[Ed. note: After spending a bunch of time with a review copy of Detroit: Become Human, we’re still working through our thoughts on the game. In the meantime, you can read this republished pre-review, which is based on the first three hours of Detroit.]
For more than two decades, David Cage and his company Quantic Dream have been carving out a niche in the gaming world. As the studio’s founder and the director of its games, Cage has been honing his particular brand of storytelling, one that blends the scripted performances and visual language of film with the interactivity of video games to create a unique type of narrative-driven adventure game.
Quantic Dream’s last three games — 2005’s Indigo Prophecy, 2010’s Heavy Rain and 2013’s Beyond: Two Souls — eschewed traditional game mechanics in favor of gesture-based controls that were meant to simulate the feeling of whatever actions the player was performing. Each game offered a branching narrative structure in which the player’s decisions — every dialogue choice, every button press, every failed quick-time event — secretly influenced the direction and outcome of the story, including whether characters lived or died.
All of that is still true in Quantic Dream’s latest game, Detroit: Become Human, which launches May 25 on PlayStation 4. Except for one fascinating piece: Cage decided to pull back the curtain on his story. Detroit lays out every branch on its narrative tree, and thus feels like something of a refutation of the designer’s past work. Cage is leaning into the video game elements of a project more deeply than he has in almost 20 years.
Learning as a designer
Sony brought a lengthy chunk of Detroit to members of the media in April, allowing us to play the first three hours or so of the game. Detroit shifts between the perspectives of three androids in the year 2038, with sequences such as “The Hostage,” a rooftop hostage negotiation by the police android Connor, which you may remember from E3 2016; “Stormy Night,” the controversial domestic violence scene starring the housemaid android Kara that debuted at Paris Games Week 2017; and “The Painter,” a quiet morning in the life of caretaker android Markus.
When you complete each sequence, Detroit presents you with a flowchart that spells out the route you took through the scene. (It’s also accessible from the pause menu at any time during a mission.) If you’re hooked up to the internet, the game will show percentages for the community’s choices. You can see every move you made, from inconsequential acts to basic dialogue options to momentous no-turning-back decisions, and understand how your choices opened up new paths in some areas and narrowed down your options in others.
For instance, in “Stormy Night,” you may be able to escape with the child, Alice, by climbing out her bedroom window. But this route won’t be available unless you happened to make an optional decision in Kara’s previous sequence, “A New Home”: opening the window in question. The flowchart highlights this with an unlocked padlock — denoting an action that will open up more options down the road — as “Kara discovers a way down.”
Any paths that you didn’t take will remain grayed out. You won’t know precisely what you could’ve done instead, but you will have an idea of where in the mission you could’ve made different choices. The roads not taken are sometimes more obvious than others, of course. With dialogue options, you would simply select a different line. But you may miss out on entire limbs of a tree if you don’t, say, venture into a certain building or discover a particular clue.
The flowchart is perhaps Detroit’s biggest departure from Quantic Dream’s previous games. David Cage has taken some flak over the years for marketing his games by boasting about the sheer length of his scripts, but it really is impressive to see every branching decision point laid bare in this way.
Beyond that, the flowchart represents Cage’s immense pride and faith in his work — but without rising to the level of hubris. It takes guts to surface all this information to players, especially when games with choice-and-consequence mechanics typically obfuscate them in the name of preserving a sense of mystery. Of course, that includes Cage’s previous games, and he told me that the reception to Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls led him to recalibrate his sensibilities.
“I’ve always been, as a designer, for invisible design — things that are totally organic, and you don’t see the interface, you don’t see behind the curtains,” said Cage. “And actually, I stepped back from this, because I felt [that] when people have no clue that there’s something — that even there is a curtain and that there’s something behind the curtain — they just miss it.”
Cage related an anecdote from a Heavy Rain playtest in which a player failed most of the control prompts within a scene, but thought that they had performed well; the person had no idea that they’d only seen one-tenth of the content in the sequence. Quantic Dream tried for years to figure out how to solve this issue, according to Cage.
“Adding this flowchart was a big thing for us, because it was a way to show people, ‘Look, this is your narrative path in the scene, but this is also all the stuff that you missed,’” said Cage.
Showing players what they missed lends a more video game-y feel to Detroit; the flowchart even mentions a completion percentage, a concept that seems to be at odds with the type of game that this is. As something of a completionist myself — or at least, a player with a completionist’s see-everything compulsion, if not their follow-through — I love this feature. I hate feeling like I’m missing out on something, and will often reload save files in games like this to see how things would’ve played out if I had made another choice.
Cage said he hopes people will “just deal with the consequences of [their] real choices” on their first playthrough, and then go back after finishing the game to try making different decisions to fill out their flowcharts. However, Detroit does allow for reloading at various checkpoints within missions — another concession to gamers’ expectations.
While Cage seems to have learned some encouraging and exciting design lessons from the reaction to Heavy Rain and Beyond, it’s less clear if he has taken feedback on his writing to heart.
Learning as a writer?
As an outspoken writer and game designer, Cage is no stranger to controversy. But the outcry that followed Detroit’s appearance at last October’s Paris Games Week may have been a new level for him to deal with. Cage found himself on the defensive after Sony and Quantic Dream premiered a new trailer for Detroit at the show, one featuring nasty scenes of domestic violence perpetrated by a heavyset man against his young daughter and their android maid.
Cage defended the scene from Detroit’s “Stormy Night” chapter in a contentious interview with Eurogamer, saying, “There’s a context in the story, there’s a reason for that — where [Kara] comes from and where she’s going to go.”
That may turn out to be the case later in the game, but I didn’t see much in the way of context during my session. “Stormy Night” is the sixth or seventh sequence in Detroit, and there’s only one chapter before it that stars Kara. In that mission, while exploring Kara’s new home in a rundown Detroit neighborhood called North Corktown, I found evidence that Alice’s father, Todd, smoked a methamphetamine-like substance called red ice. OK, so this guy is a deadbeat dad whose wife left him because he was doing drugs. (Also, was Alice’s mother really so desperate to get away from Todd that she would leave her daughter behind with someone she knew was a drug addict?)
The chance for Kara to get Alice out of that terrible situation evokes strong emotions in the player; I saw what an asshole Todd was, and wanted to do my best to escape with Alice. But the flip side, of course, is the potential for failure — the chance that you won’t hit the right buttons at the right time to save Alice.
“Stormy Night” can end with Kara’s death, according to that Paris Games Week trailer. But far worse than that video game outcome is the idea that you, as the player, would have to live with the awful feeling of having failed a victim of domestic abuse. Cage extols the power of interactivity, of putting you in a character’s shoes and giving you agency. But with that power comes the responsibility not to use certain subjects as mere window dressing.
When I asked Cage why he chose Detroit as the setting for this game, he told me that the idea came to him “by instinct,” and that the city’s comeback story played a role as well — Detroit was the home of the auto industry in the 20th century, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that this manufacturing hub could host the android industry in the 21st century. But Cage also pointed to Detroit’s history in a way that gave me pause.
“A lot happened in Detroit with the civil rights and all these things, and that was a source of inspiration for the game, for sure,” said Cage.
Maybe Cage didn’t want to delve into events like the race riot of 1943 or 1967’s 12th Street riot during our brief interview. But his wording certainly didn’t inspire confidence. And when I asked him to expand on the connection between the American civil rights movement and Detroit’s story — which is about androids becoming self-aware and demanding to be treated as equal to humans — he shied away from any obvious parallels. (This was after I had pointed out scenes in the game involving Detroit’s public transportation in 2038, where androids are forced to stand in a dedicated compartment at the back of the bus.)
“There are many groups of people today who can feel the same and feel segregated for different reasons, or feel not treated fairly for different reasons,” Cage said. “So I wouldn’t connect this to the civil rights [movement] or to this or to that; I think — I hope it’s going to be broader than that, and different groups of people can identify themselves with these androids for different reasons.”
Cage did say that it was important to Quantic Dream that Detroit reflect the racial diversity of “the city of Detroit, and of the world today.” The character on the game’s cover art is Markus, who becomes an android activist and is played by biracial actor Jesse Williams.
In my time with Detroit, I saw androids that appeared to be male and female robots of various ethnicities. I don’t know yet if the game’s android activism is intersectional, so to speak. These “pieces of plastic,” as they’re known derisively, don’t all see the world in the same way, at least — Connor is an android cop built to hunt down deviant androids, or androids that have broken free of their programming. (That would apply to both Kara and Markus within Detroit’s first three hours.)
Perhaps the fact that I’m asking myself that question at all is a sign that Cage is doing his job, in some sense. He has been criticized for saying that he doesn’t want his games to project a particular message, a notion that he said had been “a little bit misunderstood” when I asked him to clarify his position.
“In an interactive experience, I don’t feel that my role is to deliver my message and to tell you what you should think,” Cage said. “The role of an interactive experience, for me, is to ask you questions — and let you find your own answers based on your choices, your moral values, what you believe in, etc., and see the consequences of your choices in the story.”
When I pressed him on this, Cage acknowledged that the very act of writing a game like Detroit is to choose both the questions that he’s asking and the answers that players can give in the game. “So yeah, maybe it already says something,” Cage admitted. But the totality of the experience, Cage contended, is the interplay between designer and player.
“It’s a story that we tell together. As the writer, I create this narrative landscape, but as the player, you make the choice and you define your path and you tell your own story through your choices,” said Cage. “And hopefully, we get better at it game after game, and maybe Detroit is the best compromise that we’ve found to keep the rules of interactivity while letting you tell your own story with them.”
A few standout scenes in Detroit definitely gave me that sense of defining the character of these androids through my decisions.
The penultimate scene I played was a mission in which Connor interrogated a deviant android that had been arrested for murdering its human owner. I threaded the needle between good cop and bad cop to elicit a confession — by keeping the deviant’s stress level in a range from 55-75 percent, in another game-y mechanic — and later intervened to prevent an officer from assaulting the android. I felt like I was signaling to my partner, Lt. Hank Anderson of the Detroit Police Department, what kind of cop I would be.
In the demo’s final sequence, “Fugitives,” Kara and Alice had to find a place to spend the night after escaping from Todd’s house. I decided to steal some clothes and money, which led Alice to feel betrayed after she had come to trust me. But I was able to win her back by apologizing, and I felt that ensuring Alice could sleep in a motel bed instead of in an abandoned building on a rainy night was enough of a justification for my petty crimes.
You may make very different choices if you play Detroit: Become Human, and that’s just as David Cage intended. After all, that’s the biggest question: What kind of story will he let you tell?