Set just twenty years from now, Detroit: Become Human depicts a world where androids are everywhere. They’re the backbone of manufacturing, or caregiving, of homemaking, but they’re also becoming sentient and one by one starting to push back against their creators. We see this world through the eyes of three distinct androids – Kara, Connor and Markus – with the game jumping between them as their story brings them closer and closer together.
We recently sat down to play the first act of the game – read that here, or play a demo from tomorrow – and also had the opportunity to sit down with Lead Writer Adam Williams, who’s collaborated with David Cage to turn his vision of an android filled world into a game..
TSA: For you, this is the first game you’ve made while at Quantic Dream, but how do you feel the storytelling has evolved in the studio over the last decade or so?
Adam Williams: What I can tell you, because I didn’t work on the previous games so I don’t know what their approach was then, but what I can tell you from when I started with this [is that] David said that his vision for this was to do the most interactive title they’d ever done and to really put the player in control of the story. So I think, having playing Heavy Rain and Beyond, one of the key differences is that Detroit is really geared around the story you want to tell. That didn’t just mean giving you more choices than ever before – which we did do – it also meant leaving the player in control of the gameplay more often and really
I, as David’s writer, and his senior game designer, we all worked together in a team and didn’t have this hard border between a gameplay moment and a story moment. We kind of worked on everything in quite a fluid way, because we wanted something where you couldn’t easily distinguish a story moment from a gameplay moment.
I would say that this game is more player centric than anything they’ve done before and that meant, in terms of the approach to writing, our job wasn’t, I don’t think, to tell a particular story, our job was to give the player the tools he needed to tell his or her own story.
TSA: One of the interesting things there is there flowchart that you see at the end of a chapter, and that you can actually jump into mid-game to see how you’re going along. That does make it feel more obviously like a video game to me, and did you consider that it’s potentially diluting the decisions that you make because of a lack of permanence through the ability to wind back to a decision point?
Unlike with Life Is Strange, it’s not a part of the story that you’re able to do that.
Adam: It’s not diegetic, as it were, and that was certainly the philosophical question around do we do it or not. As I’m sure you know, whenever you write an interactive story, a chart like that exists because that’s how you build it from a design point of view, so should you show it or not?
I understand the question about being able to jump back, kind of like if you play a choose your own adventure novel and keep a finder between the pages to jump back. What we found is that most players force themselves to stick with the consequences of their choices on the first playthrough, and they hold in their minds, “I’m going to jump back later and see what happened.”
I think also what minimises the danger of that in this case, and what really took a lot of time with Detroit more than writing all the cases, was that David really wanted every case to feel as satisfying as every other case. I talked to you about how you can lose your playable characters, and you can lose all of them before the end of the game.
TSA: Can you lose all of them before the end of the first act? [laughs]
Adam: No… but I had to think about it!
So in the case where you lose everybody, if you then jump to the credits, there’s no doubt in my mind that the player would think they’ve been given a less good version of the story. Once you’ve done that, and if you allow that to happen from a design point of view, when a play is making a choice, they will be thinking, “What do I need to do to get the full story?”
It creates a success/fail dynamic in the choices that we didn’t want. We want you to choose in whatever way reflects what you want to do in a scene and not worry about “winning” the game, as it were.
TSA: Yeah, that is something that you get in similar adventures, where you want to win and get the “good” ending. How have you got away from that with how the action unfolds?
Adam: One of the keys to getting away from it, from a writer’s point of view, is what I talked about in the presentation earlier with good guys and bad guys. If we’d made humans the bad guys and the deviants the good guys and we created a morally unambiguous universe, then there would clearly be a right way fro the story to unfold. In that case it would be that deviants win and mankind is forced to recognise their rights, etc.
The more morally ambiguous you can make the world, the more real it’s going to feel, because we live in a morally ambiguous world, but also the less sense you’ll get of a “right” version of a story. I think we were lucky with this game, in that the question we ask, which is how man should relate to a machine that appears to have become human, is one that hasn’t been answered in the society we live in.
TSA: It is one of those things that is often addressed in science fiction. I do get the feeling that things might have been solved if these androids adhered to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. [laughs]
Adam: But it’s really interesting with the Three Laws, and you’re obviously familiar with Asimov, is that as soon as you have three concrete laws like that, life is sufficiently fluid that three laws never work. A million laws would never constrain all the possibilities.
TSA: He did find a lot of ways around it…
Adam: You’re right that there’s this rich sci-fi tradition, but what we tried to do differently (and you’ll tell us if we succeeded) is to use the sci-fi as a way to talk about stuff that is more of the time that we’re in now.
TSA: Yeah, there’s a lot of allegories to modern day issues surrounding race and identity in particular.
Adam: We didn’t have a specific topic in mind, whether it was race, sexism, immigration, or whatever. The analysis we made was that if you’re going to make a world that feels real, there are certain patterns that emerge over and over again in human society, and one of them is this imbalance between those with power and those without.
If you present that in universal terms, each player with bring their own particular instance of that into the game. Some people see more sexism, some people see more racism, some people see more immigration. The idea was to do something broad enough that everyone could find a way into it. We need to globally release this game, and we want anybody to be able to play it, so it needs to be flexible enough so that everybody can find their own angle.
TSA: The difficulty there, as came up after Paris Games Week, is that you still need to ensure there’s enough depth and nuance. How much does it help to have that depiction of domestic abuse shown in the context of the wider game? It’s always difficult, even with something like a racing game, to show off what the game is all about in the space of a few minutes.
Adam: Yeah, so I think there’s a general question in there, and there’s a specific one about Kara and Todd.
In the code that you’ve seen today, if you complete that Stormy Nights scene, as we call it, and you escape with Alice and jump on a bus, the last shot is of the bus speeding away. At Paris Games Week, that’s all that anybody saw, but the next Kara scene is called Fugitives, and it begins with Kara and Alice being woken up on the bus by the conductor saying it’s the end of the line and they need to get off. Kara says, “Where are we going to go?” and he says, “I don’t care.”
You’re left on the street with Alice and you have to figure out what you’re going to do. We wanted to show that simply escaping a bad situation is never the end of the story, plus what happens in that scene stays with Alice and Kara through the rest of the game. That kind of issue, that kind of trauma can’t just be washed off in a shower. It remains with you somehow and learning how to cope with it and how to make sense of it is something we try to explore.
Having it as a vertical slice may have given people the wrong impression that we think domestic violence can be dealt with easily, when the story specifically goes after the idea that it can’t.
TSA: You’ve got three points of view into this world, and you spoke about the top and the bottom. You’ve got the law enforcement – David really does love his law enforcement in his games…
Adam: I have a theory about that, by the way, which I’ll share with you later.
TSA: Yeah, sure!
I’m interested, though, why Connor and this law enforcement side of things is an android, when it could have been used to give a human perspective into this world. You’re coming at it from three androids, though…
Adam: It was something we talked about a lot, whether there should be a human playable character, and you can see the advantage would be to get yet another fresh perspective.
Generally in games you’re invited to view the world from the point of view of someone powerful, whether it’s that they’re good at what they do or they’re destined for success, so I thought it was more fresh and more striking to play as people who are disempowered. There are different levels in the deviancy hierarchy, but they’re all in the android class.
In that sense, it’s probably just more original for people, but I also think, with the themes in the game, if you’re trying to explore a divided society, the injustice is always much more striking if you’re looking at it from underneath. To the humans it makes perfect sense that the androids are treated like machines, because they are machines. So all the interesting existential questions about how fair it is or how different an android really is are all much clearer from the view of an android, I think. Letting the player explore an unjust society from the point of view of its victims rather than its perpetrators was, I think, more interesting and a better story telling opportunity.
And I think the reason why David likes law enforcement is, if you see the way David writing and the way he has the flowchart on the wall and everything, i think he approaches things a bit like a detective. He has all the cases and then he has all the strings connecting them, and he’s always thinking about if this thing happens, then what happens? So I think he’s got an investigative nature to his writing.
TSA: Is he a big conspiracy theorist?
Adam: He’s actually not! About the real world he’s a very relaxed guy, but as soon as you get him on his own work, he knows every detail.
Thanks to Adam for chatting to us about Detroit: Become Human. You can catch our hands on preview with the first act here, and the game is set for release on 25th May. Not only that, but Sony are releasing a demo for the game tomorrow, 24th April!