Detroit: Become Human is not like most video games.
You don’t have a health bar, you can’t go back and just redo a section if you get it wrong and there are no heroes and no villains. Instead there’s a story that - if a three hour preview is anything to go by - will stay with you for days.
The game is set in Detroit in 2038, a future that looks and feels familiar except for one key difference. Robots are now a part of our everyday life.
Capable of almost near-sentient intelligence, these androids have become commonplace and are now as much a requirement in the home as a TV or a car. In this world people are no longer worried about robots taking all the jobs –because they already have taken all the jobs.
This is no utopian version of that world: it also features people, caught in a generational black hole, who have lost everything after they found their job replaced by a robot. Now they have nothing to fall back on.
The game’s lead writer Adam Williams argues that this is a future we are to some extent already living. “I almost wonder if you can call it a prediction because I think the issues that the society of the game faces are the issues we’re facing now.” he told HuffPost UK.
“You could almost say this is not a story this is the present: quite what man’s relationship with machines is going to be, quite how we’re going to address the divisions in our society - these are problems we still haven’t solved.”
Detroit: Become Human places you right at the centre of this debate and asks you to make those choices for society.
You play three characters: Connor, a police officer who’s a specialist in dealing with ‘faulty’ androids known as ‘deviants’; Kara who’s a nanny for a small child, and Markus a carer for an extremely wealthy artist.
All three of these characters are androids and each will face humanity in a very different way, raising difficult questions for the player.
In an early scene, I took control of Connor, an investigator called to a hostage situation at the home of a wealthy family. As Connor impassively walks through the building, a screaming mother rushes past. Upon realising that Connor is an android she’s appears disgusted at the idea her daughter was not worth a human negotiator. That is just a taste of the prejudice that you will face throughout the game.
When playing through these scenes you will be able to walk around and interact with the world but the majority of the game will be spent making narrative decisions. Do you feel sorry for the humans and apologise? Or do you act, and lash out in retaliation?
At the end of each scene, the player is then presented with a flowchart that shows every possible decision they could have made, every outcome and their own decisions. It’s an excellent storytelling mechanism as every decision has major ripple effects on the rest of the game. (One of Quantic’s proudest boasts is that it is possible for all three major characters die before you’ve finished the game.)
Quantic Dreams, the developers behind the game, are used to posing those difficult questions. Led by the award-winning writer and director David Cage, the studio excels in creating story-led games that the user shapes.
Rather than focusing on guns or bosses, Cage focuses instead on realism. In Quantic’s last game Beyond: Two Souls the studio captured actors Ellen Page and Willam Defoe using state-of-the-art motion capture technology. It was a time-consuming process that meant every minute detail of their acting was transferred into the game.
Detroit: Being Human goes even further. Each of the main characters has an astonishing level of detail - there are some 37,000 individual animations within the game. This dedication then amplifies the scenes you inhabit and characters you meet.
And Detroit: Become Human doesn’t just ask serious questions about society in the future, it also questions the type of subjects that video games cover.
Games such as That Dragon, Cancer and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice have made huge inroads into changing perceptions of what video games should cover, with their focus on topics like cancer and mental health.
Quantic however has faced criticism for its own portrayal of adult themes. In a trailer for this game, the studio showed a scene in which the android Kara would be asked to intervene in a case of domestic violence by a father against a child. The scene is deeply unsettling to watch and engage with, and the game effectively asks you how you would react.
Yet almost immediately after the controversial scene, Williams describes a perfect example of when Detroit gets storytelling right. Having escaped with Alice, Kara must find somewhere for them both to sleep. She has options but they will have different outcomes. Does Kara do something illegal in order to give Alice the safety of a hotel, or do they sleep in an abandoned car and Alice is terrified for the night?
In the few short hours that I got to experience Detroit, it’s clear that like much of Cage’s work this is a game to divide opinions. Its setting however, could not be more timely. The game does a remarkable job of creating a believable world where humanity has risen above so many great social questions, only to find itself stumbling at the last hurdle.
The gameplay won’t be to everyone’s tastes - while you have narrative freedom you do not have physical freedom. The game’s physical spaces feel like a stage with extreme limits on where you can go. You could not, for example, just walk out of a house and do something else for a bit.
But once you accept that physical constraint, you learn to embrace the game’s core mechanic which is that Detroit is not here to test your physical reactions, but instead it asks what kind of person do you want to be. In that regard at least, it succeeds.