Quantric Dream’s most recent effort depicts a grimly-futuristic Detroit, on the brink of civil unrest. In David Cage’s creative vision, the City has become preeminent in the Western World – the ravages of global warming having rendered coastal regions of the United States inhospitable. The game begins with Chloe, our fourth-wall-breaking android tour guide, informing us that: “This is not just a story. This is our future.” The first of many signs that the game takes itself a little too seriously.
Courtesy of Cyberlife, the World’s first trillion dollar company, the human race has become insidiously dependent on androids – artificially-intelligent, humanoid robots, whom they use and abuse in various servile capacities. The critical role of androids within society only serves to foster hatred in the humans of Cage’s World, who mistrust and malign their robotic counterparts. At its core, Detroit is a story about the injustice the androids face, and the narrative is particularly concerned with the way in which they respond to humanity’s malignance.
Though they were programmed to be subservient, the androids that inhabit Cage’s vision for our future have begun to fight back. In response to threats of violence, or the threat of their own obsolecence, an increasing number of androids – known as ‘Deviants’ – are rising up to kill their oppressors. Suspecting this to be the result of a glitch in their programming, Cyberlife sends Connor – one of the game’s three, android protagonists – to investigate a series of Android-on-Human crimes. It’s all very Bladerunner.
Whilst Connor and his partner, the irascible Detective Anderson, do their level best to track down and decommision the Deviants, Markus and Kara (the game’s other playable characters) – predictably enough – become deviant, and in this way the game deftly entwines the fates of the trio. The result is that it’s often hard to know who you’re rooting for, and who to side with, in any given moment. The game thrives on forcing you to make snap judgements, the results of which can often result in a character’s untimely demise.
At the end of each chapter, a branching illustration is displayed, outling the alternative routes which could have been taken, and identifying choices or revelations which will have consequences in subsequent chapters. Telltale’s games utilise similar systems, of course, but I felt that the branching way in which Detroit goes about this was a particularly nice touch; it made it feel like a very bespoke experience, and added a certain Butterfly Effect style gravity to each new situation.
Detroit is above-all an interactive story, and as such the gameplay mechanics are very limited. For the most part, you will be walking around stunningly crafted, closed-off environments, in which you cannot stray too far – lest you encounter the great red barriers of text which act as invisable walls. There’s no real difficulty or puzzling as such, as – within these zones – all you need do is hold ‘R2’ to identify the objects you can interact with, and then walk to those object in order to progress.
You’ll have to trust me when I say that it’s more entertaining than it sounds. The level of polish here is really quite remarkable, and throughout – particulary during Connor’s CSI style segments – I was thoroughly entertained by the spectacle of it. Ofcourse, it’s not all about walking from Point A to Point B; if you’ve played Quantic’s earlier games, it won’t surprise you to hear that there is no shortage of action sequences, with Quick Time Events aplenty. Fortunately, these are utilised far better here, and for the most part there is none of the clumsy, rage-inducing scrambling that marred Heavy Rain.
Though it is undoubtedly a very basic formula, there are more than enough quirks thrown in to keep things interesting; standout features are the preconstructions utilised by Markus and Connor, in which they set their CPUs to the task of divining the outcome of certain actions during fights and chase sequences etc., prior to executing some slick moves; I’m not entirely clear why Cyberlife would have programmed its housekeeping model to be able to execute advanced parkour, but who am I to question their design choices?
Whilst the primary characters are exceptionally crafted, in terms of visuals and voicing, my main problem with the game is that the really interesting bit – the process by which they develop self-awareness – is never really explored. It’s implied that an android’s sentience is somehow lying dormant behind lines of code, which can be stripped away at at the drop of a hat. This is perhaps most striking in the case of Markus, who transitions from mild-mannered caretaker – entirely constrained by his programming – to ruthless revolutionary in nought seconds flat. He acquires a (somewhat abrasive) personality far too quickly, and it’s jarring; a couple of scenes after becoming sentient, Markus – arrogant, brazen and cold – is looking to assume the lead role in an uprising… Whatever happened to character development?
For the most part though, Detroit does an excellent job of world building – provided one takes the time to pick up the digital magazines that are strewn about the City, in the most unlikely of places. The subject matter ranges from socio-political tales of woe – growing economic inequality, burgeoning unemployment, mounting tensions between Russia and the US – to more lighthearted topics, which provide welcome insights into the World Cage has created; there are articles on whether androids should be allowed to compete in human sports; statistical analyses of the merits and demerits of fornication with androids; and articles about the new line of android infants, for those too busy to raise a bothersome, human child!
Throughout the story, the creative director, David Cage, was clearly at pains to make his story relatable; something he has sought to achieve predominantly through rehashing the various dehumanising ways in which ethnic minorities have been treated in our own societies. The xenophobic attitudes and sentiments propounded by the preachers and picketers that populate Cage’s Detroit sound all too familiar, and the harrowing trials his protagonists undergo – which include being thrown into mass graves, and coralled into what are essentially concentration camps – mirror the atrocities of our history.
Even in the sections that are less patently emotive, Cage evokes memories of opression, rather than writing something new – showing us, for example, androids crammed into the back of Detroit’s self-driving buses. What’s more, Cage seemed at times to revel in his own lack of subtlety; like when Rose – a kindly African-American lady, who operates what is for all intents and purposes an Underground Railroad – casually remarks to Kara that ‘her people’ had experienced similar oppression in times gone by. It truly would have been better for her to have said nothing, as this ellicited nothing more than a wince.
Given Detroit’s chequered past – as a hotbed for racial strife, culminating in a series of brutal riots – these issues undoubtedly deserved to be handled with more care. On balance, however, the many ham-fisted, allegorical contrivances aren’t fatal to the overall enjoyment of the game. Once immersed, the empathy we’re made to feel for the androids in each situation highlights the fact that we’ve come to view them as so much more than robots – which is, at least superficially, the point of Become Human.
If you come to Detroit with an open mind, and are able to forgive the derivative, on-the-nose references within its android rights movement, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had. Though its appropriation of the suffering of minority groups is somewhat lacking in finesse, Detroit is doubtless a highly polished and immersive experience, which blurs the lines between game and cinema. Quantic Dream has perfected its system, which showed promise in Heavy Rain, and was developed with questionable results in Beyond: Two Souls. Detroit is cleaner and more coherent than either title, and prevails due in large part to the likability of its characters, and the relevance of their story.