By Adlai Rosh
The year is 2038. Detroit has become the center of the technological revolution. Detroit-based tech company CyberLife is the world’s leader in android manufacturing, with autonomous androids filling in much of the state’s labor – they’re store clerks, hospital workers, university professors; they clean the streets, watch your kids, and work the front desk at your office. They make music, play sports, and take care of us when we’re old. But not all is right in the world – some androids have started becoming “deviant”, expressing human emotion and in some cases acting out violent crime for unknown reasons. Another revolution is brewing on the horizon, and humanity’s greatest achievement might be its downfall.
Detroit: Become Human is a narrative-driven adventure game developed by Quantic Dream exclusively for the PS4. In it, you take control of three different androids and follow their individual storylines, each one intersecting and interacting with one another throughout the story. Kara is a house keeping android on the run with a little girl named Alice, both of whom were abused by Alice’s father, Todd. Connor is an advanced prototype android who must balance his responsibility to CyberLife with his duties to his human partner, Hank. Finally, Markus is an android who, having seen the worst humanity has to offer, seeks to free his fellow androids from the tyranny of human oppression – whether peacefully or through violence.
Detroit’s gameplay works a lot like Quantic Dream’s previous works, with movement controlled by the left stick and most context-sensitive commands being done with the right stick. Dialogue is frequently initiated by the face buttons, and complex tasks may require a combination of shoulder button and face button presses. However, even on Experienced there aren’t any ridiculously convoluted button inputs like in Heavy Rain’s infamous Butterfly Trial. Because the interface is diegetic, during very tense action scenes the prompts can be hard to spot, adding an extra layer of difficulty to many sequences. On Casual mode, these sequences are made easier while still retaining some degree of challenge; timed sequences give you more time to complete them, more information is displayed, which helps with certain puzzle sequences, and action sequences won’t ask you for any inputs aside from the face buttons. It’s a clever way to make the experience more accessible without making it a total bore to play through.
Detroit’s musical score is fantastic. Each character’s scenes are shot and composed in a way that gives them a unique feel while keeping it thematically consistent. Connor’s music is dominated by synthesizers, mirroring his existence as a servant of CyberLife. Markus’s music starts off brooding and mysterious, but wouldn’t sound out of place in an action film – fitting for the leader of a rebellion. Kara’s music is very melancholy, giving the feel of a mother simply trying to find a place where she and her surrogate daughter can live in peace. The music underscores every scene well and sets the tone as much as the characters, the staging, and even the gameplay do, blending into the background as needed and swelling up emotions as required. It helps that the game is beautiful, too, with characters and environments being incredibly detailed and running well even on first-generation PS4 hardware. Quantic Dream even had to create a new engine just to simulate real-world film and camera techniques, adding another layer of cinematic charm to an already visually impressive game.
One of Detroit’s biggest selling points was narrative freedom, and the amount of thought the developers put into even the most minor choices is staggering. There are, for example, actions and events where the consequences are more immediate; Kara can discover a gun in Todd’s room while cleaning it, which she can use to threaten Todd with when he’s about to beat Alice. That same gun can also be used as leverage in a later sequence in order to intimidate someone. During Kara’s fight against Todd, if you injure him without killing him and make your way to safety, Todd shows up later on in the police department when you’re playing as Connor and later again on TV to talk about how Kara “attacked” him. An android you choose to save now might show up later in another character’s story as a background NPC, a target for investigation, or even essential to getting a good outcome in certain situations. Characters frequently brush paths with each other, witness each other’s actions, and may even clash – one chapter may end with Connor attempting to chase Kara and Alice across a busy freeway, but only if the player’s actions lead to Kara being discovered. It’s possible for entire sequences and storylines to be missed if you play your cards right – or in some cases, wrong. And if a character dies, that’s it. The story continues without them, and you can either accept that and move on or load a checkpoint and try again.
The story doesn’t do too much to railroad you into specific roles. While the game does have an overarching narrative, many decisions can influence other characters’ storylines both positively and negatively. Connor, by the very nature of his employment as a deviant-hunting android, actively works against Markus’s goals of android freedom. Even then, you can play Connor completely sympathetic to androids, but undermining the investigation might lead to your CyberLife liason, Amanda, reconsidering the terms of your employment. Play him a bit too ruthlessly and you might wind up pissing off your human partner, Hank, which makes subsequent interactions with him more tense. Similarly, you can play Markus as a bloodthirsty, violent revolutionary, which makes playing Connor antagonistically more rewarding than having him try and undermine a peaceful, nonviolent android revolution. The worldbuilding is told through news reports on TV and magazines you can find, giving you cool and oftentimes depressing bits of information about the world. From the extinction of bees to android sex clubs, the optional material helps paint a picture of 2038 in all its imperfect glory.
In my first impressions article, I mentioned the flowchart system. Now that I’ve gotten more time with the game, I finally had a reason to use it more extensively. Accessible from the main menu, it allows you to revisit any chapter of the game you want from any of the checkpoints you wish in order to change the outcome of scenes or just to see what happens if you do things differently. Accessing the flowchart this way not only shows you every possible choice you have and haven’t made, but it allows you to replay a chapter and even overwrite your progress and influence the story further down the line. If you didn’t want to kill Todd by the time you reach the chapter where you want to find shelter, you can replay that scene and find a way out of the house without fighting; however, you won’t have a gun, which locks out an entire gameplay sequence in a later chapter. You can leave a companion to die, and you might have to find them and interrogate them in a later scene… Or you can get caught up in another incident as Connor, leading to them escaping and reuniting with another character.
While at first glance this system is fantastic for completionists, if you want to see everything in a given chapter you should be prepared for a few minutes of unskippable loading screens, dialogue, and cutscenes, an issue compounded by the fact that checkpoints are placed seemingly without any rhyme or reason. In one chapter, a checkpoint lets you skip 5 minutes of the opening sequence but won’t allow you to skip to right before the climax of the chapter. This is especially egregious in chapters where it’s possible to die at almost every turn, forcing you to quit to the main menu if you want to see every possible way to get your character killed in a single scene.
Quantic Dream has gone on record to say that every question, except one, has an answer. With my multiple playthroughs, I’ve wound up asking a lot of questions and having them answered when I replayed the scene with a different perspective. There definitely aren’t any scummy, underhanded twists, either; a few particularly shocking reveals made much more sense on subsequent replays, where seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue foreshadowed them heavily. Even when the game threw me a plotline curveball, the ensuing cutscene was just long enough for me to get over the emotional shock before throwing me into an intense timed sequence that threatened to undo everything I had worked for up to that point.
For all the praise I have for the game, there are times where it gets a little hamfisted in its allegory. Despite David Cage stating that the game isn’t trying to say anything in particular, there are moments where the racism metaphor gets almost excessive, the least of which involves a black android named Luther, or androids sitting in the back of the bus like black people did in Jim Crow-era America. While it’s not a complete dealbreaker, I can’t help but feel like it could’ve been handled with a little more nuance considering the current political climate in the United States; Quantic Dream is, however, a French developer, and the game has been in production since 2013 so it’s somewhat understandable that these things would fly over someone’s head – I didn’t even notice the bit about the bus until someone pointed it out, but that’s a topic for someone more experienced that I am.
All in all, Detroit: Become Human is a game I would definitely recommend to anyone who has a PS4. It’s easily one of the system’s best exclusives currently, and considering this is coming hot on the heels of last month’s God of War, Sony is on a roll. Detroit is a game that left me in suspense and begging for more – and gave me the tools to get the ending I wanted. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s easily Quantic Dream’s best game to date.