Detroit: Become Human proposes to take narrative focused choose your own adventure games in new directions. How successful it is at balancing its heady, serious, and emotionally charged issues is ultimately up to each individual player. I think it largely succeeds. For me it embeds itself beneath your skin; during my time spent with Detroit I couldn’t help but find myself thinking of little else but Kara, Connor, and Markus’ stories. The traumas, pain, hope, and swirl of emotions that defined so much of their collective adventures in the city.
Unfolding as a choose your own adventure game in the mold of prior Quantic Dream games Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls as well as Telltale’s legions of titles and Supermassive’s Until Dawn, Detroit may very well reign supreme as both the greatest example of choose your own adventure titles at their very best and also ultimately what can hold them back.
Centering around the three android protagonists in the year 2038, a house maid, a detective, and an emerging revolutionary leader, the way the game turns and twists their various stories and identities based on the choices and actions you choose is breathtaking.
I can not give enough praise to the stories and characters of Connor and Kara who demand every second of your attention in their brilliantly crafted narratives. The two are among the finest characters I’ve seen in sometime and the route and beats they encounter on their stories are wondrously realized. Ranging from a classically realized buddy cop and simmering police thriller in Connor’s case to a truly emotionally taxing, incredibly dramatic, uncomfortable, and impassioned arch in Kara and her story with the little girl Alice who lays at the heart of her tale. Both are fantastic, both could have very easily have had an entire game of just their stories, and both included virtually all of my favorite and most treasured moments from the game.
Indeed Connor’s story, which is heavily inspired from classic detective stories from the past, with strong inspirations from titles like Blade Runner and particularly Se7en, is a simmering, just-boiling-over gem of a police thriller. The bond between Police Lt. Hank Anderson and Connor has to immediately rank among the best partnerships I’ve seen in any police based story and is so flooded with heavy, tragic, and unblinking beats matched wonderfully with biting humor and a world weary sarcasm that it rises above everything else in the game.
Kara, though, stole my heart. A chapter roughly around mid-game involving Kara quite simply staggered me. Faced with pain, abuse, and a fear of what has been left behind and the traumas that come with it, Kara’s story is almost certainly the darkest and most somber of the game. Yet, her story is also the one wholly centered around a single positive thing, a love of someone else. Here it is the surrogate mother-daughter bond that grows between Kara and Alice throughout the game before culminating in this chapter mid-way through the game where I was nailed to my seat as event after event occured. A slow, quiet, tense series of scenes strewn together culminating in something beautiful and for a few moments joyous that instantly shot me back to certain scenes from the master of this kind of storytelling, The Last of Us. It’s not as well done as TLOU or reach the same heights but it does manage to capture just a tiny sliver of what that game did so magically.
Where Connor and Kara soar, Markus is much tricker and will and has been the subject of much of the critical opinions on the game failing to deliver on its lofty ideas. Markus’ protests and revolution has, for very obvious reasons, drawn much comment on how it pulls from the Civil Rights and particularly Black Lives Matter Movement. It does not nail all of the things it wishes to pull off, but perhaps the most surprising thing to me is how Markus and the androids story is less an allegory of civil rights and racism and more one centered around the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. The game goes in exceptionally bleak, disturbing, and dark places and those not ready for it will be confronted with a very different experience then they might have expected. It is here, in these moments, that I think Detroit loses itself the most as it struggles to deal with such heavy and complex themes in an effective and genuine manner.
It is in the mixing of these three disparate narratives that Detroit really shines. Cutting back and forth between the trio as each hurtles towards an unknown and unique to every player finale is a thrilling experience. Very few games have felt as distinctly my own as Detroit; for better and for worse, this is the sum of my actions, words, and split second choices. Indeed even the very idea of choice and the power of it is a recurring and thoughtful aspect of Detroit’s larger story.
From the prospect of losing certain key characters very early on, to never forging the tight, intimate connection with characters that I treasured in my own playthrough, to the simple reality that some people could lose one of the heroes at exceptionally early points in the game. The reality that other players will have one of the trio die early on, thus missing out on the emotional heart, power, and weight of my own game and twisting their journey into something fundamentally different than my own is remarkable in its size and scope. Become Human wants this to be your story; and, with few exceptions, it succeeds.
The counter I would make to this though is that because Detroit has to be anything to everyone, there were certain moments when playing where I did wish the story could be a more focused title. There were times where things by the nature of what Detroit is had to be open ended and allow room for multiple scenarios and playthroughs. Certainly the game never felt as focused or as tightly put together as something like Hellblade, The Last of Us, or even any of the Call of Duty stories. Its story is vast and open to many different paths, yet it also loses something because of this. The final act in particular is the weakest spot of the game’s story, as it has some difficulty in successfully catching all of the balls it has in the air and is forced to make characters say and do certain things that felt out of character and untrue to the larger world that had been established beforehand. The joys of choose your own adventure titles come from crafting an experience that is uniquely yours, the drawbacks are that the stories by their very nature are inevitably less focused and well crafted as other more narratively driven stories.
Detroit’s usage of QTE’s and motion based mechanics are incorporated in a manner that is probably as well done as one can expect from a Quantic Dream game. Anyone hoping for a reinvention of the mechanics and systems in place since Heavy Rain will be wholly disappointed. That said, they are more cleaned up and intuitive then most games of the genre. Fluidly baked in from the opening seconds, the controls become like second nature and something you just know, yet the drawback to the heavy emphasis on using QTE’s or motion controls for nearly everything is that they aren’t perfect. Using actual buttons work fine throughout the entirety of the game and are more than a justified way to do a particular action in a short time frame. The issue arises with the use of the right analog stick to do certain motions. A good number of these are to open doors, flip through the pages of a book, or other similar mundane tasks, yet the time will come when they will be used in split second decisions and actions with huge ramifications and here their inability to accurately reflect the direction or action I am wanting them to do led to a number of frustrations on my part and actively led to a character dying in certain events and play-throughs, forcing me to replay through an entire chapter again or accept the game’s bad controls affecting my story.
Detroit: Become Human has stirred an industry wide discussion on how to cover it. On whether or not to discuss within reviews the harassment allegations and stories about workplace conditions within Quantic Dream and comments and statements given by studio head David Cage. I honestly don’t know how to square everything perfectly between the game and the studio behind it. I think Detroit: Become Human is simply fantastic at times. A truly breathless piece of art that conveyed a story, crafted real, flawed characters, and doggedly had things to say about some of the major issues of both our time as well as the past and what we may be heading too. It is a game with bold, clear, unconditional views on things and regardless of whether you agree with what’s being said it is very clearly saying something.
Yet, some of those very ideals and certainly some of the message of Detroit doesn’t seem to be a reality lived within Quantic Dreams workplace. If half of the stories about David Cage and other members of the studio are true, it is an incredibly problematic, cruel, and unjust environment. One rampant with sexism, racism, and a macho overly misogynistic culture that the characters of Detroit are all actively fighting against. I don’t know how to reconcile that. I have read and seen lots of commentary and discourse around this game, both before launch and now post release. Some of it is insightful some of it isn’t. Some like Yussef Cole at Waypoint are having this very discussion about how to cover the game and the allegations at the studio that made it.
I don’t know what to say, I don’t have any silver bullet here. What I do know is that parts of Detroit are amazing. Other parts are poorly written, with sometimes cringey dialogue and odd character decisions. I think the branching multiple paths of this choose your own adventure are possibly the most sophisticated and brilliantly realized of any game ever. I also think that the final act of the game struggles to keep up and features some truly baffling and disappointing story turns, one in particular involving Kara’s story robbed her of at least a little slice of its poignancy, beauty, and message slightly lowering its theme of unconditional and powerful love.
Some of the actions you must take to get the “good ending” are absurd, counter-initiative, and opposed to any reasonable action I certainly thought of taking. Again, I think Kara’s story suffers most here.
Detroit: Become Human is a messy, complicated, massively ambitious and brilliantly flawed title, one with characters and featuring scenes of different moments that I will remember for years afterward. It has an important message, yet it is a work of art crafted by individuals and a studio who seem to be the face in a number of different ways of what the game is fighting against. Not everybody at Quantic Dream is a problematic or bad person and I feel truly sorry for the fantastic staff whose legacy will at least partially be tied to the more troubling persons. A game of extremes is what defines Detroit. It’s what’s always defined it. It is a game I love, am annoyed and frustrated by, and one that even now races through my mind, trying to decipher just what it all means, just how it could very easily be both my game of the year and also something I’m not eager to jump into again. Quantic Dream crafted a title like little else I’ve played. They’ve showed us the power of choice in video games and they’ve also shown us the shortcomings and pratfalls that come with it in terms of a unified, focused, and tightly drawn narrative and character development. Most of all they’ve left us with a game that has big, bold, and clear things to say and ideals to rally around, even as the studio itself fails to match them.
This copy of Detroit was purchased by the reviewer for a standard PS4.