I got around to downloading and playing the Detroit demo as many have already. I was and still am looking forward to playing the full game, because I’ve really enjoyed all of Quantic Dream’s games. But there’s one thing that struck me about the gameplay in this demo that I don’t remember feeling about those previous games. And I think this thing poses a big problem with what the full game might be. But I’ll have to explain a little about this situation before I get into what exactly that thing is…
Upon first entering the demo, you are tasked with investigating the scene of a crime. Quantic Dream games have done this before, but the difference this time is the ‘situation’ is still taking place. The player character’s main directive is not as a detective but a hostage negotiator. So any investigation done is to try and increase odds of success regarding the imminent conversation with the suspect. This makes the investigating a little more dire and a little more interesting (in theory). And I think that’s fairly cool.
But before going into the actual play of the demo, any given player probably knows a thing or two about the scenario and a thing or two about Quantic Dream. This hostage negotiation scene that starts the game has been seen in trailers and show demos for over a year. And because it’s Quantic Dream, we know our decisions are going to matter. So we are already a bit familiar with what’s going to happen and most likely how the gameplay will navigate it. So going into this demo with that simple, basic pretense, the player immediately knows to scout carefully for anything that will help him/her achieve the best possible outcome. Anyone who has played a Quantic Dream game knows, whether they realize it or not, that increased chances of success will likely result from putting the work in. That means searching areas you don’t have to, reading optional text, and making the most out of the investigating tools available. In past games, doing additional work usually led to additional dialogue options or choices (always with a more successful spin). And even if the player doesn’t have experience with this developer, it still just makes sense that more work would yield more reward…
Rather than letting this sensible mental order rest in the background of the player experience, Detroit literally writes it out on screen. Upon finding an optional investigation, it displays text saying “you’ve unlocked dialogue options, usually beneficial“. So we have absolutely no doubt about the way this gameplay is going to function… Right or wrong as that may be, it’s still not where my big gripe is at.
Once all investigation is complete and the conversation with the suspect is under way, all unlocked dialogue options appear in the context menu with a little unlocked symbol right next to them. And since you’ve just seen the text pop up on screen telling you that these dialogue options are usually beneficial, the logical response is to make sure you’ve hit those unlocked dialogue options, because it will probably be a benefit! Makes sense right? Obviously. So you hit those super special dialogue options, and watch the situation resolve itself on screen. Mission compete.
Only… at what point did the actual story and its characters affect the decisions I made during gameplay? Hmm. It didn’t. At all. And this is my big gripe. I realized after finishing the demo the first time that I hadn’t truly taken in the story. I thought how this could be possible since I completed the scenario with the best possible ending. That’s when I noticed taking in the story wasn’t necessary in order to navigate the scene in the best way possible. All the player has to do follow the path of gameplay that has been clearly marked for them. Every step of the way, your chance of success is displayed, so you instantly know if you’ve done something that will help or hurt you, all the optional things to find in the map are clearly marked the HUD, and all the potential discoveries within an investigation are numbered even before you’ve found them, so you instantly know when its okay to stop looking around. All this adds up to an experience that is almost mindless…
In order to create a compelling choice-driven game, there has to be pressure of failure. That pressure not only makes us pay attention to everything closer than we might have otherwise, but it also encourages us to dig deeper just in case there’s something more to find that could help us. With everything spelled out in the way it is in Detroit, that pressure is totally dissolved. Yes, there is still some imagination of pressure because the suspect is holding a child on a rooftop threatening to jump. But if you don’t worry about that, and just focus on connecting the dots and doing what the game wants you to, there’s no way to fail. What that ultimately leads to is feeling like the game is playing itself, and the only thing left to really enjoy is the sensory experience and the graphics.
This could so easily have been avoided. All they’d have to do is remove all these extra graphics and hint systems: the glowing objects in the focus view, the display of total number of discoveries per investigation, the unlock symbol next to dialogue options, the “usually beneficial” text… They probably wouldn’t have to re-write anything; the dialogue structure would stay the same, the only difference being that unlocking those more successful dialogue options would come about much more organically — as a product of truly digesting the story and its characters. This system of doing extra work to reap extra reward could all stay the same. But let it exist in the head of the player rather than defined on screen.
It’s interesting that I didn’t feel anything similar to this in other Quantic Dream titles. I guess because those ones didn’t have all that unnecessary stuff I mentioned. It is possible the team made a conscious choice to make that change to relate more specifically to the “android” main characters — assuming this computer software would make their decision-making more robotic. But if that were the case, I would argue that as authentic as it may be, nobody wants to play that game, because it translates to a very dull experience.
It’s also possible that not the whole game is like this. Perhaps decisions in later scenarios become much more shady and compelling. But if that were the case, I would argue, why pick this scene to speak for your game?? What it seems to promise about the gameplay of the full game is very discouraging.
If any readers have any thoughts on the subject, please comment. I want to hear what you think.