Sony are on a bit of a hot streak with their first party exclusives. With Aloy and Kratos having earned no small amount of praise, they’re no doubt expecting that Kara, Connor and Markus will as well. Certainly, expectations are high after years of impressive looking trailers and demonstration of what is clearly their most ambitious and expansive game yet.
Quantic Dream came in for a flurry of criticism after Paris Games Week trailer and the manner in which it portrayed domestic abuse. I think it came as something of a shock to the studio, but the important thing to remember is that it’s difficult to put together a brief trailer or demo for a game at the best of times, let alone when trying depict something as dramatic as this. Thankfully it does work much better in context, even if it still paints the issues in broad strokes.
The thing is, the manner in which the young girl Alice closes herself off from the situation, sits silently in the corner with her rabbit toy, avoids responding to Kara when you try to engage with her, it does ring true. It’s also better grounded by the scenes with Kara that precede it, first as she wakes up in an android shop unknowingly waiting to be collected by Todd, then when cleaning up the weeks of mess in his house, cheerfully getting on with the job while he stews in self loathing and a cocktail of drugs that lead to violent outbursts. The test will be to see how that leaves its mark on the two characters of Alice and Kara, as they become fugitives and Kara tries to care for a child without the rights of a human guardian.
As with Heavy Rain, there’s a banality to the opening scenes of Detroit: Become Human. Cage has a few key touchstones in his writing and game design, and one of them is showing the everyday life of the characters. So alongside Kara’s domestic chores we see Markus going to pick up paints for Carl, his artistic owner, and then returning home to wake him and bring him down in his wheelchair to eat breakfast. It’s not that big a stretch to see Markus acting as a surrogate son to the ageing man, and there’s a clear loving relationship as Carl sees the potential for humanity within him, pushing Markus to test the limits of his programming.
Another trope of a David Cage story is having a protagonist in law enforcement. That’s where the deviant android hunting android Connor comes in, and it’s his opening scene, the hostage situation, that helps to provide a bit of impetus and drama to the humdrum of Markus and Kara’s opening scenes.
More than with the other androids, Connor’s scene present you with an environment to investigate, trying to find clues to solve a crime and then use his unique abilities to simulate the sequence of events. Rewinding time in these distinctive sequences often highlights something that leads to more clues that help to solve the case. The first hostage situation is his dramatic intro before he’s partnered up with Lieutenant Hank Anderson – who’s clearly and quite stereotypically ambivalent to androids – and goes to investigate a homicide where an android is the suspect. It’s a solid system, but the real interest with Connor is that as Kara and Markus fight to become free, he’s there hunting deviants down. How he and the others come into contact with one another will surely be at the heart of the game’s evolving story.
The first act of the game is an exercise in world building, taking us twenty years into the future, where Detroit has become a hub of manufacturing and technological advancement once more. You see androids selling androids, there’s amusing short-term parking for androids in the pristine park, one person simply throws garbage on the floor and expects it to be picked up by an android, we see how the elderly are coming to rely more and more on androids for care. A lot of it feels like a smart interpretation of where the world might head if androids became de rigeur, right down to the protests about how they’re taking over the workforce and, knowing that these androids have the capacity for sentient thought, the parallels to racial segregationist in America as androids have separate compartment on buses.
It is, however, juxtaposed with little tickles of the absurd. Picking up the tablet magazines and flicking through the handful of stories they include, you see the expected news story about how much men love to have sex with androids compared to women, but there’s also stories about how androids can play in American sports. Nope, that’s not going to happen, and certainly not by the year 2038. Look at how agonisingly long it’s taken for the various sports to bring in video technology to help assist their referees and how much anguish that causes fans, and there’s not a hope in hell of letting an android pitch in baseball or be Quarterback in NFL. It’s almost laughable to even consider it.
The final Quantic Dream trope is the esoteric nature of the game’s controls and quick time events. Despite having the right analogue stick control the camera with which you look around the world, it’s also used to then flick or perform half turns in order to interact with things in the world, while your thumb will be reaching to swipe and prod at the DualShock 4’s touchpad whenever you pick up a tablet. It’s meant to be immersive, and yet it just comes off as being eccentric and different for the sake of it, and falls down when the game occasionally misinterprets your intention.
Where it does work is in the action sequences where you’re on the edge trying to read and keep up with the unusual demands. There’s stick twiddling, button pressing, trigger pulling and then, all of a sudden, the need to jerk and move the entire controller – something which comes almost completely out of the blue.
It’s from this and some of the trickier choices to make that I expect people will start to lose some of the three main protagonists, and you can even lose them in the first act of the story. The game will simply flow in and around your choices and actions, and what’s fascinating is that at the end of each scene they now show you the flowchart of everything that happened, the branching points, how much stuff you might have missed, and so on. Even on the first play, you’ll be able to rewind to certain points in a scene so you can explore the many paths, but the main purpose here is to show you how individual your story is. This is less about the right or good path, and more about it being your path.
This might be a story about three androids, but Detroit: Become Human tries to tell a very, well, human story. In the face of adversity, oppression, abuse and worse, Kara, Markus and Connor have very different views into the world and Detroit will see their paths collide in the midst of an android uprising. It feels like it will have more in common with Heavy Rain than the supernatural excesses of Beyond: Two Souls. With all the advances in graphics, performance capture, and an interesting future world to explore through your choices and actions, this could be the best Quantic Dream game yet.