Some fiction has the ability to make us look in on ourselves, asking questions of our politics, our faith, our society. We draw parallels between fantastical stories and reality because it’s easier to digest media when we can say ‘the tyrannical villain is like my boss at work,’ or ‘the hero’s nose is like mine, so I am the hero as well.’ Media that riffs on certain themes shouldn’t have to hit you over the head with its message; if it’s successful, you’ll figure it out. Developer Quantic Dream doesn’t have faith in its audience, though. There’s an incessant, bubbling fear that the one with a controller in their hands will either be thick as shit or too shallow to comprehend the astute correlation made by the developer between the real-life oppression of a people and the persecuted robots in this video game.
On Detroit: Become Human’s main menu there’s a section where you can take a survey about the relationship between machines and humans, wherein you’ll be asked questions like ‘do you think technology could become a threat to mankind?,’ do you believe in God?,’ and ‘would you let an android take care of your children?’ Detroit doesn’t break any new ground, but let’s not completely disregard it for that alone. Become Human runs into problems when you look at its presentation of that topic, and unravel the story set in 2030s Motor City.
Androids are now the playthings of humanity, performing a number of different roles within the community. They’re programmed to serve organic folk in a variety of different ways, which can range from doing menial oddjobs about the house to high-profile police work. Some cyborgs are beginning to develop human-like emotions are starting to rise up, however, and that’s where our three protagonists come into this choice-based adventure game: Kara, Connor and Markus.
Kara is a recently sentient android that finds herself caring for a little girl, Connor’s a task-orientated robocop that isn’t too fond of outlaw machines, and Markus is the bipedal ‘borg that’s leading the revolution for equality. You jump between the three playable characters, discovering and influencing their motives as you go on.
During a police investigation Connor is able to reconstruct crimes by finding items of interest, Markus uses a similar method to map out where best to use his parkour skills, while Kara’s special ability is talking. Y’know, like the rest of the characters you can play as.. Through choices and actions each character can build up or breakdown relations with others exclusive to their story. For instance Connor’s relationship with his working buddy Hank hinges on what you say to him, how you treat him, and how you treat others around him. There’s scope with these relationships, and the way in which characters become more, or less, friendly to you is mildly interesting.
Interacting with your environment is more awkward, though, as the right analog stick acts as both your camera and how you interact with objects in the environment. Far, far too many times I tried to pick up a magazine or a photo only for the camera to end up at the ceiling or down at Markus’ feet. Certain moments also ask the player to be more hurried for whatever reason, but while you might be frantic and jumpy on your couch, the person on the telly saunters to the next objective like they’ve all the time in the world. There’s a massive disconnect there. I get that your game looks pretty nice and the production values are relatively high, but let me choose my moment to have a gander at the world; when someone that’s meant to be my pal is in trouble, I’d like to get to them as quickly as I possibly can. The special abilities are ridiculous sometimes as well – at one crime scene I did all the fancy-dan reconstruction with Connor only to come to the same conclusion that my human partner did with his regular-ass eyeballs. Your three main players also come across each other at points, which opens a whole other can of emotional worms.
To give you an example, one chapter sees Connor, who wants to get to the bottom of a string of android-related crimes, and Kara, whose only goal is to mind the girl that’s with her, cross paths. Connor is on the lookout for the feminine android and her companion, while Kara is eager to pass by Connor unnoticed. While in control of Kara, you have to get to where you’re going by sneaking past officers and hiding in alcoves. If you’re seen, control switches to Connor and then you’re in hot pursuit of both Kara and Alice. Because you play as both here, it all gets a tad muddled and the storytelling falls in on itself. Yes, you can partly mould these characters through dialogue options and branching paths, but there are overarcing motivations that confuse things when swapping back and forth. That’s the only part of the narrative that proves a bit bewildering because everything else is as obvious as Katie Hopkins’ desperation. It’s all a bit silly, really.
Subtlety is not Detroit: Become Human’s strongpoint. At every turn, you’re hit over the head with the alleged significance of what’s happening on screen and while it aims to be powerful and moving, it regularly veers into a bit that would be at home in a BBC mockumentary. The director and writer might double down on the game being about robots, but it’s clear that this is meant to equate to real-world events. It falls apart when your freedom fighters are involved in some ludicrous moments; none moreso than what can happen at the end -- but don’t worry, I won’t spoil it. You deserve to see it for yourself. There are some sweeter moments between Kara and her surrogate daughter Alice, but the narrative generally remains cringey throughout. And poorly put together. Characters obtain crucial abilities that they previously didn’t have, love blossoms out of absolutely nowhere, and you can almost always anticipate where the story is going because the game rarely attempts to subvert your expectations. Almost always, because you do have the ability to alter it a bit.
Whenever you finish a chapter in Detroit a flowchart pops up that contains all of the decisions that you made in that scene. Certain chapters will be more complex than others and the outcome can vary quite drastically depending on whether you perform a specific task, or pick a particular discussion point when chatting to somebody. Some choices will even have an impact later in the game. The flowchart is a clever little idea that encourages you to see how things can change during the story – a story that does go on too long, anyway – if you feel so inclined.
One thing Quantic Dream is very good at is making you think you’re going to die. It’s not a given that your trio will make it to the end, thus making the regular QTE tussles more dramatic. As Kara, you’re none the wiser as to whether or not failure to escape a life threatening moment will lead to you being locked out of the remainder of her story. From the very beginning you’re aware of the mortality of these characters, so it’s really tense whenever you have to smash the face buttons in quick succession while a heavy score backs the punching and kicking.
Detroit: Become Human won’t change your mind if you belly laugh at Quantic Dream’s attempts to affect you emotionally, and will likely make some who favour the studio realise that Supermassive and Telltale have taken narrative-driven games of this ilk to greater heights in recent years. The positives are oft dulled by a frequently wonky control scheme, spiking character development that breeds indifference, and a muddled story that likes the sound of its own voice.
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 4
Release Date: May 25, 2018
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