There’s an irony at the beating, robotic heart of Detroit: Become Human. It’s a game about androids who wake up and realize that they crave freedom, but it still feels completely under the control of its makers. Instead of creating a more open-ended gaming experience like many suggested following the release of its predecessor, Beyond: Two Souls, Detroit: Become Human has seemingly gone in the opposite direction, giving in to its cinematic and narrative inclinations in order to tell a story. Sure, it boasts one of the most extensive flowcharts in an interactive narrative I’ve ever seen, but it’s also not going to let more free-form gameplay and decisionmaking get in the way of the story it wants to tell. As with Quantic Dream’s other games, you’re still going to feel more like you’re participating in telling a story more than actually playing a game. But the weird truth is that Detroit is so much better for not trying to be a “normal” game.
Detroit: Becomes Human takes place two decades from now. A company called CyberLife, headquartered in Detroit, has revolutionized the world of commercial robotics by creating androids that pass the Turing test and turning them into the world’s next iPhone. For the price of a decent used car, people buy androids to sweep the floors, wash the dishes, take out the garbage, maintain parks, work as receptionists, fight in the military, and even sell other androids. Unfortunately, as these things normally go, unemployment rates begin to skyrocket once companies realize it’s much cheaper and smarter to buy robot employees that are superior to human employees in every way possible. That means that levels of resentment and mistrust towards androids is already pretty high when they start, seemingly all at once, to realize that they, too, are feeling, thinking beings and deserve more from life than slavery.
Throughout the game, you’ll alternate between playing as three different androids, all of whom are dealing with “deviancy” (the term used to describe woke androids) in their separate ways. Kara is a domestic android who works for a slovenly, self-loathing drug addict and his kind-hearted, battered daughter. Connor is a prototype android sent to aid the Detroit Police Department in investigating a series of increasingly frequent deviant-related crimes. And Markus is a custom-made android who works as the butler for a celebrated, kind-hearted artist, the only human who seems to understand from the start that androids are more than just machines. As more androids begin to become deviants, the narrative scope expands from these smaller domestic dramas to become an epic political thriller and rebellion narrative that brings the entire country to the brink of a civil war.
One of the best decisions that the game makes right off the bat is that you only play as androids, putting you in the shoes of second-class citizens the entire time. Going on the run as Kara early in the game, you feel like a fugitive. Likewise as Markus, who becomes the robot version of Che Guevara. Even as Connor, who’s technically working for the humans to catch deviant androids, you feel like an appliance more than an actual person. Having to navigate an antagonistic world as androids is absolutely a more effective viewpoint than watching from the sidelines as humans would have been.
Anyone who’s played Quantic Dream’s previous games will be familiar with how Detroit: Become Human actually plays out. You’ll enter a space, walk around to complete an objective and interact with preselected pieces of scenery, and then make some key dialogue decisions that will affect the specifics and outcome of the story as a whole. Even if you haven’t played a Quantic Dream title before, it should all feel pretty familiar. Players who (for some reason) were hoping that Detroit: Become Human would incorporate more complex gameplay mechanics will be disappointed, but players who are looking for the most refined version of the Quantic Dream formula will be more than satisfied.
Contextual inputs work better than ever, with most tasks requiring a natural-feeling swoop of the right stick, and QTE moments are tense and easy to track. The only problem I had with the controls was how often the game tasks you with using the DualShock 4’s motion controls, especially as quick time events. Still, this barely had an impact on how successful I was during these action-heavy scenes, but it was annoying nonetheless. Overall, Detroit takes its favorite pieces from its predecessors—multiple characters and quick time events from Heavy Rain, better contextual controls from Beyond: Two Souls—and combine them into a more assured overall package.
This extends to the story-based choices you’ll be making as well. The narrative flowcharts that pop up at the end of every chapter are gargantuan trees of potential outcomes. The promise that these flowcharts make is that every micro-decision you make will have a significant impact on the game’s overall story. That’s not entirely the case, at least not immediately, but the decisions you make over the course of the game’s 32 chapters eventually pile up and pay off in incredibly satisfying and sometimes unexpected ways as the consequences of each characters’ storylines bleed together.
How each of these storylines affect the others is Detroit’s biggest accomplishment. Kara, Connor, and Markus each have two possible ways that their characters can develop, which ultimately determines the broad strokes of each ending. That might not seem like a lot at first, but when you calculate all the potential endings for each individual character, not to mention the multiple variations on how each character’s story affects the others, there are a staggering amount of options that the player has in determining the story they want to tell.
As far as I can tell, this is the first Quantic Dream game where the decisions you make actually determine which scenes you play in the end. Kara, for example, can basically end her story in one of two very different places, and how the specifics of those two settings play out and affect Kara in the end depend on what kind of characters you decided that Markus and Connor are going to become, and vice versa. Going into what these macro character decisions are would give too much of the story away, but it suffices to say that there seem to be more ways for players to affect the overall narrative than ever before.
Still, Detroit: Become Human is a Quantic Dream game, which means that the last credit you’ll see after the game’s opening cinematic is a big, bold “Written & Directed by David Cage.” No matter what decisions you make, Detroit is still a heavily authored, orchestrated experience. While the decisions you make throughout the game will eventually determine the types of endings you see, the overall narrative thrust remains the same. Markus’ storyline, in particular, was disappointingly straightforward. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, because the different twists and turns that the story can take are really the entire experience. However, I will say that Markus’ storyline is the most public-facing branch of the narrative tree, and despite your best efforts, the story will always funnel you and Markus into a somewhat similar situation.
Maybe I’m only disappointed in the overall flexibility (or lack thereof) in the narrative because Detroit showed me the possibility of a future where these types of games are ever-changing entities, where the decisions you make can have immediate, dramatic effects on what one player will experience as opposed to any other player. What I think I’m describing is a game where, as much as possible, no two players have the same experience on the broadest narrative level imaginable.
It’s a double-edged sword: What Detroit ultimately gives us is much more limited than what I wanted, but it’s only because of Detroit’s narrative achievements that I can even conceive of a bigger, bolder game than what we have now. In the end, like the androids, I still felt like I wanted more control over my own destiny, but I only felt that way because Detroit: Become Humanenvisions a future where interactive narratives give me that kind of control.
Of course, there are some benefits to Detroit resting firmly under the thumb of its creator, and the most obvious place where Cage’s auteurship positively influences the game is in its overall presentation. While most of Quantic Dream’s previous outings have strived to be an interactive movie, this seems like the first one to really deliver on that promise. This is an extravagantly cinematic game, even down to the music, for which Cage hired three different composers to each handle one of the game’s characters. The motion-captured details of the character is sometimes uncanny, and the overall direction is assured, even when you aren’t watching a specifically directed cutscene. Just walking around the world as Kara, Connor, and Markus in a more recognizable third-person perspective somehow feels cinematic, thanks to the game’s masterful set design and lighting. The acting might not always capture the same sort of enthusiasm as the art direction, but it’s good enough, with some standout performances by Clancy Brown as a grizzled human detective and Valorie Curry as Kara.
It’s obvious that PlayStation’s hardware has finally caught up with Quantic Dream’s vision. Graphically, this is without question the best looking Quantic Dream game, and its world seems the most fully realized. Creating a futuristic sci-fi setting isn’t hard; creating a speculative setting that only takes place within a few years of present day and making that world feel at once reasonable and exciting is nearly impossible. Detroit largely succeeds in this regard, thanks in large part to the smaller details conveying a believable world. The self-driving cars, the touchscreen TVs, and even the clothing all feels plausibly futuristic without pushing it too far.
What makes somewhat less sense is how the humans react to the androids’ awakening. On the one hand, their reaction is understandably horrified. It would be like if one day our refrigerators started talking to us and asking for the right to vote and own property. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that humans in the real world would act as cruelly towards their androids in the first place, let alone be surprised when a robot that can pass the Turing test with flying colors all of sudden decides that there’s more to life than being a walking, talking vacuum cleaner. Sure, some real-world people love swearing at their Siris, but it became somewhat difficult to suspend my disbelief that almost every human in 2038 will physically or emotionally abuse their androids.
These small narrative problems are easy to overlook, however, when the rest of the game is so assured and compelling. Detroit: Become Human is very much a Quantic Dream game, but even players (like me) who prefer gameplay over stories will be sucked in by the believable sci-fi world, the compelling characters, and the jaw-droppingly complex narrative possibilities. The genre might still have further to go before it truly feels as open-ended as it should, but Detroit: Become Human definitely feels like a step in the right direction.
Detroit: Become Human is a testament to how far the genre of interactive narrative storytelling has come and, at the same time, how much further it can go. While it might still suffer from some annoying QTE moments and a few narrative speedbumps, it delivers on promises that many other games in this genre make yet fail to keep, especially in how the choices you make can lead to very different experiences down the line.
Sony Interactive Entertainment
M – Mature
|Detroit: Become Human is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|