We step into 2038 to see how Quantic Dream's future is shaping up.
Let's set the scene for you: we're in the shoes of Markus, sitting on the back of the bus. It's not the cool back of the bus either, like a school bus, rather it's the back of the bus where citizens are segregated. Androids and humans are separated by a simple glass pane, but soon the first step will be taken to destroy that partition, and we're not talking just on the bus. This much can be revealed about the plot of Detroit: Become Human.
In our almost two hours with the game at a recent preview event we got to play through the complete opening sequence, which introduces the stories of three protagonists: the aforementioned Markus, and then Connor and Kara. These are three very different androids, and each take on different tasks in their everyday life, acting in totally distinct social contexts. Connor is an android cop for example, while Markus a hardworking everyday assistant, and Kara is more like a babysitter. This variety helps to tell a strong story from contrasting and individual points of view, touching upon impactful themes such as domestic violence, which has already stirred controversy after the Paris Games Week trailer, which you can see below.
There are two game modes in Detroit: Become Human, one of which is a casual mode where a camera gently guides the player through the story and sees fewer people killed, as Guillaume de Fondaumière, chief operating officer at developer Quantic Dream, explains. The other mode allows experienced players to take greater control over the interactive story we can experience and participate in. If you know Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit, or Beyond: Two Souls, you can look forward to more of this.
Detroit: Become Human is in the most positive sense a rather slow game in which we sometimes have to make very quick decisions. Each level, episode, and scene follows the same basic idea; we are introduced to the scene, can explore it freely, and move slowly towards the climax. This is where we usually have to talk about what happened to us and to the people and androids, which is always a matter of life and death. What's more is that very early on we can lose protagonists; one wrong decision can change everything in Detroit.
The experience is designed for discovery and analysis as we explore the scenery, talk to participants, link data, and lay out a possible path to the truth. Again and again we have to make decisions, consciously in conversation and unconsciously in what we do or don't do. The episode starring the android cop, Connor, has been known for quite some time and almost marks the end of his timeline shortly before the end of the intro. Here there are six possible endings, featuring different paths with various intersections. Who dies or survives depends on how fast we play through the level, who we talk to, which inquiries we pursue, and what we investigate, with plenty of room to miss things out. Some dialogue options are denied if something specific has not been found, for example, and you're always told how high the probability is that the android cop will complete a successful mission. What success is, however, is very much in the eye of the beholder.
While one of Detroit: Become Human's greatest strengths is the fear of consequences and of making the right choice, it also succeeds in its very impactful storylines. Feelings are evoked very strongly vi these scenarios, as the fathers among us may feel the fear of becoming like the evil junkie dad, Todd, who we serve as Kara. Seeing his daughter Alice fear her father is incredibly powerful too, and despite the furore surrounding whether these themes should be explored in games, we felt it tug at our heartstrings.
Less entertaining, however, are the obnoxious quick time events (QTEs) from which David Cage and his team have not yet freed themselves. In the episode of Kara and Todd, for example, both main characters end up fighting an intense battle orchestrated by QTEs which, despite being a system offering quite a bit of flexibility, are still QTEs nonetheless. Cage no doubt knows how to produce a gripping scene, but we're still frustrated to see these QTEs dictate really important moments, especially when one accidental press of a button can be the difference between life and death, as those of you who have played Heavy Rain will know all too well.
That being said, the freedom to act is quite limited in the game anyways, as Detroit: Become Human is quite closed in the 'free' sections, at least at first. Red bars indiscreetly outlaw exploration beyond the tasks at hand, and it's clearly noticeable here that all the characters still move rather rigidly. Their speed hardly changes, and everything seems less dynamic when we move around. One also wonders why Markus always has to push his 'master' Carl - an aged artist in a wheelchair with apparently peculiar sexual preferences - around his luxury villa in his chair. Carl could move the wheelchair a lot better by himself, his hands are working great, or it could even drive itself (it's 2038 after all). Jokes aside though, things do feel a bit stiff at times, especially when it comes to the characters.
Nevertheless, everything looks very stylish in Detroit: Become Human. The whole game is evidently well-designed, the setting is credible and stylish - pretty much everything fits, at least in the section we saw. Even the details were not ignored, as street musicians dot the sidewalk, there are demonstrations, and shops for buying androids. We repeatedly found digital print magazines with covers that change when we swipe on the touchpad of the DualShock controller, and it's these little details that kept us hooked to the world of 2038.
Quantic Dream has made good use of the 4K HDR capabilities of the PS4 Pro, and everything looks shiny and polished to the max. Perhaps sometimes they even overdo it a bit, as there are very long sections during which you can see how good the androids look. Real raindrops on fake skin, so eternally long and slow, that even a Blade Runner fan inclined to a lingering camera shot might start to impatiently fumble for popcorn. Detroit: We'll say it again: Become Human is sometimes very slow, but this isn't going to be news for long-time Cage fans.
As a result of the slow pacing, we're given a lot of time to think - about the dissatisfaction and frustration of the digital working class, who pay and receives their owners' bills through mind transfer, just to then be attacked by demonstrators whose jobs they allegedly stole. When Carl, the old artist, listens to our piano playing, he notices that our playing has changed. That we've changed. He asks: "Who do you want to be?" and "Don't let anyone tell you who you should be!" It's a pretty universal lesson, this time coming from a game.
The sound and soundtrack are really impressive from what we've seen too, as are the performances of the actors. Everything contributes to letting you experience a work of art in the best sense of the word, allowing you to even to shape it. The story interweaves slowly from the beginning, with the plot strands leading away from each other before coming back together. The closer you look and explore in the game, the more information you store in your mind to make the right decisions later on. Or whatever it is you think the right decision is.