Classification issues and SEO-related concerns aside, calling the following text a game review would be a misnomer — and a glaring one at that, because Quantic Dream’s latest offering is no game. ‘Interactive adventure’ is probably the best way to describe Detroit: Become Human, but it still falls woefully short of summing up the PS4 exclusive that released a couple of weeks ago.
What is it?
Set 20-or-so years in the future, Detroit puts you in the shoes of three AI-powered androids — Connor (police investigator android), Kara (housekeeper android) and Markus (caretaker android) — as they manage their respective struggles with growing sentience. This increasing ability to think for themselves culminates in a major android civil rights struggle that sees all three playable characters involved in some capacity or another. Note: That androids in Detroit have a tiny blue disc on their right temples that changes colour based on their mood is eerily reminiscent of Amazon Echo’s disc and wittingly or unwittingly, hints at the future we may truly face.
If you have ever played a Quantic Dream game, you’ll be familiar with the simple control setup. The left analog stick controls character movement, while the right analog stick lets your character interact with the environment/NPCs. A basic rotation of the right analog stick, or a flick up, down, left or right tends to suffice for most actions, and the face buttons come into play while carrying out slightly more complex actions or while handling Quick Timer Events (yes, QTE actually stands for Quick Timer Event and not Quicktime Event).
The face buttons also handle the most important aspect of Detroit: Dialogue and choices.
It’s here that the meat of this ‘interactive adventure’ is to be found and it’s here that Quantic Dream gets it almost perfect as far as the overall experience is concerned. And let’s get to the experience part right away.
The overall experience
Straight away, and once you’ve loaded up the game, you are greeted by an android in what is one of the most well-made menu screens in recent times. Over the course of your time playing the game, she’ll ask for your thoughts on AI/ML, give you a survey, question your in-game decisions, even ask if you consider her a friend and reel off commentary (the latter takes place if you leave the controller idle for some time).
This is a nice way to kick off an immersive 10-or-so-hour-long journey — a lot depends on how thoroughly you look around a particular setting and how many NPCs you engage with — where the illusion of vast environments lie waiting to be explored. The illusion of because environments that may at first glance look massive, are actually fairly limited in terms of interactivity and linear in the sense that there’s little around to deviate from your actual mission.
Missions are chronologically laid out (unlike Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls) and alternately put you into the shoes of each of your protagonists (much like the developer’s Heavy Rain) to push the overall story along. The design, plot, sound and music direction, voice-acting and minimalist gameplay come together as a beautiful playable film — with you as the director.
Not a gamer, but a director
And essentially, it’s that very role that developer David Cage has always sought for gamers to play in his ‘games’.
From deciding how a scene plays out to how a scene is viewed (changeable camera angles) and all the way to a first-of-its-kind story tree that pops up at the end of each chapter. The latter is an innovative reveal, for want of a better word, by the developer — a pulling-back of the curtain, if you prefer — to show the player (or director, if you prefer) the variety of options at his/her disposal in various situations. This greatly boosts the replay value as it provides a clear path to follow in order to achieve one of the interactive adventure’s many endings.
Storytelling a la Cage
All of this is great, but would be ultimately pointless in the extreme without a compelling story. Fortunately, Detroit and its reportedly 2,000-page-long script contains a story that pushes all the right buttons: Hits you with a heady thrill when you make your escape from a sticky situation, plunges you into despair when you aren’t able to save someone, stings you with indignation when you face humiliation, fills you with empathy when trying to make sense of whether androids and humans are really that different and so on.
To its great credit, the three protagonists are well fleshed-out, as are their motives, quirks and pathos. It’s this aspect that makes it so difficult to pick a choice (the timer really doesn’t help matters), knowing full well it could mean the difference between life and death for a character (or characters) you’ve grown to care greatly about.
Praise for the story would ring hollow and almost sycophantic if not tempered with a fair critique of its problems. There are a handful of false beats over the course of the story in terms of dialogue options, but these pale into insignificance when looking at the biggest issue: The heavy-handed handling of certain sensitive themes and topics.
Foraying into topics like child abuse, discrimination, civil rights and the decades-old freedom fighter versus terrorist debate to name a few, is a gutsy move fraught with risk. Unfortunately, Detroit often falls into the trap of oversimplification or the creation of binaries — where nuanced options exist in the real world. Referencing the African-American Civil Rights Movement is done with little finesse and the very superficial throwback to Martin Luther King Jr borders on the cringeworthy.
Looked at in perspective though, while this does leave a slightly weird taste in the mouth, it’s not a deal-breaker. Nowadays, we expect films, games, TV shows or even interactive adventures to educate us. This is Cage’s take on those concepts and like it or not, we have to live with it. If you want historical accuracy, references to academia and gravitas, go read a bloody book!
In summation, Detroit is one of the best interactive adventures you can hope to play. Sure, it’s not strictly a game and it’s not strictly a film. But this gem from Quantic Dream is something alright!