Detroit: Become Human is Quantic’s most ambitious undertaking yet
Games have long been a fascinating storytelling medium, an intricate juggling act between player agency and creative vision. It’s an ambitiously tall order, such that the few games that pull it off become instant hits with lasting legacies. Quantic Dream’s works may fall short of those heights, yet their productions have always been unique among PlayStation’s stable, pioneering a brand of interactive fiction that’s picking up momentum today. Detroit: Become Human is their latest endeavor, an equally massive undertaking with tome-like scripts and years of actual performances, and it’s turned May 2018 into a month to look forward to.
PlayStation sent GameAxis to Manila, Philippines for a Southeast Asia preview of Detroit. It was one of the many closed-door sessions happening around the world, taking place just as gamers were reeling with excitement for Santa Monica Studio’s God of War and Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man. It’s a tough month to compete for attention.
Fans who’ve followed Detroit’s coverage over the years will no doubt pick on the strong Heavy Rain similarities, and that’s a good thing – the PS3 title was, in some ways, better than Beyond: Two Souls that followed. Detroit shares the multiple character perspectives, the engaging mix of investigative thriller and suffocating dread, as well as having a singular event tying it all together. Where Heavy Rain had the Origami Killer, Detroit: Become Human has an android revolution.
Man versus machine
“I think we’re delivering here with Detroit on a very strong promise to ourselves to create not only the most ambitious but our most branching story.”
There to share more about the game was co-CEO and executive producer Guillaume de Fondaumière, an industry veteran who guided the studio through three releases, beginning with 2005’s Fahreinheit (aka Indigo Prophecy). Dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, jeans, and an easy smile, the enthusiastic de Fondaumière walked the audience through some of Detroit’s basics and behind-the-scenes tidbits.
Detroit: Become Human is a dark thriller set in the year 2038, where androids have already flourished as a worldwide commodity. Yet tensions are brewing as jobs are lost and “Deviant” androids — “they are not supposed to feel emotions,” explains de Fondaumière — begin appearing, prompting the creation of specialist androids tasked to hunt them down. Not because Deviants were running off and hiding, but because some were turning against humans. When people start questioning their safety and second-guessing their android purchase, the manufacturer has to step in. We’ve already met one such specialist: Connor, the hostage negotiator, from the E3 2016 trailer.
In creating this near future, Quantic Dream dived into plenty of research on geopolitics, AI, androids and related topics, extrapolating their findings and adding a dash of creative liberty to build their Detroit, Michigan. The art department followed suit, designing vehicles and fashion grounded in reality. So, while there are sci-fi elements to the game, it usually takes a back-seat to the more personal drama, mystery, and tension – at least in those first two hours or so. “Emotion” is a word that crops up frequently in both past interviews and in de Fondaumière’s presentation, though it’ll take the full game to see whether it’s employed to good effect.
Interestingly, the game has three different composers and directors of photography, allowing Detroit’s concurrent narratives to feel more like a television series rather than an episodic video game. It’s all molded to the director’s vision, of course, but it does help to accentuate the different moods, characters, and situations of our three protagonists. Quantic also works with outsourced studios around the world, with some teams based in the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and India.
Trouble is afoot
It turns out that the rooftop hostage scenario is the first chapter you start with. We’ve already covered that in a PSX SEA 2017 preview, so let’s jump straight to the chapter that starts after: Markus picking up a delivery. It’s a huge shift in tone, opening in a brightly lit park with moments portraying the happier side of the android boom. A kid races to hug her beaming caretaker, an elderly gent receives assistance to go home, and a runner has what is essentially a water-bottle-carrying Garmin. It’s an upper middle-class dream come true.
One pedestrian crossing later and things take a darker turn. There’s still plenty of activity along this upscale street, but anger tinges its edges. A group of humans protest in the distance, calling to take action against the machines that stole their jobs, while elsewhere a lone man takes the biblical angle by likening Markus to the devil. It’s clear that emotions have been running high for some time, but emotion is thrown right out the door when we finally reach the shop. The conversational exchange between Markus and the store’s android is polite, curt, and robotic to the point of being unsettling.
We later see an android parking bay as if it were a shared bicycle rack, and then a segregated section aboard a public bus. The following chapter, Kara’s, even begins with a first-hand perspective of what it’s like to be goods on display.
Quantic is clearly gunning for empathy with the way they frame events and camera shots, oftentimes lingering on close-ups to show the confusion and turmoil bubbling underneath. That we’re being reminded that the world sees androids as no different than your automatic vacuum cleaner only hammers home that intent. It feels a little heavy-handed in the way that Quantic Dream games oftentimes are, but there’s no arguing that it gets the point across.
Then Todd appears. It seems that Kara wasn’t on sale but in for repairs, and through some impressively convincing facial animation and a throwaway excuse, we’re told all we’re needed about her dire circumstances.
Not quite home
Quantic spent over a year on performance, body, and facial motion capture, putting their studio facilities to full use. It shows. The way characters talk, plead, or react is a technical and narrative strength for Detroit: Become Human, allowing director David Cage to rely less on dialogue — not his strongest point — and more on acting, with the animation team at Quantic pulling plenty of weight for eyes and overall polish. Without it, Kara’s scenes wouldn’t be as memorable as they are.
Kara’s trip home is a somber one. After meeting the tight-lipped Alice, who runs away before long, Todd immediately berates Kara on the state of the house due to her absence. She gets to work as he plonks on the sofa, leaving the player to the sort of menial tasks you wouldn’t expect in a video game. Push the button to pick up trash; swipe the touchpad to scrub the dishes. Kara does this all with a quiet smile, happy at her work, but my intuition was blaring away: things aren’t right, and you didn’t need to have seen her trailer or read the ensuing controversy to know about it.
Kara runs into Alice during these chores, the young girl quietly playing by herself by the windowsill or deep in thought on the backyard porch. What’s interesting is that you can choose to interact with her, despite it not being part of your visible checklist of tasks. Alice slowly warms up to Kara because of this, revealing an open secret once they’re upstairs and alone in the bedroom. By this point the curious player would have gathered enough clues about Todd’s situation to gain an understanding of what’s going on — letters by the door, framed posters, hidden stashes — and this final revelation is the nail in the coffin. It’s obvious a confrontation would happen soon, but not in this chapter. Not yet.
Laying things bare
The thing with choice-based games is that the small decisions often feel pointless, simply there to build the illusion. Quantic’s past titles aren’t free from this, either, so what Detroit: Become Human does is to give players a complete flow-chart after every chapter. It helps to show that some of the smaller events do lead you down a different narrative branch, whereas some of the dead-ends actually helped to inform the player. The consequences of things such as Connor saving a fish can only be guessed at without the full game, but it’s easy to presume that it builds his character beyond a cold, uncaring agent.
Quantic doesn’t spoil the events that you missed, either, so you’re free to see how much else you have left to explore. In what is probably a god-send, they’ve added a checkpoint to the middle of each chapter to save you from replaying them in their entirety. Not all are as diverse as Connor’s hostage rescue with his multiple endings. Some, like Markus’ trip to the store, are mostly linear with small veins trailing off the sides, marking all the small interactive scenes you can find. Others, like Kara’s trip home, balloons in breadth but eventually tapers back down to the ending. So, no, you don’t have to dive in too deeply into each scene, allowing you to better focus on the story and events at hand. It’s important to remember that time can play a factor too, as was the case with Connor.
Connor is an interesting character in that he represents CyberLife, the company that builds these androids, and thus gives us a very different perspective from Kara’s and Markus’. He’s a Deviant hunter, and where players would want to sympathize or save a fugitive android, his chapters (in my playthrough, anyway) often ends up with his job complete and the Deviant dead or arrested. The next crime scene he attends is a suburban one, the victim long dead. Once again, you’ll have to carefully explore the house, find clues, and virtually rebuild encounters to see the bigger picture. Detroit has an objective overlay that highlights where you should go or what you can interact with, and it’s most handy during these moments.
Playing detective is fun and arguably the most video game-like moment in those opening chapters, yet its Markus who seemingly holds all the stakes. That android revolution buzzing in the distance? Markus will be at the center of it all. We’re told by de Fondaumière that he’ll be the one to lead the resistance, and a gameplay trailer shows the android right in the thick of it, holding a shotgun and ducking behind cars for cover in a front against humans. I highly doubt it’ll turn into a third-person shooter, so it’ll probably play out much like Jodie’s military scenes in Beyond: Two Souls — waiting for the right moment to push the button. For now, we only get to see what led Markus there.
His owner is a famous and exceedingly wealthy painter named Carl, his home decorated with a life-sized giraffe statue (stuffed or replica, I can’t tell) and a massive skeleton suspended off the ceiling. The upper floor is largely a corridor of bookcases, while the painting studio may as well be a small warehouse. I could spy a gorgeous garden through the glass windows but it’s beyond reach.
Carl’s the exact opposite of Todd, treating Markus as an equal and, most telling of all, stressing the latter’s need to embrace his identity, to never let anyone tell him otherwise. As an android Markus is seemingly perfect, effortless playing the piano or painting exact replicas of whatever he sees. Yet Carl is always there to push him further, praising his humanity or instructing him to look deeper for inspiration. For all we know, Markus may very well be Detroit’s first android to broach self-expression. Of course, they don’t live in a happy bubble, and things are soon interrupted by Carl’s son. He doesn’t shy away from the whole spoiled rich kid trope but, without getting into too much detail, is the catalyst for Markus going beyond the “wall”.
I’m sure the game will have a name for it, but whenever an android makes a major decision of their own, the act is represented by them breaking through what could only be described as a firewall. It takes a huge amount of effort on their part, but the end-result is clear: the little ring by their temples glows yellow instead of blue. Deviant. Self-conscious. It happens with Kara when she goes to Alice’s rescue and it happens with Markus when he too rises to the occasion. At this point, one can only wonder whether Connor will follow suit, of if he’ll be the one to doggedly pursue the other two. The executive producer said that all three characters follow different themes, and Connor’s was described as loyalty having a price. And don’t forget: any or all three of these three characters may die — Detroit: Become Human carries on regardless.
Black nor white
An average playthrough of Detroit takes approximately 10–12 hours to first complete the game, but that number quickly rises once you factor in replays for different endings or story branches. There are apparently more than 300 different characters you can meet in the game, exemplifying just how many possibilities there are. More importantly, the preview session startlingly flew by due to how engrossing the scenes get. I’m invested in Kara’s role as a caretaker, just as I am curious to learn what exactly happened at each crime scene. Then there is the long payoff that is Markus’ journey, one which I can only speculate on.
To be fair, Quantic’s games have always had strong starts — they only begin to crack, and sometimes catastrophically crumble, the further one gets in. Part of that is due to the camera and occasionally clunky controls too, a problem that persists in Detroit. Yet that doesn’t mean you should steer clear of the experience altogether, especially with Quantic’s willingness to touch on real and present social issues, an area many high-profile games tend to ignore in favor of entertainment.
“We’re not coming with a message to humanity,” said de Fondaumière. “Our purpose as creators is to ask questions and give players the possibility to answer these questions. To put their own values in weight and to motivate these choices. Sometimes you’re confronted with domestic abuse [and] I hope that most players are going to fight against this, of course. But in other instances there are questions that are not white or black, and it’s not about making a choice that everyone would do.”
“I invite players to play the game and confront themselves with these questions.”
If this is your dance with Quantic Dream then you don’t necessarily have to jump in blind. Heavy Rain, which Detroit: Become Human bears a stronger resemblance to, is currently free for PlayStation Plus members.
Detroit: Become Human launches on 25 May for PlayStation 4.