A human experience – engrossing, yet flawed…
Upon completing my first 10-12 hour playthrough of Quantic Dream’s latest, Detroit: Become Human, I had experienced a wide array of different emotions and levels of intrigue in an engrossing cinematic experience that notably fumbles but succeeds in many ways. The selfless sacrifice of one character proved to be a surprisingly poignant moment, given how I struggled to find any empathetic value in their relationship with one another. A rebellion with a just cause to advocate their sense of being and self-actualization in a pacifist orientation proved to be a taxing, yet ultimately satisfying ordeal. The buddy cop narrative of friendship, betrayal, and loyalty retained the highest level of consistency, resulting in a story-arc that was riveting from start to finish. My plethora of dynamic choices led me to these final moments; with each choice stemming a branching pathway, the sheer number of different storylines, narrative combinations, and chapter variations is downright staggering – everything is impressively laid out via Detroit’s engrossing Flowchart system. It wasn’t until I finished Detroit for the second time, opting to use polarizing choices, that I truly understood its level of outcome variation, resulting in anything from minute variations in dialogue to entirely new chapters and/or set pieces. Detroit: Become Human does stumble more often than not, preventing it from becoming the “great” experience it could easily be. Pacing issues, divisive writing, monotonous chapters, and certain levels of inconsistency plague Detroit, and while its explorative/QTE based gameplay is undoubtably the most refined and intuitive of Quantic Dream’s repertoire, these negative qualms ultimately detract from Detroit’s overall positive experience. While it never reaches the heights of Quantic Dream’s pinnacle experience, Heavy Rain, Detroit: Become Human still manages to deliver an engrossing experience that offers an unparalleled sense of player choice and narrative variation.
Set twenty years in the future, the titular city is now renowned for the foundation of the Android industry, bringing humanized machines into the economical and societal sphere, serving as replacements for human workers in the service industry. In predictable fashion, Detroit: Become Human’s narrative focuses on androids developing self-thought, emotion, and identity – a phenomenon coined as deviancy – and their effect on a society built upon the reliance of technology. The established world of Detroit is exceptionally palpable, with its sense of economic crisis, drug abuse, and shifted balance between the upper and lower class seamlessly in tact and untouched, catering to its level of realism and accessibility. Detroit’s rise and imminent fall is a tantalizing dymanic, and its newfound fame (or infamy) for their introduction of androids adds a nice layer of depth and controversy to its established aura and history. In Detroit: Become Human, you play as a trio of androids, with each character’s story filled with different choices and branching pathways that, disappointingly, rarely ever intersects with another. The story of Kara, a domestic servant android, follows her development of paternal love for Alice, the daughter of Kara’s abusive owner. At first glance, one would think that Kara’s story would provide the most emotional resonance and poignancy given the subject matter, however due to Alice’s surprisingly robotic and uncharismatic nature, any form of empathy is quickly replaced with apathy. It’s a missed opportunity as it’s painstakingly obvious that writer, David Cage, wants to deliver their relationship as an emotional punch but poor performances and bad writing result in exchanges that stem from the unintentionally comical to the inadequately uncomfortable. Kara’s story is surprisingly rectified towards the end of her journey, as multiple endings of her story proved to be surprisingly moving, despite Alice’s banal nature. Connor’s story was a personal favourite of mine; as an android tasked with assisting the Detroit Police Department in locating and apprehending Deviant androids, his narrative provided a juxtaposition in his sense of loyalty. His story was efficiently paced, deviating from the monotony that plagued the other characters’ stories, and his relationship and interactions with his human partner, Hank, felt genuine and palpable. The last android of the bunch, Markus, arguably plays the most important role; as the leader of Jericho, a group of deviant androids, his decisions shape the common perception of deviants as he fights to end the slavery of all androids and wishes to be perceived as a new intelligent species – equal to that of humans- in either a passive or violent manner. Markus’ story undoubtedly brought forth a sense of bombastic action, destruction, struggle, and/or sacrifice, resulting in some of the most difficult decisions to be made in Detroit. Each character’s journey is filled with an enduring sense of tribulation and self-discovery, with deviating arcs and interactions that are contingent to particular choices.
Luckily, the trio of main characters are – for the most part – well-written and their performances are nothing short of excellent; Valorie Curry, Bryan Dechart, and Jesse Williams breathe distilled life into their android counterparts and deliver a performance that outshines anything and everything that came before in Quantic Dream’s repertoire. In pure presentation value, Detroit: Become Human is an undoubtable evolution for Quantic Dream, as almost every presentational element is improved in comparison to their other work. Overall performances, for the most part, are well done – having American actors voice American characters is a definite improvement -, the story is presented in a coherent and chronological manner, interactions and movements are slightly more natural, and the game is an absolute visual treat with exceptional attention to detail. However, Detroit does suffer from some notable narrative qualms and inconsistencies that abruptly pull you out of the immersive experience. Certain character motivations and events don’t line up to my crafted experience and the overall established world. If someone were to declare that Detroit: Become Human is a boring game, it’d be difficulty for me to argue against that statement. While Detroit has its fair share of intense moments, a lot of the experience is padded with overextended exploration segments that don’t offer a sense of choice and deviation. One chapter in particular has Markus searching for Jericho; this segment is downright tedious and overstays its welcome far too quickly. Detroit’s most alluring feature is also omitted from this chapter as any indication of a branching pathway or sense of choice is regrettably absent. While its thematic elements of segregation, oppression, and alienation are provoking, their real-life comparison is painfully conspicuous – as opposed to adopting an appropriate “show, don’t tell” perspective – and this arguably damages the tonal message they try to convey. Similar to Until Dawn’s “Butterfly Effect” mechanic, Detroit: Become Human contains a Flowchart system that visually graphs all the choices possible and all the choices that were made after you complete a chapter. The unmade choices are masked and locked, only to be unveiled once the appropriate choice is made. The flowchart system is an awesome mechanic as it emphasizes Detroit’s greatest element, its level of choice and branching pathways; the flowchart visually represents the sheer amount of possibilities that one level can contain and how making a different choice could lead to an entirely new branch with different outcomes and scenarios, possibly resulting in a completely new chapter. This visual ripple effect of sorts is so undeniably tantalizing, as each chapter ends with your decisions populating in the flowchart, with the other masked branches being left untouched, resulting with incepted thoughts of “what if”. Luckily enough, players can replay chapters and specific checkpoints within chapters, resulting in a player-friendly experience for those who would want to see how different the outcome could have been and to populate other sections on that chapter’s flowchart.
Detroit’s gameplay consists solely of two different elements: exploration and quick-time events, as is typical with Quantic Dream’s repertoire. Detroit’s explorative element dials back the action considerably, resulting in a more breathable, calculated experience. Here, you can interact with different points of interest in the environment to further your objective. Connor, as an android aiding the DPD, takes upon the role of detective, you will typically analyze evidence and reconstruct crime scenes to uncover secrets and/or determine the true events that transpired. Markus has the ability construct different action scenarios, to determine which is the best course of action; all scenarios are played out like a video recording resulting in either success or failure. Virtual magazines can also be interacted with to further explore the lore of this futuristic Detroit, and certain magazine availability is contingent on specific choices being made in previous chapters. While quick-time events are associated with a negative connotation in contemporary gaming, I’ve always been a fan of their use if implemented correctly, and Detroit: Become Human arguably has the best quick-time events in any video game. Detroit’s QTE’s are fast, frantic, stylized, and have a weighted sense of agency with each input. The engaging cinematics that accompany each QTE segment are extremely well choreographed, resulting in some intense encounters that rely heavily on sporadic button inputs to ensure success. Along with other decisions that can be made throughout the journey, if you fail to press the correct button at the specified time, it could result in that character permanently dying. If any character dies at any point throughout the game, the story will continue without that character. This sense of permadeath propels Detroit’s gameplay theme of agency and consequence, and these profound elements will undoubtedly eat away at your soul when difficult decisions and/or sacrifices are needed to be made.
Detroit: Become Human is a cinematic experience like no other, undoubtedly Quantic Dream’s most ambitious project to date. Its layers of player choice and the branching pathways that follow proved to be tantalizing elements that not only displayed exceptionally well via the innovative Flowchart system but encouraged a profound sense of replayability as the varying choices and their accompanying results inherently felt weighted and, most importantly, different. From a pure mechanical standpoint, Detroit is Quantic Dream’s best work to date; their refinement of the abashed QTE centric gameplay is impeccably smooth, the futuristic interface and sense of exploration/investigation is easily accessible and undeniably intriguing, and Quantic Dream’s fully realized Detroit is one of the most immersive, palpable, well-crafted, and visually astounding worlds ever created in gaming. Also, Quantic Dream’s trademarked robotic gameplay also bears some tonal and thematic justification, as the protagonists’ stiff movements lend to their mechanical nature. I didn’t even mention that each character’s theme and musical score is done by a different composer, boasting a different sound and reflection of each character, a surprising and welcome approach not commonly adopted in video games. While its highlights deserve to be noted, and exponentially surpass many elements of Quantic Dream’s other works, Detroit is undeniably flawed, ultimately detracting from what could have been a great game, another heavy hitter for the PlayStation 4. Its character inconsistencies, sluggish pacing, lack of choice in certain instances, melodramatic nature, awkward controls, and overall narrative disappointments hold Detroit back from its true potential. However, it’s an experience that is absolutely worth playing, for all the different branching storylines within its intriguing world act as an engrossing incentive that is unabashedly rewarding. It’s an imperfect story that beautifully unfolds in spectacular fashion, a world that you shape with every choice and input you make.