Detroit: Become Human Review
Choices matter like never before
Detroit: Become Human does a thing that should be the primary goal of all developers, but is often rare in games: it makes you feel. It tugs at the heart strings. It makes you responsible for the lives of the protagonists and their allies and their adversaries. Ironically, the game itself represents the same kind of Kamski Test (a test of an android’s empathy) that is featured in one of Detroit’s chapters. Quantic Dream might be leaning on the same game style yet again, but they’ve still brought something unique and special to the table.
Before people jump at me from all sides yelling “it’s not a game,” let me tell you, you’re wrong.
No, Detroit is not an interactive movie. It isn’t the same as a choose your own adventure book. In fact, labeling a movie as interactive is in many ways an oxymoron. The key distinguishing feature between a film and a game is that a film, for the most part, is consumed passively. A game however, enables you to provide input and it reacts to that input. This is exactly how Detroit operates. It is ultimately shaped by the interaction and decisions of the player. You shape your own experience.
“Those who can imagine anything, can create the impossible.” — Alan Turing
Alan Turing was right, you can create the impossible. So many different scenarios can play out in Detroit, whether it be through action or inaction. And perhaps that is where it sets itself apart from other story driven games. The more I played of it, the more I realised that the best solution wasn’t always the easiest or safest path, and the worst outcome didn’t always arise from the least desirable choice. In many ways, this resembles life itself. Rarely are our experiences purely black and white; in life, we hover somewhere in the grey. That is precisely where Detroit shines in its best moments — sitting (sometimes uncomfortably) in the grey.
Will this be our future?
Set in 2038, Detroit appears deceptively simple on its surface. The events of the game take place in a revitalised futuristic version of the city Detroit, where androids have become ubiquitous across American society. The game gives off plenty of vibes that are reminiscent of Blade Runner but I personally think it has more of the tone and style that iRobot does. The story follows three androids: Connor, Kara and Markus. Connor is an advanced android designed to investigate other malfunctioning androids, Kara is a house servant android for an abusive alcoholic, and Markus is also a house servant android, and a companion for a rich paraplegic artist.
Each of these characters has their own story to tell, but their separate narratives all eventually intersect with one another. You control all three of them in different chapters, and your choices decide their fates. Connor, Kara and Markus can all die based on your choices. The “good” ending is when all of the characters survive, but don’t feel like you’ve failed if you don’t achieve the good ending. On my playthrough, they didn’t all survive,
Without giving much of the story away, each of the main characters is involved with an android uprising. The allegorical parallels it shares with the civil rights movement in the mid 20th century as well as race relations today is clear, but it is still a relevant issue in society, as all manners of individuals are treated poorly simply because they are different. Beyond the obvious metaphors for racism and discord in the US today, Detroit also offers a perspective on what an automated and robotic society could look like.
“An eye for an eye and the world goes blind.” — Markus
The game starts with a literal bang, immersing you in the first level as Connor, a prototype android designed specifically to track down and investigate deviants. Deviants are androids that have malfunctioning software or behaviour that is not in their programming. In a way which felt more thrown into the deep-end then hand-holding, the game drops you into a life and death situation, where you must try to stop a deviant android from killing a child. Based on your choices of course, the events can occur in a myriad of ways.
The power of choice
Detroit shines in its ability to imbue a strong sense of gravity into each choice you make. Few moments gave me the sense that my decision was meaningless. There was none of the incredibly frustrating moments in other games where you pick a dialogue option and the result is inconsequential. No, in Detroit, if you want the character to lie, they will lie. If you want them to be sincere, they will be sincere. It’s a direct and powerful way to construct a game, and is especially gutsy considering how Quantic Dream’s previous game, Beyond: Two Souls, was disappointing.
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” — Alan Turing
While Detroit provides a compelling and deep experience, it is fairly short. My playthrough clocked in at around 10 hours I believe, but a single playthrough could be extended to around 20. Considering how the game encourages multiple playthroughs, there is a lot of replay value here, but the game still felt just a little bit too brief for my liking. Not every single person is going to want to replay this game, and if you’re paying full price for a game, you want its experience to last longer than a few days to a week.
There are many collectibles and alternative paths in the game to explore which can soak up a lot of time. If you choose, you may also be efficient and direct, and move through the game doing the bare minimum. You get rewarded for patience and exploration though, with different dialogue and gameplay options being unlocked by discovering artifacts and objects in the levels. I never felt rushed or forced in Detroit to move to the next part of the game, which I appreciated considering the story’s brevity.
The pure breadth of choice in the game is reflected in the fact that director and writer David Cage pieced together a 2,000 page script for the game. This in itself is eye-opening. Cage really wanted the player to feel in control with their decisions. For ease of play, I decided to choose the easiest setting for the game. That being said, there are only two settings, and I am unsure how the harder setting increases the difficulty, but I am pretty sure it has to do with the controls and timing of dialogue choices.
Next-gen? No worries
Whatever Quantic Dream did to improve their game engine, it worked. The game looks incredible. Playing on a normal PS4 at 1080p, it looks beyond amazing. I haven’t seen another game come even close to rivalling it on the PS4 before, and it looks a lot better than many of the games I run on ultra on my PC. It pushes the console to its absolute limit. The game’s animations are smooth, and character movement is authentic and lifelike. Each character walks and talks a little bit different. Equally impressive is lip movement in conversation, as it felt like a dynamic and realistic animation. I am basically running out of adjectives to describe the game’s visuals because they truly are exceptionally good.
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” — Isaac Asimov
Accentuating the experience is the superb writing and voice acting by the cast. Each of the main actors bring the androids to life. I enjoyed my time as Connor the most, due to the presence of Lt. Anderson. Clancy Brown’s portrayal of Anderson was powerful and compelling, as he was flawless acting as the begrudged and often inebriated detective that Connor partners up with to investigate deviants. In a game where so much of the emphasis is on story and choice, the acting did not fail. The level of polish on many of the performances was astonishing.
Likewise, the soundtrack for the game was superb. There were three composers for each of the main characters, and they perfectly captured the personality of each character, and their predicaments. More often than not, the music hit me right in the feels. On the other hand, for whatever reason, at times the diegetic sound in game felt lackluster. At times it felt that the world was rather empty, with the bare minimum amount of background noises occupying my ears. This might have just been a prompt to move onto the next part of each chapter, but it was a bit bizarre at times.
As deep as the ocean, as wide as a stream
Despite Detroit offering the player huge amount of choice, at the same time it can also make you feel like you have a complete lack of control. The experience is saturated with quick-time events, which — hate them or love them — are a core part of the gameplay. Tapping buttons in succession to win a fight does not feel particularly empowering, but it is what it is.
Likewise, at times the level design itself also felt incredibly restricted and constrained. Invisible walls are aplenty, as Detroit doesn’t let you stray too far from the beaten path. Exploration of the immediate area itself is encouraged in each chapter, but beyond that there isn’t really much to explore. In this way, the game is confusingly linear and nonlinear at the same time.
It may not be what Quantic Dream is known for, but they missed out on a huge opportunity for an open-world Detroit. The game provides glimpses of a bustling sprawled out city with a vibrant heartbeat, but these moments are all too brief. The disconnect between freedom of choice and freedom of movement is a somewhat frustrating paradox that doesn’t limit the game, but simply reflects a missed opportunity to create an exceptional gaming experience, rather than just a great one.
In another attempt to emphasise the important of choice, each level you complete is followed by a flowchart of events, displaying the percentage of completion, and the different branching paths you could have taken. I understand why the developers chose to do this, but it felt so jarring to be pulled from the world of Detroit, just to look at a flowchart. It is helpful to see how many different ways you can finish each chapter, but it felt slightly out of place. Considering the other creative ways they implemented different aspects of gameplay into the city and UI, I am surprised Quantic Dream didn’t use a different way of displaying these flowcharts. It isn’t a huge deal in terms of enjoying the game, but I don’t understand why they would want to do anything that could break the great immersion their environment provides.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” — Stephen Hawking
Another unfortunate issue with Detroit I came across was the game camera. Often it would annoy me as it is at times hard to control and awkwardly positioned. It honestly just felt a bit clunky. Each chapter only allows two different camera angles, neither of which can be particularly useful in certain situations. It meant that instead of being able to investigate an intricate and nuanced crime scene as Connor, I was too busy walking into walls and getting lost. It felt particularly difficult when indoors. Outdoors it wasn’t as much of an issue, for obvious reasons.
Who is the target?
The only real glaring problem with Detroit is a question of fit. Who is this game for? Is it for the casual gamer? Or the hardcore gamer? Or the tentative gamer who isn’t sure they’re a gamer or not? Gamers mature enough to deal with the subject matter may feel stifled and frustrated by the lack of open-world exploration and the clunky camera angles. And those who appreciate its simplicity and ease of play may not have the attention or time to fully interact with Detroit’s thematic concerns. That is a generalisation I know, but it illustrates the game’s lack of a target audience.
I am not going to make a judgment about whether or not this is the game for you. It truly is one of the more subjective experiences out there. My experience with the game could be completely different from the next person’s. There is no guarantee that the hard and tough decisions I was forced to make in the game, you’ll be forced to make as well. When a game has as many branching paths as Detroit has, it’s hard to evaluate.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Detroit. I only had enough time for one playthrough before writing this review, but there’s plenty of other branching situations I can explore in the future.
Although I did enjoy the experience, the game still left me with the feeling that I was missing out on something; that more could have been done here to further expand the experience, especially as it relates to freedom of movement and exploration in the game world. One of the greatest things about being human is, arguably, being free. Yet, at times, Detroit felt all too confined.