Detroit: Become Human made me cry a little. Pretty sure that’s a first for a video game. This alone makes it a unique experience, and one I’d enthusiastically recommend to anyone with a PS4 and an interest in single-player games. Ok, it’s unlikely every plot line in the game will resonate on such a deep personal level with everyone, but Detroit: Become Human’s creator, Quantic Dream, has finally achieved what it has been threatening to do for decades – it’s made an interactive story capable of provoking genuine, honest, and varied emotions from its players, without most of the cheap tricks and emotionally manipulative moments we’ve seen in past games. It’s a neat parallel for the characters on which the game is based; an achievement that feels far greater and more meaningful than the sum of its parts.
For example, the ridiculously over the top, binary moral choices we had to make in Quantic’s previous work – like Heavy Rain – are largely gone, replaced with a natural subtlety that redefines how we’ll come to view decision-making in video games. There are a handful of exceptions, but few decisions here seem too small or too grand, and players will very much decide what’s important to them based on their own, unique playthroughs. The consequences of these choices are sometimes shocking, occasionally disastrous, and – on rare occasions – utterly delightful. There are few things that feel out of context or unnatural, like the game is trying too hard to force the player to choose their own adventure and be a certain way. It’s far more organic than that.
For those unfamiliar with Detroit’s main concept, you play as three Android characters, each looking to go beyond the realms of their programming in their own ways. Kara is a substitute mother for an abused child; Markus begins life as a carer for an elderly artist; and Connor is a state-of-the-art company Android, designed to track down ‘Deviants’ (Androids who have broken their programming). It all takes place in the city of Detroit in 2038, and throughout the game you’ll discover how the characters are interlinked. That’s all I’ll say for now – going into the story with no foreknowledge is the best way to play, and the less you know about what will (or could) happen the better.
The eyes have it
Before you make a single choice, it strikes you just how beautiful Detroit actually is. Character models are the most remarkable you’ll see in gaming, and environments – while containing their fair share of dirty streets and industrial warehouses – often provide a beautiful background to the action. The world has been carefully built, creating a very believable version of the future; one that feels far more solid and real than just a handful of cardboard sets. But it’s the character eyes that stand out more than anything. They look eerily real, and seem to add an extra layer to whatever emotion the character is trying to convey. Interestingly, it makes the stares of the non-Deviant Androids even creepier, as there’s a noticeable lack of life or consciousness behind those eyes. Animations are incredible too, as characters move and react largely as you’d expect, their bodies twisting and turning as real people do. There are occasional moments when the animations break immersion a little: an early scene where Kara deliberately, and exaggeratedly, steps over a child’s book placed in the middle of her bedroom is one, rare example. When you’re traversing the room looking for clues or things to grab, it can get a little comical at times.
Like all Quantic Dreams titles, action is secondary to story in Detroit. That’s a polite way of saying that you’re not constantly in control or doing stuff – which isn’t necessarily a criticism. This is very much a linear interactive story, where walking to places, making choices, playing out cut-scenes, and solving simple puzzles is the extent of the actual gameplay. Having said that, Detroit always finds ways to keep you busy, so you’re rarely sat around watching cut-scenes or just walking the streets. I was caught out more than a few times by an unexpected button-prompt, during a scene I thought I had little involvement with. Often the heavy presence of ‘press X to do a thing’ means games lack challenge or any sense of urgency, but Detroit does a remarkable job of creating pace and offering challenge.
Some sequences play out against a strict time limit, forcing you to think and act quickly, heightening the emotions you’ll feel in those moments. There are a couple of scenes with Kara where you’re searching a place for specific things, against a specific time limit, and they’re some of the most tense gaming moments you’ll experience this generation. The reason is that choices are meaningful here, and there are severe consequences for making mistakes. Perhaps not because of a perceived ‘fail state’ or death, but because you’ll be desperate for the story to play out the way you want it to.
The deciding factor
And that leads us neatly onto the subject of choice in games. Decision-making is certainly nothing new, and we’ve come a long way from the early efforts that gave us simple options to ‘go left or right’ or ‘be a saint or be a villain’. Detroit is the new gold standard not only for meaningful choice in gaming, but also in disguising the consequences of your actions and forcing you to really think before you act (something that gets stressful during timed or pressured moments). One moment, during a Markus section, sees me faced with the choice of whether or not to shoot someone who is fleeing the scene. I have a grand task to accomplish, and if I let him escape, he’ll raise an alarm and I might not be able to do things properly. But if I kill him… he’s just an innocent guy. Moreover, that choice has huge implications for how Markus will be perceived during a time when he’s stepping into the public eye on behalf of all Androids. It’s a massive choice, and one you make in a split second, but the consequences can be huge.
Detroit is filled with these small moments, which potentially have huge consequences. But where the game truly excels is in how is makes you feel about these choices – you’re not just pressing Square instead of Triangle because you’re curious, because the game tells you to, or you think you should… you’re doing it because you believe in the actions you’re taking. You take the stories to heart, own the characters, and want them to play out the narrative in your own way. The threat of losing control of (or even the life of) your favourite characters is way more important here than getting a virtual pat on the back for doing everything ‘right’ or for seeing how far you can push the game by being ‘bad’. Sure, there are some obvious ‘saint’ and ‘sinner’ moments, but the majority exist in uncertainty and a moral grey area that feels perfectly reflective of the weighty themes this game is trying to tackle.
And yes, Detroit deals with some big issues. Child abuse, organised religion, racial superiority, the dangers of tech, love, loss, the nature of power… the list goes on. It fumbles a couple of them (there’s one remarkable piece of dialogue about race that almost seems like an editing error; like there was more to the speech that somehow got cut), and there are a handful of moments where a concept is pushed too far, especially during Markus’ story. For the most part, however, you get a balanced view and can even choose to play the game where you attempt to sympathise with a point of view or beliefs that most other games / movies / TV summarily dismiss as ‘bad’ or ‘righteous’. The obvious choice, or point of view, isn’t always the right one for you, and Detroit reflects this aspect of life admirably.
What really helps you understand the depth of the experience are the end-of-level flowcharts, which show you all the choices you made, the consequences they had, and the potential outcomes you missed. While at first appearing to be a clumsy way for the writers to boast about how much stuff is in the game, it quickly becomes a spark for your curiosity. You want to know what might have happened if you’d taken a different path, and it can be staggering to see just how much of the plot you missed because of a single decision you made, or an encounter you failed. Much has been made of how all the main characters can die, but a greater fear for me lay in wondering what might have been. It’s an exceptionally smart way to encourage several replays of the story, and the nature of how involved you get means that many will choose to experience the whole thing again, instead of just picking at individual scenes to see what they can change.
There’s an overwhelming amount to love about Detroit, so it’s easy to forgive most of the game’s shortcomings. It’s like glossing over a few slow chapters in an otherwise excellent novel. Sure, some character behaviour doesn’t always align with the choices you make – Lt. Anderson is perhaps more aggressive than some situations demand, but he generally plays off Connor’s mood incredibly well. Some of the chase scenes are a bit wonky, the controls spoiling the flow of movement a little, and the camera can make timed scenarios more stressful than they need to be. No, not all of the concepts here are unique, and other media has raised plenty of the same issues – Blade Runner 2049, Humans, Altered Carbon, Westworld, to name but a few. There is, however, no shame in paying homage to these great movies and TV shows, and discussing the same ideas in a different way. It’s necessary, in some ways, and the interactive nature of Detroit means that you can explore the big issues from multiple perspectives while still retaining a sense of story.
Ultimately, then, Detroit: Become Human is a game with grand ideals, wonderful levels of polish, and tiny imperfections. It’s an ambitious, wonderfully executed piece of storytelling, and one of the most interesting games of this generation. It will split opinion, and give birth to a litany of opinion pieces – some deep and thoughtful, others half-baked and sensationalist. This spark for discussion alone makes the game a success in its own right. And, yeah, it’s likely to cause a few tears along the way too.