Perhaps one of the most anticipated releases this year is Quantic Dream and David Cage's Detroit: Become Human, the first release from the studio since Beyond: Two Souls all the way back in 2013. It's a big moment both for the developer and for Sony, then, since it's a PS4 exclusive, but it's been a long road to get to where we are now, including two previous PlayStation exclusives, and plenty of steam in the hype train for this latest release, coming our way this month.
This beautiful bond between Sony and Quantic Dream started in 2010 with Heavy Rain, a crime thriller that was critically-acclaimed not only for the story it told but the means with which the narrative unfolded. It wasn't just about the Origami Killer on the loose, but how the four protagonists' lives intertwined and influenced one another, the actions of one causing a butterfly effect that could have disastrous ramifications.
It's safe to say that this was a game where choice mattered. Actions had consequences, even to the extent that a missed button prompt in a fight could get one character killed, or one false decision could set in motion a catastrophic implication. As a result of these branching storylines, no one playthrough of Heavy Rain was ever going to be the same as the last, whether that's in terms of the final result or the little deviations in between.
After a three-year wait, we were then treated to Beyond: Two Souls, a game featuring motion capture from Hollywood A-listers Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, following Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) as we saw life through her eyes, from childhood to adolescence and beyond. The catch was that the game jumbled the chronology of events, experimenting with storytelling in a way not seen in Heavy Rain. Quantic Dream decided to slowly show their hand when it came to the story on offer in Beyond, meaning that playing it the first time was far different than the second, given the information you learned throughout.
While Heavy Rain was more focused on the neo-noir, near-future side of a gritty urban sprawl hiding a killer, Beyond was much more tightly focused on a narrow cast of characters. Most of the time we're solely focused on Jodie, and what's more is that there's a supernatural element here too, since the plot revolves around Jodie's ability to communicate with a spirit called Aiden, which can be used in-game to access new areas and interact with the world. This is the reason why Jodie is treated like a lab rat from early on, and despite some similarities, it provided a very different experience from Heavy Rain.
There was also a step up in the visual department too, as the motion-captured actors provided a far more polished experience than we'd seen before, which even now holds up with the remaster on PS4. Regardless though, it shared with Heavy Rain that same emphasis on narrative and branching choices, giving you various important decisions to make, including one big one at the end. Story was at the heart of Quantic Dream's philosophy, as always.
Jump ahead five years and here we are preparing for the release of Detroit: Become Human, the next instalment from the developer, jumping ahead a generation while also being very identifiable as a Quantic Dream game, from what we've seen. What we mean by that is that it's a very cinematic experience, focused on the story and the narrative strands within it, including the choices you make. It's interactive, it's engaging, and it shows influence from both games before it.
As always with these games, there's no illusion of choice here, as lead writer Adam Williams explained to Gamereactor when we recently interviewed him:
"None of the characters are safe," he explains. "You can lose any or indeed all of them before the end of the story, and that's important I think because it's just one of the ways in which choices really matter, which encourages players to think about their choices and it's also a way of signalling to players that the game really listens, and that your choices do matter; it's not the illusion of choice."
The stakes couldn't be higher, then, but who are you guiding through this near-future version of Detroit in 2038? Well, first there's detective Connor, who provided early glimpses into the game's style when he was hunting down a rogue android in an early trailer. Then there's caretaker Markus, who realises the state of affairs with androids and encourages them to rebel; and lastly there's Kara, a housekeeper android who was at the centre of a storyline about domestic abuse in the Paris Games Week trailer last October. In fact, these kinds of hard-hitting storylines are something that the developer won't be taking lightly:
"I can still assure you that we continue to remain true to our vision, and to David Cage's vision, of telling an honest story with real impact," Williams explained. "We won't shy away from where the story takes us, as long as it's consistent with our values as game creators. We would never tell a story that glorifies any kind of violence or social issue, but we believe the game would not have the same impact if something uncomfortable never happened, or there were no serious consequences to the player's choices."
What's also important to note is that all three of these characters are androids, and so throughout the game we're seeing the world through their eyes, in a world where androids are not so well-received by certain members of the community, especially considering the impression that they're taking the jobs from humans. "We worked very hard on imagining in a very realistic way what the future will be for us, and we looked at different researchers, and we found some of them saying that maybe unemployment rates will raise up to 30-35%, just because we'll replace human beings with machines every time we can," David Cage told Gamereactor.
While the game is anticipating potentially very real issues humanity could be facing in the near future, it'd be remiss to ignore the fact that it's also mirroring very real issues prevalent in society today, whether it be sexism with the treatment of Kara or racism via the divide between androids and humans. This isn't new, since games like Deus Ex have been treading similar ground already, but it's new territory for Quantic Dream specifically, who have hit new heights in terms of ambition, moving from the isolated storylines of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls to wide societal narratives here, with each character able to impact not just one narrative, but the fate of a whole city.
This isn't just a case of the good guys versus the bad guys, though, as Cage explained all the way back in 2016:
"It's a little more complex than that, and maybe that's something to do with some kind of disappointment with mankind in general. We live in a very interesting period in time and there's a lot happening all around us and you may wonder whether we are the good guys anymore. And maybe if there was a new intelligent race one day, like androids, maybe they would be a better race to live on this planet than we are currently. But that's very dark, that's very me. But it's an interesting thing to do, to turn things upside down and just to look at us from a different angle, through different eyes and it's androids looking at us and just see what they think of us and how we behave from the outside."
In talking about what's already known about Detroit: Become Human, we need to venture farther into the stories of each protagonist. Kara, for example, is as mentioned a housekeeper, and as revealed in the PGW trailer she also finds herself at the centre of a dilemma when she sees her owner Todd kill his daughter Alice in a fit of rage. What can she do? With alternate choices, in fact, she can do a number of things, be it help Alice to escape, try to reason with Todd, or even find herself dead at Todd's hands if things go really wrong.
There's more to her than this one family though, as she's an android who has developed consciousness. As we find out in her trailer, she starts to feel "something different - a jet opening, a warm whisper telling me that I am... alive". As indicated by the title this is something that all three characters have to wrestle with as they find their purpose and interact with the world, shaping their own identity and finding out what it means to be self-aware, but Kara seems a little more special in the sense that she's just developing artificial consciousness for the first time, the player joining her during these tentative first steps.
Then comes Markus, an android who definitely does not struggle with consciousness, as he is a caretaker who is attacked and abused early in the trailer as just another android taking jobs away from humans. Feeling the weight of oppression from his creators, he turns to rebellion and encourages others to do the same, freeing other androids from what he calls slavery, trying to force them to realise that fighting back is the only way since they're feeling marginalised as a group.
In the episode we've already seen, Markus is on the way to try and 'free' some androids when the police arrive, and you have the choice between running or staying. If you run, your mission is abandoned, but if you stay you can either peacefully protest your cause, or use violent means, crashing a truck into a shop window to free your fellow androids, start fires, and even execute a human who's killed your allies. The choice is yours, as it always is, and perhaps Markus is the character who most directly interacts with the overarching issue in Detroit.
Last but not least is Connor, an android detective responsible for pursuing other androids who have deviated from their programming. His interactions with a rogue android holding a girl hostage were shown in one of the early trailers, and has now been shown in the demo for the game, again reinforcing this idea of making decisions and living with them, as the very difficult negotiation process could easily end up with the girl dead, and nobody to blame but yourself.
Mechanically he seems to work a little like Norman Jayden in Heavy Rain; investigating crime scenes and using futuristic technology to gather and make sense of evidence. This is because he's the most advanced prototype that android production company CyberLife has ever made, and it'd be a safe bet to assume that his investigations into androids 'deviating' from their commands will lead him into questions about his own role and where he stands in the conflict between humans and AI.
In terms of what else we know about Detroit, it seems to be mechanically very similar to previous Quantic Dream games, in that there's a mix between action-heavy sequences featuring QTEs - which can be the difference between life and death, if previous games are anything to go by - and more measured decisions in situations, such as in dialogue or when faced with dilemmas.
Through these means, Cage intends for us to build the story and shape it with our decisions, as well as by our mistakes. "Of course, the idea with Detroit is really to create a game where the player is not only the actor, but also the core writer of the story," he explained. "We really want players to be able to tell their own story in this world and make choices, make decisions that will really shape the narrative and make each story unique."
Where the story goes and the decisions we make are all under lock and key for now, but it's not long until we get the chance to dive into not only Quantic Dream's intriguing plot, but also the lives of these three seemingly unconnected characters, as well as the believable and conflicted world of Detroit. It's been a long road to get here, but we're glad to finally be getting the chance to find out what it means to Become Human.