Detroit: Become Human explores what it means to be sentient

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Apr 24, 2018, 2:01 PM EDT

With films like Her and Ex Machina, and TV series like Westworld, the discussion about artificial intelligence and what exactly makes humans human has been in the forefront of the sci-fi world for years. We’ve got some of our top scientists and technology gurus telling us that what’s coming is dangerous.

The closer we get to the “skin jobs” we saw in Battlestar Galactica, the Westworld hosts and Sophia (in our present reality), the debate about A.I. and what rights they will deserve when the time comes is something that is very much part of the tech conversation these days. 


Last week, I got a chance to see another version of our possible future with A.I. when I got a hands-on preview of the upcoming game Detroit: Become Human, set for release by Quantic Dream and Sony Interactive Entertainment for the PlayStation 4 on May 25.

In Detroit: Become Human, we follow three androids. Kara (Valorie Curry) is a domestic servant who takes care of a father and daughter. Connor (Bryan Dechart) is a specialized android who works for the police force and is tasked with taking down rogue androids. Markus (Jesse Williams) is an android working as a caretaker for an aging artist, who becomes a leader of the android uprising. The game is third person and relies on conversation trees to take you through the story. We’re not talking Knights of the Old Republic conversation trees here—in this game, saying the wrong thing can actually get your character killed off. You have a chance to go back and redo a scenario (we didn’t get to do that in the demo), though seeing your choices through is pretty fascinating.


It’s 2038, and unemployment is rampant in Detroit, only this unemployment issue comes about because androids are taking jobs from humans, or so the protesters say. (We witness a protest in one of the chapters.)

Androids are caretakers, waitresses, retail workers, factory workers—and many humans are very angry about the state of affairs. A glitch (or natural development) is causing some androids to develop self-awareness and go against their programming. So, how are androids with sentience treated? About as well as you'd expect. They're discriminated against before they have real emotions, then demonized for developing them. 


I’m not going to spoil story points, but I can give you this example of how a branching storyline can change your path. At one point, one of the characters is trying to find a place to stay. Androids have specific clothing, so she tries to get a human outfit. With no money, she can’t exactly go out and buy jeans and a t-shirt. If you don’t get the clothing, you can’t enter any businesses that say “No androids.” If you can’t do that, you have to find other alternatives for where to sleep. There are a number of rather unpleasant choices, and while speaking to others who played the demo, the ending to our scenes varied wildly, from trashy hotels to less savory accommodations.


As far as gameplay goes, Detroit: Become Human is likely going to appeal to people who prefer things that are heavy on the story side. There are quick-time events during fights and certain investigations are timed, but more than anything you're deciding what to say next. If you’re someone who watches TV and yells at the screen when characters do something stupid, this is going to be right up your alley. If you like fast-paced action, it might feel a bit slow. As someone who loves RPGs and stories, I found the game fascinating, particularly the moments when the characters make the decision to break away from their programming and "become human." 


That said, the story is particularly immersive, especially because your choices change your experiences. For instance, when Connor is on a case and comes upon certain clues, he has to investigate each one, then reconstruct the scenario. In one case, he finds a body, examines each bullet hole, then visually replays the moment in his head. I was concentrating so hard on making sure I found the clues in time that I sort of forgot who did what. When I was called to answer questions about it later, I couldn’t recall the exact moments, leading another character to distrust me. If you don’t find all the clues in time, your chance of solving the case drops (which you can see on the screen as a percentage), which can lead to some not-so-great things for you and for others in the scene. The Connor scenes (at least the ones we got to play) are definitely more complicated than the ones with Markus and Kara. There is far more to do and remember. 

In the case of Markus, you’re going to have to do some shopping for art supplies in Detroit, which is actually more interesting than it sounds. It’s an early scene, and walking around the district gives you a clue about the unemployment, shows you a protest and how an android isn’t supposed to fight back, even if they’re being attacked. Markus’ story is a bit more ponderous in the beginning, as you get his boss out of bed, give him medication, feed him and take him to his art studio. However, once you get into it, it’s compelling. Markus is a sensitive soul, which you can see even before his awakening. Williams’ voice acting and mo-cap work is riveting in a way you wouldn’t expect from a game. In fact, the whole thing is beautifully cinematic and you might get lost staring at the stunning backgrounds and faces for a while. 


As you can tell, I really enjoyed playing this, though again, it’s for a very specific type of gamer. If online battles are your thing, this is going to be slow. (I did get stuck in one loop where I couldn’t find a wire cutter and had to wander around in the rain for far too long to get to the next scene.)

I loved the exploration of the “other,” and how easy it is for mob mentality to push a group to the side and think of them as things. I like the slower pace and how very drastically different choices can affect the gameplay. I did have a character die on me once, and it was pretty jarring, even knowing that in regular gameplay I could change that. It made me chose very differently as I moved forward. 


One small thing—in the beginning of the Kara story, you spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning the house. I’m talking washing a number of individual dishes, collecting garbage and taking it outside, hanging laundry, putting it in the machine with soap, straightening bottles in the bathroom, mopping the floor, putting away beer bottles, serving dinner, pouring drinks, cleaning up a kid’s room, and that isn’t all.

I’ve had an aversion to doing jobs in games since that stupid tractor job back in Shenmue. It was also hard not to notice that the one character doing most of the cleaning and childcare was the female character. It would have been interesting if the cop was a woman, the domestic servant was a man, etc. However, this was just the first two hours or so of the game, and could very well be a set up for something much larger. Kara’s story keeps her moving, so she’s unlikely to spend much more time cleaning up after drunk bosses later on. Even with that complaint, I've been completely sucked in.


I’m dying to see where the story goes next. When you’re done with each scene, you see a tree that shows you where your choices diverged from others, and after seeing where I ended up, I’m actually curious to play through the scenes again, making different choices.

You’ll be able to download a demo for Detroit: Become Human from the PlayStation store beginning on Tuesday, April 24. The game will launch on Friday, May 25. Are you interested in the game? Let us know in the comments.

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