Friday, May 18, 2018

The "Detroit: Become Human" Demo Made Me a Liar and I Love It

If you've hung out on my blog or social media for more than about ten seconds, you pretty much know by now what my video game jam is. I will play just about anything, but I have an extra soft spot for games that really make the most of their format. That could be choice-based storytelling or tinkering with the interface in general. But if there's a story in front of me, and that story could only be told in the version I'm currently witnessing, then I'm extra excited.

I had a go (okay, multiple goes) at the demo for Detroit: Become Human this week. And first off... damn, that game is stunning. I'm pretty sure we're about to hit a point at which we can't go much higher-quality without our consoles catching fire -- if we're not at that point already. That's already a sign that we're at the back end of the current phase of game design: the graphics are about to plateau, so innovation has to be poured into gameplay and storytelling to keep moving forward.

Detroit: Become Human is from the Quantic Dream, who also brought us Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. So that should give you an idea of what you're in for. And if the hype surrounding it reminds you of their "Kara" trailer from 2012 -- well, yeah, it's branched off from that. In fact, she's back in this game. But you won't see her in the demo. Instead, we get to meet a different android: Connor, who is programmed for detective work.

Full disclosure: I played on "Story" mode because I suck at games. No shame admitting it; hand-eye coordination is a massive weak point of mine, and I thrive at tactical games and puzzle-solving over real-time action. Plus, I wanted at least a little leisure to really explore what I was in the middle of. As I understand it, playing on actual gamer mode involves a little more interfacing and a few more QTEs, so I think I made the right choice.

The orientation is third-person as you navigate Connor through a crime scene in an open-layout penthouse apartment. You come in knowing nothing except that you need to rescue a hostage. The rest comes to you via investigation. What you choose to look at and interact with will give you clues, which (when the time comes to confront the hostage-taker) gives you more potential dialogue trees.

The investigation mode is actually really fun. Much of it involves reconstruction of events based on your surroundings and the clues nearby, piecing things together bit by bit as you assemble a full picture of the crime scene before you get down to business. As you fit the pieces together, you get a running read-out of your odds... which is, likely by design, alternately discouraging and nerve-wracking.

There's not technically a hard timer on you, but there is the option to either waste time or not waste time. And while taking a bit longer than you should won't wreck your chances at making it to the end, it will alter the scenario significantly.

The whole situation leads up to the actual hostage negotiation -- which I won't go into any detail on in case you want to play for yourself and sort out the clues on your own. I will say that on my first playthrough (which is always doing things the way I would if it were literally me in the situation) I was... technically successful?

I wasn't happy with it, though. Which is actually kind of awesome. Because I knew then that that meant there were multiple ways to succeed and fail... and I'd really missed an opportunity to get exactly what I wanted out of the game. As it turns out, there are six -- six -- potential endings, just for the demo.

One of my major gripes in games is when I choose a dialogue option and the character proceeds to say the exact opposite of what I thought they were going to say. This happened once here, and at the end I got another round of getting the complete opposite of what I was going for. And while that tends to annoy the hell out of me, here it game me a sense of what we'd be seeing in the game proper. Any disconnects between my logic and the game weren't there to frustrate me: they were there to tease the setting and story by tweaking at my sensibilities.

I'm only aware of three of the six endings at this point (my friend played similarly to me but got a different one, and then I screwed the pooch royally on my "asshole run" following my first play). Reconstructing the clues adequately isn't the only thing that alters your experience: how aggressive you are in your negotiations, how honest you are, and (I think) a fish early on (???) all play into it.

There is a very real place for stories like this in modern entertainment, and not just because we're pushing gaming to its limits technologically. This is an era when we're so deeply engaged in what we watch and read that our immersion is greater than ever. And in stories with a message about morality, society, or humanity, there's a lot more to be gained if the story is guided by our own decisions rather than watching a character who has even odds of not doing what we'd do in a given situation.

A demo isn't always an indicator of a game's entire value, so I'd never venture to say this is proof the whole thing will be awesome. (Largely because then I'm just daring the universe and the writers to prove me wrong.) But I can say that the sheer amount of storytelling and replay value compressed into one demo is stunning, and I can only hope we keep seeing more like this from Quantic Dream and beyond.

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