Detroit: Become Human review – an absorbing tale of android revolt
Right now, you could throw a penny in a room and it would hit an android rebellion. Between Westworld and Blade Runner 2049, TV and film has its share of transhumanist reveries, all packed to the gills with questions about artificial intelligence, all covering the same existentialist beats. Detroit: Become Human joins the fray, but in a medium of branching paths and player agency. The results are engaging, hinging on a handful of memorable characters, but held back from greatness with an interactive approach that fudges its potential.
Like Quantic Dream’s 2010 game, Heavy Rain, Detroit is structured around three characters, all androids, each with a different starting point in the city’s social strata. There’s Markus; a caretaker android who looks after a kindly, rich painter. There’s Kara; a housekeeper android owned by an out-of-work father. And there’s Connor; a state-of-the-art police model tasked with hunting down malfunctioning androids, known as ‘deviants’. Segmented into chapters, the game skips from one character to another, weaving their individual arcs into a grander story about robots uprising against their human oppressors.
Will the revolution be violent? This is Detroit’s central question, and the game has a nifty way of testing your resolve by pushing you into difficult situations. What should you do if the army fires on your peaceful protest? Do you raise your hands in the air or fight back? When your friend tells you attack, should you? This is Detroit at its best; when it corners you into reacting impulsively, breaking down pre-planned decisions with quick-fire choices. It shows how violence can escalate, how it is often reactive and can stem from a desire to impress certain people.
Detroit’s political machinations hinge on Markus, whereas Kara’s tale is a more intimate story about a woman and young girl on the run. Connor, on the other hand, revolves around a police investigation that will bring the Blade Runner-esque android on a collision course with the automated-carer-come-revolutionary leader. Or not… It’s possible for each of these characters to die during the game, or for decisions to be made that changes their worldview. Aesthetically, Quantic Dream has done a good job in giving each strand its own feel, with distinct colour pallets, cinematography and sound design. Each could be the core of a standalone game, and together they offer an effective prism on the events in Detroit.
David Cage’s dialogue is at its best when it settles into the beats of a pulpy cop drama
Of the three, Connor’s story is the most accomplished. Perhaps it’s because David Cage’s dialogue is at its best when it settles into the beats of a pulpy cop drama, but the characters are more memorable and their arcs more earned than in other quarters of the game. Bryan Dechart’s performance as the police android has shades of Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks, while Clancy Brown as his heavy drinking partner is a likeable take on the old archetype, deftly adding humour to what is otherwise a rather po-faced set of scripts.
Another reason Connor’s sections shine is the fact they include more for the player to do. There are crime scenes to be examined, witnesses to be interrogated and deviants to be tracked down. This encompasses the most ‘game-y’ aspects of Detroit, but it also adds a meaningful layer of interactivity to the proceedings. Elsewhere, events in Markus and Kara’s storylines lean towards quick-time events, which make sense in a handful of cases but are overused and feel frustrating when it comes to dictating how a scene plays. If my character ends up down a certain path, or dead, because of a decision I’ve made, then that feels weighty… If it’s because I didn’t press R1 in time, it feels cheap.
This tonal dissonance is felt most in Kara’s storyline, which contains some of Detroit’s most unsettling moments. I’ve written before about how the game’s portrayal of domestic abuse in an early scene is problematic, and I maintain that fighting off an abusive father by shaking your controller is a crude way to build tension. The use of post-scene charts to showcase your decisions, and to encourage further playthroughs, is also a reductive way to frame moments rooted in the abuse of your characters. However, there are layers to that particular scene that warrant a whole play-through of the game to fully consider.
Quantic Dream’s near-future take on Detroit is a collection of beautifully rendered dioramas. It’s not entirely clear why flashing red walls stop you travelling outside the bounds of a scene, especially if you’ve become a ‘deviant’, but the game generally does a good job of giving the impression of open space as it ushers you to an objective. The way text overlays on the game’s environments is also a nice touch, stylishly signposting internal observations with concise phrases.
The music and sound design is effective for the most part, although it sometimes becomes overbearing, swaddling scenes instead of letting the dialogue and performances speak for themselves. The game is populated by some impressive mo-cap work, and there are times you’ll lean back and forget you’re not watching a live-action film – at least until you’re left scrambling for your controller by the upteenth quick-time event. Interactions with characters are a lot easier to care about when you have convincing face-acting, although your relationships are bound to a Telltale-style system of signposted approvals and disapprovals, which – like the post-scene charts – feels at odds with some of Detroit’s more nuanced aims.
At its very best, Detroit pushes you into roles you’re not comfortable inhabiting
A game about decisions should be a perfect fit for a story about agency, so it’s a pity that many of Detroit’s interactions feel like ludic filler. When Detroit hits its stride, however, it balances character-based storytelling with grander themes around oppression and rebellion. At its very best, it pushes you into roles you’re not comfortable inhabiting (how boring would a story be if if were built around three saintly protagonists?) although it would have been intriguing to see Quantic Dream go further in this direction – really teasing out ideological hypocrisies and nudging the player towards troubling thoughts on the cost of freedom.
Perhaps this is a wider issue with branching narrative games, in that negative outcomes are made to feel like mistakes have been made by the player, instead of moments of pathos in their own right. The intention may be to make players feel responsible for their choices, but knowing there are other possibilities only serves to make the whole affair feel more artificial; the deaths and tears reduced to trivial outcomes on a flowchart that can be traversed over and over until a ‘winning’ end is reached.
Detroit nevertheless does fine work in weaving its three protagonists into a multilayered story, and understands the importance of character in encouraging you to care about the choices you make. Beneath all the talk about android rights and revolution, we ultimately want people to like us. While Quantic Dream has been criticised in the past for letting its stories get away from themselves (let’s not forget the final act of Fahrenheit), Detroit comes together with a story that anchors its gesturing towards social themes with moments of intimacy.