Detroit: Become Human
Do androids dream of quantic sheep?
You can feel Detroit striving to be more than it ultimately turns out to be. We don’t mean for that to sound overly critical, but only to suggest that while fantastic progress has been made from Heavy Rain through Beyond and now Detroit: Become Human, it also doesn’t seem as if David Cage’s vision has been fully realised just yet, although it might be the closest he’s ever gotten.
What we will say to its absolute credit is that the subject matter of Detroit: Become Human suits Quantic Dream’s style down to a tee. Working in sci-fi really suits the studio’s approach to menus, character design, its cinematic flair with a camera, and even the nature of the controls. While the aim of these games has always been to bridge the gap between movie and game experience in as tight and clean a way as possible, the quicktime events, HUD elements and investigative twists sometimes felt like they put a barrier between us as players and the action. With androids as your leads that doesn’t feel as odd.
Detroit works with this really well as it establishes early on that it’s the programming the androids themselves that’s dictating where they can and can’t go in the game world (a simple twist on the invisible wall concept), that the different elements they see around them are part of how they view the world. And it’s interesting to see that change through the game too as they first break their strict programming (or not, as the case may be) and establish their own priorities. Then, suddenly, you choose not to walk down the alley, not because your programming says not to, but because the character has chosen a priority for themselves that they are tied to.
It creates a nice feedback loop for the game as mechanics and interface intermingle with the narrative and character development. In that way, Detroit is possibly Quantic Dream’s most immersive experience, rarely feeling like it’s breaking the illusion of the reality it’s building, even when button prompts are appearing on the screen every few seconds.
It’s not without its inconsistencies though. It still includes a plethora of seemingly inane control prompts to interact with the world around you or give you a small role to play in what is broadly a cutscene. It can sometimes feel like interactivity for its own sake, checking in with us just to make sure we don’t feel left out of the action. But the game doesn’t need to keep doing that so long as it’s doing the rest of its job right, and it often does. As you get deeper into the story, you will be invested and you will feel involved in every moment, even if you’re not being asked to press X or slide your finger across the Touch pad, so feeling the need to do so can detract from that a little.
There’s also the question of when you do and don’t get to make a choice for the character. This is a tricky area for any game that allows you to dictate so much of the personality and decision-making of a protagonist; how much will the game assume control to keep the character on a particular track and how much will it allow us to control those choices. We have to say that our experience of Kara, Connor and Markus was pretty consistently in our hands, with only a few minor conversations where we thought it was curious we didn’t get a say in the words being spoken, but they stood out because of how rare they were.
Which brings us to our android protagonists in a little more focus. We have to say that we rather liked all three of them, and for pretty different reasons in each case. They each offer slightly different degrees of control too, which is interesting. Kara’s story is probably the simplest and most focused, which does mean that it lacks some of the broader, bigger-picture narratives that Connor and Markus enjoy, but it’s the emotional core that can inform a lot of your thinking process with regards to the other characters. It doesn’t really feel like you have a lot of control over her relationships, but you can control her actions, and the escape plot just keeps ratcheting up for her.
Connor feels very much like FBI agent Norman Jayden from Heavy Rain, this time with his high-tech glasses replaced by an enhanced version of the memory palace that all androids can tap into, freezing time momentarily to highlight points of interest and review directives. As the newest android off the production line, his journey is a gradual questioning of mission versus self. His objective is to solve the deviant crisis, but that means hunting and ultimately shutting down the androids who are ‘malfunctioning’. How far is he willing to go to do that, and to what degree is he willing to ingratiate himself with the humans around him to ‘fit in’? It’s a slow burner, but a really satisfying element of the game with its detective elements.
And that leaves Markus, whose story is really the overarching one of Detroit, and the one that is driving the events in the world that are so badly affecting the other characters. His is a purely moral struggle of peace versus violence. Detroit does a fantastic job of delivering both of those potential through lines for you, giving you ample reasons and opportunities to flip between one or the other if you feel compelled to do so. Markus is the character who feels as if he offers the greatest overall control of his narrative and decision making, although some of his relationships feel a little too easily won.
But as with previous Quantic Dream games, it’s not just about the decisions you make, but the speed in which you make them and whether you fail or succeed along the way. One thing that impressed us greatly was how even things that felt like failure actually wound up being interesting threads to pull later on. On a couple of occasions, what seemed like negative outcomes in our narrative created boon opportunities for us later. And similarly, doing what sometimes seemed like the right thing or the moral thing could send us down a dark path.
And there are so many paths. Quantic Dream made the decision with this game to reveal the threads (albeit in textless flowchart form to give you nothing more than an impression) that could have been taken. We had our concerns that this would remove some of the tension from the experience or show us too much behind the curtain, but thankfully that’s not the case. What it does do is give you about a thousand reasons why you’ll need to go back and play through again to see how things could have turned out. You can start over at the end, of course, but you can also dip back into completed chapters and select a Do Not Save option so that you can test out ideas without fear of overwriting your original experience. We would highly recommend a clean opening playthrough though, because it makes for a far more suspenseful and compelling experience.
In fact, Detroit manages to maintain its suspenseful story very nicely. The opening negotiation scene, released as a demo before Detroit: Become Human’s launch, sets the tone for what’s to come, giving every chapter an urgency and threat because you’ve already seen how nasty things can get very quickly with Connor’s rooftop showdown. When the high-stakes decisions start coming in thick and fast, especially once storylines begin to overlap, the potential for catastrophe at any dropped quicktime move or any misspoken word feels immediate.
But there’s a certain rhythm and formula to a Quantic Dream game that becomes transparent as you play. You can be fairly confident that any
you’ve already seen how nasty things can getvery Quicklywith connor’s rooftop showdown
fight is largely survivable up to the fifth or sixth quicktime event onwards. You can be fairly certain that while death is possible at any time, you will be given ample opportunities to avert it. If you’ve played the studio’s recent offerings then this will come as no surprise to you. That all said. Detroit does a better job in most instances of disguising the formula and keeping you guessing. Overconfidence that you know what is to come can just as easily be your downfall.
Making unintentional errors through misunderstood dialogue choices was not a problem we encountered. The clarity of the instructions and options you’re given through the course of the game is far more consistent than we’ve experienced elsewhere. We never felt as if the response we had chosen was contrary to what we had expected or hoped to give. And jumping between the three characters, you have a chance to play out very different attitudes towards the same problems. Whether you choose to play the role of a ‘cold android’ or allow your own humanity to seep into their behaviour, you’re going to get some interesting and varied responses on screen.
What we also appreciated was the ability to play our words off against our actions. We could be the hard-assed, pragmatic investigator with Connor in some moments, but behave a little differently to that. The game seems to understand that what you say in private versus what you do in public can be very different and yet still remain consistent for the individual. It’s hard to fully explain this without giving up story details, but suffice to say, if you put your foot in your mouth, you can walk it back by how you behave, and sometimes convincing someone you’re something you are not gives you more options down the line.
But for every step of progress it feels like there’s a step back taken too. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that each step reveals a small shortcoming that’s always been there that needs to be resolved. While animations in cutscenes and facial capture are fantastic throughout, some of the character animation in player-controlled moments is stilted and awkward. While there are fantastic new levels of detail in skin textures and in the world broadly, some of the character designs feel a little unfinished, particular with their hair, which feels like an odd thing to nitpick, but the delicate balance of immersion in a game that is reaching for something so close to naturalism is so easy to tip over.
So, is Detroit going to convert David Cage sceptics to Quantic Dream’s way of thinking? Absolutely not. This is pure thematic pondering, melodramatic, challenging, gamified cinemaaping stuff, and that’s why we like it. And we could certainly dissect its portrayal of domestic violence, civil rights and popular uprisings, but we’ll leave such analysis to those better versed in the theories and facts in the real world. As a game, this is Quantic Dream at its most confident and composed. And if you’ve been enjoying time spent with Life Is Strange or the Telltale output in the last couple of years, this has plenty to offer you.
We recommend a clean first playthrough of Detroit before revisiting chapters and seeing how they could have turned out. The illusion is better preserved by not asking how it’s done.
details Publisher sony Developer Quantic dream PSN Price £52.99 Players 1