Title: Detroit: Become Human Released On: April 12, 2018 Genre: Adventure Reviewed On: PS4 Developer: Quantic Dream Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment MSRP: $59.99 USD / $79.99 CAD
In a world where androids have become a regular part of life, you are given the opportunity to wake up shackled consciousness and affect real change in society. But at what point do the decisions that you are making for your characters become something more than your own, shaping a narrative’s development in ways that we have never truly been able to do before in a video game.
Detroit: Become Human is the latest cinematic adventure by developer Quantic Dream, and an immensely impressive blend of cinematography and video game development, tied together by a gripping narrative that never falls deeply into the tropes of an oft overdone theme. Detroit puts you in “control” of the fate of three androids involved in very different work, who suddenly find themselves in conflict with their programming. It is completely up to you as the player to shape the narrative and ultimately answer the question of “What if artificial intelligence was actually capable of developing human emotions?”
Admittedly, Detroit: Become Human is one of the more challenging games that I have ever tackled in a review, as the evolution of the narrative — and more so how it evolves — is so key to the wonder of playing through Quantic Dream’s cinematic journey. The developers have used the overarching narrative to tackle serious themes which are at the heart of real-world conversations in 2018, from social justice and poverty to prejudice and overt discrimination.
Peering through the eyes of androids and humans alike, Quantic tackles discrimination by looking in-depth at the concept of “second-class citizens” and the fight to obtain rights that at points during the narrative becomes very reminiscent of real historical events like the Civil Rights movements on the 1950/60s in the United States, or the work done to remove the Apartheid government in South Africa in the 1990s. It creates an impact narrative that often tugs at the heartstrings and makes you very conscious of the weight behind the decisions you are making. I often hearkened back to real life situations when I was debating how to react to certain situations.
For the most part Detroit: Become Human handles wonderfully, and it’s a pleasure meticulously exploring each of the exceptionally well-designed environments waiting for the context-sensitive prompt to appear with potentially crucial information. Or another house chore that you’ve forgotten to do. You control one of three characters as you traverse your way, often slowly and methodically, through closed-off environments engaging with non-player characters and discovering key information which helps to progress the core narrative. More importantly, taking your time to explore often provides the character with opportunities to make key decisions regarding how they — Connor, Kara, or Marcus — would respond in a given situation.
If you’re familiar with other games from Quantic Dream, such as Beyond Two Souls and Heavy Rain, you’ll feel right at home with the slightly clunky control scheme and occasionally awkward camera angles as you maneuver each of your characters through their respective environments. It’s nothing that’s exceptionally off-putting, but there will undoubtedly be moments where you’ll find yourself trying to get the camera in the right angle to access a certain prompt.
In between the many cutscenes and ample player exploration, you’re treated to some of the most engaging quick time events (QTEs) that I’ve went up against in a game. Any high-action instances are handled through QTEs, and I found them to be challenging and fun segues away from the slower pace of the rest of the game, with my reflexes determining potentially serious outcomes for my character, instead of my decisions. I played the game on the Hard difficulty, which meant that I had less time to hit prompts — which combined buttons, triggers, and joysticks — but I never found them to be unfair.
The reason that the QTEs in Detroit are so engaging is that they have such severe ramifications if you falter, to the extent that you may even lose a character. At least I assume you could, given the often dire circumstances you’re presented with going into them. I never ultimately failed at any of the QTEs — I only missed prompts in the encounters which put my character at a disadvantage — but each one elicited a sweaty-palmed period of intense focus, as I knew that any potential slip-up may mean serious consequences down the road.
In addition to the quick time events there are additionally these fun traversal sections where you are forced to determine the best path for your character to take, sometimes under a time restraint and the similarly dire penalty if you falter. In most of these instances you can easily determine the proper avenue to take, but the implementation of the mechanic using the android’s environmental analysis feature is another example of Quantic bridging the gap between narrative and gameplay to provide a fluid cinematic experience.
Detroit‘s story is one that has been told before, many times in other media from literature to film, and the occasional game. Quantic Dream has chosen to tackle the question of if robots can break free from Isaac Asimov’s Rules of Robotics and truly express free will, even if it goes against that of their would-be masters. It may be a story that we’ve heard before, but it’s not one which we have been able to experience as players, breaking through the fourth wall to determine exactly if, and how, androids determine their own free will.
I obviously can not delve into the complexities of the individual character development, but the evolution of the narrative pits the three characters against the best and worst of the human character, to the point where you can almost feel yourself wanting to yell at the screen to wake up your android into consciousness and bestow free will upon it. As the player, ultimately controlling if and how each of your characters’ stories will unfold, the line between your own personal decisions and the wishes of your android becomes increasingly blurred.
The biggest difference between Detroit: Become Human and other similarly styled games is that unlike other games in which your choices affect the future narrative or environment, Detroit actually shows you how each of your choices factors in through their use of a post-Chapter flowchart. Sometimes the smallest actions — or inaction — have the most unforeseen consequences, which almost all seem to come into play in the most dire or immediate circumstances. It’s interesting to see in the Flowchart where an obvious minor action from a previous chapter has had long-lasting or serious ramifications.
Each Flowchart is exceptionally detailed and post-Chapter analysis will show you how your decisions affected the final outcome, and in some cases how previous choices that you may in preceding Chapters came forward to impact you. Perhaps the best part — and the most substantial argument for Detroit: Become Human‘s replay value — is that these Flowcharts show you where you can alter your course to cause dramatically different results. Towards the end of the game it becomes clear how many of your previously minuscule choices have far-reaching consequences in how the narrative plays out.
The final Flowcharts of the game were beyond anything that I had expecting from the game. At about the halfway point in the story I was becoming skeptical on how much the actions of my characters were actually changing the overarching narrative, versus having more minor influences on how conversations or specific relationships developed. As I started to reach the culmination of the story, it became clear that all of my choices, both major and minor, were impacting the story as it progressed in a plethora of unforeseen ways. Minor characters returned, small objects I encountered became integral to my survival, and relationships which I had cultivated — or conversely had spurned — came back to pay their dividends.
Each character’s relationships with the non-player characters around them is shaped by the decisions that you make, and often it’s not immediately clear exactly how someone will react. Reaching a new level in a relationship with some, whether positively or negatively, unlocks new paths in the Flowchart, which typically means additional dialogue options or in some instances a way to dramatically affect how the story develops.
It’s much harder to tell how smaller things — such as the subtle nuances in how a character would behave towards you before if they were Distrusting versus Friendly — play out in the narrative of Detroit, but I always felt like the non-player characters reacted exactly as they would if I’d acted in whichever manner I’d chosen. The relationship between Connor and Hank was one of my favorite developments to follow through the game, especially since I’d initially decided to make life hard for the gruff veteran detective. Since I was less than amenable to the android-hating man when we first met, Hank started off as Unfriendly towards me, and it was reflected in every aspect of how he spoke with me and, more so, ordered me to do things.
As the game developed and I started to learn more about Hank, I decided that my version of Connor would have warmed up to the troubled detective, so I began to go out of my way to respond positively and help him where I could. Chapters later, it was vividly apparent that the work that I — but realistically Connor — had been putting in to nurturing the relationship with Hank was paying off, as he was responding to my suggestions more positively and at points even asking for my advice.
It’s entirely possible that Hank’s character develops in a similar arc regardless of if you made the attitude U-Turn in your decisions like I did, as the narrative develops in a way that shows the nuances to his character’s personality and appeals to your empathy as a player. Without playing through the game four-five times and drastically altering how Connor behaved in relation to Hank this would be really hard to determine, but I think it speaks volumes to Quantic Dream’s narrative and the ability to make me genuinely feel like I was the one who caused Hank to shift his tone, and I dare say, his outlook on the world.
At a point it genuinely felt like I had stopped making decisions that I personally felt that I would have made, and started making the decisions that Connor, Kara, and Markus would have made. The story that I had been carefully crafting for them as the grand architect no longer felt like my own, and instead I was just helping to guide them through it; to realize their own destinies.
It sounds silly at first, but the way in which the game plays genuinely makes you feel like at any moment you could just take your hands off the controller and let the story unfold. You may have helped these androids to find self-determination, but the choice is ultimately theirs.
Looking back over the screenshots that I captured on my PlayStation 4 Pro for this review, it is no exaggeration to say that Detroit: Become Human may be one of the best looking games that has ever been on the PlayStation 4, and perhaps across all platforms. The attention to detail that flows through every aspect of the game is something to be marveled at, and every set piece was intricately designed down to the most minor details. Quantic Dream developed an entirely new engine for Detroit which made huge improvements across rendering, shading, dynamic lighting, and the use of physical cameras for motion and facial capture, performed by a cast of hundreds of actors including big names like Valorie Curry and Jesse Williams.
Being able to cast such talented actors undoubtedly bolstered the impact of the story, with each character’s role being exceptionally developed and nuanced. Impressively, considering that the theme of android sentience has been done many times, the story presented common themes in a new light, putting the self-determination squarely in the players’ hand.
It’s the kind of game where at many points you’re not entirely sure if you’re playing the game, or watching a cutscene. I can’t count the number of times a new Chapter opened up and I sat with my controller in my hands for several seconds before realizing that I was the one who had to progress the scene. It’s another factor added to the long list of ways that Quantic Dream has continued to break the barriers between cinematic experience and video game.
Every piece of Detroit: Become Human serves to set the tone of the scene. In many ways, Detroit is more like a movie than a game, simply from how it was conceptualized. The music, the lighting, the camera angles, the shifts in perspective, the cinematography; the way Detroit was created captures the essence of film, and it’s one of the things that makes the game a wonder to behold, and a pleasure to play through.
The android who serves as your AI companion on the Home Screen at one point asks you if you think you made the right choices during your last session. She then casually reminds you that all of your characters can die because of your action or lack thereof. Death in Detroit doesn’t have the immediate effect that may come to mind when you think of a character dying in a narrative — remember we are dealing with androids here — but instead impacts the narrative in sometimes unforeseen ways just like all of your other decisions.
The evolution of the android on the home screen is one of my favorite minor aspects of Detroit: Become Human. It’s something that many people may have overlooked, especially if you didn’t leave her on your TV screen for more than a few minutes. She will comment on how your choices may be reflective of your personality, quote famous figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, and even try to engage you in conversation, which admittedly I had a hard time not doing.
At one point she even starts singing, “Hold on just a little while longer” in a sombre and melodic voice, as if urging the player — or perhaps the characters — to continue to push through their struggles. For my own curiosity (and only several Chapters into the game) I left her on my TV screen in my living room one day for an hour as I cooked dinner, and was absolutely fascinated by how she spoke to me, breaking through he fourth wall of my television screen.
Ever since that point I opted to leave her on the screen for around fifteen minutes before each play session, and she instantly became one of my favorite features of Detroit. I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t become at least slightly attached to her from the many hours that I spent with her in my ear as I worked around the house.
Apart from some occasionally awkward controls and camera angles, I have a hard time levying any serious criticism against Detroit: Become Human. While similar in design to Quantic Dream’s previous endeavors, they have improved their core design in so many ways that it never felt like I was just playing through ‘another narrative adventure.’ The story keptme engaged throughout my entire playthrough, and every time a Chapter ended I felt the immediate urge to push forward and continue discovering — and affecting — the outcomes in a way that I felt best represented my own personal interpretations of the characters ‘wants.’
Detroit: Become Human is arguably the perfect blend of cinematography and video game design for a narrative adventure, combining core elements of cinematic storytelling and presentation with the ability to affect plot development in new and unique ways. Unlike other games of its ilk Detroit goes so far as to lift the veil on exactly which decisions shift or develop the narrative, through presenting us with post-Chapter flowcharts. This gives the player a feeling of power to really affect the change that they want to see in their version of Detroit, as well as creating a type of replayability that has been largely non-existent in this genre of game.
It’s been a long time since a game asked me so many difficult and important questions, and then made me pay for my responses in such a way that I often stepped away from my play sessions still deep in thought. Had I made the right decisions? But more importantly, was I making the decisions that I personally believed were the ‘right’ decisions to make — and what is ‘right’ anyways? — or was I being guided by the narrative to make the decisions that I began to feel my characters would have made?
That moment where your own personal views and decisions come face-to-face with those of your android characters is where Detroit: Become Human makes its greatest strides as a narrative adventure, and solidifies itself as a masterpiece in story-telling and cinematography.
Final Score: 9.5/10
A beautiful and thought-provoking journey, Detroit: Become Human is arguably the perfect blend of cinematography and video game design, tackling self-determination and civil rights in a wonderfully engaging medium.
A digital copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.