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April 24, 2018

Detroit: Become Human – first impressions

By Adlai Rosh

A story five years in the making, Detroit spins a humanizing yarn about nonhuman machines.

“My name is Kara.”

Those four words were enough to send a significant portion of the gaming community into a frenzy. To many, it was just an introduction: a matter-of-fact statement tossed into Detroit’s announcement trailer nearly three years ago. But as someone who had watched the original Kara tech demo, this made me leap out of my seat. Kara was, initially, nothing but a tech demo to show off the PS3’s capability to render 3D scenes in real time. I’m a massive fan of these types of stories – stories that examine humanity through the proxy of human-like androids. To see Kara come to life nearly half a decade after she first spoke was an experience I wouldn’t soon forget.

When I was given the opportunity to attend a media event for Detroit I jumped at the chance. Heck, it was even going to be on my birthday – April 13. What better way to spend it than checking out a game I’ve been eagerly waiting for more than 5 years? Admittedly, I was both scared and excited. We were treated to a lovely lunch at Shangri-La, the event taking place in one of the meeting halls just nearby. Every now and then a staff member would move in or out, and I’d catch a glimpse of neon blue, a peek into the world of Detroit. After a hearty meal, we were finally allowed to enter the CyberLife showroom and see what all the fuss was about.

Discussions of ethics in android consumerism are easy when they’re hypothetical. After all, we empathize heavily with things that look like us, whether it’s people, animals with expressive faces, or even funny pictures of inanimate objects with dopey faces. It’s always been easy for me to identify with autonomous robots, whether or not they were humanlike or more mechanoid, simply because I thought those kinds of things were cool.

Stepping into that room felt like stepping into an alternate reality. Presented like a product display, human actors were paid to dress up like androids – they stood still on top of glowing platforms as the LED panels in front of them flashed product information, warranties, and promos. Awash in the pale glow of illuminated platforms and draped in the neon blue of the surrounding lighting, the effect was unnerving and instant. When we first entered, many of us were afraid to approach. Others spoke in hushed whispers and took photos, as though it would be rude to talk about these products as they stood there. We were all aware that they were actors, humans like us, dressed as subservient androids, and we still were afraid to come closer – afraid of their white suits, empty stares, and glowing blue LEDs. We were all, effectively, tourists from the past entering CyberLife’s showroom in the future.

Hell of a first impression, that.

After the product viewing and a briefing we were given a short presentation by Quantic Dream co-CEO Guillaume de Fondaumière. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting many CEOs in my life, but Guillaume was very enthusiastic and genuine. He spoke with all the measured excitement of someone who was proud of what he made, and I was more than a bit starstruck, sitting in the front row. He gave us some background on what we were going to try that day – he told us about the near-future setting of Detroit, told us about the three characters we would get to play, and how we would probably be able to watch two or three scenes depending on our choices. He encouraged us to live with our decisions throughout the playthrough, never looking back, for the best experience.

Connor, one of the playable characters.

It would be a comical disservice to talk on and on about the preamble without actually getting into the game. Detroit is split into three different points of view all focusing on a separate android. Connor is an advanced investigative android tasked by CyberLife to investigate crimes related to “deviants” – androids who have developed emotions and may have harmed humans. Kara is a housekeeping android who takes care of a young girl named Alice. Markus, finally, is an android who has tasked himself with freeing others like him from their enslavement at the hands of humans. The game enjoys a bit of disjointed storytelling in a sort of episodic fashion, each scene taking place independent of one another and switching to a different character after every episode. While each of their stories follow their own continuities, the player is led through them one at a time rather than all at once.

The player controls the different characters through a combination of gestures and contextual button presses. Similar to Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain, characters interact with different objects in the environment in different ways. Picking up an object may require a slight circular motion on the right analog stick, tablets and touch screens controlled by swipes on the PS4’s touchpad. Tilting a plate needs a tilt of the controller, and so on, giving the storytelling an extra layer of immersion that a lot of other games may lack. Tense scenes and confrontations are heralded by complex or abrupt button prompts, with failures having as much an effect as you’d expect.

The tone of the gameplay is slightly different for each character. Connor’s scenes are the most straightforward videogame-like examples where you go around searching for clues in order to make deductions and advance the story. This is perfectly illustrated in the hostage situation introductory sequence, which can end six different ways depending on your actions. In a game with as many branching paths as Detroit, it’s easy to get lost and forget what different actions might lead to – picking up a gun in one scene might lead to an unwanted death, but leaving it behind might also render a later dialogue option impossible. Thankfully, the game helps players by not only blatantly telling them that their actions have unlocked something later down the line (with a handy little graphic that plays very conspicuously), but also with a flowchart that is shown at the end of every chapter. This neat diagram presents the player with all the choices they may or may not have made that led to the ending they receive, and also lets them replay the scene from any checkpoint they want. That way, there isn’t a need to replay the most boring parts of the chapter just to pick a different dialogue option. And of course, you can find out global statistics for the choices made by the playerbase at large and among your friends list, so you can find out which among your buddies managed to get himself killed in the opening act.

Back to Connor for a bit. The first scene gives a great look into the little intricacies that make up Detroit’s masterful storytelling. At the beginning of the scene you’re given a simple choice – will you leave this fish on the ground, or will you put it back in its tank? Will you pick up this gun despite being told that it’s illegal for androids to carry firearms, or will you leave it on the ground? Choices like this might seem arbitrary and binary, up until the point later in the scene where you confront the deviant and find an officer bleeding to death, asking for help as you walk closer to negotiate. Will you save the officer and jeopardize the mission, or will you let him die slowly so you can rescue the little girl? When the negotiation goes south, will you pull out the gun you picked up earlier, or will you try to reason with the deviant? In the end, I reassured the deviant that nothing bad would happen to him if he let the girl go – before I gunned down the deviant myself with a pistol I smuggled in from the previous room. Connor then walked away, proceeded by possibly the coldest “Mission Successful” I’ve ever seen in a videogame.

Then, a few scenes later, we get to Markus – someone whose entire introductory arc revolves around the interaction between him and Carl, the elderly painter he takes care of. While Connor and Kara are presented in the ascetic lens of an expensive police-grade investigator android and the shaky camera of two domestic abuse survivors respecitvely, Markus is introduced in a sunny park with androids and humans interacting with one another at their most idealistic – an elderly man is helped up by his android. A runner gets reminders and stays hydrated. Children on the playground do as kids do as an android watches over them. Further down we can see humans who have either suffered or are disgruntled with androids for their own reasons – a homeless man begs for money after losing his job to an android. A musician busks with a sign proudly proclaiming “real human music”. Protesters gather outside of a CyberLife outlet and may even accost Markus, who at this point has no real personal directive other than bringing paint to Carl. Markus isn’t even clad in the shiny white latex of Kara’s dress or an expensive pressed suit like Connor – if it weren’t for his glowing forehead LED and his inhuman speech patterns, you’d easily mistake him for a human from a distance.

The story is capable of showing the extreme cruelty and ruthlessness that both androids and humans can enact on themselves and each other, but a major detail left out in the trailers and promotional footage is their capability for empathy. It’s easy to miss that detail, though, especially when the opening sequence portrays Connor as an efficient, smooth operator who’ll willingly kill a fellow android and traumatize a girl if it meant succeeding in his mission, and the second trailer features Kara and the many ways she can save a young girl from her dangerous, violent father. The game doesn’t pull its punches in depicting the monstrous things that humans and androids can do, but at the same time it doesn’t hold back the tenderness that can arise between them.

Kara’s entire mission after the altercation in Alice’s home and successfully running away is to find shelter for them. You’re given a set of goals, and a set of choices. A motel is the most obvious solution, but you’ll have to steal money and clothes in order to pass off as human and pay for the night. You can rob a convenience store, but that could rouse suspicion – not only that, Alice is an idealistic child who hates it when Kara steals. Regardless of your choices, you’re treated to a touching scene where Kara assured her that they’d be together forever, before lying down and falling asleep hugging her.

Detroit: Become Human drops on May 25th and I’m already on the edge of my seat eager to dive back into the world of Detroit. I’m rooting for Markus and his mission to free his people. I want to see Kara and Alice become closer in a world where Kara would be killed for the crime of feeling love. And I want to watch Connor go from his calculated, efficient demeanor to something more human, whether for good or for ill. Can androids learn to be human? More importantly, can humans learn to be human?

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