Detroit: Become Human (PS4)

Detroit: Become Human offers a fascinating glimpse into a possible future where the US is rife with prejudice and discrimination. A future where people are angry about the loss of job opportunities and direct that anger towards those they feel took their jobs. A future where politicians are in the pockets of large corporations, putting the interests of donors before voters. Just imagine the horror of such a world, if you can.

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Twenty years from now, androids are commonplace across America, used to perform everything from housework to construction to police investigations. The spread of androids has led to widespread unemployment of the working classes and a fear among the middle class that they will be next. As the home of CyberLife, the company that created androids in the first place, Detroit is one of the hardest hit cities in the country, with unemployment approaching 40% and showing no signs of reducing any time soon.

Human resentment towards androids is on the rise and threatening to boil over. Protestors accost androids as they go about their chores. Shops have “no androids” signs in the windows and there are special compartments for androids in the back of buses. Something’s got to give, and when androids start breaking their programming and becoming “deviants,” the US heads to the brink of civil war.

Playing as three androids—Kara, Marcus, and Conner—you direct what happens next with a degree of freedom almost unparalleled in video games. Quantic Dream has always offered narrative freedom in its games, but Detroit: Become Human takes this further than ever before, offering drastically different story paths and choices which can result in the deaths of major characters, including the protagonists.

Players make choices through dialog options or by succeeding or failing at in-game quick time events. It’s usually obvious which choice is good and which is bad, however time limits often force you into mistakes or decisions against your better judgment. If you’ve played Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls then you know the score. The right analog stick is used to interact with the environment and the other buttons are usually restricted to action scenes. The right stick also controls the camera so expect to regularly move the camera when you’re trying to examine an object and vice-versa.

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You also have to shake the controller occasionally and, for no good reason, there’s the odd swipe of the touchpad. The controls never become intuitive. You’ll never instinctively know what buttons to press in any given situation like you do in games such as What Remains of Edith Finch. Instead, you’re constantly looking out for button prompts in a ten-hour session of Simon Says.

It’s disappointing there are no accessibility options for disabled gamers or those who struggle with particular button presses. Even games that aren’t entirely based on QTEs, such as Uncharted 4, include options to replace rapid button presses with other more manageable controls. It seems odd that a game so focused on story over gameplay makes so little effort to cater to those who just want the story. There is a casual mode which makes the QTEs easier to pull off, however it also removes all threat of failure. The omission of accessibility controls is particularly glaring considering Microsoft released an accessibility controller just a week before the release of Detroit: Become Human. I hope Sony gives Quantic Dream a kick up the arse over this and encourages it to patch in some control options.

Revisiting earlier chapters to make different decisions offers up hours of new content and can make characters almost unrecognizable to the ones you saw in an initial playthrough. Flowcharts at the end of each chapter show just how much content you might have missed out on and lets you compare your choices to those of gamers worldwide. The inclusion of these flowcharts at the end of each chapter—as opposed to the end of the game—may be a bit immersion breaking for some players, reminding them that the story they are creating is not the definitive one. Personally, I enjoyed seeing regular reminders that my actions really did matter and found it strangely satisfying to see huge chunks of missed content.

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With meaningful choices and lots of ways to change the outcome, Detroit: Become Human should offer plenty of replay value. It’s a shame, then, that whatever version of the story you end up experiencing, it will likely be cliche, boring, and bereft of any thought-provoking content. You can go back and change the outcome if you want, but you probably won’t care enough to do so.

If you do decide to play a second time, you’re going to need the patience of a saint because Detroit is incredibly slow. You’re nearly always restricted to a “need to pee” walk which feels especially painful when you’re up against a timer. The lack of speed is often part of a deliberate attempt to make players have “the feelings,” such as when participating in protest walks or trying to repair your injured android. Scenes like this can work in games, such as the infamous ladder climb in Metal Gear Solid 3, however a story has to earn the right to play on your emotions. Detroit expects you to care without giving you any reason to.

Occasionally, Detroit gives you the freedom to break into a jog and these moments lead to some of the most entertaining parts of the story. Chase scenes are exciting, with a highlight being the run across Detroit’s stunning rooftops as you are forced to choose between safe and risky routes, and the stealth sections are tense despite being somewhat basic. These scenes are the exception, not the rule. Early in Kara’s story, you perform menial tasks as you clean the house for your master. The feeling of performing chores continues throughout nearly the entire game.

Detroit starts fairly promising. In the prologue, you play as Conner, an android detective who is called in to negotiate with a deviant who is holding a young girl hostage on the roof. Conner must quickly scan the area for clues such as the android’s name and what might have caused him to break his programming. The more clues you get, the better your chances of concluding a successful negotiation. However, the longer you take, the more police officers get killed or wounded by the android. When do you decide you have enough evidence? How much of a risk do you want to take? This is the kind of moral choice I can get behind.

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Unfortunately, Conner’s detective work never gets more interesting than this. His sophisticated set of android detective talents doesn’t extend much beyond the ability to deduce that a bloody knife and stab wound means the victim was likely stabbed. Examining bullet holes in the wall offers up the remarkable conclusion that a gun was fired.

Kara’s first chapter is impressive as she attempts to save a young girl, Alice, from an abusive father. This scene caused some controversy when it was unveiled at E3 last year, however I don’t take any issue with its inclusion. As with much of Detroit, the storytelling is heavy-handed. Instead of seeing the abuse first hand, Kara could have found bruises on Alice’s body and decided to take action. We didn’t need to see the abuse, but that doesn’t mean Cage isn’t within his rights to show us it. I don’t understand the argument that video games shouldn’t tackle sensitive subjects such as domestic abuse. Games are art just like books, movies, and TV shows, and should be allowed to depict the same content.

Marcus’ introduction is a little more understated, collecting and performing basic chores for his master Carl Manfred. The emotional connection between Marcus and Manfred promised to be intriguing, however it’s quickly dropped in favor of a story about Marcus becoming the leader of the android revolution. Despite being the most important character in the story, he’s far and away the least interesting, constantly spouting motivational statements to gather the support of other androids. He also has a couple of dud chapters where you don’t do much more than move from point A to point B as slowly as possible and some of his flowcharts end up looking more like straight lines as a result.

All of the characters are wonderfully acted. Valorie Curry, Jesse Williams, and Bryan Dechart, are convincing as Kara, Marcus, and Conner respectively, and the supporting cast of Clancy Brown as Hank and Lance Henriksen as Manfred are remarkable to watch on screen. Brown’s grizzled cop might be a walking cliche but that doesn’t make him any less entertaining. Watching Conner and Hank’s relationship develop managed to be both predictable and the most touching part of the story.

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The motion capture is incredible, depicting small movements of the actors in exquisite detail. Future Detroit looks glorious, with self-driving cars and monorails, clashing perfectly with more poverty-stricken areas in a way that feels hauntingly believable. I could happily hang out downtown staring at the advertising on large screens while watching androids sweeping the streets and human musicians performing “real music with soul.”  I did get some frame rate drops on my regular PS4, however given the lack of interactivity this isn’t a huge problem.

Given the wonderful acting and motion capture, it’s incredibly disappointing that the writing is so utterly trite throughout. A small fortune must have been spent on actors, motion capture, and visuals, and yet there is no evidence of any editors working on the script. You can’t play for ten minutes without an unhealthy chunk of exposition, an over the top cliche such as the abusive father, or an obvious allegory to the civil rights movement like the aforementioned android compartment on buses. Writer and director David Cage is so terrified gamers might miss Detroit’s “hidden” meaning that one of the slogans you can choose for your android movement is “We have a dream.”

Cage’s hackneyed writing isn’t even his biggest offense. I can handle over-the-top exposition if the story is entertaining in a silly B-movie kind of way. Detroit doesn’t even hit those highs. It’s stagnant and depressing throughout the entire ten-hour playthrough. There wasn’t a single joke or moment of light relief. That’s perhaps the natural consequence of playing as androids, but it doesn’t change the fact that Detroit ends up being spectacularly dull.

Detroit is above such trivialities as jokes. It’s supposed to be a serious game for serious people who like to think about serious things. There’s nothing wrong with that, except Detroit fails to make the player think about even the most fundamental concepts of the game such as whether androids deserve human rights. This should be a thought-provoking issue. When does software become worthy of the same rights as humans? In Detroit, it’s not even debatable. The androids look completely human and, once they have broken their programming, they act completely human. They can be scared, upset, and angry. It’s obvious that the player should care for them as if they were human. We’re never made to think about what makes someone human in the first place. Are the androids’ emotions real or just part of their software? Does it make a difference? There’s so much potential and Detroit misses all of it. Memory transfer and memory wipes play a small role but you’re never asked to consider the consequences. SOMA featured similar issues and left me debating the questions it raised and the horrifying answers it suggested. Detroit never bothered to ask any questions.

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Detroit commits every major story sin I can think of. For starters, its world doesn’t make sense. In some ways, it’s incredibly far-fetched. We’re expected to believe that in just twenty years, life-like androids will be readily available and cheap enough to be owned by those who live in rundown houses. Racism and other forms of discrimination that have plagued the US for centuries will have disappeared and been replaced by anger towards androids.

In other ways, Detroit is unimaginative in its depiction of the future. Other than androids, the only changes of note seem to be self-driving cars and a clearly inefficient and ridiculous way of displaying messages using lights. Magazines seem to be undergoing a bit of a resurgence in digital form. Outside of the main events of the story, the US and Russia are approaching World War 3 as they fight for resources in the Arctic. It’s not exactly original stuff, but don’t worry, you won’t have to think about it much.

Even with this lack of creativity, Detroit’s world still doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Why would you need android parking facilities? It’s eye-catching but makes no sense. Why do protestors harass androids instead of the company that makes them? It would be like a taxi driver yelling abuse at an empty Uber car. Barely any thought has been given to the nature of the androids before they become deviants. Some androids just seem to be sophisticated robots that can perform a set number of tasks. Others seem to have a form of AI. What are androids feeling before they become deviants? Conner isn’t a deviant, but you can make him act like one. However, most other androids complete their chores without any sign of emotion. To my mind, there’s a huge difference between an android that has consciousness which is then repressed by programming that acts like a form of lobotomy and an android that is designed to perform a simple function like a Roomba. Which category do the androids in Detroit fit in? We never get close to exploring these issues.

There are also a scattering of annoying plot holes and inconsistencies. Androids are easy to identify via a light on their heads and a band on their arm and yet both the light and the band can be easily removed. Police have an easy way to scan androids and identify them as such and yet they only use it randomly when the story wants to build tension. There is no way to track androids which seems inconceivable given that we can already track our cars, dogs, and spouses (apparently) via apps. When humans want to destroy androids, they don’t switch them off and reinstall the software. They take them to camps to await execution and eventual destruction. Androids are thrown into pits while still functioning solely to create a dramatic image reminiscent of the Holocaust when it would make much more sense to recycle their parts.

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Marcus randomly develops a magical power and Conner picks it up when it’s convenient for the story. There are plot twists that might have had an emotional impact had they not been so painfully obvious. The main twist was so blatant that I convinced myself it probably wasn’t going to happen because surely no one would drag a predictable twist out for that long. Well, David Cage would.

Cage has no understanding of “show don’t tell.” Every character you meet is so obviously good or bad that they might as well wear self-identifying labels like the androids. There’s a lack of subtlety everywhere you look. Early on a group of protestors gets physical with Marcus as if he is the first android to have crossed their path in a while, despite there being android cleaners a few feet away. This was solely done so that we could see humans being nasty to an android. Later on, we’re updated on the public support for the android movement although see never see any of this. It’s just a line of text at the top of the screen. Public support doesn’t change what’s happening on the streets; it merely influences a late-game decision. Finally, there are unexplained mysteries that are set up as being important and then forgotten about.

Detroit’s story feels like an idea proposed over a lunch meeting that never got fleshed out. Cage suggested a game based on the premise of: What if androids became human and fought for equal rights? Everyone nodded their heads and no one ever bothered to make it interesting. There’s no twist on the trope. There’s no particular reason to care about any of the characters. It’s by-the-numbers storytelling but Cage didn’t even bother to use a calculator to check his maths.

A quick brainstorm after completing Detroit offered up plenty of ways the experience could have been more interesting. What if the androids didn’t look like humans? It might have been more challenging for the player and the public to accept them as people. What if the public had something to lose by giving androids rights? For example, androids could have made Detroit into a kind of utopia and therefore giving androids rights would have destroyed that utopia. People would have something to lose and as the player you might want the human utopia to continue instead of recognizing the rights of androids which would bring it all crashing down. Playing as a human for one of the stories might have helped provide a different perspective on things as well.

After finishing the game, you can complete a survey and answer questions like “do you believe technology provides a threat to mankind?” At the end of the survey, you’re shown the total results of everyone who has taken the survey. One of the questions is “Was there a moment in Detroit that resonated with you personally?” When I completed the survey, 87% of the respondents had selected “No.” I think that says all you need to know about the emotional impact of this story.

Detroit’s storytelling is lackluster and formulaic. The script has less emotion in it than androids before they become deviants and, in fact, I have to wonder whether an android wrote it. Perhaps it’s some in-joke on Cage’s part. As consumers and critics, we would never praise this level of storytelling in movies, TV shows, or books, yet for some reason, this nonsense is acclaimed just because there is a basic level of interactivity involved. If we want the quality of storytelling in games to improve, we need to demand more than this soulless and predictable nonsense.

2/5

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