There follows slight spoilers for Fahrenheit and the Detroit Become Human demo.
A small history lesson when it comes to Quantic Dreams game demos and myself. Back in 2005 I played the opening scene of the upcoming Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy for all you guys in the US) and I found myself loving it. The tension created by your character waking up from a blackout in the middle of a diner toilet was really well handled. Did you run away through the diner with the blood still on your hands and give the police outside a good look at you or do you spend time cleaning up, putting away the body and washing your hands before calmly leaving yet run the risk of being caught right next to the corpse. It felt like the game was doing something interesting by asking the players questions rather than just force them to shoot everything in sight. I put down my preorder deposit and picked up the game on day one.
I was somewhat disappointed with what followed.
The initial tense opening scene, with the background of an ancient curse turning people into murderers against their will, was well done. Rather than concentrate on this and develop a well paced story however David Cage and everybody at Quantic Dream decided to throw every other idea they must have had in there as well. During Fahrenheit’s duration you’ll find out that the homeless population of the world are one army of informants, the internet has a human form who looks like an old lady, you’ll be chased by oversized bed bugs that nobody else can see and the main character is actually dead all along yet can somehow still impregnate the main female lead. Fahrenheit became an utter car crash and was one of those game I finished not because I was enjoying it but because I felt I’d paid for it so therefore had to. It as very much a case of the developers not knowing where to stop. Not having a Playstation 3 meant that I missed out the studio’s next two efforts ‘Heavy Rain’ and ‘Beyond Two Souls’.
Yet the other night I found myself downloading the demo of Quantic Dreams new effort ‘Detroit Become Human’ and giving it a whirl. David Cage always talks about trying to get emotion into videogames using the same methods as cinema. Detroit tells the story of a future in which androids uprise against humans after becoming self aware. The demo covers one scene as an android who has been bought to look after a family’s young daughter goes rogue and now stands on a roof edge holding the child over the city streets below. The human SWAT team is in place and you, as android negotiator Connor, must enter the apartment and attempt to resolve the situation. Much like the Fahrenheit demo it’s a wonderfully tense scene that would be a fantastic opening to a movie. Sadly though Detroit Become Human is a game and finds those ambitions crashing against its need to be recognised as a emotional trigger.
The first opening shot is of Connor alone in the lift going upwards. He flicks a coin between both hands and through his fingers at great speed, never dropping it. You begin to work out that he has an almost unnatural level of dexterity. The shot then lingers on his face and a small blue circle lights up underneath the skin on his temple. It’s obvious he’s a machine of some kind. Then came the first part that made my eyebrow rise.
Just in case you have a short attention span or have forgotten the last ten seconds the shot then moves to behind Connor as it gets ready for you to assume control. Across his back, in large letters, the word ‘Android’ is emblazoned. It’s incredibly clumsy for an introduction that was going well until that moment. It has all the signs of not trusting an audience.
As you step out of the lift you meet the Mother of the child as she is led away. She looks at you and initially begs you to save her daughter. Then she realises that you’re robotic and loudly protests that they’ve sent an android to do a job a human should be doing. It takes her a few seconds to click what’s happening but to be fair she never gets to see the back of Connor’s jacket.
During my first playthrough I followed everything to the letter. The game instructs you to firstly find the captain of the SWAT team and talk to him. He’s a typical grunt who barks that he’ll shoot the rogue android down if you don’t do something about it straight away. The game asks you to find evidence of what happened, what’s going on and the background of the situation. Searching in the girl’s room lets you find a tablet with a video of the android playing with her. You’ve got his name now, that will make life easier. You find out he’s stolen the father’s handgun so he’s armed too.
Rather than intrust the player to come to a decision as to when they have enough information to proceed to the balcony and attempt to talk the android down there is a large piece of text that floats over Connor’s head giving a percentage chance of success. It starts at around 40% but soon moves upwards the more you discover. As the numbers stacked up I suddenly became aware that I wasn’t really letting any of this information sink in because the game was giving me a score to achieve. I was scanning rooms not because I wanted to have the best chance of saving a small child but because the game was giving me a hoop to jump through.
Wouldn’t it be far better if all this display was removed? If the game actually trusted me to make a decision as a player as to when I felt I’d got enough information to proceed then any conclusion would be mine to own. If I rushed ahead and the child ended up splattered across a car bonnet below then that guilt would carry far more weight if it was my own internal failing rather than me thinking I’d have done it if I only had another 15% added on.
I confronted the android, sent away the helicopter flying above the building, lied to him about not being armed myself (I sure was packing) and then watched as a sniper shot him down off the roof once the coast was clear. The end of demo shows you a flow chart with every permutation of choice you can make. You’re encouraged to play it again and test the engine to see all the differences.
My second playthrough saw some of the cracks show in the actual game structure. I wanted to ignore everything and just stride right in there and save the day for everybody. The game told me to find the Captain but I moved straight towards the balcony. It was this moment that a large, red laser wall appeared telling me I couldn’t move any further until I’d done what the game was telling me to do. It’s almost as if Quantic Dream are saying that they’ve spent hours rendering this Captain and recording his voice audio so they’ll be damned if you’re skipping out on them. I met him and had the exact same conversation with him I had beforehand.
Careful, considerate Connor was about to give way to gung ho mad machine.
I didn’t bother finding any clues as I stepped right beyond the windows and started talking. The option for calling him by his own name was absent so instead of getting comfy and personal my Connor just shouldered his way towards the problem, grabbed the child and barged him off the balcony. In doing so there was a hail of bullets as he fell and Connor himself died from his injuries. The game didn’t want me to do it this way and it was going to make sure I knew about it as the blue blood like liquid dripped from Connor’s wounds.
I don’t want to tarnish the entire game based on a demo. Quantic Dream might have made exactly what they obviously desire. Detroit Become Human may tell a brilliant story really well and player choice and freedom will matter. My conclusion from the demo though is that you as a human player have freedom in only ways the game allows. Games like Dishonored and Hitman will allow a player to find their own path towards an objective using whatever means they find. They will also have characters defined by their surroundings and small actions rather than plastering their job title across their back. Detroit Become Human likes to send you down predetermined streams. You’ll get choice when it says you can have a choice, until then shut up.
This is the sort of thing that leads to uprisings.