‘Detroit: Become Human’ hands-on preview

'Detroit: Become Human' wants to make you uncomfortable about robot-human relations

Detroit could be Quantic Dream’s best game yet, if it doesn’t offend everyone.
Detroit could be Quantic Dream’s best game yet, if it doesn’t offend everyone.
Detroit could be Quantic Dream’s best game yet, if it doesn’t offend everyone.

Highs

  • Branching scenes play out in lots of ways
  • Story chart adds clarity to choices
  • Outstanding visuals
  • Intuitive investigation mechanics
  • Storytelling feels intense

Lows

  • Quicktime events can be hard to understand
  • Story will handle disturbing themes
  • Similar gameplay to past Quantic Dream titles

The developers at Quantic Dream and its founder, David Cage, often talk about how they hope their games will invoke emotions and move people as players work through them. At the very least, the two demos of the studio’s next game, Detroit: Become Human, are a pair of intense story moments, with ideas that will likely get an emotional rise out of players.

Detroit takes place in a future where human-like robotic androids are common in the world. From what we’ve already seen, it seems that some androids in the game have achieved sentience, and are sick of their lot in life. They’re starting to break their programming and experience emotions. Some have even organized to resist and seek independence from their enslavement to humans. The parallels to racism and slavery are easy to draw.

Detroit attacks big, potentially controversial ideas like violence against children with its near-future story. It’s still too early to tell if that story will actually be meaningful, or just emotionally manipulative. Either way, Detroit does seem poised to make you feel the tension better than Quantic Dream’s past efforts.

Becoming human

The most recently released scene, a trailer shown at Paris Games Week in October, features Kara, one of the game’s three playable characters, as she goes through a major developmental moment. Kara is an android newly purchased by Todd, a drug-addicted single father. Her job is to handle the housework and take care of Todd’s daughter, Alice. The trouble is, Todd’s unhinged Androids replaced him at work and he lost his job. His drug addiction cost him his wife. Now he’s become violent and abusive to his daughter.

The demo, shown at PlayStation Experience 2017, covered about half of the scene that will be in the game, according to Quantic Dream. Picking up at the peak of the drama, players jump into a scene where Todd ramps up to a violent outburst while Kara serves him and Alice dinner.

As Todd shows more signs that he’s going to get violent, players can try to follow Alice upstairs or move to talk to him. If Kara tries to intervene, Todd orders her not to move — and as a robot whose software requires her to comply with her owners’ commands. Kara is unable to refuse.

But this is a major moment for Kara, and reveals something about the androids of Detroit‘s world. If the player decides to do something about the situation, which only escalates as Todd takes off his belt and storms upstairs toward Alice’s room, Kara experiences a moment in which she’s able to overcome her programming. As the player, a series of button prompts mimic the effort that Kara is making to overcome her software and her nature as an android, and access her free will.

Detroit seems poised to offer much more complex and involved scenarios than its predecessors.

Quantic Dream’s games have always revolved around players making choices, then experiencing their branching consequences. Detroit seems poised to offer more complex and involved scenarios than its predecessors. Leaving Kara as an unmoving, obedient android seems to be an option, but breaking her programming to confront Todd leads to many more. You can try to reason with him as he talks to himself, huffing a red, gassy substance, or you can follow him up the stairs to stop him from hitting Alice.

We chose to go after Todd once it was obvious what he planned to do. Upstairs, Todd prepared to hit Alice, until Kara stepped in to stop him. Todd turned his anger to Kara, triggering a protracted fight between the two. Like other Quantic Dream games, the physical engagement was controlled through a series quicktime events, in which contextual button prompts appear on the screen, giving the player a split-second to react. Dodging a punch might require pushing the right thumbstick, or rotating the DualShock 4 controller. Moving quick enough would get Kara out of the situation. If you mess up, she’d take the blow.

The fight with Todd can go many different ways. Passing or failing quicktime events causes changes in the story. Taking a hit or two isn’t the end for Kara, but she can lose the fight. How she responds to Todd can have lasting impacts on him, and Alice. If you spend a minute looking in the rooms of the upper floor of the house before going after Todd, for example, you might find his gun, which can drastically change the outcome of the encounter.

In our demo, we fought Todd without a weapon, failing a few of the quicktime events along the way. But after a while, Kara managed to knock Todd down and he hit his head, slowing him down drastically. That gave Kara and Alice a chance to get away, down the stairs, and out the front door, escaping onto a city bus as Todd tried to chase them out the door.

Lots of other outcomes are possible, as demonstrated by a branching story diagram the game shows after a scene ends. In another player’s demo, we saw Kara shoot Todd accidentally after taking the gun from his room. But there may be fewer violent options for the scene, as well, if a player finds a way to calm Todd down before he goes after Alice. Revisiting these scenes and trying different outcomes will likely be a big selling point for Detroit.

Courting controversy

This scene, dubbed “Stormy Night,” (the trailer at the top of this post) evoked a very concerned response from critics regarding the game’s depiction of domestic abuse. Eurogamer interviewed Cage about its content, and particularly, the way the level handles the issue, and uses it as fuel for developing Kara as a character.

The domestic abuse scene is a shorthand for developing empathy in Kara. As an android, Kara sees Alice hurt, and she breaks her programming to intervene – she literally “becomes human.” The scene then quickly turns from one of abuse into a fight that’s pretty standard among Quantic Dream’s games.

There’s nothing about the scene or Kara’s character development in the demo that makes domestic abuse an essential topic, despite Cage’s insistence to the contrary in the interview.

While limiting the ideas that video games can explore seems like the wrong approach to such a scene, it’s also possible to see the point of view the criticisms stem from. It will be up to players to decide if the scene actually handles its subject matter with respect — the demo only included about half of the “Stormy Night” scene, so it’s tough to for us to judge it without context.

Robot detective

We also checked out the first Detroit demo, which has made the rounds at other events over the last year. The sequence, where players control an android hostage negotiator, serves as the game’s tutorial. Compared to the action-packed “Stormy Night” scene, the hostage negotiation takes a slower, more deliberate pace.

The hostage situation puts players in control of Connor, the second of the game’s controllable characters. Connor has been called in to stop a renegade “deviant” android from killing his hostage, a human child. Like Kara’s scene, there’s a constant animosity expressed against androids – though it makes sense here, given that the rogue android has killed several people, including his owner, and is standing on the edge of the building’s roof, threatening to kill the owner’s young daughter. Bigotry is clearly a clear theme in Detroit: Become Human, and it’s leveled at the player character at several moments throughout the scene.

Bigotry is clearly a big part of the story in Detroit: Become Human.

As Connor, players can approach the hostage-taker and try to negotiate from the start, but the true thrust is to investigate the crime scene to learn what happened to the android, giving you more tools to talk him down. You can wander through the scene, checking out objects the android and other people have interacted with. Once you’ve found clues at each location, you get new information to use in your negotiation.

Connor’s android brain can also use certain clues to create “reconstructions” of various points in the crime. Examining certain clues triggers a quick wireframe video that depicts how a certain object was moved or damage, often leading you to another clue. When you reconstruct how the android shot his owner, for instance, you discover the owner was holding something. The reconstruction allows you to replay, fast-forward, or rewind through the action, eventually showing you where the object the owner held landed. Grab it, and you learn some essential information about the android.

There are many, many people, places, and things to examine, but Detroit wants to break players out of the habit of checking every nook and cranny. Early on, the game reminds you in the scene that “every second counts.” In this case, it seems that hostage-taker’s demeanor worsens if you spend too much time scouring the apartment for clues.

Once you’ve done enough investigating, you can head outside onto the rooftop to talk with the android — whose name, you can discover on the way, is Daniel. If you’ve learned enough clues, you’ve discovered that Daniel’s owner planned to replace him with a newer model. Finding that out triggered emotions he didn’t understand, which led him to kill his owners.

Those clues actually open up conversation options when talking to Daniel that wouldn’t otherwise be there. As Connor talks to Daniel, you’re presented with a menu of things to say, delineated by topic or by their emotional thrust, with options like, “Sympathetic,” “Blaming” or “Rational.” Find the right clues, and you can bring up Daniel’s feelings of abandonment. As you pick options that stabilize Daniel’s android personality, a counter only visible to Connor slides up in his view, predicting his probability of successfully defusing the situation.

Like the first sequence, the negotiation can go a number of different ways. As Connor walks toward Daniel, he can talk him into releasing his hostage, which results in snipers taking him out. Failing that, Connor can make a play to get the girl away from him. In some outcomes, Daniel shoots Connor. In others, Connor runs in and throws them both off the balcony. Connor can find a gun in the crime scene, which gives him the option to execute Daniel if he gets close enough and can distract the rogue android.

And, of course, you can fail as a negotiator. Depending on the scenario, Daniel can fall off the side of the building with the girl in a murder-suicide. Not all of the consequences you experience are obvious. Successfully killing Daniel might result in the girl’s death, if you aren’t careful.

But there doesn’t seem to be a way to save Daniel. Even if you convince him to release his hostage and surrender, the police execute him in an intense hail of bullets. And, like the “Stormy Night” scene, this scene contains a child in peril — you may even watch her die if Daniel takes her over the side of the building with him. Detroit’s central goal seems to be forcing strong emotional reactions from its players, and it goes to extreme lengths to do so.

Familiar territory

Mechanically, Detroit’s two demos don’t show anything too far outside of what Quantic Dream’s last two games, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. There are some improvements, though —Connor’s investigative and reconstruction abilities streamline the “detective work” found in all three games. The clues are generally easy to find, but the current process looks good, feels intuitive, and certainly beats wandering around a scene waiting for your controller to vibrate to indicate you’ve stumbled on a clue.

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The real question, though, is how Detroit‘s story will unfold, and how meaningful its many branches will be. Quantic Dream chooses to go after darker, more adult material, which opens the door for interesting stories rarely seen in games with this size and scope. Players will rightly expect Detroit to be smart and respectful as it plays with ideas that people really experience, like violence against children and allegories of racism.

Without the greater context of the whole game, it would be premature to judge whether Detroit deals with these issues appropriately. If it can, the extreme number of branches and possibilities are intriguing, and the high fidelity of Detroit‘s voice acting and motion capture bring its scenes a lot of the gravity the developer is going for.

Since Heavy Rain launched in 2010, Quantic Dream has always been a polarizing name among critics and fans. Detroit: Become Human embraces everything that has made the studio both loved and hated. With better controls, beautiful visuals, and a story that definitely pushing the envelope, Detroit could be Quantic Dream’s best game yet if it doesn’t offend everyone.

Detroit: Become Human will launch on PlayStation 4 in Spring, 2018.