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.
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.Read more
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.
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.