Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // Media sourced from Playstation.com
I have a confession to make. While I present myself as a connoisseur of interactive storytelling and lover of the narrative potential of gaming media, I’m not a fan of Quantic Dream. Even before the recent controversy over the alleged toxic work environment, I never found David Cage’s ambitious experiments in storytelling compelling.
But as you can hear on the newly launched FEScast (#shamelessplug), I recently downloaded the Detroit: Become Human demo on Dyllan’s recommendation. I had no plans to play the demo—I’d already written off the game as “just another Quantic Dream project” to the point of not even watching the trailers—but she convinced me to at least give it a chance.
And I’m very glad I did, because Detroit: Become Human might be the Quantic Dream game that finally changes my opinion of the company.
For those of you who live under rocks like me, the Detroit demo covers the now infamous hostage situation scene from the trailers. You play as Connor, an unassuming android sent by the Detroit PD to negotiate with a “deviant” android who has taken a small child hostage and is threatening to harm her. It’s an intense sequence, heightened by driving music and excellent performances from all of the actors, which solves a major issue I have had with Quantic Dream’s previous outings.
Despite being so invested in marrying the warring worlds of film and games, David Cage’s games have a terrible habit of being poorly acted. It’s impossible to take the broken english of Heavy Rain seriously at times—it’s no surprise that one of the main things people remember about the game is a meme of Ethan yelling “JaAason.”
This is not the case with the Detroit demo. Bryan Dechart gives an excellent—if appropriately subdued—performance as Connor, with several lines sending shivers down my spine.
Which leads into another major thing I noticed about the demo—Quantic Dream’s cinematic direction is already showing tremendous improvement. The camera “shots” are incredibly effective, especially the ending sequences. While the fixed perspectives take some agency away from the player, I didn’t mind because control was taken from me in order to facilitate a more visceral emotional experience. The Detroit demo is an excellently paced, shot, and edited short film that you get to play! It’s the first Quantic Dream experience that makes good on David Cage’s promises to unite film and game making.
The demo takes approximately fifteen minutes to play, which you can and should extend to about an hour or two if you try to follow every branching path. There are multiple ways the situation can play out, and the demo encourages the player to explore all of the options by presenting the branching tree of the scene at the end of a play-through, showing the critical points at which your path might diverge.
The demo also includes several tantalizing teases of future mechanics, like the public perception of androids and the instability in Connor’s programing, both of which your actions can influence. But since this demo is a tiny slice of the game, what either of these things means and how they change the game are still mysteries, at least to me. I plan on keeping myself pretty deliberately in the dark about Detroit, since I found my experience of the demo improved by my lack of knowledge about what I was getting into.
It’s not all praise, however, as the demo does feature some minor annoyances. Certain actions can’t be taken until you’ve “unlocked” them in ways that don’t make logical sense, and that makes replaying the scenario a little tedious since you have to rediscover all the information. It grates in the demo, and I can imagine it will be an actual grievance with the full game.
But at the end of the day, I am excited for Detroit becoming human.
STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS. PLAY THE DEMO. IT’S SHORT. I CAN WAIT.
You finished it? Perfect. Now for a bit more analysis.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of playing the demo for me was how much it made me think about the definition of “success.” In broad strokes, there are three categories of resolution to the situation. Connor saves the girl, Connor saves the girl at a physical cost to himself or a psychology cost to her, and Connor fails to save the girl. The game groups these three categories into two—fittingly for a game about androids, it’s a binary succeed/fail.
This led to some incredibly interesting conversations between Dyllan and myself. In my first play-through, I got the second most common ending, going by global stats. I talked the deviant down, got him to release the girl by lying to him and saying he’d go free, and then he got several holes shot in his head by snipers. His last words were “you lied to me,” growing increasingly distorted as his program shut down.
And then “mission success” popped up on the screen, and with Dyllan as my witness I yelled at my TV “WHAT, NO, I FUCKING FAILED THAT,” because the ending did not feel like success. The young girl was safe, and irrevocably traumatized by not only the hostage situation but also by watching a simulacrum of a human being get shot to death before her eyes.
This ending—despite being a success—made me feel horrible in a way that piques my interest in the rest of the game, because it implicitly asked me to define success for myself. Both Dyllan and I agreed through discussion that the only ending that feels like a true “win” to us is one in which Connor defies the law against androids using guns, executing the deviant with a clean headshot. This action saves the girl and spares her the trauma of seeing her now rogue former friend die. But again, it requires Connor to go against the law.
All of the other endings run the gamut from “failures” to more “fission mailed” situations, where the mission is only a success according to the dictionary definition of the word rather than the spirit. I’m interested to see if—and how—these questions play out in the full game, which comes out May 25th for PS4.