Detroit: Become Human is the latest game by Quantic Dream. Quantic Dream is best known for Heavy Rain, but has produced a whole series of quick-time-event driven stories. Oh, and for its toxic work culture. Let’s have a look at their latest work, Detroit.
You cannot say ‘Quantic Dream’ without naming its founder, and lead writer, David Cage. David Cage fancies himself a great writer and director. He often says his games are all about ’emotions’, and he wants the players to feel them. The things is, his idea seems to be that the number of polygons in a 3D video game character determines that emotional response.
I think that’s just not true. How an emotional scene is written, visualized or sounds doesn’t determine its emotional impact. The foreshadowing and characterization leading up to that scene make it emotional. Yes, a badly written scene doesn’t work, but a well-written scene without context is worse. The graphics are just icing on the cake. Think about watching only the end of Star Wars, or the Sixth Sense. If you skip the build-up, you end up with melodrama. On the flip side, you can create a pretty good story without awesome graphics — I’ll plug my webcomic here.
I haven’t played David Cage’s first game, Omikron: the Nomad Soul. I have played his other ones, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and now Detroit. All of them suffer from prioritizing scenes with emotions over actually building up to those emotions, and from choosing plot twists over character arcs. Fahrenheit had a very cool premise, but a very weird third act. Heavy Rain — probably David Cage’s best work — had a pretty strong core, but also suffered from strange twists and plot placed above the central arc. Beyond: Two Souls… well, the story was pretty dreadful before Cage decided to put the scenes in random order. Yes, you heard that right: random order.
So, is Detroit better? Well, at the very least, the graphics have reached a new height. This is one pretty game.
Detroit, the story
Detroit: Become Human is a story about three androids. Well, it’s really three stories about androids that sort of intersect. A bit.
In the future, humanity has created cheap androids. These androids do all the work, while the humans treat them like shit. All’s well. though, until androids mysteriously start to develop emotions. Protests and an eventual uprising are the result, with concentration camps added to the mix for kicks.
You get to play three characters: Markus, the leader of the android uprising, Kara, an android escaping domestic abuse, and Connor, an android detective. The premise is interesting, the execution… pretty terrible.
Detroit and slavery
Apparently, David Cage wanted to write a story about Artificial Intelligence and the singularity. He wants to make us think about our humanity, and AI. Fair enough, but then maybe he shouldn’t have sledgehammered in so many references to slavery and the holocaust. Because the result is that the game comes across as an allegory about slavery and racism.
Now, making a game about slavery isn’t bad, it can be a good thing. Unfortunately, like with all other games by David Cage, there is no depth or context.
For example, as a player, you play the androids as they break their programming and develop emotions, the central theme of the game. Problem is, there is no reason or explanation for the why and how of it. You, the player, decide the characters want to break their programming, so you mash some buttons, and voila: you’re androids have emotions. If that’s some kind of deep insight into AI, I’m not seeing it. If it’s an insight into slavery, it’s really sick, because that would imply slaves only rebelled because their masters made them?
Whatever Cage wants to say about AI, it has been said by others, in a better way. As for the slavery part, the words ‘cultural appropriation’ come to mind.
Detroit and psychos
The second big problem is that the matter is presented as completely black and white (sorry, pun not intended). There are humans, they are all abusers. There are androids, they are all victims. There’s no kind human… Well, no. Actually, there’s one, she’s a magical negro helping androids with an underground railroad for androids to escape to Canada.
There are humans who love beating up androids, sexually abuse them, or stub out cigarettes on their arms. Or they just hate them because they took their jobs. And the androids, they are all victims of this abuse, until Markus comes along. This is made extra horrid because the androids are indistinguishable from humans. If they take off their led stickers — which appear to be like a yellow badge from Nazi Germany — humans can’t tell them apart from other humans.
So, apparently, David Cage envisions a future where everybody and their sister are complete psychos that have no problem abusing others. Now, that is something that can happen; I mean, the holocaust happened, and slavery happened. Still, it should be explained, and in this game, it isn’t. The trappings of slavery and the holocaust are appropriated, trying to make players project the context of those historical events onto the game instead of actually having to build them up. That’s just lazy writing and paper thin world-building. And it shows.
Riddle me this: why would it matter that there are no jobs if androids do all the work? Why are all the androids made to look human? If AI is so cheap, why make them bipedal at all, why not install AI in cars, buses, and everything? Why do humans continually abuse their androids? I treat my phone better than they treat their human-looking slave. Why don’t the large number of rogue androids trigger a quicker response from the FBI or police? They go from zero to full-blown androidcide in a matter of days. Why don’t the androids have remote shut-down failsafes? How can the government suddenly decide to kill all androids when they’re doing most of the labor? Seems like it would be magnitudes worse than the Civd lockdowns.
And so on, and so forth.
So, let’s have a look at some of the characters. Connor — Byan Dechart — is an android detective. He has been tasked with finding out about the ‘anomaly’ that is causing androids to go rogue.
After an initial hostage situation he solves, he is paired with Lieutenant Hank Anderson, played by Clancy Brown, a detective with as many clichés rolled into one character as possible: drinking problem, check. Blames himself for death of child, check. Rebels against authority but is secretly a brilliant cop, check. Fights with overbearing boss, check. Eats junk food on the streets where he connects with the homies, check. Hates his new partner because of mysterious reason, check.
It’s like every buddy cop movie, only, with an android and a human. Wait a minute… it’s Almost Human! Only not that good. The problem is the very strange intimate conversations between the two. Is Connor in love with Hank? Is he trying to find out his secret? Befriend him? Use him? I found myself thinking ‘what just happened’ multiple times after conversations.
Apparently they become fast friends, but why that is is really beyond me. Their conversations are sooo weird, and Hank’s android hatred twist thing was just lame.
Markus, played by Jesse Williams, is the leader of the android rebellion. He’s been abused by his human master, and that gave him the determination to fight android slavery at all costs, because to him there are no good humans, and he’s seen their depravity first-hand. Oh wait, no… his master treated him like a son, and he was accidentally shot by cops because they found him hovering over the dying man after the man’s real son caused him a heart attack.
That’s not to say he shouldn’t be mad at being a slave, even if his master was kind. However, he’s some kind of ghandi/Malcom X/Jesus figure (depending on the player’s choices) who’s a brilliant strategist and visionary, which he apparently picked up from… taking care of an old man… and painting.
What’s worse is that his entire revolution steals bits and pieces from actual history. You can choose the black power logo as your sigil, and play your cards right and you can have him sprout some ‘I have a dream’ snippets. However, since the story doesn’t follow actual history and mashes up events to make a playable game, it feels wrong. At least it does to me.
What’s also problematic is that the androids apparently want to be free to do the thing they really love: stand in dilapidated ships and buildings in the dark. That’s right, headquarters number one is the belly of a dark rusted ship; you get to liven it up by lighting no less than four oil drums. Cozy. Headquarters two: a church with broken crap strewn across the floor — I see the Markus-is-Jesus hint David Cage, very in-your-face. The church is real something when all the androids stand around there silently. Heck, the Matrix 3 rave scene was weird, but it would have been better than this.
Oh, and Markus gets a girlfriend too. The love is really sparking… well, okay, no. David Cage did manage to make the sex scenes slightly less awkward than his previous games by making android sex about two androids touching arms while the arms glow. It really gives you that sexy let’s-rub-a-vacuum-cleaner-against-an-umbrella vibe. Sigh. Oh wait, and didn’t I see something similar somewhere… Oh yes, the Avatar-tail-thing.
Kara — Valorie Curry — is not really part of the game. Well, she’s in it, but her story has nothing to do with Markus’ or Connor’s parts. Kara is a maid droid. She is bought by a drug-addicted domestic abuser to be a maid for him and his daughter Alice. Well, actually, he’s stereotypes of abusers rolled into one flat character. Child abuse is a serious matter, and again David Cage manages to take away all the context and nuance, and turn it into a button-mash fest.
Long scene short, you break Kara’s programming and she takes Alice and flees. Of course, all humans treat her like shit, and so they go on a trek to Canada. Because supposedly, it’s better there. They run into android traffickers, and the magical-negro-underground-railroad lady, and well, stuff happens.
It really doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, and Kara and Alice are bloody annoying. Kara is hell-bent on going to Canada, and goes about it stupidly, while Alice is the silent victim Kara drags along because apparently her awakened emotions are all about being motherly.
And the twist near the end about Alice is just… I won’t spoil things, but if you have played this, what the f-ing hell kind of psycho is that drug-addict? And worse, who makes these androids so he can do this? It’s just messed up.
Like most David Cage games, Detroit is a quick-time-event-laden adventure game with some point-and-click mechanisms added to the mix. There are basically three modes of interaction: walking around some scene and interacting with stuff, talking to people and choosing dialog paths, and action sequences with quick-time events.
This way of playing a game has up-sides and down-sides. It gives you a sense of freedom while keeping focus on the story. This is also what I like about point-and-click adventure games, although they focus much more on puzzles.
Detroit also prides itself on giving player’s choice. I don’t feel that that is really justified. ‘Choice’ implies that you have some idea of the outcome of actions you take and that you can change path of a story. But, the build-up of a story should determine its climax. This means that any real choice should affect the outcome. I’ve often mentioned that my big gripe with Mass Effect 3 is the lack of this mechanic.
Detroit offers you a lot of false choices. Yes, there are multiple endings, but a lot of the choices you make don’t really affect the outcome. There is a lot of railroading going on. And because of this, the story is actually weakened: if you choose to be angry about something or happy about something, that really makes a difference for the character development, hence the character arc, hence the story. The climax of the story rests on all these tiny defining moments; that’s what storytelling is about. By giving you these choices without them affecting the outcome, you pull the rug out from under the story. Which is — in my opinion — why Connor and Hank’s conversations are so weird. I probably didn’t follow the choices the writer had in mind.
Another problem is that you often have zero idea about the results of your actions in the story. In dialog trees you get to pick a single word to determine your reaction, but that word often leads to something completely different from what you thought. That’s also the case with a lot of interactions. You might think ‘right, I’ll knock this guard on the head’ and then ‘wait, he just shot the guard!’ The game encourages you to stick with your choices and see where that goes, but really, it tells you to stick with the random dice rolls that you make and the writers filled in for you.
Still, I like these kind of games. They don’t fall into the open-world trap that can break stories, and they don’t break the flow of the story with shooter sections (like Gears of War). But, after refining this type of gameplay for several games, the flaws are becoming really apparent. I think the solution Life is Strange took is far more elegant.
I don’t hate this game, at least not as much as I despised Beyond: Two Souls. It’s frustrating, filled with cultural appropriation, and the story-flaws made me very angry, but I finished it. It looks great, that’s for sure.
So, I didn’t hate, but I don’t love it either. It is in the category of works where I don’t hate them, but I do hate the missed potential for making something really cool. For me, it’s like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Mass Effect: Andromeda. They all had such great potential, but failed to live up to it.
Should you play this game? Why not. There are better games, but there are also worse games. Given the toxic work culture at Quantic Dream, you might want to consider if you want to pay for it. I don’t personally believe in boycotts, but I got it with the Playstation Plus Collection on Playstation 5, so I didn’t directly support them. Sort of. Anyway, I believe in keeping attention on the problem, which is why I’m mentioning it here.
Now I think I’m going back to a book about androids which has a much better story than this game. I’ll review it soon.