Detroit: Become Human review – robotic storytelling

The creator of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls returns with an ambitious sci-fi tale that’s a mix of Blade Runner and Get Out.

Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls are deeply flawed video games. They’re barely interactive and horribly written, with absurd plots that make it impossible to view the characters as real human beings. So the logic of having the protagonists in this new game be robots makes a lot of sense.

Given all the above, you can imagine that we were not looking forward to Detroit: Become Human. But while it still has a lot of issues this is the first time we’ve actually thought that French developer Quantic Dream might be onto something. By writer David Cage’s normal standards a revolution by self-aware androids is a very grounded premise and while the story’s message is a little muddled it does make you want to know what happens next – and then go back and change it if you don’t like the answer.

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In basic terms Detroit works very similarly to the previous games, in that it’s a choose your own adventure book brought to life. There is the occasional action scene, but they’re mostly just simple QTE sequences and the primary interaction is picking between the two or three different choices offered for each situation.

The experience is closer to Heavy Rain than Beyond, including the fact that the story is constantly switching between three main android characters: a ‘deviant hunter’ named Connor, an ordinary household robot named Kara, and an artistically-gifted model named Markus – who eventually becomes the leader of the revolution.

The game starts with Connor, who is a special model sent by the corporation that makes androids (and whose headquarters is in Detroit) to hunt down robots who have become self-aware. He’s the only android in the game that actually acts robotic – think Data from Star Trek – and is partnered with a cliché washed-up detective who hates robots. Despite the fact that everyone seems to be aware that hundreds of androids are becoming deviant these are the only two people put on the case for the majority of the game.

The world-building in general is poor, as despite there being super intelligent androids wandering around everywhere relatively little else seems to have changed in the world. You’re told that unemployment is epidemic and yet that doesn’t stop everyone owning androids anyway, as they’re no more expensive than a cheap car. Although that doesn’t explain why nobody seems to use them for anything more useful than picking up litter or doing the shopping.

Kara is clearly intended to be the game’s emotional heart and is owned by a slobbish father who beats his young daughter. Kara is the first character in the game to break her programming, at which point she escapes with her young charge. Or at least she does if you make the right decisions. Detroit: Become Human uses a branching story system even more advanced than , where a single decision can drastically change the course of the story. Although the majority of the time the only way to progress is to do exactly what the game tells you, as you pantomime onscreen actions with the controller and are stopped from exploring anywhere outside the immediate area.

The game’s graphics are astonishingly good, in terms of backgrounds and facial animation, but the game is barely interactive outside of the few big decisions in each chapter. Unfortunately, this includes the dialogue, where you’re often given no choice over important moments (such as letting a pleading suspect go) and dialogue options are indicated by only a vague one-word description that often doesn’t mean what you expect it to.

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These issues create a particular problem with Connor because what he wants is usually completely at odds with what you as a player are trying to achieve. He’s technically the bad guy for the majority of the game, especially once he gets on the trail of Markus, so for any player with an ounce of empathy it seems best to just make him lose on purpose. Except a lot of the time you can’t and you’re forced to carry along a pre-ordained route that destroys any illusion of player agency.

Characters can die very early on in the story and while there’s a certain amount of smoke and mirrors as to how much that really affects the rest of the story it’s all handled very well. The only problem is that a lot of the biggest changes happen as a result of doing poorly at an action sequence. While it’s shocking, and impressive, the first couple of times this happens having the direction of the story dictated by a failure to wrangle the clumsy action controls gets increasingly frustrating.

You can go back and try again whenever you want, with the game providing a complex flowchart to show where the plot branches off, but in order to have the new outcome replace the old one – rather than just treating it as a what if – you have to play everything over again, which can get tedious.

The third character is Markus, who starts off as a helper for an invalid painter (played by Lance Henriksen) and after he loses his sheltered position he becomes the leader of the android resistance. At this point his main choices revolve around whether to make the resistance peaceful or violent, with his various lieutenants trying to influence him down one path or another.

Our biggest question when it comes to Detroit is what exactly it’s trying to say. Given the large number of black characters in secondary roles (the mixed race Markus is the only one that’s a playable character) and borrowed imagery from Get Out, the game is clearly trying to make parallels between the androids’ position and the real historical slave trade, but it struggles to connect that with modern day racial issues.

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You’d hope there aren’t many people who need a video game to tell them that slavery is bad but given the androids’ position, they’re never really subjected to the real-life racism of today.

There is something of that in the relationship between Connor and Hank, but both characters are played so broadly that the chance for any useful allegory is wasted. It’s a similar problem with the perpetually trigger-happy police, whose actions are never dwelt on and are essentially just a plot device.

Androids are treated like objects by the general public, but the way the plot plays out none of the characters actually spend that much time with ordinary people. And so in the end you’re left with the impression that, whether it was intended that way or not, the game really is just about robots.

And yet the question of what it means to be human, or simply self-aware, is never really addressed. The androids are all super intelligent and emotionally complex from the moment they break their programming (even if they’ve only been made to be repairmen or rubbish collectors) with no apparent confusion about their self-awareness. David Cage loves to compare his games to movies but a film like Blade Runner 2049 is infinitely more subtle and intelligent in the way it approaches similar subject matter.

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And yet unlike Heavy Rain and Beyond we still managed to enjoy our time with Detroit. It helps that the script is significantly better than the previous games, and while the dialogue lacks any real bite it’s never as straight-up embarrassing as before. Like all of Quantic Dreams’ games there’s an air of pretension and plasticity to Detroit, and it lacks any of the humanity of something like Life Is Strange, but it still manages to be tense and compelling in a way none of the previous games managed.

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By the end of Beyond: Two Souls we were hoping that David Cage would never work in video games again, but this time we’re actually quite interested to see what he does next. Detroit: Become Human isn’t going to spark any kind of revolution, robot or otherwise, but it is a useful step in the continued evolution of video games as a storytelling medium.

Detroit: Become Human

In Short: A considerable improvement on Quantic Dreams’ previous work, and while the storytelling is still flawed its tale of abused androids feels very human.

Pros: The branching storylines and multiple characters are handled well, with a surprising range of options and possibilities. Stunning visuals and generally good acting.

Cons: There are still major problems with the storytelling, in terms of both interactivity and the themes it’s trying to deal with. Clumsy controls and Connor has a bad case of ludonarrative dissonance.

Score: 6/10

Formats: PlayStation 4
Price: £52.99
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Quantic Dream
Release Date: 25th May 2018
Age Rating: 18

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