Setting “Detroit: Become Human” just 20 years from now is not accidental.
It’s a deliberate choice, anchoring a sci-fi game in the near future. It’s removed enough to imbibe a sense of escapism, a peek into a life we can only imagine, and yet it’s close enough to be woven with flashes of our everyday lives, too.
David Cage and his studio Quantic Dream have crafted a peculiar place, though. “Detroit” falls over itself to expose the extremities of this life – the morality of artificial intelligence, the juxtaposition of privilege and poverty, love and prejudice – but the brushes it uses to paint these extremities are too broad, unable to draw out the subtle nuances needed to flesh out its otherwise compelling story and detailed world.
Despite its sophistication, “Detroit” ultimately sabotages itself, crushing any meaningful messages by hammering them into inelegant vignettes driven by cold mechanics and a cliched story that broadcasts many of its major beats way before they arrive. Yes, there are a handful of expertly delivered unforgettable moments that are sure to resonate with you long after you lay down your controller, but there are just as many interactions that are curiously empty.
“Detroit’s” story explores the notion of android servitude by casting players in the role of an android who helps free these creations from their bonds, an android recently made sentient and an android detective who hunts down those who no longer serve their makers. As with previous games from developer Quantic Dreams, much of “Detroit’s” core gameplay is woven into a complex system of conversation choices that shape the story around you.
While humanity ultimately sits at the core of “Detroit” – chiefly by way of its exploration of our base instincts and fears – the game only permits you to play as these three androids. First up is detective Connor, a wide-eyed, crime-busting android focused on solving the case and little else; then Markus, a home-helper tasked with supporting a disabled artist, and finally; Kara, a domestic android finding herself entirely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Designed to obediently follow commands, you’ll soon learn how uncomfortable such an existence can be, and how even the most dutiful assistant can be driven to retaliate, casting off the shackles of their programming and becoming one of an ever-growing collection of “deviant” androids hiding in the shadows of the city.
“Detroit” is mesmerizing, especially in its creation of a living world, though it can also feel peculiarly shallow, all glitz and gloss but lacking soul. And it’s a strange phenomenon, really, given how hard director David Cage and company try to make this cast and its set-pieces as realistic as possible, particularly as it boasts some of the best vocal and mo-cap performances I’ve ever witnessed in a game.
Take something as simple as moving, for instance. Though the cut-scenes are beautifully realized, when the player’s put in charge of the character – and especially when there’s a sudden fixed-camera angle change – the smooth fluidity of the cinematics dissolves into disjointed, jerky movements. For all of”Detroit’s” attempts to pull and anchor you in its world, the cinematography itself incessantly gets in the way of the gameplay.
If you’re familiar with any of Quantic Dream’s previous offerings, particularly 2010’s “Heavy Rain,” you’ll see echoes of them throughout “Detroit”. It’s not a criticism, because Quantic takes much of what it learned from these adventures and improves upon it. Much of it will feel familiar, though, so get ready for plenty of stick-twiddling, button prompts, and quicktime events.
“Detroit’s” gameplay offers flashes of brilliance that are often buried in a sea of otherwise pointless interactions. While surveying a crime scene with Connor is typically an exciting activity, running an errand with Markus, or clearing up the kitchen with Kara, is less so. Instead of carefully surveying your surroundings there’s always the temptation to save time and smack R2 to ensure you don’t miss anything, often to the detriment of the organic unravelling of the story.
There are some wonderful touches here, though. At the beginning of each sequence, you’re reminded of your relationship status with the key NPCs around you. At the conclusion of each level, Quantic pulls back the wizard’s curtain and reveals a flowchart that details, with striking precision, every interaction, every decision, and illustrates how the story morphed from there. It’s a fascinating insight into how branching narratives work and tempts you to replay the game with different combinations.
Sequences that pit you against time – or even other NPCs – are usually well-designed, too, expertly building tension and crafting a convincing sense of urgency. At any time you can bring down your house of cards with a missed button prompt or a wrong response, and none of your characters are safe. This means you’ll fight more than you might expect to keep them with you, even if sometimes that means making uncomfortable choices that will sit with you even when the credits roll.
And there truly are some breathtaking cinematics. It’s hard to detail without spoiling things – so I won’t – but you’ll find that the narrative naturally bends in sympathy with the androids, which makes for some truly insightful and emotional scenes. I’ve rarely seen lip-syncing that rivals “L.A. Noire” but “Detroit” truly does, perfectly catching the subtle, infinitesimal physical ticks that make us us. Coupled with character design and facial animations so effective you could lip-read much of the game with the sound off, it’s a stunning experience and a true testament to Quantic’s skill.
There are so many questions left unanswered. Throughout the game you’ll see the same old androids rolled out again and again to populate the streets, but you’ll rarely see duplicates of our lead characters. And if some are able to conceal their true status by removing their telltale LEDs, why don’t all deviant androids do the same?
It’s a compelling story, though, despite the game’s many self-sabotaging missteps, and one I felt compelled to play long into the night to finish. I felt connected to the friendships my characters developed along the way and – one or two exceptions aside – I was able to respond as I saw fit, with the game offering me relatable choices.
“Detroit: Become Human” is a gorgeous spectacle and Quantic Dream continues to build on its reputation for extraordinary world-building and stunning set-pieces, with improved controls and a more engaging story. But the way these observations are presented lack nuance, and the obvious comparisons to racial and religious persecution feel uncomfortable at times, with too much spoon-fed to the player. Those sometimes obtuse interactions and the narrow focus of gameplay prevent players from coming to their own, organic conclusions and, in turn, hold “Detroit” back as simply a fantastic game when it could have been an unforgettable one.