Vaudeville

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Vaudeville (Steam) – Early Access Review

With the absolute domination of AI, it’s no surprise new limits are being tested for its ability to engage in intelligent conversations in video games. Vaudeville, by Bumblebee Studios, is one such title, taking us back to the early 1900s, when the detective genre was the talk of the town. The game is in early access at the moment, with an expected release in Q1 2024, but I was curious to see what an experimental AI-driven detective game would entail, and unfortunately, it remains an enigma.

Detective Martini, a private investigator from out of town, arrives fresh off the train in the grim city of Vaudeville to investigate the murders of three people. He is tasked with interviewing suspects to ultimately solve a detective’s favourite question: Whodunit. With nine suspects, each with compelling motives, comprehensive investigatory work is an absolute must, but the AI will do everything in its power to veer the private investigator in another direction.

The opening cutscene sets the tone authentic to the film noir era, a crackling voiceover of the detective explains how he was led to Vaudeville to investigate the murders. The opening depicts macabre scenes of the city in a painterly art style while a subtle noir orchestration plays. Then I was thrown into Vaudeville proper, the expressive art was replaced by creepy AI characters, devoid of any expression who reside in dull, gritty locations.

Vaudeville boasts the ability to chat in real-time with AI that will respond to anything the player says with a tailored answer. None of this dialogue is scripted, rather, generated by AI, which in this case is both cunning and surprisingly well-spoken. Their answers were provided swiftly and it felt as if you were talking to individuals based on their personality, which was not necessarily pleasant depending on which character was being questioned.

My first conversation was with Chief Gretzsky, the police head honcho who refused to look me in the eye, rather staring into the void beyond. His robotic, unenthusiastic voice made my engagement with him brief. There wasn’t much context from him to get me started, rather, my P.I. is thrown right into the deep end where it’s tough to see a way forward.

The main complication with Vaudeville for me was trying to progress, needing to ask the right questions is fair enough, but any information gathered is purely based on what I thought to ask at the time. Sometimes I would pry into a suspect’s whereabouts or for further details, but they would respond emotionlessly or change the subject. They would tend to forget about conversations we had already had a few minutes prior, leading to massive inconsistencies in their recounts that didn’t necessarily feel like deliberate omissions. The lack of visible and verbal tells made it hard to know if the AI was being temperamental or if they were actively trying to deceive the player.

Asking the right questions can be a mystery in itself, there were many occasions I latched onto a specific detail that came up between suspects. The common threads were not always relevant and sometimes the trail was completely inconsequential, leading to a lot of unnecessary convoluted examination and excessive runaround. A good tip, speak to the creepy Coroner for extra tidbits on the specifics. It gave me a few clues. Some characters, like the incredibly dismissive Monsieur Saxabar, were impossible to question. When asked if he could say anything but “no” he said… you guessed it, “No,” and it made my job significantly more difficult. Some characters are very unlikeable, and combining that with soulless faces and creepy robotic voices made interrogations a struggle.

In stark contrast, a few characters talked so eloquently they were quite cryptic and engaging, Mrs. Potter had a way with words that almost sounded like a well-considered detective novel dame. There’s a potential for hilarious conversations too, or to have full-blown arguments which lead to some pretty entertaining moments. I was invested for a good few hours until I was going in circles trying to find even a semblance of a lead. Once my patience began wearing thin from returning to question the same few frustrating suspects, I was ready to wrap up as soon as possible.

Using AI to converse in a detective game is an inspired idea, but with no way to investigate beyond asking questions, there wasn’t enough of a starting point. I would have loved to investigate a crime scene or environment, examine items or read notes.

The ability to ask for a clue may not be the most authentic way to play but a novice sleuth like myself sure would have appreciated the option. A great feature was the notebook on the side of the screen – being able to take notes helped jog my memory for important talking points to follow up on.

Once I found a discrepancy I could latch onto, I was able to get the answers flowing, but it took the most obscure detail to get there. I discovered that one person committed multiple murders rather than a different killer for each victim, this threw me off in the accusation phase. It took many an attempt to get my facts straight as I went back out to find more parties involved and I ended up taking part in a few disgruntled discussions because of it.

Players can communicate either through text or a microphone with a text-to-speech function. For me, the microphone wouldn’t work with the game at all, and with no microphone settings to calibrate one, I wasn’t able to troubleshoot the issue. Hopefully, this is something that will be addressed in due time. From what I’ve seen when streamers play, the AI can often understand what players are saying, but speaking too fast, having any kind of accent, or even a slight speech impediment can lead to complete miscommunication.

The game ran mostly fine, with the exception of a few crashes and delayed loading into scenes, but there was no progression loss when it did crash. The main performance issue for me was graphical, with the game looking dated and having pretty poor texture quality, but as a project from a small team, I can empathise with the amount of work it takes to get a whole game together, especially one exploring this idea.

Hopefully, beyond Early Access, the devs will continue to improve the player experience There’s a lot of potential here, but it seems more like an experiment than a fully-fledged game at the moment. I’d love to see a future where AI voices are more convincing in portraying emotional expression. Vaudeville is an intriguing study into the next stages of AI in gaming, and I’m hoping the outcome of this test results in a thrilling and immersive game on release.

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The Good

  • Real-time dialogue is unique for every player
  • Base narrative idea is interesting
  • Digging for information can be engaging and addictive

The Bad

  • Difficult to progress, with limited guidance
  • No settings to calibrate the microphone
  • Characters and the world were unpleasant
5
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10

Written by: Yasmin Noble

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