Over six years have passed since Quantic Dream released the moving tech demo Kara. That brief clip showing an android being assembled, activated, and ultimately discovering something more within herself had so much impact that many gamers basically demanded to see how the story continued.
David Cage and Quantic Dream decided to answer that question with Detroit: Become Human.
The game is set in the titular city of Detroit, and the year is 2039. A few seconds ago I wrote “fictional” about the city, but then I hit that backspace: of course the game’s story is fiction, and the future it depicts might never come to be, but the execution of the setting is so grounded that it feels extremely realistic.
A technological revolution sparked by a company named Cyberlife caused a vast percentage of the workforce to be replaced by Androids. They’re used for pretty much everything, from personal assistants to babysitters, soldiers, musicians, football players, and even prostitutes. They have become part of everyday life, and they have propelled the American economy upwards to unprecedented levels.
This, unfortunately, came at a price. Those who could afford their own androids (which can cost several thousands of dollars) and weren’t in a position to be replaced by them, prospered. Those who had jobs that Androids could perform better and at a lower cost lost their place in the workforce and in society.
This sparked extreme tension and anger directed from parts of the human population towards the androids, seen not only as soulless machines but also as the cause of a wide range of issues. Abuse is commonplace, and segregation is encouraged. Yet, some androids appear to be glitching. Their programming should not involve emotions, but some seem to be feeling fear, anger, and care about their self-preservation.
When fear and anger are involved, violence is bound to follow suit.
The story follows three different androids. Kara is a domestic assistant owned by an abusive man named Todd, who lives with his daughter Alice after having lost his job and having been abandoned by his wife. Of course, his resentment against androids is bound to cause severe issues.
Marcus owned by popular artist Carl. His master is old and sick, but he still cares about his android like he was his own son, or more than his own son, which is also going to put Marcus in danger.
Last, but not least, Connor is an ultra-advanced prototype designed with investigative capabilities, with the mission to hunt deviants, those androids who are shown signs of instability.
Each character is depicted with incredible care, and the performance acting is absolutely top-notch. While we’re still one or two-steps shorts of a CGI movie, the level of realism and the depiction of feelings are a sight to behold.
Quantic Dream’s craftsmanship and the artistry of the actors depicting our three androids goes a step further: not only their feelings are perfectly conveyed, but that’s done in a way that feels just slightly off, perfectly simulating the fact that they’re not human, no matter what they look like.
This isn’t to say that human characters aren’t awesome. The sarcastic but fatherly Carl, the disillusioned cop Hank, Alice, and many more, are masterfully acted and just as masterfully modeled. This is a game that makes you truly care about its characters, and full credit goes to the actors, the artists, and the director. It truly enriches an already masterful story.
The fourth main character of Detroit: Become Human is the city itself. Not only it’s absolutely stunning visually, but Quantic Dream went to enormous lengths in filling it with details that convey the flavor and essence of its society. The story isn’t just told by way of the actors, but even just by walking around and discovering clues that the developers have scattered basically everywhere.
You’ll see the segregation of the androids as they’re parked like scooters in dedicated spaces, ride the bus in what’s basically a cargo area, aren’t allowed in many commercial establishments, and can’t even enter the store that sells them once they’ve been purchased.
You’ll experience the plight of the humans by seeing the unemployed begging in the streets, preachers blaming the androids for impending doom, demonstrators demanding their jobs back, and street musicians asking for a buck in exchange for “music with a soul.”
If you were wondering, Detroit: Become Human does not refrain from asking the player difficult questions, and from diving deep into thought-provoking topics that many games tend to tiptoe around.
The line between good and evil isn’t just blurred: it’s basically non-existent, and intrinsically “bad” people are quite rare. Almost everyone acts for a reason or many, no matter whether they’re rational or not. This makes the narration even more intriguing especially considering how much freedom the player has in progressing the story, and in connecting with various characters.
As you probably guessed from what I said before, Detroit: Become Human‘s visuals are a sight to behold. They’re so good that in many cases they’ll come just short of CGI, but rendered in real-time. Both characters and environments are depicted with extreme attention to detail that easily passes the test of the many extreme close-up camera angles which make the player feel deeply involved in each scene and connected with each character.
The gameplay is in part reminiscent of the point and clicks adventures of old like The Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, of Kings’ Quest. Instead of pointing and clicking, most of the time you’ll walk up top your target, and you’ll execute dedicated control inputs to interact.
A wide amount of diversity is created by the fact that you control extremely different characters with wide-ranging capabilities, and by their nature as androids. At times you’ll find yourself examining crime scenes and dynamically reconstructing the events by piecing the clues together. Other times you’ll calculate complex sequences of movements to traverse apparently impassable terrain. Quantic Dream went out of this way to provide interesting challenges to the players, and puzzle-like gameplay that is genuinely enjoyable and never gets old.
Unfortunately, the execution isn’t completely perfect. One element that might prove a bit jarring is the presence of quite a few invisible walls. This comes in addition to the actually visible ones when the operating system tells your androids that they can’t go somewhere because it conflicts with the task they’ve been given.
A pretty impactful and definitely flavorful consequence of that is that when it’s time for your androids to go rogue, you can decide to break that wall, with a scene that is at the same time symbolic and cathartic following all the abuse.
Another issue is the intense reliance on many, many quicktime events for action scenes. At least if you play in the standard “Experienced” difficulty (there is also a “Casual” difficulty which is easier, and includes fewer chances for a character to die), you’ll often be served really brutal and long chains of control inputs to execute.
While each sequence is often forgiving, allowing a few failures before your mistakes become fatal, the attention you need to pay to the prompts can be distracting, and you’ll need some really good reflexes to do everything perfectly.
Personally, I feel that fewer quicktime events would have made the scenes more enjoyable, allowing the player to appreciate the quality of the action and camera play without having to worry that much if the next prompt is gonna be a square or a triangle. On the other hand, I have to admit that this method does make action scenes very tense.
This is especially true combined with the fact that characters can die. No matter how much you care for them, they can definitely suffer fatal consequences depending on your choices and on your actions. This certainly adds to the value of the narrative, and to the replayability of the story.
The structure of the story involves a very large variety of branches and tons of smaller events that you will see only if you find them via exploration or previous actions. Unless you take care to repeat the same actions perfectly every single time, no playthrough will realistically be the same. Each time you go through the story, you’ll see a different journey and possibly different outcomes. While each scene has a limited number of “endings,” the way you’ll get there can vary dramatically, and then expand into following scenes.
While the gameplay itself has a few flaws, I found it massively improved compared to previous Quantic Dream titles, so those who didn’t enjoy them might find this new labor of love more enjoyable.
Ultimately, the interactive storytelling is the king of Detroit: Become Human. There is definitely enough interaction (and then some) to make this feel like a full-fledged game, and not just a passive experience more akin to a movie. That being said, its cinematic nature makes it almost as fun to watch than to play. I can see many enjoying this with friends, either making choices together or with one playing and the others watching the experience like a movie.
The game’s story and characters are so good that they definitely should not be considered inferior to a movie in terms of narrative and emotional involvement. Quantic Dream’s new game manages to fuse cinematic experience, playable action, and player choices that really matter in a much more competent way than its predecessors.
On top of that, Detroit‘s emotional value is just as rich as it thought-provoking nature. It serves scenes which have the potential to deeply move the player, causing a wide range of feelings and reactions. My suggestion is to let yourself be carried by them, making choices instinctively and emotionally, without being held back too much by overly rationalizing every little decision. You’ll enjoy the game twice as much.
You could see it as a mix of old-school adventure games with unforgettable storytelling, top-notch acting, and cutting-edge graphics, and as such, it’s definitely a very successful experiment. While Detroit: Become Human is the quintessential Quantic Dream game, the additional variety and the spectacular level of craftsmanship it involves may make it intriguing even for those who aren’t part of the studio’s usual target audience.
Detroit: Become Human may not be perfect, but it’s Quantic Dream‘s masterpiece.