Preview: Detroit: Become Human has great graphics but no soul

Are you excited for Detroit: Become Human? I know some people must be.

Certain folks really seemed to like Heavy Rain, and while Beyond: Two Souls and Indigo Prophecy aren't regarded quite as highly, I'm generally a fan of story-focused games, so I feel like I should probably be on board with what the developers at Quantic Dream are doing.

But man, Detroit: Become Human looks like a mess. 

Press X to resist oppression 

My impressions in this article are based on the game's trailers, an E3 theater presentation in which we saw about 20 minutes of live gameplay, and some additional time spent watching over people's shoulders as they played the game in Sony's booth. I haven't yet had a chance to go hands-on with the game, but since the "gameplay" largely consists of stuff like "press X to break glass, turn left or right to go left or right and then watch a cutscene," I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on what the game is all about, as far as the portions shown off publicly go. 

To be totally fair to Quantic Dream, the studio has always maintained that their games are more like interactive films than traditional games. Detroit: Become Human isn't going to be an action game, despite some of the explosive imagery in the game's new E3 trailer. You press a button to make a choice, then see the consequences of that choice. Sometimes you walk around a bit and explore and find different ways to progress. The game has a kind of cool "android vision" element where you can do things like calculate projected trajectories of your jumps in order to tackle a police drone out of the sky, but when it comes time to actually do the cool stuff you'll just be pressing a single button and then watching the whole thing happen.

This is a game where the actual gameplay is very simple and rudimentary, and I've enjoyed plenty of games like that before. Telltale's narrative game formula is something I've had fun with across multiple titles, and I can get down with a good walking simulator like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture if the story, world, and characters are interesting enough to keep my attention when the gameplay doesn't. 

But nothing I've seen from Detroit: Become Human so far leads me to expect this game will have the kind of gripping story a narrative-first title needs. In fact the more I see of the game the less compelling it appears. 

A painfully simplistic morality system

The gameplay on display in Sony's E3 theater was the same part of the game featured in the new trailer. It features Marcus, leader of the awakened android resistance, and his partner North heading to a Cyberlife facility in an attempt to bring more androids to sentience and free them from what the game very explicitly refers to as "slavery." There looked to be a number of ways to approach the situation, and we were told that "any character can die" and that "you can fail missions and the story just keeps going." That's definitely intriguing, and it will be interesting to see how the game manages all the different narrative threads players will create. 

These potentially interesting aspects of the game, though, aren't enough to distract from some huge problems at the core. Most glaring of these issues is the fact that the game seems to be leaning heavily on a "pacifism vs. violence" morality spectrum that just feels way, way too simplistic for a game that wants to be taken seriously.

In the theater demo we watched Marcus wake the androids and give them an inspiring speech, and then the player made some choices about how the ensuing riot would play out. Do you want to break storefront windows, or smash them? Destroy a car, or just mildly inconvenience it? These are kinds of decisions you make in this section, and after you make each one you'll see your "pacifism vs. violence" meter pop up on screen, one side colored blue and the other colored red.

While I'm sure the game will eventually offer you actual violent choices, for the big riot in the demo all we saw was property damage labeled "violence" which...doesn't feel quite right to me. Is smashing a store front window to protest mistreatment really the same kind of thing as killing someone, only separated by a matter of degree?

The riot plays out and Marcus' android legions follow his lead. Marcus sets the tone for the group, and you watch the pacifism vs. violence meter move in one direction or the other. Do something "violent" and it'll tick up a few points, but you can cancel that out by making a pacifist choice next. Convenient, right? And pretty silly? 

This is the same level of moral depth we saw in Infamous: Second Son, only that was a cool superhero action game and Detroit: Become Human is an interactive drama dealing with serious political and social issues. At least in the portion of the gameplay I saw, the pacifism vs. violence meter feels insultingly simplistic next to the weight of questions of humanity and oppression. 

Missed opportunities

What's most frustrating about what I've seen from Detroit: Become Human so far is that it has a lot of the right ingredients to actually tell a compelling story with interesting dramatic choices. The humanity of androids or robots is something we've seen in science-fiction again and again, and it can be a fascinating question to explore. One way to go with this is to make the androids truly alien and strange, and then confront questions like whether they are truly "alive" and "aware" and what those words actually mean, or what morality means when applied to something totally non-human.

But Detroit: Become Human doesn't seem interested in telling a story that questions the consciousness or moral value of androids. Marcus, North, and the rest look exactly like the game's "normal" humans, aside from a little light on their heads. They talk like humans. From what we see as we guide Marcus in making his choices, and in the way he and North react to those choices, they make mistakes like humans and have emotions just like humans. This isn't a story where we are supposed to wonder whether androids deserve the same rights as people. Clearly they do, because they're exactly the same.

What Detroit: Become Human is doing with androids, then, is using them as a metaphor for oppressed people in real life. Androids were "slaves" that are now demanding their freedom and rights. Marcus' inspiring speech to the newly awakened androids is full of phrases like "open your eyes," "take back your freedom," and "take your destiny in your hands." 

Our role as the player in Marcus' story is to decide whether we work for android rights via pacifist or violent means. The trouble is, as evidenced by the reaction of the E3 theater crowd, the "violent" choices to smash windows and flip over cars don't just feel like more fun, they feel totally justified. The game goes to the trouble of getting us to accept android humanity and identify with their struggle, and then expects us to agonize over whether to smash an empty store front window? That's not going to happen. The crowd at E3 cheered for the player to "Smash! Smash!" and it felt right. 

The question of whether actual violence is justified in resisting oppression is a valid one, and a good story could be told with this question at the center. Detroit: Become Human doesn't seem equipped to tell that story, though. The simplistic "pacifism vs. violence" meter is an anchor holding down any hope for interesting political and moral theorizing. And the fact that you can cancel out a violent act with a few pacifist ones just makes the whole exercise feel unrealistic and artificial.

In the theater demo we saw, Marcus smashed a window, flipped a car, and then set a gazebo on fire, all of which earned violence points. But when North tried to give him a bomb he refused, and that reduced the violence rating a bit. At the end of the demo, North and Marcus awkwardly debated the likely outcomes of their actions, North was excited about the riot and confident that it would send a message to the humans, but Marcus replied grimly "They'll be afraid now. And fear breeds hatred." 

So, like, Marcus...why are you scolding North here? You were the one who decided to do several violent things. Backing off of the violent path now didn't sound right at all, and felt like it only happened because refusing the bomb ticked our meter back down to mostly neutral on the pacifism vs. violence scale. This kind of artificiality is clumsy and awkward, and undercuts whatever interesting choices the game could be offering. 

At least Detroit looks nice

There are a few things Detroit: Become Human is doing right, and chief among those is the game's visual presentation. It all looks absolutely gorgeous, with facial animations and detail as good as anything we've ever seen in gaming before. That technical wizardry could be powerful in a narrative game, and could help Detroit stand out compared to other narrative-focused games, most of which don't come close to this level of visual polish.

The title also deserves a lot of credit for its diverse collection of faces, as even with several dozen androids on screen the only repeat face I saw was a duplicate of North in the form of another android of the same "model," and this was clearly an intentional and story-significant point. Seeing repeated NPC faces is a common way for narrative titles to accidentally remind you that you're really just playing a video game, but at least in the demo Detroit looked to be avoiding that problem. 

The environments that we saw in the theater demo were also top-notch, and the snowy plaza full of lights (and Deus Ex-style cyberpunk touches) looked impressively realistic. I'm also a fan of the game's use of stylized on-screen text to display objectives and choices. The way "android vision" is displayed feels a bit dull comparatively, as it's largely just washed out colors and glowing outlines, but it could have been worse. 

Detroit: Become Human obviously has a massive, branching narrative, and there are probably depths and layers to it that will be more effective than what we have seen so far. The strong visuals and the way the story continues to advance even when you "fail" a mission are both points in the game's favor, but the portion of the game shown off at E3 2017 doesn't inspire confidence in the story that is supposed to make everything else work. It's very possible to tell an exciting and compelling tale about androids fighting for their freedom, and even to examine the question of the role of violence in a political struggle, but having a literal "pacifism vs. violence" meter is a huge step in the wrong direction. 

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