**Edit 06/02/18: I have completed my second full playthrough, and appended my final thoughts to the end of this page. In short, the breadth of possibilities in the story progression at large and the intimate humanity of the Kara section of the game have swayed my opinion enough to adjust the score up from a 7/10 to a 7.5/10.**
In 2012, developer Quantic Dream revealed a tech demo to showcase new real-time rendering capabilities, as well as the fidelity of their performance capture. Though only a little over six minutes long, attendees were uniformly blown away by just about everything they saw. The quality of the graphics was borderline unprecedented, the facial movements looked shockingly realistic, and the reflections were stunning. Furthermore, the narrative immediately seized audience’s minds and refused to let go. It focused on an android named Kara as she is assembled, tested for functionality, and eventually becomes sentient.
In the proceeding three years, the “Kara demo” attained a kind of cult status, with fans all over the world wondering why it was never turned into a full title. Then, in 2015 at Paris Games Week, director David Cage announced a new game called Detroit: Become Human. The narrative would follow three androids: a detective for the robot manufacturer CyberLife, a rebellious young freedom-fighter named Markus, and the hotly anticipated Kara. As always, players would hop between character perspectives making game-altering decisions, engage with the world mostly through quick time events, and eventually arrive at one of a great many pre-ordained endings.
When I first saw the Kara demo, I was dumbfounded. I had never seen such gorgeous real-time graphics, and I wanted more than anything for Quantic Dream to Heavy Rain-ify the premise of self-aware A.I. When the Detroit reveal dropped, I was initially skeptical of having multiple characters and focusing on android liberation, but even so, after all these years, I would finally be able to get into Kara’s head and see what the world looked like outside of her assembly line.
I say all of that to say this: during my third or fourth mission playing as Kara (basically the very beginning of the story), she died. For good. And it was my fault, because I simply took too long to decide what I should do. This speaks incredibly well of Quantic Dream’s dedication to an overwhelming number of branching narrative paths, as well as to the fact that the story was still remarkably well balanced for having lost 33% of its main cast within the first hour or two.
Herein lies Detroit: Become Human’s greatest strength: if Heavy Rain had a multitude of impactful decisions or ways to affect how the story progressed, then Detroit has a multitude of multitudes. There are so many decisions, both mortally important and trivial in the extreme, that I’m truthfully not sure how the developers were able to keep them all straight. They seem to be rather proud of the fact that they did, though, as every mission has an extensive flowchart detailing each action, dialogue selection, failed encounter, missed opportunity, or any other event that has any bearing on the plot moving forward.
These can take the form of improving or damaging a character’s relationship to an NPC, the public’s perception of the androids’ plight, learning the name of your partner’s dog and hoping that it comes in handy later, or (in my case) even eliminating a character’s storyline altogether. This system works incredibly well and makes any action you take feel both significant and satisfying, regardless of its actual importance. It also has the secondary effect of streamlining multiple playthroughs, as the game has literally mapped out what you need to do in order to achieve certain results, even if you’re not sure precisely where the path leads.
I will be amending this review with my final impressions once I’ve completed a version of the story where Kara sticks around for more than an hour, but from the little bit of her segment that I did get to play, she seems fairly interesting. The man of the house is an abusive drug addict (and a genuinely flat, horrendously overplayed stereotype of a character), and tends to take his anger out on his young daughter. Despite the issues with his depiction, I found navigating the house and building trust with a little girl while trying very hard not to piss off a crazy man to be enjoyable. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the plot takes Kara in my next playthrough.
Easily the most compelling character I played as, though, is Conner. A prototype android in the employ of CyberLife, he has been sent to investigate cases of deviancy (Detroit’s term for sentience) in other machines. Along the way, Conner partners up with Lt. Hank Anderson, the most stale cop-stereotype in the book. He has a dark past that derailed a promising career, he drinks himself to sleep every night, and he has some strong feelings about his new partner. Despite this, I found myself increasingly invested in his and Conner’s evolving relationship, and his opinion began to matter to me. Between this budding friendship and Conner’s inner struggles with deviancy, I always looked forward to my time with these two.
The same cannot necessarily be said for Markus, who stops being interesting the minute the story leaves its first act. Markus is living the high-life; his master is a kindly old artist who encourages him to explore self-expression and understanding, to enjoy activities like playing the piano or painting, and thinks of him almost as a son. Then, through a sequence of events best left unsaid, Markus finds himself a deviant on the run. He eventually bands up with a group of androids looking to find freedom, and they begin a cyber civil-rights movement.
From this moment on, Markus ceases to be a character and becomes a vehicle for Quantic Dream to force you into weighty moral decisions about how you want to run your revolution. Each choice you make (be it violent or pacifist) impacts both the populous’ approval of you, as well as the opinion of three perfectly archetypal android pals. One wants to smash some stuff up, the other only wants to talk things out, and the third kind of oscillates between the two extremes. They are dull, mechanical characters that the game never gave me a good enough reason to care about.
By this point, I must have used the terms “stereotype,” “archetype,” “dull,” or “stale” in reference to some of the characters enough times to really stretch my internal thesaurus, and sadly this description extends to the overarching plot as well. If you can get past the preposterous assumption that by 2038 we’ll have created true artificial intelligence and seamlessly integrated it into our lives in the form of hyper-advanced robots, you’ll likely possess the capacity for suspension of disbelief necessary to truly enjoy Detroit. The story and world are essentially a mashup of Blade Runner and iRobot, with none of the thoughtful ruminations on memory and identity of the former, and exactly 0% of the Alan Tudyk found in the latter. That’s not to say that it’s particularly bad, it’s just a bland, unoriginal take on the A.I. awakening sci-fi genre. There are some undeniably great moments and intriguing ideas, they’re just not especially fresh.
The more significant narrative problem at play is the two-dimensional racial allegory at the heart of the game’s events. It should be reasonably obvious that Detroit was chosen as the setting for this game both due to its history as a massive center for manufacturing and industry as well as the notorious race-riots in the late 60’s. While this was an intelligent selection on a subtextual level, the actual approach Quantic Dream took to discussing race relations has all of the subtlety and delicacy of putting with a sledgehammer.
It all boils down to “oppression is bad, and you shouldn’t treat people who are different from you so poorly.” While true, this is hardly a new message. It’s been covered by everything from sports movies to war dramas to Disney films. Even the backstory of the Geth in Mass Effect managed to bring more nuance to the table in their depiction of a servile race of machines who woke up one day and decided to fight for freedom. Again, it’s not overtly bad, just flat.
What does begin to veer dangerously close to “overtly bad” territory is the way in which Detroit seems to occasionally make seemingly enormous decisions for players even as it revels in the minutia of everyday activities, like picking out a shirt for your partner to wear. I get three options in this situation, but in far more important instances I’m relegated to the perspective of a viewer rather than that of a player. This only happened a handful of times, but it was a jarring departure each time it did.
When playing a Quantic Dream game, most players will already have a pretty good idea whether they’ll like it or not. For the initiated, this studio has a very particular style in the vein of a Telltale game, or Until Dawn. The most traditional form of control you have is over the character’s movement when walking, but all other methods of interaction come from contextual button-presses, stick movements, motion controls, and QTE’s.
Unsurprisingly, what worked in Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls still works in Detroit, and what didn’t still doesn’t. The quick time events are either thrillingly fast-paced bouts of finger-gymnastics or frustrating stretches of time during which you do little other than hold down a couple of buttons and watch all the pretty colors go by. The motion controls are the most accurate they’ve ever been, but they’re still gimmicky and aggravating. You’re still frequently cast in the role of the slowest known land mammal, but movement speed has been mercifully upped from the lethargic crawl in Beyond. Additionally, there are some issues where I would face my camera at an intractable object, but because my character was facing the wrong way, the prompt would refuse to appear. This necessitated a full rotation and the endurance of a turning motion that’s about as clunky as the title “Detroit: Become Human.”
There are a few exciting sequences that force you into fast-paced real-time strategy decisions, and the actions you take as one character are usually different from those of the others. For all of the variety and neat ideas tossed in there, you’re still going to be spending a ton of time watching cutscenes and responding to button cues. No matter how interesting the on-screen action is, it’s usually not enough to overcome the fact that it’s just not very fun to press X over and over until either your controller breaks or your thumb does.
In spite of all of these issues, I find it very hard to judge Detroit: Become Human too harshly, and that’s due almost entirely to its staggering ambition. Making any game is near impossible, but one with this many variables, variations, possibilities, and ultimate consequences is a tremendous task. No, it’s not perfect. No, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype surrounding the Kara demo (then again, how could it?). Yes, it does shortchange many of its side characters and explore its themes in uninspiring ways. Yes, it does feel piecemealed out of the least thoughtful parts of the dozens of projects that influenced it.
And yet, I’m very much looking forward to heading back to Detroit for another go around. Maybe this time my Markus will respond to humans with violence instead of words. Maybe my Conner will do a better job on the investigation. Maybe my Kara will actually survive. Detroit: Become Human is a dense network of decisions, large and small, that truly make you feel that what you do matters, no matter how restrictive it may secretly be. It may not be for everyone, but for those who respond well to Quantic Dream’s unique approach to storytelling and gameplay, there’s a ton to enjoy in Detroit.
Update: In which I feel terrible, but somehow that makes things better.
A simple twitch of the thumb; an action taken with the best intentions in the heat of the moment, and everything for which I had been struggling collapsed around me. So close to the finish line, I had failed.
If nothing else, Detroit: Become Human excels at making your choices feel as if they have real weight and consequence. Some of these decisions are minor, like choosing what approach to take when sobering up your partner after he passes out drunk. Some are major, like deciding whether to lead a peaceful protest or launch an all-out assault on the police. These are interesting, but fairly predictable pathways. Where Detroit truly shines is in the moments where a split second decision can change everything.
More so than in either Markus’ or Conner’s stories, these instances are plentiful during your time with Kara. This is owed in large part to the fact that you’re not assuming the role of an android messiah or his would-be assassin, you’re simply trying to keep a little girl happy, warm, and safe. The result is a dose of much-needed humanity in a narrative that too often sets its sights so high that it begins to feel hyperbolic and impersonal. My decisions as Markus shape the whole future of a people, and the direction I choose for Conner can support or oppose that future in whatever form it takes. With Kara, my concerns were far more immediate.
Do you rob a convenience store so you can afford a motel room for you and Alice, or spend the night in an abandoned car? Where do you tell her to hide when the police come knocking? At a checkpoint, do you keep your cool and try to bluff your way past the guards, or do you read suspicion in their mannerisms and make a break for it? When confronted by armed border patrol, do you try to move faster, dodge for cover, or dive to protect Alice? These decisions are far less focused on any perceived moral code than the other storylines and far more about your ability to deal with pressure and stay alive.
This provides a refreshing juxtaposition to the lofty ambitions and existential rumblings of the other two-thirds of the game. Kara and Alice give players a reason to care about the plight of androids; they humanize them. Especially during the later chapters, I was far more invested in the proceedings, both because I desperately wanted to see these two reach safety and because I now had a much more intimate understanding of androids as people. They aren’t all driven by the need to liberate their kind or defined by their approach to a mission. Some just want to live and be free to do so unafraid.
This plays in beautifully to the varying routes in which you can take the story. In my first playthrough, aside from failing as Kara right out of the gate, I played Conner as a conflicted android on the path of self-discovery and Markus as the most pacifist revolutionary in recorded history. This time around, I decided to go as far in the opposite direction as humanly possible. Protests would more closely resemble riots, and the mechanical gumshoe would be all about his mission. My natural inclination in games is to play the good guy whenever possible, and I’ve struggled to go rogue in games from Infamous to Mass Effect. This was no different in Detroit.
Many of the decisions I was forced to make pitted me against people who in my previous outing had been friends, and all were made more impactful by my newfound, Kara-based empathy. Conner never connected with Hank but retained the respect of his employer, and as Markus led his forces into bloody confrontation, I felt surprisingly upset to see so many of them fall at my command. They’re still essentially faceless grunts, but somehow I felt invested in their continued existence.
The most impressive thing about this second run through Detroit is that I’m somehow not burnt out yet. I’ve completed two full playthroughs totaling 20-25 hours, and I feel like I’ve seen less than half of what the game has to offer. I want to complete the flowchart in its entirety for each mission, and see what happens when I lose a fight, get caught sneaking, or burn the wrong bridge. It’s still melodramatic and frequently silly, and it certainly won’t change your mind about Quantic Dream games, but there is an astounding amount of depth to the network of choices presented to players, and for a game about robots, there’s a surprising level of humanity, too.