David Cage is one of the most reliable punchlines in gaming, and the descriptor is not without some merit. His scripts often feel like pretentious exercises in undergraduate philosophy that lack the intellectual weight to match their post-graduate ambitions.
And yet, those same qualities also make David Cage and the Quantic Dream studio legitimately fascinating. He has the courage to try new ideas, and the industry needs people who are willing to break with conventional thinking. Despite his faults, Cage stands alongside Hideo Kojima as one of gaming’s true auteurs, and things are far more interesting with him around.
That’s why I’m always at least a little curious whenever Cage announces a new game. Quantic Dream’s next effort is Detroit: Become Human, a cyberpunk thriller that will explore what it means to be human. I had the opportunity to try the demo for at Fan Expo Toronto, and I’m pleased to say that it did not disappoint.
Detroit is more or less what you’d expect from David Cage, a mystery that mixes cyberpunk tropes with noir tropes, along with gameplay that comes in the form of dialogue trees and quick-time events. The central hook is that human beings have invented androids, lifelike robots that look like humans but are otherwise slaves that can perform a variety of service functions. The androids can also be bought, sold, and deactivated at the whim of the owner.
In the demo, you play as a police android named Connor. You’ve been called in to resolve a hostage situation that has already resulted in multiple casualties. The live-in android for a wealthy family has gone rogue after learning that he is supposed to be replaced by a newer model, his interest in companionship and self-preservation seemingly at odds with his programming, which dictates that he is supposed to be a tool with no thoughts of his own.
Connor’s primary objective is to speak to the rogue android to deescalate the situation and rescue the girl that has been taken hostage. Before doing so, you’re able to investigate the crime scene to find out more about the night’s events. There’s a lot of sci-fi hand-waving – Connor has a convenient playback feature that allows him to choreograph an entire fight based on the location of a few bullet holes – but it is an effective visualization of the narrative. Finding more clues increases your chances of success in the final encounter, so it feels like your efforts have a direct impact on both the narrative and your conversations during gameplay.
The result is a thrilling mini-caper that zips along at a decent clip even when you take detours to search the apartment. In fact, I absolutely loved the demo, in the same way that I loved some of the more harrowing portions of Heavy Rain. Detroit lays out a lot of intriguing concepts and is positively dripping in atmosphere, building a complete (and believable) world in which androids are a given. Those androids harbor a growing resentment of their subservience to the humans, while the human characters display a plausible fear of androids as the other.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Detroit will be a masterpiece. Quantic Dream’s games often start strong before stumbling when forced to come to some kind of coherent conclusion. If I’m being honest, I’d expect Detroit to suffer many of the same afflictions. Cage’s questions are generally better than his answers, and while that’s great for a twenty-minute teaser, it’s not too difficult to imagine the ways in which his metaphors could get away from him.
However, that does not in any way diminish the value of what he’s doing (at least for me). Heavy Rain might be a mess, but it’s a glorious mess that remains one of the most memorable and groundbreaking games I’ve played in the past decade. If Detroit gets anywhere close to that level of tension, then it will almost certainly be one of my favorite games of 2018. Aside from Naughty Dog, there just aren’t that many studios trying to do what Cage is doing at the scale that Cage is doing it, especially for those who enjoy single-player narrative experiences.
So yes, I am looking forward to Detroit. The game has the potential to be great. If it’s not, I’ll happily take a bold disaster over successful mediocrity (and unlike Kojima, Cage has the decency to err on the side of brevity). I love a good mystery. I wish there were more games like Detroit, and I’m glad that someone is out there trying to make them.