Adam Williams, Detroit: Become Human's lead writer, visited Lisbon Games Week to discuss the next Quantic Dream project. Under the guidance of David Cage, the studio is building a new narrative experience, playable from the perspective of three protagonists, and as in Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls before it, player actions and decisions will have a tremendous impact on the story, which deals with a number of adult and even uncomfortable themes.
In the Paris Games Week conference, Sony showed one of those uncomfortable sequences, focused on family abuse, although this wasn't received positively by everyone, and some criticism surfaced about how Quantic Dream addressed this topic. We took the opportunity to ask Adam Williams if he thought this criticism was fair, and if it would have an impact on the rest of the development cycle.
"Our ambition with Detroit is to create a meaningful and impactful story," he responded. "While taking place in the future, we wanted to use androids to explore social problems that exist today in our society. Social inequality, and the impact of technology, for example. A character like Todd [the girl's father in the Paris Games Week demo] is mad because he was replaced at his job by a machine, and this is something that has happened to several professions over the years, not with androids, but with robotics."
"When we started working on Detroit: Become Human, we didn't just decide to create a sequence like the one we showed at Paris Games Week, but that's where the story took us. We are telling something with depth, and if a movie or a book wouldn't shy from exploring these themes, then we see no reason for a game to shy away either. We believe that games are a medium that should explore adult themes, as long as we take our responsibility as creators seriously, on what we should or should not show. It has never been our intention to promote or glorify these themes."
"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. 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."
Almost all Quantic Dream games are narrative experiences that the player can influence, and Detroit: Become Human follows that same formula, but with some big differences, as Willaims explained:
"If you think about the principles of Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain in terms of intuitive gameplay and engaging narrative, and compare them to Detroit, you will realise that this is a quantum leap in those two fields. Detroit is considerably broader and allows for a level of player freedom that Beyond and Heavy Rain never could. And the gameplay is also considerably deeper. Each of the three playable characters has special abilities, and these abilities offer different gameplay opportunities."
"Connor, for example, is an android detective who hunts down rogue androids. Connor has the ability to reconstruct a scene by analysing the available information, a gameplay opportunity that is not available for the other characters. In terms of personality, they are also very different, and Connor is much more focused and objective than the other two. Another difference between Detroit and the previous games is that Detroit focuses on social issues and society in general, while Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls told very personal stories. The decisions and actions the player takes in Detroit will not only affect the closest characters, but also the world itself."
Unlike previous games, the location itself - the city of Detroit - will also be of great importance to the story. We asked Williams what led to the choice of this American city (and by the way, it's not because of RoboCop).
"We chose Detroit because it was once the capital of the car industry, with Ford Motors," he said. "During the first industrial revolution in America, Detroit became one of the major cities in the country due to most cars being built there. When the industry moved on to other cities and countries, the companies abandoned Detroit, and the city shrank and suffered from it. Huge areas where these factories were are now empty. So, in our view, Cyber-Life, which is the company that manufactures the androids in our world, chose Detroit to settle in. And just as with automobiles in the past, in our universe Detroit has once again become the pillar of the second industrial revolution of the United States of America and the world."
Artificial intelligence has made significant leaps in recent years, and even recently we witnessed one of the most advanced AIs in the world, Sophia, at the Lisbon Web Summit. Though advanced, these AI are still a long way from Detroit's androids, but how far away are we?
"In reality, we don't have a message for the player in terms of when androids will appear, or if they will be dangerous," Williams said. "Our goal is to introduce interesting questions and dilemmas to the player and allow [them] to form [their] own opinion. I think these technologies will look like science fiction to us until they suddenly become reality. I think we will be caught by surprise, and the more pertinent question will become: will we be able to control it? The book The Singularity Is Near was obviously an inspiration for us, and we found its implications very interesting. There are many opinions around, but most form a consensus: as far as true artificial intelligence is concerned, it will mean a bigger transformation for humanity than internet and cars."
"One of the issues that I think it will raise, and that's one of our main topics, is; what does it mean to be human? If you look at Kara in the Paris demo, I think she is a more humane character than the father, despite her being a machine. I think that humanity goes beyond the physical element, I think it is related to intellect, spirit, morality... and this is one of the issues we want to develop with the game, understand what the player thinks that being human really is."
"In our opinion, it is more important to put these issues on the table then necessarily share answers. We want to transport the player to our screenwriting room and ask [them] this question, this dilemma, and understand what [their] opinion is. That's why Detroit: Become Human is such a formidable experience, and that's why two players will hardly have the same exact gaming experience. Their experience will somehow become a reflection of what they think, what they feel."
When a game has so many ramifications, so many possibilities and outcomes, sometimes there are unforeseen narrative issues, inconsistencies in the story - the infamous "plot holes". We asked Williams how they tried to fight this terrible writer's foe:
"It requires a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of testing, but to be honest, I don't think plot holes are the hardest part of writing a game like this. It's rather to create all these possibilities and make sure all of them have a satisfactory conclusion and an engaging narrative capable of grabbing the player. Ensuring all paths result in the player feeling something. That was the real challenge of writing this game, making sure all choices matter and have consequences, without falling into cheating with only the illusion of choice."
Lastly, we asked the hardest question: which one is his favourite character?
"That's almost like having to choose a favourite son... but I think Kara has something special about her," he said. "It all started with Kara [in the tech demo you can watch below], and I think her story is the one that better presents the question of what it means to be human, about what it is love, which for me is the characteristic that better defines the human being."
Detroit: Become Human will be released in 2018, exclusively for PlayStation 4.