Detroit: Become Human
Director David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream like to take risks, not all of which have paid off. In a way, it’s encouraging to see a team constantly push the boundaries of interactive storytelling, but this boldness has also certainly brought controversy and criticism. Even so, Quantic Dream never dials back, and Detroit: Become Human is its most ambitious project to date. This became more clear to me after playing through its first two hours and chatting with creator David Cage at a recent press event. With only a month until launch, here’s what you need to know about Detroit: Become Human.
A Scary Glimpse Into Our Potential Future
From people perpetually glued to their smartphones to the emergence of self-driving automobiles, technological advancement is an intriguing topic right now. What if our future is filled with robots who can ease our burdens and complete tasks incomparably? Detroit: Become Human begins with a grandiose statement, “This is not just a story. This is our future.”
Set in 2038, Cage imagines a more technologically-dependent landscape and what issues would arise from that. Human-like androids have been integrated into society, available for purchase by anyone, and are programmed to obey their owner’s every command. Androids look like humans, but are treated just like objects. What happens when those supposed “objects” begin to feel emotions and attachments to their human owners?
Detroit’s story also touches upon societal issues, such as abuse and segregation – androids must sit in the back of buses and are not allowed enter certain establishments. The tensions are high because the androids are negatively impacting the job market. Humans’ livelihoods and sense of purpose are at stake. Since you play from the perspective of three different androids (more on that later), you are constantly aware of humanity's complicated feelings toward you. Some have embraced androids for the ease they put on their lives, but others abhor them, protesting their existence and resorting to brute force against them to make their displeasure known. You never feel safe walking down the street, as you never know who will confront you or what you may see that will be a constant reminder of your status in the world.
Complex Androids With Intriguing Humans At Their Side
It seems like androids bring out the worst in humans, or more aptly, amplify humanity’s negative traits. Greed. Resentment. Violence. Cage sets up his story not to make you sympathize with the humans, but instead imagines how humans would abuse technology on top of all the other issues we see in our society today, such as equal rights, climate change, and abuse of power. Throughout the game, you shift through perspectives of three androids who begin to develop emotions and gain the ability to go against their programming.
Each is paired with a human character, and these supporting relationships display the struggles of this world, which featured the best writing in the demo. Kara is a fugitive, helping a little girl escape her abusive father. Markus is owned by a kindhearted, elderly artist who treats him like a son and encourages him to form his own identity. Lastly, Connor is programmed to hunt down disobedient androids, and forced to partner with cop Hank Anderson who isn’t exactly fond of his kind. Cage said the idea to give each android a sidekick was decided early on. “It was very challenging to write from the beginning to the end, because suddenly you don’t manage one arc, you manage two arcs, and the relationship is almost the third arc,” he says. “Then you have to provide a satisfying sense of closure for all of those characters, and they have their backstories and they have their own motivations and agendas. It made everything much more complex, but I’m so glad we did it because I think it really does something for the experience and story.”
Every android plays a bit differently based on their role in the story. When playing from Connor’s perspective, you search for clues to piece together what happened at crime scenes, then based on your findings decide your next move. Connor has a rewind ability you can use as you put together events, allowing you to view all angles of the situation and find new clues. When I played Connor, his story revolved around his role in helping the police. These include situations like trying to defuse a tense hostage situation and interrogating an android who would self-destruct if I pushed him too hard.
Kara’s scenes aren’t so much about piecing together complex events, but discovering the best way out of them. A down-and-out father purchases her to play the role of caretaker after his wife leaves him. He’s extremely unstable, using drugs and lashing out at his daughter, Alice, for his failures. As Kara, you need to decide just how to get Alice out of this awful situation and keep her safe.
Markus lives in a better atmosphere, working in a lavish mansion with Carl, a well-off artist who genuinely appreciates and cares for him. Markus’ challenges come from other people, whether it’s strangers who hold animosity for androids to Carl’s drug-abusing son Leo. As an old man, Carl is trying to prepare Markus for this bleak world without him. Carl ended up being my favorite supporting character in the demo. He’s a wise man, who isn’t blind to mankind’s depressing flaws. In these early hours, I found myself basing my decisions on the three relationships. For instance, with Kara, I always wanted to set a good example for Alice, and as Markus, I never wanted to cause Carl extra strife, especially knowing that he’s sick.
The Difficulty Of Playing Those Intense Scenes...
Dramatic and emotional moments abound in Detroit: Become Human. Throughout my demo, I saw everything from tender moments to uncomfortable scenes of violence. Yes, certain parts are unpleasant to play through, putting you right in the middle of a tense dilemma and gauging how you’d react. Cage knows he’s taking on sensitive subject matter that’s largely been absent from video games, but feels it’s important to see if video games can tell these stories.
From what I played the moment that sticks out the most deals with the aforementioned child abuse. You not only fear for Kara’s safety but also for this little girl’s as you watch her father unraveling from drug abuse and depression. You are told to stand there and not move, as the father prepares to “teach his daughter” a lesson. The scene isn’t done poorly, but made me feel anxious and distraught. It’s up to you whether you intervene (I did), which turned into an intense fight scene. Did it stir emotions in me? Yes. Did it serve a purpose in the narrative. Again, yes. Will it be too much for some people, especially those who have gone through these situations? Absolutely. Cage isn’t shying away from these complex topics. I am wary of how these intense scenarios are handled in the larger scheme of the game, since exploring them authentically and respectfully in a video game is tough to pull off.
Cage is quick to acknowledge this concern. “We talked about [the subject matter] pretty much every day on the team, because we were aware we had a responsibility. When you tell a story like this you need to be respectful for people to understand the situation. We consulted different people. We talked to people from different horizons to make sure we knew how to tackle [specific] parts. We totally understand that these are sensitive issues. We did have a moment where we said, ‘Look we need to be very careful about what we’re saying,’ because you’re not just saying one thing, you’re saying many different things and you want every single branch and structure to say something right, although you offer choices. We’re scared, but at the same time, we thought, ‘Wait a second, we’re working on something that’s really important' and for us it becomes a statement. We believe that games are legitimate as any other medium to talk about these things… if we step back it means interactivity is not trying to do these things.”
Lots Of Story Variations
All of these characters have opportunities to forge relationships, make difficult decisions, or die, depending on your plentiful choices. At the end of each chapter comes a flow chart of all the possible variations of the story, and I was impressed with just how many different things can happen depending on what items you pick up, how you problem-solve, and what dialogue choices you make. You get a percentage in this flow chart, showing you how much you completed out of your potential options. “From day one, the most important thing on Detroit for us was to make the most branching narrative we ever created,” Cage says. “We didn’t want to do any smoking mirrors to make you think something has an impact and it actually doesn’t.”
Cage said the team deliberately put the flow charts in so people would know just how many variations there were to any given path. “We didn’t want to make anything invisible, because when it’s invisible, people assume it’s not there,” Cage explains. “This is why we have the flow charts because we put so much effort into the branching aspect of the game and you have to see it to be aware that it’s there.”
An example of a big choice is trying to find a safe place to stay in the pouring rain while Kara and Alice are on the run. You can choose to find a way to get money for a hotel, an abandoned house, break into a car, and more. Depending on what you pick, you will be placed in different scenarios with tough decisions; sometimes you will even meet certain characters based on what path you take. As I played my demo, I looked at other people’s screens around me and saw events play out very differently. This leaves me hopeful for navigating this fascinating and scary world and feeling like the story actually reflected my actions. “The game has a lot of tradeoffs, ‘you can play this, but you need to get that’ that you have to accept,” Cage explains. “It’s not binary choices, it’s usually difficult choices and interesting dilemmas like, ‘Am I ready to steal to have a safe place for tonight?’”
To do justice to all the actions and outcomes, it took Cage two and a half years to write the script. “I’ve never spent so much time on the script,” he says. “It became crazy just to provide consistent consequences to everything that happens. It’s not just about offering choices, it’s about being able to manage them [well].” Cage says he knows some arcs will be seen by a mere 10 percent of players, and part of the challenge was anticipating every possible way someone would play a scene, whether they’d have an item or obey a command. “You embrace the idea that you’re going to produce all the dialogue and characters [for a path] and few people will see it,” Cage explains. “It’s challenging to write and then it has a cost in production, which you have to be willing to accept, which we did on this project, more than anything we’ve done so far.”
While I felt that Detroit’s introductory two hours were intriguing and gave me more confidence about the game, it’s hard to know if it will fall apart or end up being remarkable. Cage reinforced that what I saw was only the introduction to the tale, saying it really picks up into the core story after this. “What we wanted to do with the first part is really make you feel empathy for the three main characters and like them so by the time the big things happen, you’re in their shoes.”
Cage isn’t entirely sure how gamers will take to it either, but felt tackling sensitive subject matter was worth the risk. “It’s an attempt at trying something different and making a proposition to the industry... to see if people will think this is interesting, and if games should be about these serious matters.” He also knows taking this chance means he might not necessarily succeed. “We need to do it right, and I don’t know if we did it right, but players will tell us,” Cage says. "We’re aware of the responsibility and weight on our shoulders.”
That’s the thing with risks – you have to take them to try and move the medium forward, but you can never predict the outcome.
Detroit: Become Human launches on May 25 for PS4.