As many of you know, I’m a game developer. One of the occupational hazards of a game developer is that you play a lot of games. My heart is in indie development, so I play a lot of indie games.

It just so happens that one game happens to fit nicely within the theme of this site: Decker by Shawn Overcash.

Read on for a bit of discussion about the game.

First of all, yes, it’s not a pretty game. It uses small sprites, default windows controls, and a fairly unfriendly user interface. The screenshots on the game’s page and the webpage design straight out of the early 1990s aren’t going to win any beauty contests. But, what it does do is capture the cyberpunk flavor perfectly in the gameplay.

Decker is a roguelike, but set in cyberspace instead of the twisty halls of a dungeon. You play the part of a console cowboy, getting contracts to break into systems and using your hardware and software you dive into the systems to fulfill the contract. Perhaps you need to retrieve data, or erase a file. Some of the more difficult missions require you to compromise the system or bring it all crashing down. Collect your pay to buy some nifty upgrades, and use the experience gained by doing the run to upgrade some of your skills.

The game has “RPG elements” as the marketing copy says these days. You have a character with different skills. You’ll get skill points after a run that can be used to upgrade your skills: four basic skills for running mission (Attack, Defense, Stealth, Analysis), and two “crafting” skills (Programming and Chip Design). Your deck has hardware ratings as well, a CPU, a co-processor, and firmware related to the four skills needed to do a run. You’ll also be able to pick up a wide variety of hardware, from a BioMonitor (to help avoid the nasty feedback from deadlier forms of countermeasures) to a Chip Burner or Design Assistant to help you make better stuff.

Even though you primarily run missions, you can also craft better stuff: create a new programming project or design and cook up a new chip for your deck. Having source code from previous projects or stolen while on a run can help reduce the time. You’ll need to keep on the cutting edge if you want to keep running against bigger and bigger targets. But, making stuff takes time, and if you’re running all the time you won’t have the time to upgrade your goods. Spend too much time programming and upgrading, though, and you’ll find your cash running short as bills don’t stop just because you aren’t running.

In addition to all this, you also have reputation and lifestyle. Your reputation affects what jobs you can pick up, and you have to build your reputation to get the better jobs. Complete a contract and you’ll get a better reputation. Screw the pooch and the whole world knows. Lifestyle affects how high your reputation can go, but it comes at a price; literally, you have to pay each month to maintain your lifestyle. Can’t afford the rent? Time to downgrade or perhaps lose the game altogether if you mismanage your funds. Keep an eye on the first of the month and have enough cash to pay the bills.

The great part of the game is that it’s really detailed and it feels authentically cyberpunk. Looking past the presentation and digging into the gameplay, you can see the excitement of delving into a system in cyberspace. The gameplay of trying to balance all the different demands can make the planning part of your brain squeal with delight (or frustration if you didn’t quite complete that mission before rent was due…) Loading up your deck with programs, figuring out when to sneak around and when to fight, trying to recover when the shit hits the fan…. All this will put you in the cyberpunk mood.

Not to say that there aren’t flaws. You’ll need to spend some time reading the files available by hitting F1, as there is some subtlety to learn to get the most out of the game. How does a piercing attack differ from a normal one (hint: hits more often but does less damage against most ICE.) You’ll also need to learn little things like a firmware’s rating can only run at a maximum of the CPU’s rating. Lots of little details to learn to become the best.

Decker also has the typical flaws you find on many roguelikes: you’ll find a messy early death in many cases if things don’t work out just right. It takes quite a bit of work to get into the rhythm of understanding when to do runs, when to upgrade, and how to put away enough money to keep rent paid. The game also descends into repetition quickly. Since everything is a number, you keep increasing all your levels in order to keep moving at the same pace you were before. In MMOs, we call this “the treadmill”, and it’s distilled into it’s purest form in this game when you find yourself going from using Attack 1 with Attack Skill 1 and Attack Firmware 1 against a level 1 ICE to using Attack 10 with Attack Skill 10 and Attack Firmware 9 against a level 10 ICE (and feeling like you just need to upgrade that Firmware to really have a chance….)

You’ll also soon see that the game doesn’t offer a lot of variety or goals beyond increasing your skills for the sake of seeing bigger numbers. The combats themselves can start to feel tedious as you perform the same actions again and again but with thinner and thinner margins of error. A bit of a plot and some more variety in how you handle different encounters would be nice, but perhaps a bit ambitious for an indie game of this scale.

That said, the game is a fun diversion and really does capture cyberpunk flavor perfectly. There are few of cyberpunk roguelikes, so this is one of the few to give you your fix. And, with a price of “free”, it’s hard to beat that. Give it a go and let us know what you think in the comments.