Demoing Detroit: Become Human

Quantic Dream unveiled a demo of the long-awaited Detroit: Become Human this week. And it is fantastic.

August 15th, 2038. Detroit.

The game’s aesthetic heavily borrows from the developing company’s previous title, Heavy Rain. Much of the level design shares the same Lysol sheen on household appliances and surfaces. The interior design choices are heavily modernised. Glass is ever-present in each room. The camera feels claustrophobic as you move between spaces. And the characters are so realistically modelled that they slip into the uncanny valley.

Aside from the obvious aesthetic inheritance that Detroit has received from Heavy Rain, there’s also undeniablly influential overtones from early iterations of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Especially in terms of the first five or so games, the digital mapping of the world is highly angular and bright. Likewise, Detroit’s menu screen is so white that you might want to readjust the color balance on your screen, but at the same time, the horrible fluorescence of the blinding light reaffirms the technological distance between us and the people/androids of 2038.

The demo for Detroit begins with a series of shots that splice together various coin tricks that Connor, your character, flawlessly performs. Connor’s character is established by these shots, and the final close-up of the quarter that he has been playing with solidifies the fact – by virtue of Washington’s wig – that you’re not only in Detroit, but in America. The country has changed, especially in the “Android City.”

The technology that powers the androids is presumably reflected by the circular devices implanted in the temple of each android character. We see from the beginning Connor’s blue light circling in his temple, an image that harkens the memory technology of Black Mirror’s “The Entire History of You” episode. This blue light in Connor’s temple contrasts with the antagonist of Detroit’s demo: the Deviant android, Daniel. Daniel’s temple glows red in the eventual rooftop scene, which symbolically reinforces the difference between righteous protagonist and corrupt antagonist.

As Connor exits the elevator in which he has been flipping the quarter between his fingers, the player is granted control. You head down an elaborate hallway lined with glowing fish tanks and a portrait of the Phillips family. Caroline Phillips, the mother in the photograph, is quickly escorted into the elevator from which you’ve arrived, sobbing hysterically as she realizes that – from what you can tell at this point – an android (you) is being sent to rescue her daughter. Caroline’s daughter Emma, a human, has been taken hostage by Daniel, the deviant android. Your presence, instead of reassuring and consoling her, causes Caroline to scream, “Why aren’t you sending a real human?!”

As Caroline Phillips is escorted away, Connor moves through the hallway and into the actual crime scene from which Daniel has taken Emma hostage. Along this hallway, you have the choice to inspect both the family photograph and a dwarf gourami fish, which presents the demo’s first choice: you can either save this little fish by restoring him to the tank on the wall, or leave him to flap about and die on the floor. I don’t, of course, know how often little choices like this fish scene occur in Detroit, but it’s a great sign as to how much detail Quantic Dream invested into the relationship between choice and character development.

Connor proceeds to debrief with Captain Allen, a police chief of what looks like the equivalent of the future’s SWAT team. Allen implores Connor to urgently deal with the kidnapped hostage and deviant android outside. But the player has a moment to properly feel out the game’s investigative mechanics. Like a detective, Connor notices small fragments of evidence that, by virtue of his android abilities, allow him to piece together an accurate narrative of how and why this android became deviant. After all, this is ostensibly the first time that an android has behaved in such a malignant way.

The game presents you with the ability to engage with objects in a way that also reconstructs time and space. When investigating evidence, Connor is presented with a finite timeline in which he can reconstruct information about past events. This timeline has stable and unstable components. The stable components easily and accurately replay – via rewind and fastforward – the timeline of the object. But you have to investigate the unstable components, thereby filling in the timeline and finally solving the detective puzzle.

Each time you choose the investigative path, at least in this demo, Connor’s probability of succeeding in the mission increases. The demo begins with a pitiful percentage, in the red, that suggests how you need to bring up this percentage before confronting the deviant android. The demo is unclear on whether this percentage needs to be something close to 100%, or whether a player can safely move forward with a 75% margin. In either case, I was inclined to gather as much evidence as possible. This choice proved to open up dialogue options in the eventual rooftop confrontation scene.

When Connor finally gathers enough evidence, he exits onto the apartment’s rooftop. As he emerges from the sliding glass door, he is immediately shot by Daniel, the deviant, spraying blue android blood onto the glass door. For the first time, you see and feel in this scene the true stakes of this situation: Daniel is standing on the edge of the rooftop, holding Emma Phillips hostage in his arm, while simultaneously holding his gun up to her head.

In this high-stakes rooftop scene, the ludonarrative relationship between game mechanics and storytelling comes into proper focus. The probability that your character has been engaging with becomes relevant in a way that, if you hadn’t spent time investigating the clues inside, would have left you ignorant and without dialogue options. Investigating inside actually unlocks dialogue options that allow your character to stall Daniel, by empathizing or lying to him in a convincing way.

As Connor edges towards Daniel and Emma at the edge of the rooftop, the story wildly diverges into multiple consequences. At the demo’s end, Detroit branches out its story into multiple parallel timelines, and encourages you to go back to play through other ways that Connor could have negotiated with Daniel. This flowchart at the demo’s end comes too soon, sadly, and leaves us wanting the full game sooner than it’s scheduled release in May.

The future of gaming begins with replay value. Detroit: Become Human recognizes this, and capitalizes on the successful aspects of Heavy Rain and similar games, and how they lastingly impact players of all backgrounds.

Blake Guthrie (Twitter: @BlakeGuthrie) is a Graduate Research Assistant at the University of North Florida, and a columnist for Epilogue Gaming. He hosts the Ludonarrative Podcast (Twitter: @LudonarrativeFM) and Need For Nuance (Twitter: @NeedForNuance). If you like Epilogue Gaming’s work, you can support us by following on Twitter at @EpilogueGames or subscribe to us for as little as $1 a month on Patreon. For more of Blake’s work, check Epilogue every other Friday.

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