gamedec – a game detective – in a future where nearly everyone is obsessed with gameworlds, where virtual reality meets MMORPGs for the ultimate escape. No matter how much an escape is needed, though, where there are people, there is crime, and where there is crime, there are those who are paid to solve them.
Through the game, you explore different worlds based on popular games today. There’s a Farmville-like, a world of medieval roleplaying, and even an appropriately named Twisted & Perverted for those who truly want to push the edges of what virtual reality has to offer. You meet people’s avatars, and dig deep into the faces behind the perfectly rendered masks to uncover the truth — or, at least, try to.
Gamedec doesn’t make things easy for you. You really do need to piece things together — find clues to arrive at a deduction, which will lead you to the next stage of your investigation. Not all clues are easy to find, and some become impossible based on your past choices. Some interrogations give you a limited number of questions before circumstances steal your source of information away. This is where the game starts to get frustrating.
The game will stall as it waits for you to make your deduction, refusing to move forward until you’ve made your choice, no matter how limited the information you have is, and on the flip side, sometimes you want to make your best guess based on gut instinct and barrel on ahead.
There are consequences to this. Your character is rarely in danger of dying, but people around you are. In my very first mission, my impatience led to me making a few hasty choices that led to a few character deaths that haunted me for the rest of the game. From a storytelling perspective, I like that — I was a detective who’d failed his first case and now had something to prove.
The problem is that the ways of gathering clues can be frustratingly opaque…and singular. The best detective games I’ve played have allowed players to arrive at answers from multiple avenues. Gamedec, however, constantly feels like it’s punishing you for not thinking in a particular way. Sometimes you’ll piece together information that seems extremely pertinent to a certain quest, only to be unable to talk to a character about it…only for that character to volunteer information themselves later once you’ve accomplished a seemingly unrelated thing. It’s not easy to understand the logic behind the game, even with the flood of information you get in the form of wiki-like articles, transcripts, interviews and the gamedecs own notes.
The worlds themselves also seem like they fall short of their potential. There’s room for some great commentary on the nature of MMORPGs, on people’s obsession with being online, on the masks people wear and those who are exploited by its increasingly transactional nature — and while that’s touched on, it feels like it barely scratches the surface. Look past the scenery, and many of the worlds feel the same, barring a few basic UI changes and game rules — until, at least, I came to the Knights Code world. There, I finally found myself truly enjoying the game, getting lost in a unique world, its unique gaming mechanics and rules, while still focused on the larger story being told there. There, the limitations of the mechanics were appropriately sinister, as opposed to frustrating. It heightened tension, rather than wearying me out. It was the one place where presentation, gameplay and storytelling all felt perfectly balanced.
Without getting into spoilers, the game shifts gears in a major way at one point, and it at once felt overwhelming and exhausting. A lot of heavy concepts are thrust at you all at once, and it can be a lot to keep up with — and a lot to try and keep yourself invested in. It’s a shame, because there’s clearly a lot of thought that went into this game’s world. The wealth of information that’s to be uncovered in the codex is brilliantly written, and well thought out. The game itself explores those ideas a lot more clumsily, however.
The main thing that was missing for me was grounding. There were some heady ideas being explored, but very little in the way of compelling characters, or the freedom to be a likable protagonist, to keep me engaged with everything else that was going on. I found myself quickly running out of reasons to care about much of what was going on — the game only just held my attention long enough.
Any doubts I had about the fault of this experience being mine, however, were wiped away as soon as I played through the new content.
The New Content
There are two main things that the Definitive Edition brings to the game: the first is an extra horror-themed quest in the Twisted & Perverted zone that you need to restart your game to play. The quest doesn’t particularly stand out from the other quests, so I won’t go into much detail, though I will say that it does manage to bring the creepiness factor into an already creepy place.
What I wanted to talk about is the completely new storyline you get to explore in Seven Daemons, in which players get to explore the development of a world based on an existing game: Seven: The Days Long Gone. I’ve actually played a little of Seven, and have very fond memories of the game, so it was a delight to see it explored here. Bonus: you get to explore it as Ken Zhou, who was definitely the best defined character of the main game.
That added personality helps a lot with keeping you engaged with the story, but on top of that, everything in Seven Daemons is a lot better put together. Perhaps it’s because it’s only one adventure, set in the development of a single world, but the focus of this side-story is a lot clearer, its challenges a lot more put together. It was a story that was much easier to understand, its clues were not easy, but they weren’t baffling, either. Even in challenges I failed (such as a hilarious and unexpected punning competition), I at least had a sense of why I failed. The characters I met were a lot more engaging as well — they felt like people in their own right, and not just NPCs thrown in for sidequests and clue development.
For fans of Seven, the game world is not featured too heavily in this chapter, but it is referenced just enough to remind former players of just how much fun that world was, while intriguing newer players as well. You even get a chance to meet the game’s protagonist, Tariel himself, and help him with his own mission as you strive to determine whether the game’s characters are gaining sentience…and what it means if it does.
The Definitive Edition of Gamedec is proof that the basic framework of the game works — it just needs better vision, as Seven Daemons illustrates. It’s a fascinating world to explore, to read about, and to think about, and I’m hoping that this Definitive Edition is enough to garner additional tales set in the Gamedec universe.