In going hands-on with Detroit Become Human one thing immediately becomes clear; this is the game Quantic Dream has been striving for all these years.
Whereas previous games have been hackneyed, with writing that borders on parody, Detroit manages to walk the fine line needed to be sincere. There is a real emotional impact here.
Every line of dialogue, every interactable and every story beat has been included for a specific, narrative reason. Nothing has been included simply for shock value or to push the player in any direction. Each choice and each decision feels as impactful as the last.
It’s a real testament to Quantic Dream that in Detroit, choice matters. Or at least has the convincing illusion that it does. For the first time, the developer has succeeded in handing the narrative over to the player, without boxing them in.
Choice is key and freedom is king. And as that rings true for the player, so too does it for Detroit’s Androids.
Detroit Become Human Preview
In the Detroit Become Human preview, the opening two or so hours of the game were playable. The three protagonists, Kara, Marcus and Connor, were gradually introduced as was Detroit’s central theme; what does it mean to be human?
Philosophers have agonised over this very questions for centuries. The answer is obviously not easy to find, but Detroit settles on the idea that to be human means to make choices.
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Being human is deciding for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong. The Androids who become ‘Deviants,’ Detroit’s term for those who develop emotion, make those choices and begin to question right and wrong.
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The Deviants are a major problem for a society that has been radically altered by the role the Androids play. Androids in Detroit are supposed to be fully subservient. To do as they’re told, never question their human masters and never, ever harm or endanger human life. Unfortunately, humans are not worthy masters.
What Does it Mean to Be Human?
It’s said that ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and this is all too true in Detroit. Men who have sad, broken lives, take out their anger and frustration on those beneath them, which in most cases means the innocent; children, the elderly and the Androids who serve them.
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In fact, every Android I met in Detroit was the victim of violence perpetrated by men. All except one. And the exception is only due to his ‘job.’ It’s clear that Detroit is at least partially a commentary on the power of men in society and the power they abuse. The Androids in Detroit could be a facsimile for any oppressed or persecuted group of people.
Humans in Detroit see the Androids as less than themselves. They’re simply tools to be used, objects to be abused and substitutes for those they wish to hold power over. Androids are also society’s scapegoats in Detroit Become Human.
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Set in the year 2038, the unemployment rate in Detroit has reached 35%. Androids have replaced humans in many jobs and automation has further eroded the job market. Those who have lost their jobs are angry and are directing their anger at the Androids who’ve replaced them. Instead of looking at the broader societal issues or reasons for the loss of jobs the Androids are an easy target.
They’re different, they’re sub-human, they don’t belong. It’s easy to blame them and anger directed at Androids is rife right from the very beginning of Detroit and it remains throughout. Androids aren’t respected or trusted. Instead, they’re ‘plastic toys’ and nothing more. No matter how human they may seem or how much they learn and grow.
Oh The Humanity!
An enormous spectrum of humanity occupies the limited space within Detroit’s narrative, but for the most part, humans themselves are presented as the villains and Androids the unlikely heroes. In the two hours I spent with Detroit, only two humans showed actual compassion and kindness for Androids. Another was simply tolerant of Androids, begrudgingly I might add.
Much like in HBO’s Westworld, the real humanity in Detroit lies in the mechanical hearts of the Androids. Also, like Westworld, ‘violent delights have violent ends.’ Androids are pushed to breaking point and become Deviants by the abhorrent behaviour they’re subjected to at the hands of humans. Eventually, they come to understand their own mortality and act to save their own lives, even against their programming.
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These psychological breaks that lead to them becoming self-aware and emotional are violent, intense experiences. The Androids have suffered so severely that they overwrite their own programming in order to survive. However, the game hints at something larger at play. Deviant Androids claim to be working in service to a messianic figure who will save them all. And they speak of a future in which the Androids are the masters.
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Within the two hours of hands-on time I had, this overarching narrative was only hinted at here and there, but it’s clear that something is going to bring all of the disparate threads together. I’m hoping that when they do, everything falls into place neatly and makes complete sense.
In the past, Quantic Dream’s titles have often ignored continuity in service of an ending or shock twist. It doesn’t feel like this is going to happen in Detroit Become Human, so I really hope it doesn’t.
People are People
Aside from the narrative and the themes, Detroit Become Human plays very much like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. You explore a scene, interact with items and people, discover clues and make choices. Subsequent scenes follow on and change based on your choices and actions. The more you explore, the greater the number of choices you can make.
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In my Detroit Become Human preview, I spent time washing dishes, doing laundry, making beds, painting a picture, examining a crime scene, opening doors, turning on lights and so on and so forth. So much of the gameplay in Detroit Become Human is the minutiae of human life experienced through the eyes of an Android.
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I’m sure it sounds dull and even when I was playing it I felt that it SHOULD be dull, but it wasn’t. Not at all.
It’s strange, but doing these simple yet, very human tasks amplifies the Androids’ inhuman qualities while simultaneously making them seem all the more human. It’s a brilliant design decision that somehow makes the player empathise with the Androids even more.
Yep, Motion Controls are Back
Quantic Dream has refined its interactive drama gameplay over its past few titles, but the controls in Detroit Become Human are still a little clunky. Camera angles aren’t fixed and you can control the camera with the Right Stick. It sounds good, right? Except that most actions are also tied to the right stick.
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I found myself getting stuck on more than one occasion as I tried to interact with a clue, only to move the camera. For a game that relies so heavily on immersion, these infrequent moments really kill the atmosphere.
The same goes for motion control actions. They aren’t fun or intuitive and I failed more than one QTE because I was unsure which direction to move my damn controller in.
That being said, I still immensely enjoyed the couple of hours I spent in Kara, Marcus and Connor’s plastic shoes. For the most part, the controls were tight and responsive (aside from the already mentioned niggles), exploring each scene was rewarding and the gradual unfolding of each story had me desperate for more.
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Thankfully, the scenes upended my expectations. Nothing played out as anticipated. Quantic Dream has obviously worked hard to ensure that players are kept on their toes while keeping the character’s actions and (more importantly) dialogue organic and believable.
Detroit Become Human is easily the most well-scripted title from Quantic Dream, though depending on your opinion of its previous games, that might be a low bar.
However, from the few hours I played, Detroit Become Human felt closer to cable TV quality drama than a video game.
Now We Play the Waiting Game
Quantic Dream’s games have always been something of an acquired taste, but Detroit Become Human has the potential to be a crossover hit. Its story will hit home for many players, though there are definitely scenes that should come with a trigger warning.
Getting to know these characters will feel natural and easy and it won’t be long before players are hooked.
Detroit Become Human asks a lot of questions in its opening few hours. Hard questions, painful questions and about topics and subjects not often broached by games. Answers are not readily apparent in the early stages, though I’d hope they appear later.
If not, the weight of Detroit’s themes will vanish. It’ll be a real shame to see the potential established early on squandered and I’m truly hoping it isn’t.
How well Detroit Become Human succeeds overall won’t be knowable until the final game is available.
For now, things look incredibly promising.
Detroit Become Human will be available for PS4 on May 25, 2018.
Leo Stevenson travelled to Sydney as a guest of Sony to play the preview build of Detroit Become Human.