A little while back I played a press demo of The Detail, a game claiming to be “Telltale’s Walking Dead meets HBO’s The Wire,” and I found, to my surprise, that it had the potential to make good on those claims. The demo was grim and gritty and laden with compelling moral ambiguity, but it was also only about fifteen minutes long, and what works for a demo does not always hold up over the course of a full game. Having played the game’s first episode, Where the Dead Lie, I’m honestly still not sure – it’s a little short, and it has some failings – but for a budget-priced indie title I did see a lot that impressed me.
Reginald Moore is a detective sick of the lack of justice in his city and fighting to do the right thing – or maybe he’s worn down and going through the motions, that’s kind of up to you. In the days following the tricky arrest of a notorious pedophile, Reggie is called down to investigate a murder scene, only to find that the victim is the head of the local Kachka Brotherhood. With his reputation under fire and pressure mounting to close the case quickly (a win for the city’s joke of a civil reform campaign), he leans on a former confidential informant, Joe Miller, to work his way into the Kachka ranks and uncover the truth behind the apparent hit.
Joe has turned over a new leaf since leaving his gang. He has a real job now, as well as a wife and daughter, which means he has a lot to lose if he’s caught informing. Reggie doesn’t leave him much choice but to return to his life of crime, though, and it ends up triggering a domino-chain of events that threatens to tear his family apart and destroy his new life. He’ll need to think on his feet and make the right choices if he’s going to come out of this okay.
Like Telltale’s games, The Detail places heavy emphasis on choice and consequence. Both Joe and Reggie need to make some tough calls over the course of the hour-long episode – like making a plea deal with a molester to find his victim, or telling Joe’s wife about what’s going on – but some of the decisions are sort of no-brainers. Without delving into spoiler territory, it’s often possible to find a win/win solution to many of the game’s conflicts, and in those cases you’re not so much making a choice as either succeeding or failing at a series of (often very obvious) dialogue checks.
A few of the questions the game poses are really interesting though, and it seems like some of them will have far-reaching consequences. The game keeps track of everything that’s happened to everyone you meet on the character profile screen, so you can sort of see impact your choices have on the game’s cast early on. A few sparse quick time events that impact the direction of the plot, determining if certain characters get injured or even die, and while the way they fit into the story is interesting, their mouse-based interfaces is a chore to use.
There are also a few puzzles that crop up over the course of the game’s playtime, but they’re all so straightforward that you barely notice them. Investigating crime scenes mostly just involves clicking on things until you have sufficient evidence, and it’s surprisingly easy to find probable evidence to enter a gangbanger’s home (though maybe Rival Games is trying to make a point about that). The only puzzle that took me any time at all involved examining a photo, and that just boiled down to pixel hunting. This game might test your ethics, but it doesn’t pose much challenge to your intellect.
Where The Detail succeeds is in evoking a gritty, pulpy atmosphere. The characters are very archetypal, but that works in emulating the feel of a contemporary police procedural. There’s little in the way of sound save for ambient music most of the time, and all of the dialogue game is presented in text, so it almost feels like you’re playing a comic. This is especially true of the intro, which uses stark, stylized black and white imagery to capture a tone similar to Frank Millar’s Sin City (though The Detail is far more grounded in reality). The game’s art is striking, but it looks a lot better in screenshots than in motion.
The Detail is at its best-looking when it presents itself like a visual novel, with characters represented by talking heads and scenes depicted in detailed still images. Unfortunately, it only operates like that when the action heats up, and most of the time you’ll be wandering around environments with a fairly standard point-and-click interface. In these sections, characters are animated using motion tweens, with every segment of their bodies on a different layer – a style that will look familiar to anyone who’s seen a flash cartoon before. Not only are the resulting animations stiff and unnatural, they’re also murder on most GPUs. Calculating motion tweens for dozens of vector objects at once is nearly as processor-intensive as rendering complicated 3D models, so the game’s interface will chug whenever a lot of things start moving at once.
The quality of the game’s artwork is also very inconsistent. Some images look like they were traced over photographs, while others are scribbled based on a vague recollection of seeing a human face once. The level of fidelity varies greatly from main characters to background characters, and in certain scenes clothing colors and even skin tones shift noticeably. The highest-quality artwork is used for the aforementioned talking heads, but the shading on those images is so much more detailed than anything in the rest of the world that they seem distractingly out of place. Ultimately, the game comes off looking half-finished, almost like a storyboard of the game it could have been.
With that said, it is quite an artful storyboard. The Detail is more conscious of cinematography than your average 3D adventure game, and it’s been eons since we’ve had a 2D adventure that’s so unapologetically cinematic. There are some very smart shots used whenever the game isn’t constrained to a standard head-on point and click perspective that help to set the mood and build tension in each scene. With a bit more time or money and a decreased focus on the more conventional gameplay aspects, this style has the potential to really shine.
As much as The Detail is held back by its low budget, it is free of a few important constraints as a result. With a shorter run time and without the need to account for voice acting, Rival Games is free to create a more open, branching narrative than we see in its contemporaries. If the choices made in this episode pay off with meaningful, lasting consequences, then The Detail could elevate itself to the same level as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. As it stands now though, this episode is too short to truly make good on that potential.