Quantic Dream is a studio which has long since settled into a groove. The French developer has achieved great progress in the adventure genre, striding forward game by game in all but the one area that really matters for the genre - narrative. Frustrating as it is, founder David Cage’s storytelling chops are the one thing which leaves Detroit: Become Human high and dry.
The PlayStation 4 exclusive seemed like one of the unlikeliest games to ever come to PC but here it is in all its tarnished glory. Detroit: Become Human is a beautiful game made even better by a high-end rig, although as you may have seen in our Detroit: Become Human PC Performance Report, it can be quite the system hog.
Set in Detroit during the year 2038, Detroit: Become Human is the time-honoured tale of eerily human-like androids. They’re everywhere. These androids are employed in the service of humans, performing menial jobs, existing in servitude, and generally filling in all the gaps which don’t require creative input. Unfortunately for the flesh and blood inhabitants of Detroit, this mean unemployment has skyrocketed and these eternal machines are treated with, at best, suspicion, or at worst, outright contempt. Grouchy old men complain about them stealing their jobs while they sit on their arse, just as contemporary bigots sit around and complain about migrants in this day and age. In the middle of this are three androids who are wrestling with their own sentience; instilled with a belief that they have a right to exist as humans.
I won’t spoil the plot, insofar as it’s pretty damn difficult to spoil. The first thought that pops into your head for how this tale may pan out? Yep, expect exactly that. It’s a paint-by-numbers take on one of the most overused sci-fi tropes in existence.
But enough about the overarching plot, for now at least, as external to this particular problem, Detroit: Become Human is a top-tier adventure experience. It operates along much the same lines as a Telltale title, albeit with an insanely high production value and what feels to be far more key branching decisions. The world itself is imbued with incredible technical flair. Aside from egregious use of Depth of Field it is a gorgeous achievement with tons of environmental variety and a fairly down-to-earth take on what life may be like in two decades’ time.
For those, like me, who get a kick from just stopping and smelling the roses, there’s something to latch onto here. I’m a big fan of world building and seeing how the creators envision even the seemingly small things like traffic lights, public transport and advertising hoardings are portrayed in this world. There’s an intriguing clash present in Detroit: Become Human, one in which technology has butted up against the old ways. Not everything is high-tech. There are still run-down slums, and artists sticking to tried and trusted paint and canvas, presenting a halfway house that accurately depicts the division between the haves and the have-nots.
A lot of the time, what you’ll be doing in these places will be fairly humdrum and slow-paced. Fiddling with items, checking out digital newspapers, or just simply chatting to folks. Everything is contextual, playing out glorified quick-time events for the most part. As far as traditional gameplay goes, this is all about the decisions you make, whether on purpose of even unknowingly. The very act of noticing you could interact with a specific thing could cause Detroit’s story to spiral off in a different way, for example.
One of the big quality-of-life improvements over the studio’s previous games is Detroit’s flowchart system. Every since you make is mapped out on a giant flowchart which goes from chapter to chapter, showing which decisions caused to story to branch off or even head to different locations entirely. I’d advise you play through the whole game once first but, once the credits roll, you can head back into any moment you want and see how it could’ve played out differently. It tags which route you’ve taken, letting players 100% the game if they wish. I didn’t find it as engaging as similar systems in, say, Virtue’s Last Reward, where going down different story routes can provide critical information which can then help you make different decisions in the past, but it’s still a lovely way of providing a quick method to mess around with different outcomes.
Overall, Quantic Dreams has done a great job at stitching all of these interactions together as well. It feels fluid and cohesive, successfully blotting out the puppet strings which are being played in the background. As an exercise in choose-your-own-adventure mechanics, it’s a wonderful experience. Sadly, the story draped over this wonderful framework just isn’t up to snuff.
Detroit has the kernel of a good adventure game in there somewhere, and a number of folks at Quantic Dream are clearly supremely talented, but a game such as this lives and dies on its narrative. At this point, someone should probably prise the typewriter out of David Cage’s hands. I think we’ve seen enough over the past 15 years to realise storytelling craft and narrative guile aren’t his lane and perhaps it would be beneficial to all involved if someone else stood up and took the reins.
Detroit: Become Human is ultimately a deeply political game, if the politics of nothing mean anything to you. Many have tried their hand at a tale of minority rights and oppression within society, almost invariably to greater effect than we see here.
The basic tenet of AI becoming sentient is a sci-fi staple as old as the genre itself. Constantly and clumsily alluding to robots’ fight for freedom being akin to black slavery just comes off as a gross comparison. It wouldn’t be so tragic were it not for the constant grasping of low hanging fruit. Detroit’s androids are subject to a life of servitude, bought and sold like cars. They have to sit at the back of the bus. The humans complain they’re stealing their jobs, that they can’t be trusted and may turn violent at any moment. Androids are identified by armbands. It's sledgehammer writing which uses important historic moments from actual fights for equality and justice as throwaway bullet points. It's an absolute mockery to the actual fight for racial equality to heavily allude that an immortal robot with a chip for a brain sitting at the back of a bus is one and the same as a person with different colour skin being forced to do the same. Cage never feels the need to explain why these are contextually important moments, preferring instead to leach off human history and tragedy to do the storytelling for him.
The very idea that these androids are less than human is hammered in at every turn, because, well, they by definition aren’t human. Constantly comparing them to slaves then? It deligimatises a genuine human struggle which is still found in some corners of the world today. It’s baby’s first racism lesson and portrayed so unashamedly and confidently you could almost be forgiven for thinking Quantic Dreams had something interesting to say. They don’t. Which is a shame, because it's easy to see how very different this project could've been with a few different writers at the helm.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to get out of Detroit: Become Human. At a superficial level it looks fantastic, your choices can often feel hefty and impactful, and the overall presentation value is comfortably in the very top tier of adventure games. But it is a game you may have to enjoy through gritted teeth; either raging or outright laughing at the clunky metaphors and hamfisted messages. Enjoy it I did though, honestly, even if it wasn't perhaps for the reasons Cage may have been hoping for.