Hands-on: Detroit: Become Human sacrifices action for narrative

In anticipation of Detroit: Become Human's upcoming May 25 release, Quantic Dream and Sony Interactive Entertainment held an event at the HNYPT: Honeypot LA creative space in downtown Los Angeles. At this event, local game journalists were given a chance to play the opening hours of the new PlayStation 4 game for some initial impressions.

Suffice it to say, some spoilers follow regarding the beginning of the game.

More human than human

For those who haven't been following Detroit: Become Human's development, this cyberpunk third-person action/adventure game tells the story of three androids in 2038. Kara (who is voiced by, and modelled to look like, Valorie Curry from the TV show The Following) is a maid and babysitter for a little girl and her abusive, alcoholic father. Connor (The Remaining's Bryan Dechart) is cop who investigates androids alongside a somewhat unappreciative partner (Clancy Brown from Highlander, SpongeBob, and a million other things), and Markus (Jesse Williams from Cabin in The Woods and Grey's Anatomy) is the in-home care android for a painter played by Lance Henricksen. Y'know, Bishop from Aliens.

We’re focusing so much on the characters, and the actors who play them, because Detroit: Become Human — like other Quantic Dream games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls — isn't a typical action/adventure game. It's more like an interactive movie.

For instance, in the beginning of Detroit: Become Human — the hostage situation level they've shown many times already — picking up a framed photo isn't done by hitting "X" like in so many other games. It's accomplished by facing the picture and pressing the right thumbstick up, while setting it down requires you to move that thumbstick down, followed by a quarter turn counterclockwise. It’s an attempt to add immersion, and though whether it’s gimmicky or not is a point of personal preference, it’s certainly unique. What Detroit: Become Human and other Quantic Dream games lack in action, they make up for with deep characterization, storytelling, and choice.

Humanity and choice

The demo begins with the aforementioned scene, in which Connor has to be both detective and hostage negotiator when a fellow android kills its owner. In this scene, as you may have seen, the game has a lot of investigating the location, visually recreating the crime, and engaging in extensive conversation. It’s similar to the detective aspects of the Batman: Arkham games combined with the dialog mechanics of a Mass Effect or Dragon Age game.

After that, we see Todd picking up Kara from the repair shop, followed by a scene in which Markus is confronted by human protestors who are not happy that androids are taking jobs away from humans. This is the central theme that Detroit: Become Human explores; whether androids should be treated like people, even after they achieve sentience and start asserting free will.

Detroit: Become Human continues with all three narratives. In all of these scenes, Detroit: Become Human has you doing similar activities, including interacting with objects, exploring environments, and talking to people.

While Detroit: Become Human has three characters with different stories — albeit ones that, if my 40+ years of playing games is any indication, will probably converge in some way — if one-character dies, the story continues. After Connor died, I could've kept playing, but I would've seen only Kara and Markus' stories continue, which would have profoundly affected the game’s outcome.

Of course, Detroit: Become Human is still a video game, so you can reload from a previous point if you get Connor, Kara, or Markus killed, but the developers suggest you refrain from save scumming and let the narrative play out organically.

Human frailties

While Detroit: Become Human seems like it could be as engaging as Quantic Dreams' previous cinematic experiences, there were some story issues we noticed in our brief time with the game.

There were times in Detroit: Become Human when the narrative seemed obvious and a bit cliché. The character of Todd, for example, looks like rote scumbag straight out of Central Casting, while the interaction that leads Markus to take control of his own life is not only telegraphed from afar, but one we've seen in countless movies and TV shows.

Another issue — though one I must admit I didn't pick-up on until it was pointed out by a female journalist at the event — is that it's troubling to have Kara be a maid given that she's the lone female character. Markus has a similar job but you don't spend any of your time with him rubbing the PlayStation 4 controller's touch screen to scrub the dishes. It's an especially glaring gender issue in a game that's so engaged with identity politics.

On the flipside, some of the concerns already voiced about this game didn’t come across as quite so problematic. Some concerned critics have discussed whether the game would be as calculated, lifeless, and/or simplistic as the opening level initially appeared. There is still some of that stiffness present. All of the scenes with Connor were stiff and mechanical, though in his defense, he died before I got to the part where he asserted his autonomy.

However, the Kara and Markus sections of Detroit: Become Human felt more natural. Granted, your choices are still somewhat limited — Markus can't just run off and go to medical school — but it was more involved than just swiping left or right.

Detroit: Become Human could appeal to fans of Quantic Dream's previous games, but probably won't change the mind of people who found Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls to be boring or action-deficient. It also doesn't seem like it will be a particularly unique cyberpunk sci-fi story, though it may redeem itself in how it deals with android civil rights.

We’ll find out when Detroit: Become Human is released for PlayStation 4 on May 25.