Although we didn’t realise it at the time, Detroit: Become Human has existed in some form for the last seven years. In 2012, Quantic Dream unveiled a seven-minute tech demo running in real-time on a PlayStation 3. The demo, which was a year old when it was shown at GDC, was meant as a starting point for a discussion on the merits of using live actors to portray characters in video games. It was an exploratory topic that by today’s mo-capped-riddled game design standards seems rather quaint. I remember being enamoured with the “Kara” tech demo and the possibilities of playing games in which characters displayed convincing, emotional responses to gameplay actions. Of course, Quantic Dream went on to release the Ellen Page thriller Beyond: Two Souls instead, and all hope of a story-driven video game starring super-emotional androids had to be put on ice.
Fast-forward to 2018 and, hey, look! It’s that Kara android from that tech demo from seven years ago! And she’s in a game about androids slowly breaking their programming and becoming self-aware. And game director David Cage is still doing what he does best: creating some pretty great characters and then forcing players to make god-awful choices that leave you feeling very depressed about everything all the time forever because you made bad decisions and look at what a monster you are – you monster.
Detroit: Become Human is one of those offbeat, interactive story games that are basically contemporary versions of those Choose Your Own Adventure books from the eighties and nineties. If you played the excellent Heavy Rain, then you’ll know exactly what to expect in Detroit. I went in expecting David Cage’s famously not-so-subtle take on potentially sensitive subjects, and I got that at times; but I also got completely swept up in Quantic Dream’s best work to date.
Throughout the lengthy, meandering narrative of Detroit: Become Human, you’ll play as three different androids all with their own self-contained stories, cast of supporting characters, and agendas. All three of their stories are set on a collision course when an android revolution kicks into high gear and plunges the technocentric future city of Detroit into disarray. This sparks an investigation by CyberLife (the corporation that designs and manufactures the androids) and the police force to try to contain and understand a growing threat that’s unravelling the societal status quo.
Kara is an AX-400 model that’s designed to do the housekeeping and watch the children. The family she works for isn’t exactly what one would call stable, and soon enough you’re forced into scenarios depicting child abuse and domestic violence (for those paying attention, this scene sparked a tabloid backlash and online debate when it was shown at the Paris Games Week in October last year). For Kara, this harrowing awakening is just the start of her journey, and soon she finds herself doing anything to protect the child that’s been put in her care.
Markus is an RK-200 model that was custom built to assist an artist whose many patrons include the founder of CyberLife, Elijah Kamski. Markus is, like Kara, a helper in a domestic sense, but the two characters have vastly different working environments that are meant to highlight class divides within the futuristic Detroit. Markus becomes the leader of the android revolution and is torn between pacifism and violent reaction.
Finally Connor is an RK-800 android and a prototype designed by CyberLife to assist the Detroit Police Department in tracking down Deviants (the term used to describe the androids that have somehow broken their inhibitive coding and become self-aware). For Connor, the growing number of android Deviants and how to stop them is at the forefront of his coding.
As in previous Quantic Dream titles, the core game concept on offer is narrative decisions. Throughout each chapter you’re presented with multiple choices that send the game’s plotlines branching off in different directions. The way you interact with other characters, your conversation choices, and your actions will all have far-reaching repercussions that can yield very different outcomes. At the end of each chapter you’re presented with a flowchart that shows you at which point you made a large decision that resulted in your game heading down a specific narrative path. A multitude of smaller decisions are also displayed, and even some of those seemingly innocuous choices open up story paths in later chapters. It’s a dizzyingly ambitious narrative design, and the sometimes weighty decisions and their results make for compelling reasons to keep playing. Just like getting lost in a good book, I often found myself thinking, “Alright just one more chapter then I’ll stop.”
Detroit: Become Human is familiarly limited in its gameplay and control schemes. Every action is a contextual one, and the game has a lot of quick-time events that might put a few people off. Luckily there is an option to remove a lot of the player inputs to focus exclusively on plot choices instead. I wouldn’t recommend choosing this if you’re looking for a more interactive experience, however.
Despite this, there’s an odd sense of player control when you’re given so many opportunities to guide the entire game’s story. There were moments, however, when I found that the developers were a little heavy-handed in their doling out of negative repercussions: “Oh-ho! You shot and killed that policeman who just mercilessly shot and killed ten androids? Well, joke’s on you – he became a father three months ago. You monster.” These moments don’t come up all that often, but they’re there and they create this stark juxtaposition when compared to how deftly other subjects and outcomes are handled.
The three playable characters have very different stories to tell despite their common backdrop. I did find myself really enjoying the character of Connor and the awkward situation he finds himself in. He’s assigned to assist the typical, grizzled noir cop Lieutenant Hank Anderson in tracking down Deviants. Together the pair must figure out what is causing androids to break through their barrier coding to gain free-will, a phenomenon that normally results in human murders. As Connor is a prototype and the most advanced AI CyberLife has built, he’s seemingly not as vulnerable to the Deviant exploit that’s causing the problem. However, with each decision you make as Connor, his programming integrity is either compromised or strengthened, and depending how far down which path you’ve taken him, he begins to grapple with his own identity and existence. This obviously puts him at odds with his own people: does he stay loyal to CyberLife and the mission for which his entire existence is built on, or does he side with his fellow androids? Add in Hank’s gradually altering opinion of androids in general and you’ve got a fascinating dynamic with a lot of Blade Runner and Terminator motifs. I thoroughly enjoyed the scenarios in Connor’s plotline and how out of place the character is made to feel in almost every instance.
Detroit can sometimes stumble over its own ambition, though, which results in a handful of moments that don’t hit the emotional or impactful mark they were obviously aiming for, and instead come across as contrived. Those moments, however, are few, and I found myself engrossed in this game’s story and its characters. But it isn’t just good story telling and impressive narrative branches that stood out: there are a lot of lovely little bits of attention to detail scattered throughout the title. For example, Kara’s entire gait and mannerism changes the second she breaks through her programming and gains free-will. Before that she exudes polite, no-questions-asked servitude; quietly waiting with her hands behind her back and a pleasant smile on her face. Once she becomes self-aware there’s this subtle shift in her body language – her hands are clenched and at her side, she walks with purpose, her expression is of a calm determination. It’s these little character details that make so many moments in Detroit: Become Human memorable and convincing.
I had loose ends at the end of my story which is frustrating but that’s the nature of a game with a lot of choices: you might see the start of a sub-plot, but your choices mean you’re branched off in another direction that doesn’t necessarily conclude the sub-plot you just glimpsed. What that does mean is that there’s definite scope for multiple playthroughs, which is something I’ve already begun.