Ombra Reviews: Detroit: Become Human (PS4)
The ability to provide a truly interactive and immersive storytelling experience is what sets video games apart from other forms of media. Unlike books, television, and movies, gaming allows you to actively play out and see the results of a "choose your own adventure" narrative-- a style which Quantic Dream has made their trademark. Heavy Rain was a unique experience and one of the better all around stories on the PS3, while Beyond: Two Souls took some of the weight out of your decisions with its linear story from start to finish. While both games had notable issues, they were unlike anything any other studio was producing at the time. Detroit: Become Human is undoubtedly their most polished product, but at times the story feels surface level and cliché.
Set in Detroit, Michigan in November 2038, the narrative centers around three separate androids: Kara, Markus, and Connor. Brilliantly voiced by Valorie Curry, Jesse Williams, and Bryan Dechart respectively, the three androids are the players' connection to the futuristic setting. Each have their own separate functions: Connor is the Cyberlife android sent to investigate Deviant (or rogue) androids, Markus is a caretaker for a sick, elderly man, and Kara is designed as a common housekeeper model. While these backgrounds seem basic at the start, the decisions the player makes will ultimately shape and reveal their true identities. The strength of Detroit lies in the connection the player feels to these three protagonists. Quantic Dream succeeds in creating a human connection with three android characters that will cause players to be invested in each choice they make. As was the case in Heavy Rain, any one play through could result in all characters surviving, only some surviving, or even none making it through to the end. The added weight of character survival forces you to think critically at every crossroad. Having the freedom to shape the game as you go isn't something we see too often, but it's what Quantic Dream excels at.
While Kara, Markus, and Connor all have their own separate stories, they are all part of an overlapping narrative about androids becoming self aware. The term "deviant" is used to describe androids who have "awoken," and begin using free will. It's a term that carries such a negative connotation that it's nearly impossible not to sympathize with the main characters. An inevitable android revolution is at the center of their stories while the world around them is dealing with turmoil that hits close to home. Through clips on the in-game televisions and articles in magazines that players find scattered throughout the game, you're able to surmise that the same problems society face today are exaggerated in this not-too-distant future: a constant threat of an impending third World War with Russia, socioeconomic turmoil and massive income gaps, and racial prejudice that manifests in hatred between humans and androids. Even themes of environmental degradation are present, as effects of climate change have accelerated to a near catastrophic pace.
Normally, I'd be interested in a game that tackles these important themes in a meaningful way, but this is where Detroit falls flat. There is no deep dive into any of these main thematic issues, other than the prejudice against androids. To add to this surface-level impact of the game's themes, there are cliché side characters that we've all seen before. There's the arrogant cop who intentionally bumps into Connor as he walks out just to mark his territory. The washed-up divorced father of one, Todd (Kara's owner), who is also an abusive drunk and "Red Ice" addict (Red Ice is basically meth made from android blood). Carl is Markus' owner and has treated him as a surrogate son which leads Carl's actual son, Leo, to have the same reaction any real son, in any form of media, has ever had in this situation. Even the main premise of androids fighting back against humans is something that's been done so many times over from Terminator to I Robot. Not only are some of these elements incredibly shallow, the game handles explaining the plot with little-to-no subtlety. Far too many times the game falls just short of letting in-game characters unpack the plot through interactions with one another. When it's very obvious you're about to make a choice that's either a) violent, or b) nonviolent, you are prompted by an on-screen graphic reminding you that's exactly what you're about to do. You'll also routinely recognize familiar tropes of the genre so if you're looking for a genuinely unique take on a robot revolution you won't find it in this narrative.
A lack of depth into these overarching themes was certainly disappointing but it didn't take away from the connection to the three main characters. Once you stop expecting these deep dives into the social issues that shape the world around them and start looking at these themes as simply a way to shape the identities of the characters, it leads to an enjoyable and meaningful experience. Their stories are what Detroit is truly all about. Each of their narratives are broken up into multiple chapters that you are able to replay as many times as you want to experience a myriad of outcomes. At the end of each chapter you are presented with a flowchart that shows the choices you made as well as the branches of all the possible options. Being able to see such a clear visual at the end of each chapter encourages you to play through multiple times if you're looking to witness all possible outcomes. If you didn't like the way your relationship with a certain character changed after a choice you made you have the ability to go back and do it over. If you lost a character sooner than you'd hoped you can rectify that as well. A feeling of free will given to the player is at the heart of the connection to the characters who are fighting for their own freedom.
Alongside the three main characters we are treated to a solid supporting cast. Clancy Brown does a terrific job playing Connor's partner Lt. Hank Anderson. He comes off as the typical old cop who's "seen some things," but Brown brings Hank to life and gives him true personality. Carl, voiced by Lance Henriksen, shows a beautiful sense of humanity during his interactions with Markus. Minka Kelly's North exudes a fierce confidence propelling her front and center during the revolution. Interacting with these characters feels real due to the magnificent performances. Sure, the open decision making is what sets the game apart from others but you need to care about the choices you're making. As mentioned earlier the themes aren't anything new, but what is unique about Detroit are the performances delivered by the talented cast.
Rounding out the experience are the stunning visuals and smooth gameplay. This is truly the most polished installment in the Quantic Dream lineup. They have successfully combined consequential decision making along with a gorgeous, smooth experience. The necessity to physically move the controller is still a nuisance, and really doesn't add anything to the gameplay, but that's the only gripe with the controls. Playing in 4K on PS4 Pro was a beautiful experience. There is such an attention to detail that every pore and hair is visible. For the first time I feel appreciative of a rainy moment after seeing each rain drop leave an impression on the street as well as the clothes of characters. I only noticed a couple drops in frame rate and they seemed to happen at the same place on each play through. My hope had always been that Quantic Dream would take what worked in both of their previous installments to make a visually captivating experience with fluid gameplay. I'm happy to say they successfully met this expectation.
Detroit: Become Human certainly won't appeal to everyone. If you're looking for open worlds filled with rank up systems, side quests, or complex but satisfying gameplay mechanics you won't enjoy this experience. However if you're looking for a fun, interactive narrative that's loaded with replay value, you'll want to get your hands on a copy. Over the course of a few days I've played through various chapters a handful of times and have experienced about three different endings. With all that time spent I'm still looking forward to going back to see what other outcomes are available.
So tell me: Are you joining the revolution?