“Detroit: Become Human”, digital storytelling at its finest

Detroit: Become Human” is a 2018 videogame created by the French studio Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls) and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It was initially released only for PS4, but it’s been adapted for PC in 2019. I finally decided to buy it after it’s been made available on my favorite platform, Steam.

I waited to buy it, I was initially put off by a couple of less than enthusiastic reviews. It’s got 78 on Metacritic, which isn’t exactly flattering (but 8.8 from 4300+ user scores, out of 10). In particular, this piece on PC Gamer found the story superficial, and the political themes treated in an insensitive way. Everybody is entitled to their opinion – but I really disagree with the point. I think it was reviewed superficially: more on this later). I am glad I asked several other friends who played the game in depth and followed their recommendations instead.

I decided to make this article SPOILER-FREE, so read without fear, this will not impact your gameplay experience. Just some notes on the main characters that you will find in any review.

“Detroit: Become Human” is a very interesting product that almost defies definition. It bends the boundaries of interactive storytelling – a bit like Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch did a couple of years ago – but it falls solidly in the “videogame” category.

Essentially, it’s an interactive story set in our near future (in 2038) in which androids, intelligent machines designed to look like us, but better than us, are commonly available on the market. They come in different models, from the cheapest and most basic, to the most expensive and sophisticated. They are commonly used to replace humans in chores such as roadworks, child and elderly care, customer service, sales, security and so on (and yes, even sex work, because of course). They are sold in open, bright Cyberlife shops that remind very closely the neat design of our contemporary Apple stores.

The player takes control of three of them: Connor (Bryan Dechart), a prototype-level detective designed to cooperate with the police on a delicate investigation; Kara (Valorie Curry), a more basic housekeeper model; and Markus (Jesse Williams), a custom-made android created to be the personal assistant of a famous and eccentric artist. Their stories are initially separated, but get more and more intertwined as the plot progresses, with the fate of each impacting also the others, and the world in general.

In the first few chapters, the player explores the world through gameplay and other in-game sources, like magazines and ads. In the game’s world, the creation of androids solved a number of problems but at the same time raised just as many: from massive unemployment to the rise of “android music” and literature, which threaten to wipe away their human equivalents. Androids are never hungry, sleepy or tired – they can get injured and “die”, though – and for their characteristics, they make for perfect athletes. Would people still watch sports if they were played by machines? They are also extensively used in warfare and space exploration by all the major world powers. And more and more people declare to have fallen in love with a cybernetic partner. Is it still love, when your companion is programmed to please you?

These interesting questions, and more, arise from the early minutes in the game. In just the space of a few chapters, things get quite heated though, and the androids (and the player) realize that there is much more at stake. Some androids (called “deviants”) seem capable of free will. Or are they?

Why did I find the game so interesting? I summed up the reasons in 6 easy to read big blocks. Here they are.

1. First of all, it’s technically impressive, and a real beauty to watch. This is undeniable. It’s the state of the art on PC (4K with 60 fps), excellent on PS4. The level of detail of characters and backgrounds is just unreal. It makes complete use of motion-capture and every expression or gesture you see on screen has been performed live by actors. We are talking about thousands and thousands of hours of work behind this thing. It’s (generally) well acted – the leading performers are known figures such as Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy), Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers), Lance Henriksen (Aliens) – and it flows like a gorgeous, long, high-budget, interactive movie.

Have a look at the “making of” video if you want to know more about this.

2. The Characters. Every decision about them counts and is left to the player (well ok, sort of). It will be easy to become invested in the protagonists, unless you really are made of plastic you will end up loving at least some of them. Connor is probably the most intriguing, since his arc can develop in completely divergent ways (I promised no spoilers, so I won’t say more). Markus is there to embody free will, justice, leadership and the responsibilities that come with them. He was created “different” (meaning, more human) and he will have the choice to embrace his destiny but again, his storyline can evolve from becoming the leader of a global rebellion, or ending up as some sort of lonely reject.

Kara starts as a humble housekeeper, but will probably have the most challenging journey of all, touching topics like family, abuse and asylum seeking. For her, too, there are multiple very different endings available.

The secondary characters are also well rounded and contribute to creating a living and breathing world.

A special mention goes to Hank (played by Clancy Brown), the veteran and so out of shape police detective. He embraces some stereotypes (including the donut-eating cop), but stands out as one of the warmest and memorable characters of the story. And again, he can end up really well, or really bad.

 

Whenever confronted with a choice, the narration will stop and a menu will appear on-screen. The player will have just a few seconds to make up their mind and determine what happens. The options are sometimes mundane (especially in the early game), small things like taking the trash out or cleaning the dishes instead, but things will quickly escalate to the point where one has to decide whether to kill or not a specific character; play dead or fight back during an armed assault; and so on. It’s always gripping and very exciting. I was so invested in the story I got tears in my eyes while playing. More times than I care to admit.

Detroit left me all the time with the (bad) feeling of making one mistake after another, never knowing what was the right thing to do. Just like in real life. In a game that explores the notion of consciousness and what it means to be alive, I found it fascinating. I never fully knew if I was playing a game, or if the game was playing me.

3. Its branching storyline is huge and in full display, for you to explore. Because of its interactive and open-ended nature, every chapter of the game has a myriad of possible endings, and many decisions can have consequences in later parts of the story.

Scenarios can be unlocked or permanently blocked, characters can become friends or enemies, or even die (including all the protagonists). This makes for a lot of replaying value: according to a spoiler-heavy Reddit, the game counts 85 endings in total. Exploring them can be a lot of fun. David Cage, the game’s controversial author, famously declared that “game over is a failure in game design“. No matter what happens, who lives and who dies, the story will go on and reach an ending that will feel (more or less) complete.

What’s maybe even more interesting, at the end of each chapter you can have a look at its flowchart, to see what decisions led to which consequences, and possibly what to do differently next time. The game also presents the “worldwide” statistics, so you can tell if you are following a storyline that many other players chose, or a less mainstream one – and these are often the most unpredictable and interesting. There are entire youtube channels dedicated to exploring all of them.

4. The gameplay: a mix of investigation, character development and action that works really well. The three storylines present very different challenges but work together for a very rich gaming and storytelling experience.

Connor will have some hardcore police work to do (reminiscent of Blade Runner and similar to the Batman: Arkham Asylum series), and to explore a crime scene with enhanced android abilities – like, licking any fluid to identify it – can be a lot of fun. Especially if it’s a crime you committed with another character. But he will also decide how to develop his relationship with his partner, the human detective Hank. Kara will have some important decisions to make on what role she wants for herself and whether or not to live to fulfill other people’s expectations of her. Since it starts really low-key, it’s the storyline that can offer the biggest and most shocking turns. Markus, thanks to his special design and upbringing (nature & nurture) will develop incredible messianic abilities that can potentially put him in charge of the movement for android rights. He will be able to draw inspiration from Martin Luther King or Descartes depending on the circumstances.

All decisions will affect each character’s status and relationship with everybody else in the world, including the very influential public opinion shaped and reflected by the constant media coverage of events, and the overall results can vary drastically. This means that every single choice feels loaded with responsibility, a very fulfilling gameplay experience.

And then, sometimes unexpectedly, the game can erupt in a frantic action sequence (a fight, a high-speed rooftop chase) in which the player must interact by doing the right thing at the right time. And here, again, success leads to rewards while mistakes can have dire consequences: make one false step while crossing a busy highway and probably see one of your favorite characters die in an accident. The result is some seriously nail-biting action that can have a gratifying or devastating impact on your storyline.

5. The game is much more than the sum of its parts! Now, let’s get to the most critical aspects. Yes, the writing is not always A+ level and the topics, even the most sensitive ones, are generally thrown in-your-face, which has upset some reviewers. The game seems to take itself very seriously. And none of its specific elements feel incredibly original in themselves (after Blade Runner, everything with androids is derivative, but I could find direct influences from Westworld, Ex Machina, The Matrix, Terminator, Prometheus, Alita, and the list could go on).

And yet, if you ask me, this game works wonderfully. The production level is incredibly high (Sony declared a development budget of 37 million USD, 50+ including marketing), with all the features of a big-budget Hollywood movie (soundtrack, voice acting, settings, design) which contribute to a completely immersive experience. The pace is frantic, once the story reaches full speed the events move at a breath-taking speed with the stakes constantly raising. It’s thrilling, fun, rewarding, and you cannot “lose”: even if everything goes belly up, somehow the story finds a way to reach a satisfying conclusion. Someone “wins”, and you as the player are rewarded with the experience. It’s really satisfying to take part in a piece of interactive storytelling of this scale.

6. It tackles big political, philosophical, social themes. So much, it can stimulate discussion and even be used as textbook. Again, with full respect to anyone who can have a different opinion, this is what I think. This is a game that refuses to be confined in a narrow definition. You may like it or not, but it clearly has “artistic” ambitions. As such, it’s in its nature to challenge and provoke. It’s certainly OK to have radically different opinions about a piece of art, so this shows what can happen when “videogames” grow up.

Detroit explores heavy topics such as racism, segregation, human and civil rights, immigration and asylum, sexuality, torture, abuse and even the brutality of concentration camps. It’s heavy-handed, yes, but so were Schindler’s List, Amistad or District 9 and nobody protested back then. Is it maybe that, even from inside the industry, some watch uncomfortably as videogames grow out of their control?

Honestly, of course I am not free from bias, but I had some incredibly strong experiences while going through various parts of this game. Yes it has a “heavy” tone, but once you accept its premises, it has a lot to offer in return.

I played (more like, watched) my third full playthrough with my geek colleagues and friends Michele (from the blog Handshaking) and Jan, and after all the fun was over we agreed: this could easily be used as a textbook in a training course or classroom. Imagine giving a class the assignment to play chapters 1 through 5, and then having a discussion together, or writing an essay. After all, books and movies are commonly used as supports in learning environments. Why not videogames, especially when so well crafted? It’s only a matter of time, so let’s get to it.

All these questions (and more) could be explored by playing “critically” this game: do sentient androids deserve full control over their reproduction rights? Can they be considered “alive”? Is violence justified against a violent oppressor? What constitutes “a person”? How is violence against women represented in media? And racial oppression? Is my smartphone judging me right now?

Not to mention that it can be a social experience, and it’s great to play it with buddies (online or in presence). Quantic Dreams has recently released the community play extension, so that people playing and watching a game on Twitch can decide together which course to take. The release for PC on Steam projected the game over 5 million copies sold.

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2 thoughts on ““Detroit: Become Human”, digital storytelling at its finest

  1. Thanks for this honest review; I, too, have wanted to play Detroit ever since seeing it released for PS4 but had resigned myself to never getting the opportunity as I never intend to purchase a console ever again. When it was released on Steam, as you said, “mixed” reviews might be generous. Lol.

    I’ve started to learn to take reviews with a grain of salt though, unless they’re from someone whose opinion you respect. Gaming magazines or sites are incredibly fickle and aggregate sites like Metacritic are subject to the fact that the average human being, let alone gamer, is an insipid mound of trash. (a joke, for the most part)

    It’s curious that so many people are incapable of respecting the artistic creativity behind a game instead of focusing solely on whether or not terrorists ragdoll appropriately when you point blank them in the face with an RPG. It might be a reason so few development houses are willing to experiment and deviate from the four or five well-established “successful” game types.

    Death Stranding is a good example. It has abysmal reviews and had Hideo Kojima not developed it, it likely wouldn’t have sold even close to as many copies as it has and would be one of those “cult classic” games discovered in 20 years as Steam tries to recycle its library. I enjoyed it quite a lot though. I don’t find the plot anywhere near as difficult to understand or convoluted as reviewers had claimed. I think that using “likes” as a method of getting players to cooperate with one another was a brilliant mechanic and will probably be used by less ingenious publishers in the future.

    Anything that tackles difficult topics will have plenty of haters though. That’s provided they even do it well and not on a superficial, virtue-signalling level like most entertainment franchises do. I’m going to definitely pick up Detroit, though. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your deep comment (as always)!
      Reviews are subjective by nature. When I say that something is “fun to play” it may or not be true for the next person. We may try to stick to objective parameters but an experience like a movie or a videogame involves much more than that – and besides, there are very few “objective” parameters we can base our judgment on. We cannot rate games based on the fps and gigabytes of content only. So, I guess videogames as a form of art will have to follow a similar course as cinema did. When a movie is released, reviewers watch it critically and they write what they think. Opinions can differ a lot, but the public accepts that reviewers have personal points of view and appreciate very different aspects of a movie as such.
      This also means journalists have to specialize and differentiate their work. A reviewer cannot judge all games based on the same parameters, just as one would not compare a “Transformers” movie with a Lars Von Trier.
      And THEN there is the user score. But that’s another story. The numbers can be much higher, but people are now used to review-bombing for whatever reason, and the waters are getting really muddy.

      The aspect I really didn’t understand about all the criticism for “Detroit” is that the game takes itself too seriously. And so what, if it does?

      Anywyay, thanks for stopping by. Death Stranding is indeed next on my list :) I will let you know.

      Liked by 1 person

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