Do androids dream of electric sleep? Perhaps we’ll find out in Detroit: Become Human, the game that puts you in the body and mind of not one, not two, but “many” androids.
This is the new game from David Cage, the creator of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Like those games, Detroit is a heavily narrative driven game that’s all about making decisions and seeing how they play out.
But before I get too deep into the details, check out the trailer below.
What you’ve just watched is a heavily edited down version of just one of the chapters in Quantic Dream's new game, followed by a montage of different decisions, dialogue choices and outcomes.
I’ve now had the opportunity to see that scene played live, right in front of me, twice - and ask some questions of the team behind the game. Here’s what we know…
The rise of deviant androids
The game is set in a near-future version of - you guessed it - Detroit, where humans have created androids that look, speak and move just like their fleshy counterparts. These artificial humans have replaced the real ones in most common jobs - they’re labourers, nurses, teachers, babysitters and housemaids.
All is well until a small number of the millions of androids across the country begin to display strange behaviour. Some simply disappear, others commit suicide, and a few even attack humans. Clearly this is not part of the programming, and it’s got a lot of people very worried indeed.
David Cage explains that “it’s as if they’re overwhelmed with their own emotions, but of course they’re not supposed to have any emotions”. These androids are referred to as ‘deviants’.
Fighting androids with androids
In the section shown at E3 2016 the players takes control of Connor, a police negotiator who is himself an android.
“Connor is a very advanced prototype designed to help human investigators working on cases involving deviant androids”, Cage elaborates, “and as such he’s equipped with very specific features that allow him to detect, analyse and recoup evidence in a crime scene”.
A brief aside: doesn't the flipping of the coin in the lift at the start of the scene suggest Connor is bored? And isn't boredom something that an apparently emotionless android shouldn't ever feel?
Ignoring that for now, what Daniel's investigative features mean for the player is that they give you access to a number of tools that can help you piece together the events that led to the stand-off occurring on the balcony.
You have free reign to wander around the apartment, and your attention is drawn to objects of interest by onscreen icons and the movement of Connor’s head. When you get close enough to interact with whatever it is, you flick the analogue stick as directed and get a closer look at whatever it is.
At any time you can access the probability of a successful outcome for your present objective, and every time you uncover a new piece of evidence that probability goes up a few percentage points.
The rub? This is a live, developing situation, which means the seccess-o-meter is generally decreasing as time passes. That gives you a really interesting dilemma. Do you gamble on digging up some new evidence, knowing that every moment that passes without any reduces your overall chance of success? Or do you prioritise speed and head straight out there with the small amount of evidence you’ve already got?
On the first live play through, Quantic Dream’s Guillaume de Fondaumière did the latter, and it didn’t go well. Not knowing the deviant android’s name immediately made the negotiations strained, and because Connor knew very little of the situation he didn’t have the sort of dialogue options available that would reassure, calm or sympathise with the target.
Importantly, though, it is still possible to succeed when approaching things in this way, it’s just much harder. Besides, success is a flexible term: in that first play through Connor managed to save the girl thanks to a last-gasp dash, but ended up falling to his doom along with the deviant. The mission was to save the girl, so that was deemed a success. Androids, it seems, are expendable, and the way everyone treats Connor in this chapter suggests no one will mourn his destruction.
The never-ending story
What’s interesting is that Connor dying doesn’t end the game. In fact, neither does failing the mission. In Detroit there is no such thing as game over - the story continues no matter what happens in each specific chapter.
That’s enabled by a whole cast of playable characters, including Kara, the android shown off in the earlier teaser for the game.
Each character will have different objectives and a different set of abilities, but it’s fair to assume that the various stories will impact each other and converge at some point, and it’s going to be really interesting to see how, say, Connor’s side of the overall story develops if he dies in one of the earlier chapters. The team promises that you won’t miss out if that happens during your play through, and that the length of the game doesn’t vary a great deal - you’ll get roughly the same amount of content regardless of how your decisions pan out.
If true, that’s an incredible achievement, as it’s already clear that there are so many more ways to change the story, with vastly more nuance than in Quantic Dream's previous games and vastly more possible outcomes.
Quantic Dream was producing practically photo-realistic games back in the PS3 days, so it’s little wonder that Detroit looks absolutely stunning.
Beyond the obvious graphical qualities in terms of detail and lighting, Quantic Dream is known for producing some of the best motion capture in the business, and sure enough, the characters move and speak with almost perfect realism.
It all adds up to a fabulously believable and cinematic presentation that’s immediately engaging.
Detroit: first impressions
Leaving E3, Detroit is perhaps the game I’m most excited to play (but obviously Zelda and Battlefield 1 are obviously well up there). The story immediately appeals to my Blade Runner-loving sensibilities, and the degree of nuance in the decisions and the variety of the results is really, really impressive.
The characters seem really strong, too - it was a wrench to watch Connor die when I was watching someone else play, for heavens sake, and I’m determined to make sure he lives when I play the game myself. That’s a really good sign at this stage.