Developer Quantic Dream has made a name for itself providing games that find a sweet spot between player choice and fixed story moments. Their latest game from writer/director David Cage, Detroit: Become Human, promotes player autonomy while thematically questioning the limits of control in a world dominated by technology. Through its depiction of a future where androids exist and operate as a superior form of labour, the game plugs itself into the ongoing debate raging around the merits and perils of technological advancement. Matching the timeliness of Detroit’s heady themes is the scope of its branching storyline that allows for meaningful decision-making in a stunningly realised futuristic world. While not completely able to reach the heights of its ambition, Detroit: Become Human is Quantic Dream’s most daring and expansive game yet.
Set in 2038, the story follows three android protagonists: Kara, Connor and Markus. Each character has their own story arc that unfolds in roughly twenty-minute vignettes and the game cycles player control between the three androids. Kara is a house android on the run with a young girl she rescued from her abusive father. Connor is a police investigator android working with a human detective to track down deviant androids. And perhaps most interesting of the three is Markus, an ex-carer who becomes the leader of an underground rebellion group called Jericho that fights for android freedom.
The strength of Detroit’s split narrative lies in the uniqueness of each of the character’s stories. Kara’s story plays like a heartfelt drama punctuated by genuine moments of humanity, Connor’s story is like a typical detective narrative that unfolds in a cold and calculated manner and Markus’ fight for android justice is more bombastic and action orientated in its construction.
While each narrative thread feels distinct, the decisions you make have implications across the board and the inclusion of the Flowchart feature, that bookends each chapter, is the games’ killer app. Every major decision you make is logged on the flowchart making it easy to see the outcome of your decisions and view all the possible alternative pathways that you have yet to explore. Finding out that certain memorable characters only appeared because of a certain decision you made chapters ago makes multiple playthroughs of Detroit an exciting prospect. Moreover, the game’s strong sense of cause and effect provides cohesion to the fractured storyline. Each character’s story thread feels essential to the overarching narrative and there’s not a single weak-link amongst the three protagonists.
In terms of interaction, not much has changed for Quantic Dream. The mundane moments most films cut out to maintain the flow the story, Detroit occasionally retains and hopes that basic interactivity makes them more exciting. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. This is particularly evident during one early chapter of the game, where you are tasked with completing simple house chores as Kara. For the duration of the mission you prepare a table for dinner, wash the dishes and vacuum up the house before moving onto the second floor to clean up the bedrooms. This scene is not completely without purpose as it provides a greater sense of inhibiting Kara’s day-to-day life, but as one of the game’s earliest mission it leaves a rocky first impression of the game. As the story unfolds and the stakes rise, this sort of inconsequential interaction becomes less prevalent but the opening few chapters are a bit slow to begin with.
The interactive chase sequences, however, are definite highlights. In these scenes you’re given full control over your character and you can pick different routes based on their difficulty and likelihood of success. It is a welcome change to the extended quick time events of previous Quantic Dream games and the added interaction allows you to really take in your surrounding. Even in fleeting glimpses, seeing everyday people walking on the streets or workers on their daily grind makes Detroit’s world feel alive and lived in.
This attention to world building also extends to the contextual details. Along your journey you can pick up magazines articles that detail the world and the role androids play in society from integrating into competitive sports, running for president and becoming surrogates for human relationships. These details further the feeling that the world of Detroit exists even when you put the controller down.
It also helps that the graphics are stunning and character models look uncannily lifelike. If android technology seems like something far more distant than twenty years from now, the level of graphic fidelity on display in Detroit actually makes such a reality seem feasible (maybe). The attention to detail in the game’s futuristic neon-swept environments is remarkable, to the point where if someone where to walk past the screen while you were playing they would likely mistake it for a movie. The only drawback is that as stunningly detailed the environments are, they are limited in their scope and the prevalence of invisible walls often means that you can see but cannot touch.