Game Review: Detroit Become Human
I just finished Detroit Become Human (2018), Quantic Dream’s rendition of a near-future world changed by android technology. Detroit Become Human provides players with an exceptional level of choice in how to forge their path through its nearly dozen hour long campaign, featuring fleshed out characters, compelling plots, and complicated political overtones. However, despite its stunning graphical fidelity, motion capture, voice work, and score, the game falls short of being a masterpiece. mainly due to its aging gameplay systems. Here is my review.
Played on PlayStation 4.
Detroit Become Human takes place over several days in the autumn of 2038. The world eighteen years from now is a lot different in this universe. Androids, built by megacorporation Cyberlife, are nearly ubiquitous in society, serving as maids, exotic dancers, construction workers, and law enforcement. The ways in which androids are integrated into this world is often subtle and tucked away in the environment, letting the player observe for themselves. With such a dramatic change in society, there are inevitably drawbacks and unintended consequences, and Detroit smartly lays out the myriad ways in which an android-driven society can generate widespread unemployment, unfair athletic competitions, ruptured social and romantic relationships and feelings of human obsolescence. There are many opportunities available for the player to explore deeper into this world, with optional dialogue options, collectibles, and news broadcasts in the background. These diversions paint a picture of a world that is reeling from the realization that they have created a technology that has the potential to replace them in every facet of life. Although the world that Detroit has built is well detailed, I would have liked even more opportunities to stray from the linear level design to better understand the social, political, economic and legal landscape that serves as the backdrop for the events of the story. The world is brimming with potential and it is a credit to Quantic Dream that I felt so compelled to learn more about it.
The presentation in Detroit Become Human is excellent. The world that has been rendered, from neon soaked strip clubs to frosty amusement parks to a eccentric billionaire’s futuristic compound, is nothing short of stunning on a graphical level. The vibrant colors pop off every storefront, the crisp lights shine off rain covered streets, and the textures are all exquisitely filled in. The facial animations in this game are life like, just as they were in Quantic Dream’s preceding titles Beyond Two Souls and Heavy Rain. When having tense conversations with sky high stakes, the smallest twitch or change in demeanor can be discerned from the character models. There is even one particular sequence in which your character has to identify who among three identical androids were responsible in assisting in a criminal activity. The motion capture work is equally exceptional, with combat sequences choreographed with care and precision. The score hums in the background, hitting the right notes at the right moments and featuring a welcomed level of variety between characters. Overall, the presentation on display in Detroit is some of the best the industry has to offer.
Going Through the Motions
Detroit Become Human keeps in tact Quantic Dream’s nearly decade old approach to gameplay. There are quick time events, small button prompts for mundane tasks, big button prompts for major story moments, and basic movement. None of this is new to seasoned veterans of a David Cage game. The level design is also quite linear, filled with invisible walls, obstructed paths, and a general lack of freedom in how you traverse these beautifully rendered environments. Its a shame too, because there is so much potential to provide some level of agency to navigate this fascinating rendition of Detroit. There are a few new additions. When playing as Connor the player can conduct investigations that involve scavenging environments for evidence, reconstructing crime scenes, and connecting these pieces together. Unfortunately, most of it is superficial. There are no deeper systems at work here, such as solving puzzles or exercising any level of creativity. It is all rather simple. Markus also is provided with the ability to plot out how he is going to reach an objective, and once again, although it is a nice added bonus, it too can feel rather simple. Overall, while Detroit introduces some new variations to gameplay, the game generally plays it safe with simplistic, conservative systems that are beginning to show their age.
Spoiled with Choice
The bread and butter of any Quantic Dream game is the choices the game lets you make as to how the story develops. Yet again this part of the experience turns out to the most thrilling and engaging. In Detroit, even the smallest choices feel as if they have consequences to them, and that keeps the player constantly on their toes, thinking about the cause-effect relationship of their actions. The biggest choices deliver on their promise, asking the player to take inventory of their own value systems, entrenched beliefs, biases, and assumptions about complex issues. The decisions are often put under time constraints, designed to elicit the most pure and unfiltered response from the player. Once a chapter ended, I found myself reflecting on my decisions and wondering why, at that very moment, I opted for B instead of A. What did that say about me? About how I evaluated risk, about how I valued my own security versus those of others, about how much impulse governed my rational modes of thought. It is in these decisions that Quantic Dream offers players an experience that is nearly unparalleled in the video gaming landscape. After a chapter ends, players are given a visualization of the decision trees involved in progressing the plot, including each alternative and what consequences they led to. The player is provided with specific information on which decision was most crucial to the conclusion the player got. Even within the chapters themselves, the player is given hints about the implications of their decisions from relationship meters that each supporting character holds relative to the player. Sometimes a decision would increase trust between Connor and his partner, sometimes it would increase hostility. Sometimes a decision would garner more public support for Markus’ cause, sometimes it would create opposition. Sometimes Kara’s choices engendered a stronger sense of security and comfort for Alice, and sometimes it generated insecurity and fear. These indications in real time ask the player to change course midway and reevaluate their approach to a conversation or sequence of events. The sheer amount of alternatives was staggering. As I progressed through the game, I kept wondering, in amazement, at just how many alternative scenarios the developers built, rendered, and integrated into the story, and just how complex it would be to provide this level of deviation while trying to tell a cohesive story. Quantic dream should be applauded for their level of mastery for this decision system.
The Android Revolution
The story driving the Detroit Become Human experience is riveting and appropriately complex. Each main character, Connor, Kara, and Markus, have intriguing backstories and a well crafted arch. You spend enough time with each of them, and they are so well realized, that you become genuinely invested in their safety and prosperity. Each scenario which threatens either becomes a gut-wrenching experience. The surrounding characters are all well developed and fit well into the story’s broader arch (about the liberation of androids from the grip of human masters). In between this broader story is smaller, but equally weighty subplots about a relationship between a straight and narrow android cop and a loose and off the books human partner, or a deviant android protecting a child from their abusive father, or a deviant android being empowered by their sympathetic father figure owner. The stories are varied and engrossing, and the element of choice makes you feel as if it were you in their shoes every step of the way. The ways in which each character’s story overlaps with another feels clean and seamless, and when they converge at the end, there is a beautiful crescendo of emotion, reflection, and excitement. The broader narrative has a litany of references to real world historical events, texts and media, such as the American Civil Rights movement, the Christian Bible, and Blade Runner. These references, while at times on the nose, demonstrates the effort the game has taken to connecting the fiction of this game with the reality of our lives. Many have criticized the games use of real world experiences and events, arguing that it sensationalized or dilutes them. I would strongly disagree. Detroit transposes these real world events into a more than believable fictional future setting that sends the message that human beings, given a distinct enough subject, can replicate the horrors of slavery, segregation, and oppression chronicled in American and Biblical history. As the plot progressed, there were plenty of twists and turns, but the overall choice the game nudges you toward is the most difficult and insightful. This is the choice you must make in Markus’ story arch. Whereas when playing as Kara the player must choose between protecting themselves and the ones they love (my personal favorite), or choosing between obeying their masters or breaking free from their hold (when playing as Connor), Markus must decide on how to lead a revolution. Will it be through violence or peace? Philosophers, political scientists, historians, and jurists have debated the topic of how best and most effectively to enact radical change for decades, oscillating between using force or civilly disobeying. Even in the year in which I played this game, 2020, when civil unrest spread across the Western world, mostly peaceful but sometimes destructive and dangerous, these conversations have been relevant and lively. David Cage puts your own perspective on this issue to the test, sometimes with a bit too much melodrama, but enough moral deliberation and self-reflection to feel meaningful. Each choice you make as to how the Android Revolution develops has real consequences, and David Cage offers enough push back to reveal the complexity of the choice before you. Seldom does a game activate your political sensibilities as much as Detroit did and after the story was complete, I felt as if the game provided me with a realistic depiction of how leading a peaceful demonstration can play out in the face of rigid oppressors. Overall, the story in Detroit Become Human, while sometimes a bit too on the nose, is thrilling, meaningful, and complicated.
Detroit Become Human is a one of a kind experience. Nobody is making games the way Quantic Dream is making them. Beyond the technical mastery on display, from its world, graphics, sound, and acting, Detroit Become Human is a game about making difficult choices and committing to its varying consequences. It is a game that asks you to reflect on your own sensibilities, prejudices, and beliefs, and a game that invests you into the stories of well developed characters. While its gameplay systems may be showing its cracks, this game should be applauded for its originality, creativity, and willingness to break from conventions and reimagine what it is to experience a video game.
Previous Quantic Dream Games:
Beyond Two Souls: 8.0/10
Heavy Rain: 9.5/10