Those familiar with Quantic Dream’s previous works know what the games are usually going to be like. It’s not an action packed FPS or a seat of the pants racer; the studio’s remit is to produce cinematic stories that explore different facets of the human condition and attempt to illicit emotional responses from the players. They’re lofty goals for a medium that (if the main news purveyors are to be believed) is all about shooting your friends in the face then dancing over their body, and it’s great to see that Sony are still supporting pushing the boundaries of game definition. Detroit: Become Human aims at being social commentary with film production values and a game with heart and soul, but can it pull off such mighty ambitions in a 12 hour interactive adventure?
Set in the near future, Detroit: Become Human’s world is a bit different from the one we inhabit now. With the invention of lifelike androids, the human race has embraced their capabilities wholeheartedly and effectively given them all the crappy jobs and treats them like second class citizens. They are machines built for a single purpose and that’s the way it is. However, some of the androids are breaking their programming and becoming deviant – the term used to describe shifting away from the programming and developing free thinking along with their own views of what’s right and wrong. The emergence of sentient, superior A.I. frightens the living s!*t out of humans and the race is on to be the first to either have the androids live as free beings, or have them put down. What the outcome is and how it gets there is completely down to the player, with a promise of enough leeway in the branching narrative that it will be a fairly unique story, nudged along not just by the big decisions but the small interactions that are prevalent throughout.
On the surface it’s not a totally original idea – anyone who’s seen the Matrix prequel shorts or Channel 4’s Humans might be tempted to shout “rip off!” at this point – yet it’s designed and delivered in such a way that it’s not like any exploration of the impact of artificial intelligence that’s been delivered on screen or in games before. Using three characters, these disparate strands of narrative slowly start to intertwine as the plot picks up pace until they’re tightly wound together for the climax. Some of the themes are blatantly obvious (racism and freewill), some are more subtle (the meaning of family), and some are just very difficult to get a handle on (the birth of religion).
Having said that, these happened to be some of the elements picked up during my first play through, which were unique to what I’d done and how I’d acted, it’s not to say there aren’t others elsewhere. With, arguably, big lessons learned from Heavy Rain, there’s now visibility at the end of a chapter of the overall decision tree and which path was taken. It keeps anything not discovered locked away, but imparts a sense of just how much choice there is. There are even chapters where entire sections of game play and story remain locked off and you wonder how you’ve managed to miss a trigger to them… that’s in part due to options that can only be accessed through previous chapters and with certain emotional standings with various characters. It’s complex, confusing and a thing of wonder at the same time. Much like real life.
To achieve the cinematic presentation it’s not just a case of picking some decent camera angles and having a pretty game engine that can render in real time, there’s a need for quality acting and performance capture to sell the emotions on display. The main protagonists do this well, with Kara being the standout of the three, and it’s only a guess at how difficult it was to portray different behavioural states that are solely dependent on player whim. Backing up the three controllable characters (Markus, Kara and Connor), there are some heavyweight acting chops on display from Lance Henrikson and Clancy Brown, some stellar performances from the supporting cast, as well as hundreds of other turns to produce the facsimile of a living city. Details on the androids and humans are superb and it all fits in with the lush scenery and backgrounds. It’s not all interactive, and it doesn’t need to be, mostly the only objects that can be handled are ones that drive the plot. With a distinctive aesthetic that’s threaded throughout it’s very easy to get sucked into the world that’s been created, and the short chapters really help to keep things moving. Be aware of the rather lengthy closing act though, it’s a sleep thief if you start it just before bedtime.
The real questions around Detroit: Become Human stop being about what it looks and sounds like and become more about whether you manage to be bought into the scenarios and feel like you’re making an impact. Previous Quantic Dream games haven’t quite managed it for one reason or another, and some of the same criticism can be levelled here. The choice of path is so broad that it’s easy to end up with loose ends if you don’t tug on all the strings available, and even then it’s not a guarantee you’ll find out everything. Going back and making different choices based on the flowchart info starts to unravel some of the mysteries, but I have always wondered if that’s the right thing to do. Having played it my way and determined my own story along with the fate of every character, I’m loathed to go back and find out what could have happened. Role playing throughout I had very definitive ideas of how I wanted the main characters to be, and I think adhering to that meant there weren’t great jarring moments of exposition or muddying of the narrative. Also, it would feel wrong to return and imprint them all with a different personality… so I suppose that answers the buy in question then.
Whatever route you take with this high tech choose your own adventure book, you’ll more than likely end up killing off some of the NPCs or main characters on the way – and it’s permadeath and a closed thread in the story for some of them. Mastering the control scheme will reduce the chance of that, and it is very similar to other games in that rapid button pressing or quick time events are needed during action scenes, though there’s an easy mode if absorbing the story is all you want to do. There will be plenty of complaints that this is a passive game where there’s not much to do, and that’s not entirely wrong, and not entirely right either. Part of the engagement and personality comes from the mundane activities you have to do, and how that draws you into the character and setting. It’s not a fast paced title that demands edge-of-the-seat focus throughout, it’s a reflective and considered game that challenges you to either be yourself and see what would happen if you had to make the choices. Or live out those kill all human fantasies you secretly have. Whatever floats your boat.
To keep writing about Detroit: Become Human is actually quite difficult – it’s either going to be dissertation length as I probe all the aspects of the design and structure; or it’s really short because I don’t want to get into territory that might influence your story. I’ll save you the pain and stick with the latter. There’s an intriguing story in it that may or may not play out as you expect because you can’t see what your actions have on the overall world, and there are certainly moments that tug on the heartstrings for all the right reasons that Hollywood have instilled in us over the years. As a package it’s executed to an extremely high standard, contains the best menu screens I’ve ever come across, and is second to none in the presentation stakes. There’s no doubt that the cliches and in-your-face symbolism are there to help settle you into the world quickly, and once it’s moving at pace it’s compelling. If you’re a fan of the game genre and are fed up of slow episodic releases and the janky game engine in Telltale’s properties then this is right up your alley. On the other hand, if you’ve not liked any of the other Quantic Dreams games, or shudder at the thought of your character moving around without a run button, you probably won’t get on with this. Make your choices wisely.
Detroit: Become Human is available now exclusively on PlayStation 4 for around £45.