You gotta use your mind in Detroit Robot City.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4
Detroit: Become Human was my first experience with a David Cage game. Just let that sink in for a minute. Quite possibly one of gaming’s biggest dividers, titles from David Cage’s studio Quantic Dream have challenged the public for decades. From Fahrenheit, to Heavy Rain, to Beyond: Two Souls, Mr. Cage’s unorthodox focus on cinema-style storytelling and choice-driven narratives never fail to raise the question “Is this a video game?.” Well, after finishing Detroit, I went and played Heavy Rain for the first time, and after trudging through its sluggish first act I wound up thoroughly enjoying the game, albeit eight years after its release. I must admit it did have a very linear movie-like storyline, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable as a video game experience. Fortunately, Detroit: Become Human took those Hollywood qualities and applied them to a fascinating plot concerning independence and a struggle for freedom, alongside thrilling moments of exploration and quick time events and quite possibly the most beautiful graphics to date on the PlayStation 4. All in all, David Cage has delivered yet another instant classic, but it is not entirely without faults.
The story of Detroit: Become Human follows three incredibly different characters: Connor, Markus, and Kara. Each character has their own unique personality, which wouldn’t be so strange if they weren’t all cut from the same exact cloth, considering they are all androids. In the year 2038, androids are used by the public for menial household tasks, as well as taking jobs as salesmen and cashiers — the latter of which has created much disdain among the populace, as humans have begun to lose their jobs to these androids. Because of this, a large anti-android movement rises up during the beginning of Detroit, and throughout the game our main characters face these challenges day in and day out. The plot’s racial undertones mirror those in today’s society, and it’s this awareness of modern day issues that feels simultaneously important and a bit too blatantly obvious, to the point of “pushy.”
Arguably the most powerful-yet-preachy storyline in Detroit is Markus’s. This follows an android whose human “father” urges him to find his purpose in life, and become something more than what his programming allows. It’s important to note that while this review may seem spoilery at times, there are so many possible outcomes that my experience is one of hundreds. That being said, my story followed Markus as he journeyed to the android haven called “Jericho,” following his father’s death. Having been compelled to seek refuge and start a new life away from human society, my Markus could choose to take a reckless or peaceful approach to establishing independence and freedom for androids. It began as a storyline I could easily get behind, wanting more from life and following a dream. However, what started off as a Disney-princess-caliber redemption tale quickly became an all-too-real social commentary on the world at large.
Over time, Markus becomes the leader of Jericho — this group of rogue androids with varying methods of gaining their freedom. Some, like North, want to take action and set the world on fire. Others, like Josh, think that a more thoughtful, pacifistic approach would help get the point across. This struggle between maintaining balance and keeping Markus’s allies happy is an enticing concept, however it is never fully explained why Markus is so special. He just appears at Jericho, and suddenly he steps into this role of android Jesus. Naturally it makes sense, as this is a video game, and nobody wants to play as a random follower. But Markus’s role in the Jericho storyline is very tossed together and unbelievable when looked at with a wider lens than David Cage wants the player to.
Fortunately, Kara’s storyline is much more straightforward than Markus’s, but more enjoyable it is not. Kara’s tale follows a female android who is purchased by an abusive father to take care of his daughter, Alice. After a series of unfortunate events, no pun intended, Kara and Alice run away from society to find a new life in Canada, where androids are treated as equals. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with Kara’s storyline, there’s just not enough satisfying meat to make it memorable. Probably the most entertaining moment was the encounter with Dr. Zlatko and the introduction of Luther, who may or may not become Kara’s companion, depending on the choices made. It’s in this scene that one of the most anxiety-driven quick time events of the game appears, yet aside from this tense moment, there’s not much else that piqued my interest in Kara’s timeline. For the most part it just feels like filler, adding a female protagonist and a family dynamic to the whole “androids are people too” theme. It doesn’t quite stand up against the rest of Detroit’s narrative, but Kara’s story did do the best job at presenting the game’s most unique feature.
When talking about Detroit with some friends of mine, I mentioned a moment from Kara’s story that kind of got my goat. It involved a rogue android who was squatting in a house I chose to stay in for shelter from the rain. It was only after I explained my whole situation that my friend said, “I never met that guy,” and then it hit me. Detroit’s branching narrative is done beautifully. Whole sections of the story can be overlooked, characters can be avoided entirely, and no two playthroughs are exactly identical. As a lover of narrative-driven games, this is where I have to give David Cage a lot of props. Quantic Dream did an excellent job delivering on their promise of a unique experience every time. I’ve never before wanted to replay a game while I’m playing it for the first time. But in Detroit, every time I made a choice I almost wanted to write it down so my next playthrough would be totally different. It’s a feeling I’ve never encountered before.
Without question, the most thought-out storyline in Detroit is Connor’s. An android developed by the CyberLife corporation, Connor is a prototype model created to help Detroit police with detective work. He is assigned to Hank, a grizzled lieutenant with a shady past. His blatant prejudice towards androids and his internal struggle to respect his new partner provides the most intriguing aspect of Detroit’s narrative: global tolerance. Whereas Markus’s story takes the issue head on and continuously shoves the message into the player’s face, Connor’s timeline is much more palatable. This is because the relationship between Hank and Connor is fleshed out over time. There is no moment where Hank just starts believing in androids’ rights, unlike Markus’s Christ-like underdog role that just all of a sudden makes itself known. Hank’s feelings toward Connor can fluctuate drastically throughout the story, which actually gives purpose to the player’s decision-making. Over time, Hank can either choose to become sympathetic to the androids’ plight, or continue being, well, grizzled. Rather than have a message looming over this storyline, Connor’s tale provides a unique perspective on racism between two unlikely companions. On top of this, Hank and Connor are simply more likable than the other android protagonists. Their buddy cop dynamic breathes fresh life into a not-so-subtle narrative full of true-to-life themes and controversial subject matter.
Connor’s storyline is also where a large majority of the “gameplay” resides in Detroit. While many may view this game as more of an interactive film, its reliance on exploration and discovery help give it more of a video game feel, and this feature must not be overlooked. Exploration is key to unlocking more of the plot, as every detail you look at could be used in dialogue down the road. I won’t spoil anything, but there is an entire subplot in Detroit that will only reveal itself through proper searching and analyzing even the smallest details. Not only that, but these aforementioned dialogue segments can be vital in learning everything Detroit has to offer. Relationships can change if the wrong things are said, for better or worse, and there are so many secrets to be revealed by simply talking to other characters. As well as conversing with NPCs, androids have the power to recreate crime scenes to hunt for more clues. Utilizing Batman-esque video playback, the player can go back in time, flip a whole situation on its head, and analyze key moments from multiple angles. Quantic Dream pulled out all the stops to ensure Detroit is a city full of mystery, and it’s as lifelike as can be.
Thankfully, if Detroit is to be viewed as an interactive movie, it couldn’t ask to be more beautiful. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I have never seen a more stunning game on the PlayStation 4. I reviewed this on a PS4 Pro, and I must say this system was worth every penny to see Detroit: Become Human in all its nearly 4K splendor. Eye movements are quick and responsive, body animations never stutter, and I can only recall experiencing a single bug in my whole playthrough (My legs just stopped working and I couldn’t move. Typical Tuesday for me, really). On top of this, the environments are bustling, teeming with life, and vibrantly colored (unless they choose to be dank and dingy, or snow-covered and bleak). Every kind of locale is represented, and this honestly helped Detroit jump genres throughout the game. One memorable scene nearly had me convinced we were in Resident Evil-esque horror territory, complete with a couple jump scares I was not expecting. This genre-hopping added to the experience immensely, all thanks to a change in scenery. From the center of Detroit to the monstrous husk that is Jericho, every set piece in the game is a spectacle, and I never wanted to look away. I sat there and thought to myself, “I could watch someone else play this and be just as entertained.”
Detroit is a truly breathtaking game. My only gripe came from the annoying mouth animations, which were clunky and off-putting. Voices simply didn’t work coming from these muppets, as the tongues barely moved and their expressions remained lifeless. It was unsettling to say the least, and took me out of the experience on more than one occasion. Fortunately, the vocal performances made up for this some, as industry vets like Valorie Curry and Clancy Brown provided some stellar VO work, with the latter being an absolutely unforgettable presentation of dramatic skill. Other than that one fairly minor visual hiccup, though, Detroit is the prettiest game I have ever played, hands down. Just…don’t look them in the mouth.
Gameplay-wise, Detroit is a bit underwhelming, but this is a Quantic Dream game we’re talking about. As I initially played Detroit, I found myself falling in love with the way button prompts worked. I never got tired of turning my thumbstick to open a door, or holding multiple buttons down at once to complete some complicated task. I always thought, “How unique!,” until I played Heavy Rain directly afterwards and noticed all of the same techniques being used, nearly a decade ago. Long story short, Detroit‘s gameplay became a bit less impressive, but I still enjoyed it nonetheless. Thankfully times have changed a bit since Heavy Rain‘s “hold the right trigger to walk” scheme, or I would’ve had some harsher words to say. Sadly the messed up camera angles remain. Quick time events are still present; however, the new ability to choose alternate paths (like in the thrilling, expertly crafted chase sequences) is a refreshing addition, providing the player with more freedom of choice. Another fun new gameplay aspect was the use of the touch screen as a button prompt, and the controller’s accelerometer had me actually throwing my body this way and that during certain QTEs. I felt like I was really part of the action, and while it made the “movie” feel more “gamey,” I never felt like it broke the action. I thoroughly enjoyed living out my character’s story, albeit in the smallest way possible.
There’s no question that Detroit has a tendency to seem preachy, utilizing fairly straightforward practices to drive its point home, from acts of violence and public tagging to methodical protest in the form of marches, speeches, and barricades. However, Detroit’s overall message is one that should be heard, and although it can sometimes come on a bit too strong, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t beautiful at times. Detroit, at its heart, is a story of morality and humanity. Its characters represent all races and sexualities, and their stories intertwine in a way that culminates in quite a brilliant fashion. Furthermore, every protagonist fights for a different cause, and it’s inspiring to see their separate timelines play out and their emotions develop. Markus fights for his people and, driven by a noble cause, aims to forge bonds between humans and androids no matter what the cost. Kara fights for Alice, regardless of the human/android conflict, and the relationship they have provides a more realistic view of families in turmoil and the effects that a stressful situation can have on people of different backgrounds. Connor’s fight for justice causes him to question his morals entirely, frequently leaving him torn between doing the right thing and doing as he’s told. Every character is faced with a life-changing quandary, and in a way I think we can all relate to each android’s struggle, which makes Detroit such a remarkable story underneath the sanctimonious surface. Pull back the curtain on this Les Miserable wannabe, and there’s much more to this David Cage tale than meets the eye.
I’ve already vowed to replay Detroit: Become Human every couple months or so and try a new perspective. Next up, the angry and reckless route! But does that make Detroit a good game? While it has its flaws, Quantic Dream’s latest epic is nothing short of that. It is truly an epic, awe-inspiring game that I never once wanted to put down. I found myself standing at work, itching to get home and play more. Or watch more. But that’s the thing; whether you play Detroit as a game, or watch it as a film, you’re not going to be disappointed. With tons of narrative possibilities, an enjoyable cast of characters, and the most stunning visuals ever to grace a console, Detroit’s positives certainly outweigh the negatives and deliver one fantastic package, right to your door, no android butler required.