Detroit: Become Human Gets In The Way Of Its Own Story

Image: Supplied

A nice byproduct from the rise of Telltale's episodic games, and the developers who followed in their path, was a collective realisation. Finally, games had a new way to telling intricate, powerful stories - without being bogged down by too many arbitrary mechanics.

Unfortunately, Detroit: Become Human didn't quite get the memo.

If nothing else, nobody can say that Detroit doesn't know what type of game it is. Like previous Quantic Dream and David Cage games, Detroit is the studio's latest slightly off-beat, choose-your-own-adventure, this time set in a near-future cyberpunk world conflicted by the effects of automation and robotics.

Sony held worldwide preview sessions with the press recently, showing off the first few hours of the game. The gameplay included full sequences of chapters that have already been shown in trailers and hands-off demos before, including the initial hostage scene on a roof, and a sequence where the android Kara intervenes to save a little girl.

Detroit: Become Human's Flowchart Is Very Cool

I'm not a programmer. But having grown up with two, I have some measure of understanding when coders get irrationally excited about processes and flowcharts. And with Detroit. Become Human, I've found a flowchart of my own that I can happily geek over.

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A lot of the early major plot points, then, were old news. We know that Connor is an android built for police negotiations and investigation; Kara is a support unit designed to help around the household. Markus fulfils a similar function as a carer, looking after the aging artist Carl and his studio.

What the preview enabled, then, was the ability to see how each of these characters are established. More importantly, it also illustrated how Detroit plays out from scene to scene.

Which is to say, rather slowly.

One of the protagonists, Markus, administering medicine to the painter Carl. Image: Supplied

Detroit's problem, and one that has really faced every Quantic Dream game even going all the way back to Omikron: The Nomad Soul, has been mechanical. It's a problem Telltale fans know too well: when you're not making critical, story-changing decisions, what do you do?

The answer to that has been to slowly create bigger environments. Not really to explore, but to provide a bigger area to hide clues, objects and characters in.

Because at the end of the day, Detroit and games of its ilk are still ferrying the player from one environment to the next. Exploring those environments is more involved than before - each android has a Batman-esque vision that helps illuminate clues and points of interest - but at the end of the day, you're still combing every room with a fine-tooth comb to ensure you leave no stone unturned.

Again: this is entirely fine and wholly expected. The kicker is the downtime, segments travelling from one scene to another, where you're tasked with what is really nothing more than mindless busy work to keep the player occupied.

In Detroit, the main method of interaction comes from the right stick. Occasionally you'll receive a button prompt to interact with a character, or object, but for the most part you'll receive a graphic detailing a directional input.

Some of these are quite simple: hold the right stick down, hold the right stick up, and so forth. But others are a little more involved. Turning a door knob usually involves a Street Fighter-esque motion, such as up and half circle to the right.

It's clever in a sense - it matches the rotation that you would make with your wrist as if you were physically opening the door.

The reconstruction sequences during investigations are a better example: the player scrubs through the timeline with the triggers, occasionally using the right stick to rotate the camera to illuminate an object or point of interest. Holding down the triangle button then usually adds a little more detail to the sequence, helping reveal the events that unfolded.

And credit where credit's due: the added complexity of the right stick inputs also makes quicktime events a touch more harrowing. There's always the possibility of accidentally hitting the wrong face button, but when you have to make sure you don't bugger up the rotation, occasionally swipe on the touch pad, sometimes physically jerk the controller upwards to avoid getting clocked in the head: it's an unexpected intensity.

But these inputs only really add more to the game's most intensive scenes. When you're walking around, picking trash up off the counter, helping an elderly man out of his bed, the added prompts just feel like Quantic Dream is giving the player something to do for the sake of doing something.

Sometimes the inputs don't make sense, either. Why, prey tell, is it necessary for the player to have to hold down L2 while lifting the controller to open a window? It's not a mission critical response: if you bugger up the input, the game lets you try again.

On the flipside, it doesn't entirely make sense why Detroit wants some inputs, but not others. Getting Carl out of bed requires that the player hold R1 and up on the right stick. But when you ferry Carl over to breakfast, you're not tasked with a prompt to hook him into the wheelchair lift to get him down the stairs.

Isn't that something, logically, that a carer would help with? Sure: it doesn't add anything to the emotional impact of the scene, and doesn't advance the gameplay or plot in any meaningful way. But neither does holding a weird combo of buttons to lift Carl to the toilet, which makes me wonder why it wasn't just a cut scene with different dialogue prompts (which didn't necessarily have to be a meaningful choice, but could have at least given the player the illusion of agency).

Each of the opening chapters was different, and Quantic did find some fun and interesting ways to utilise the different prompts. There's a beautiful scene in Carl's lounge room where you can sit and play a piano, and after choosing one of four tunes you're given a series of beats to hit via the touchpad.

There's no timing or penalty: you can play as bad as you like, as fast or as slow as possible. And it'll run on for as long as you like. That's a fun diversion.

But outside of those almost mini-game style moments, most of the mechanical inputs are really just filler. It doesn't negatively detract from the plot, or prevent you from enjoying the story. It just keeps the player occupied, often meaninglessly so.

So when Detroit: Become Human drops on May 25, be aware. I've no doubt it'll be a cracker of a game to play with a crowd, with everyone having quickfire debates on where to look and what decisions to make. I'm also still intrigued enough to follow Detroit's story to its multiple conclusions, despite the inevitable busy work along the way.


Comments

    Could the busy-work be Quantic's way of encouraging you to spend more time in the world so that you can build up a closer connection with it? I mean, there are certain people (myself included) who would spend several minutes just exploring a scene or a location even where there is nothing to do. I spent ages down in Horizon's cave system, for example, and would have even if there hadn't been audio logs to collect. I guess developers might not be confident that your average player would take that time without some hook to keep them there.

      A lot of that is communicated through close-ups in dialogue choices or cut scenes, and the parts that weren't in the preview were quite forced. The opening segment with Markus has you going to a store to buy some paints. Along the way, you can hear a protest on the side about the unemployment caused by robotics. You can ignore it, but the game deliberately makes you walk past the protest on the way back so you end up hearing the protest - which reused the same voice lines and chants - regardless.

      Another kicker is that there are a lot of invisible walls that prevent you from wandering as far as you'd like. The walk speed is very leisurely as well, so it'd be a laborious process.

    "Finally, games had a new way to telling intricate, powerful stories - without being bogged down by too many arbitrary mechanics."

    Games had it too hard trying to be games, so now they're going to be thinly veiled movies with triple the development time and half the standards and expectations.

      While I think that’s a little harsh, I sort of agree. This creates a bit of “what is a game?” arguing but I feel like some of these projects wouldn’t have made it as movies so they attempt to force themselves into “games” instead. I think things like this and Heavy Rain work better, but titles like Gone Home only seem popular because they’re wedges into “games” despite having no gameplay. And they are well received “for a game” when in any other media they’d be ignored.

      It’s more like interactive fiction.

        Until Dawn absolutely killed it. It's like a David Cage game that's actually really good.

    What I liked about how this stuff was done in Heavy Rain was that I felt like a director of the movie. Making the character lean against a drawer while listening didn't change the narrative or move the scene forward it was just an immersive addition. So this stuff sounds great to me.

    After Shadow of the Colossus, Monster Hunter, Far Cry 5 and currently the excellent God of War a slower pace game feels like just the right game before Red Dead and Spider-Man

    Long cut scenes or in game sequences where things happen even I do nothing tend to ruin games for me, since I have a habit of either wandering off or literally falling asleep. It's a problem I don't have in movies or TV, since the action tends to be a lot faster paced than in games. It's often an issue in on-rails games or so called interactive movies.

    It hurt Heavy Rain for me, but was worst in Kingdom bloody Come.

    Far happier in far ranging, open world games where I can always find something to do, even if it's just sneaking through a town and stealing everyone's boots (or swords, or pants).

    I think this would be a perfect game for VR... They should really consider implementing a FPV mode with VR... I really hope there's a PSVR 2.0 in the pipeline with updated peripherals closer to HTC Hive, or something innovative like trackable gloves with inputs on them...(much like Manus VR)

    Last edited 26/04/18 9:40 am

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