David Cage is an infamous name in gaming, and his experimental approach to game design is divisive to say the very least. I’ve been a fan of the Cage for a long time and have enjoyed all his works (except Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy) in some way, but I can admit that his lofty ambitions have often been slightly muddled by a lack of unity in his vision and outstripped by his ability to deliver it. We’re not talking Peter Molyneux levels of ambition versus delivery dissonance, but you’ll find some who would certainly mention their names in the same sentence. Detroit: Become Human then is the closest Cage and the team at Quantic Dream have come to enacting their vision of an engaging interactive experience that straddles the realms of film and vidya. Maybe it’s lessons learnt from past stumbles, or maybe it’s because his workers were chained to their desks while being whipped with a cat o’ nine tails; whatever it is, the end result is brilliant.
Where’s your head at?
Detroit takes place in the titular city in the year 2038. The United States is experiencing a technological revolution brought about by the widespread introduction of androids, who now perform multifarious tasks across all levels of society, from domestic chores to military leadership. They are the perfect workers; objective, analytical, obedient and unswayed by unpredictable emotions. But one needn’t be fooled; despite their incredibly life-like outer appearance and subtle human-esque mannerisms designed to put humans at ease with their presence, they are only machines, with no soul and no free will – they are tools to be used (and abused) as their owners see fit. But a handful of androids (labelled ‘deviants’) are beginning to exhibit strange behaviour, and the dangerous notion that the androids may question their existence and escape the hands of their creators begins to dawn. You will shape the destinies of three androids in the midst of the rise in deviancy, as they search for meaning in their existence in a world that would deny them.
As a relatively unsubtle allegory for the American civil rights movement that peaked in the 1950s, Detroit works well, but it touches on plenty of other contemporary issues as well, such as the dangers of aggressive capitalism, narcissistic consumerism, our overdependence on technology, and the rise of automation and how it impacts the class divide. These familiar themes anchor Detroit’s world, and while it may look and feel futuristic, it’s also highly recognisable, and for the most part, believable. One thing Detroit might be accused of is being a little polar in how it portrays the relationships between humans and androids. Humans are more often than not portrayed as cruel, provincial-minded and sadistic, while androids are (by their obedient nature I suppose) victimised and oppressed. That isn’t to say there aren’t interesting multi-faceted characters on either side of the fence, but more often than not it’s up to the player themselves to paint the moral greys against the slightly stark black and white backdrop.
The game follows three main characters, Kara, Connor and Marcus. Their tales amongst the rise in deviant android behaviour are completely distinct from one another, but are also beautifully intertwined. What happens in Connor’s story as he hunts down deviants and looks for the source of their erratic behaviour can have huge impacts on what happens in Marcus’s story as he becomes swept up in the revolution. Detroit features possibly the best use of the butterfly effect I have seen implemented in a game, with choices made in each self-contained chapter having both minor and major consequences further on down the line. Often the weight of a choice won’t be apparent until a specific event and depending on what you decide to do the story can swing wildly in an unexpected direction.
While Detroit’s narrative isn’t as beard strokingly high concept as it might have been, what really drew me into the relatively simple plot were the strongly written characters, helped in no small part by the incredible production values and meticulous motion capture that bring them to life. This is the bleeding edge of motion capture, and although some side characters appear like they’re having a vacay in the uncanny valley, there is such a beautiful human quality to the expressions on the characters’ faces that it is impossible not to be drawn into them. Whether it’s the sad look in Alice’s eyes, Chloe’s capricious smile, the conflict and pain that plays across Marcus’ features or the unwavering motherly
When one Chloe isn’t enough
determination of Kara, these characters look and feel human. As such, the bonds that you form with the characters, and the bonds they form between one another feel tangible and set up some incredibly gut-punching emotional moments. It also gives substantial weight to the moral quandaries you find yourself in, and in some sequences I am not ashamed to say my heart was in my throat as I offered a silent prayer that my choices would get us through.
While Detroit’s narrative isn’t as beard strokingly high concept as it might have been, what really drew me into the relatively simple plot were the strongly written characters, helped in no small part by the incredible production values and meticulous motion capture that bring them to life
People with this haircut have a 100% chance of being a flog
Murder was the case that they gave me
Even with all the branching points in the plot, the game does an admirable job of making sense no matter what crazy path you walk down, however there are a few logical inconsistencies here and there, and a late-game twist also casts a weird shadow on earlier events that might have you questioning how it was handled. Still, if you are able to temporarily suspend your disbelief and simply get on board the feels train then you’ll be well rewarded. I’ve played the game through twice with radically different results and found whole new sections that I didn’t even see in my first playthrough. While I love this aspect, I do think that the replaying of chapters for different outcomes could have been better handled. As it stands you pretty much have to play through the entire game multiple times to see all the paths. While this is fine, I would have loved an option where you could choose to play a chapter and select all the branching events leading up to that point that you’d previously unlocked to see how the butterfly effect unfolded.
Gameplay-wise Detroit is possibly the most passive offering that Cage has created yet, but this needn’t be a bad thing. There is limited interactivity with the world, and often you are simply scanning the environment for objects to interact with. There are also quite a few perfunctory button presses which serve precious little purpose other than to remind you that you are holding a controller and not just watching a movie. For those familiar with the Cage’s style this will come as little surprise as it is his signature of sorts (rubbing the touchpad to wash the dishes was a highlight), but for those Cage virgins out there don’t expect overly complex gameplay mechanics. It’s more or less the video game equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure Book. One thing I did love was the Quick Time Events (an opinion that could possibly earn me a burning at the stake in the current climate), which are extremely intense and intuitive. Heart-stopping chase scenes and superb fight choreography are brought to life by these QTEs, and they are simple enough to not be too punishing in their difficulty, but fast enough that when the tension ratchets up a clumsy mistake can be costly. These sections are further intensified by the game’s utterly brilliant musical score, which has been created by multiple composers and tailored to each chapter. The diverse audioscape really shines in Detroit, from sweeping orchestral pieces to muted sci-fi synth perfectly pairing with the moment-to-moment gameplay.
North: Damaged and destructive
There is an old adage that good graphics don’t necessarily equate to good gameplay, and this is most certainly true. But graphical prowess is a cornerstone in Cage’s approach to creating games, as it has the potential to physically attract us to the characters and bestow them with a tangible sense of humanity, driving the player to become invested in their plight. In Detroit’s case this approach has most certainly paid off, providing a genuinely emotionally engaging character-driven plot that changes dynamically based on the choices you make. This style of game is certainly not for everyone, but it’s the closest that Quantic Dream has come to realising their grand dream of a movie/game hybrid, and is most certainly worth a look for the curious.
Reviewed on PS4 / Review code supplied by publisher