Developer: Quantic Dream
Available On: PS4
Released: May 25, 2018
“Teaching Robots To Love”
Minor spoilers ahead for the first half hour or so of Detroit: Become Human (mostly the demo).
Wait, it’s……good? But, I had so many Heavy Rain jokes!
Jaysoughnunanablughuh! Are you having emotions yet!!??
Seriously, up to this point, I would have described Quantic Dream’s output as middling at best. Heavy Rain was somewhat innovative, but equally awkward and unintentionally hilarious, and though I never played Beyond: Two Souls, the impression I get from the general discourse is that I was kind of a dud, further reinforced by the fact that all I’ve ever personally heard of it from acquaintances that have played it is “Ooooh! Ellen Page!” and not “I love that part where __(Literally anything that happens in the game)__”. So while I didn’t go into Detroit: Become Human’s demo determined to hate it, I didn’t exactly have high hopes for the game as the scene opened on Connor, the first of the game’s three protagonists, standing in an elevator. But when Connor produced a coin and started playing with it in the kind of super-precise, physics-abusing way that only an android could believably do, my apprehensions began to rapidly erode. “What’s this?” I thought. “Is it…actual characterization? Are you characterizing a character, Quantic Dream? Am I seeing subtle indications of something else going on beneath the surface of this character’s cold exterior that might hint at more significant character development later in the game? Well, it only took you four freakin’ games guys, but bravo!”
Promptly the elevator doors opened and I found myself in a hallway in the aftermath of a violent struggle, a partially smashed fish tank in one of the walls and an exotic fish flopping around on the floor. Navigating my way through the first of Detroit’s difficult moral quandaries, I scooped the fish off of the floor and deposited it back into the safety of the fish tank.
It was fortunate that I happened to be in the area as I discovered another, even more dire situation was brewing not far off when moment later, a S.W.A.T. officer escorted the mother of the apparent hostage towards the elevator I’d just come from, her protesting the use of an android negotiator all the way to the elevator. I wasn’t given the option to converse with her, but if I had been, I would have told her that she could rest easy, secure in the knowledge that if her daughter was flopping around on the floor of that apartment, I would find her, and I would submerge her in a tank of water.
It was smart of Quantic Dream to cut off Detroit’s first chapter and use it as a demo, because whether they explicitly planned it or not, the first chapter really is the entire game in microcosm, running me through the controls, the conversation system and the time-stopping scan mechanic that highlights areas of interest before sending me off to deal with the hostage situation at the end of the demo.
Detroit has it’s issues, namely that David Cage doesn’t subtly tug at your heartstrings so much as go to town on your chest with a shovel trying to figure out where the damn things are, but an engaging story accompanied by smooth gameplay, diverse set pieces with a surprising amount of action and choice that, unlike a lot of adventure games, isn’t an illusion make Detroit: Become Human inarguably Quantic Dream’s best game to date.
If you’ve played an adventure game in the last decade, you’ll find Detroit to be an instantly familiar, though highly refined version of that same well known formula. This refinement is more substance than style in Detroit’s case though, mainly because unlike most previous Quantic Dream games, the gameplay isn’t (to put it bluntly) boring. With Detroit, David Cage seems to have learned that there are other ways to show us what a characters normal boring life is like without making us play through a boring level and completing a set of normal boring tasks. Whether you’re talking to a new character, investigating a crime scene or playing through one of the game’s numerous and surprisingly competent action set pieces, Detroit generally does a good job of keeping you engaged from scene to scene.
Despite the constant switching of characters, the game never leaves the perspective of an android and aids both the immersion, making us feel constantly separate from humanity, and also the gameplay. Detroit never has to stop, for example, to explain how the scanning mechanic works in it’s universe because we can simply intuit that what we perceive as a time stop is just a split second in the continuously whirring mind of a machine. There really isn’t much to say about Detroit’s gameplay except that it might have the smoothest controls for an adventure game I’ve yet seen.
If pressed, I might say that the one weak link in the otherwise perfectly functional gameplay might be the game’s conversation system. The system itself, selecting one of four lines from your controllers face buttons is well-worn and works just fine, but the fact that the dialogue prompts are pared down to just one or two words can make it difficult to choose an appropriate response to a given situation. It usually isn’t much of a problem, but on a few occasions choosing a response felt like throwing a dart, and when attempting to make an impassioned bid for peace with one character, a series of such misunderstood dialogue prompts lead to the speech sounding more like it came out of Goldfinger then Ghandi, which definitely made things a little more difficult later on in the story.
Of the Detroit’s three main characters, it was Connor’s story that ended up being the one I consistently enjoyed playing through the most. Nearly every scene with Connor is a joy to play through because he talks and acts exactly like Star Trek’s Data. His story also has him acting opposite renowned character actor Clancy Brown playing a burnt-out, hard-nosed cop, and at times their interactions have shades of the excellent but short-lived TV series Almost Human.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly all of the dialogue spoken by any of the cold, emotionless robot characters comes off as totally believable while the human characters still occasionally sound a little off, whether it’s a great actor like Clancy Brown or Lance Henriksen struggling against clumsily written lines, or an antagonist grinding an otherwise effective scene to a halt so he can spend five minutes talking about how evil he is. Incidentally, if a character in a Quantic Dream game invites you into his murder basement with promises of gold and ponies and gumdrops, you might want to check your exits first. That might be a good rule in the event that David Cage himself invites you into a basement as well because at this point, I’m not convinced he knows what else they’re for.
But, he pinky swore! He had a whole bag full of pinkys!
To say that Detroit struggles to keep a consistent tone isn’t entirely accurate, as the tone in question is always serious, switching only between dour-serious and Minority Report-style, cool-serious. Rather, when I say that Detroit has a problem with tone, the problem is in what it expects us to take seriously. This is perhaps best exemplified (again, within the first half hour of the game) when we meet Kara, an android who, after having being sent in for repairs, is picked up and taken home by her owner, Todd. It takes a unit of time so small it remains yet unnamed by science to identify Todd as an unkempt, violent, drug dealing, child abusing sociopath, even before he tells the repair shop guy “She had a *snoOORt*, accident. She got hit by uhh…a car. *Hic!* Yeah, a car covered in fists *bluurh*, and uh……and alcohol”.
If the home Kara returned to had been a reasonably normal or even upscale suburban home populated by normal, recognizably human characters, it might have been more impactful when things start to take a dark turn. It also perhaps would have made me wonder why, when Todd Dastardly ordered me to clean his house, the game made a point of flashing up a huge, blue icon of an open lock whenever I opened a window. But no, I was of course opening up possible future escape routes because of course I was going to have to escape the house at some point, and of course I was going to take the little girl living there with me; so rather than wandering around, taking in the atmosphere and getting immersed in the story, I was instead just walking through the house, checking off boxes while I waited for the other shoe to drop.
Other highlights include a group of protestors yelling about how androids are stealing their jobs, a street preacher yelling about androids being abominations, a sectioned-off area for androids to stand at the back of public transit, and a sequence where one character crawls out of a scrapyard that does a better job of presenting a vision of Hell than most games that take place in Hell.
In terms of effective scenes, Quantic Dream’s track record of “hits” with Detroit certainly outweigh its misses, and at it’s best, Detroit really does manage to craft some excellent vignettes for each character as the story switches back and forth between them, all nicely varied, and Detroit even finds time to squeeze in a short but incredibly tense and well crafted survival horror chapter. I particularly enjoyed the few occasions where the protagonists are made to face off against each other in one form or another, as these scenes usually bring with them some incredibly difficult spit-second decisions to make that can put the winner appreciably ahead in their goals and provide considerable setbacks to the loser.
I’m still not sure I’d call David Cage a great writer, but he has gotten significantly better since the days of Heavy Rain. The one area where he still struggles though is in understanding that in a gut-punch emotional scene, what’s happening is frequently less important than who it’s happening to. In the case of Detroit, the cardboard cutout of a little girl Kara carries around (wow, that was way more alliteration than I was going for) never gets a single character trait beyond “sad and helpless” and the only thing I know after spending eight or so hours of game time with her is that David Cage still hasn’t played Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
After completing the game properly, I went back to a few chapters with some important scenes with lots of variables to see how much I could really change the story by selectively failing of passing certain key challenges. I discovered that, yes, the story really does change dramatically depending on the decisions you make, opening up entirely new scenes for certain characters and frequently impacting the stories of other characters, including for example, whether or not a certain character makes it out of the story alive at all. And though I generally prefer to wear my mistakes in games that offer any kind of significant choice, a particularly cheap and hamfisted attempt at ramping up the drama towards the end of the game did motivate me to go back and significantly rewrite a certain characters fate, opening up an entirely new ending chapter to play through.
It’s for this reason above all that I find myself in the unexpected position wholeheartedly recommending Detroit: Become Human to any and all adventure game enthusiasts. The story has enough twists and turns to keep you entertained even if an individual set piece doesn’t rivet you to your seat, and the writing quality managed to stay consistently high throughout, even if that made it all the more unbelievable when it took an occasional nosedive.
Oh. Now I believe it.