“We must build a common future. We are alive! And now, we are free”
Detroit: Become Human
Studio: Quantic Dream
Released: May 2018
Released in May 2018 from French studio Quantic Dream, its follow up to the acclaimed Beyond: Two Souls we reviewed in July, Detroit: Become Human exemplifies the studios principle focus on narrative gameplay quite often at the expense of any challenging or dynamic mechanics in its entirety. Never exceeding its welcome, the entirety of the central story can be resolved within twelve hours depending on your predication for exploration and discovery. We observed the notion in Beyond: Two Souls your decisions had repercussions on the outcome, certainly this concept has evolved and expanded in Detroit: Become Human with every decision and action in the entirety of the campaign having a major effect on the final outcome. It personifies the trend within these forms of experience games of your decisions and choices having a far more substantial impact on the narrative as opposed to your physical inputs and controls. Whilst the somewhat grandiose plot and central themes are quite explicit both in their inspiration and moralistic tone throughout, certainly you do find yourself coming away with a deeper emotional attachment based solely on the outcomes being linked to your decisions and perceptions of the events around you. The final moments in my first playthrough were genuinely moving as you come to reflect on both your actions, and realise the consequences of your choices. With the studio opting to use a visual branching narrative structure, it provides clarity and also a pause for reflection on how differently the narrative can change based on key critical junctures in the game’s plot, whilst ever present in similar linear titles, this was the first to my experience to explicitly make clear how big an impact you could make to the eventual outcome.
Detroit is centred around three distinct protagonists and a wealth of memorable secondary characters that certainly add to the depth of the world and environments around you. Connor, an advanced prototype Android assigned to the Detroit Police Department to investigate incidents involving ‘deviants’, androids that have developed emotional attachments and effectively broken their programming. Probably the least favourite, personally, of the characters based on the naive personality traits display however he does work effectively against his human counterpart Lieutenant Hank Anderson played with a wry cynicism by Clancy Brown. Markus, a carer droid for Lance Henriksen’s Carl Manfred, an opulent artist in the dystopian Detroit future advocating for Markus humanity. And lastly Kara, a house droid who grows to develop a caring function for a child under her care named Alice. Whilst Markus, seemingly tends to be the central focus of the marketing and media campaign as I’ve observed, for me personally, it was the strength of her convictions to care for her ward that I grew attached and wanted to see champion in the game’s conclusion. Through the use of motion capture, the performance of Valorie Curry is terrific and really captures the transition from automaton to parental love and care in such a short space and time. Three strong leads, a terrific supporting cast and strong narrative, foundations for a game to champion. you do find yourself coming away with a deeper emotional attachment based solely on the outcomes being linked to your decisions and perceptions of the events around you Detroit is centred around three distinct protagonists and a wealth of memorable secondary characters that certainly add to the depth of the world and environments around you.
Three strong leads, a terrific supporting cast and strong narrative, foundations for a game to champion. Irrespective of how you approach an interaction or the choices you make, you never feel there is much divergence for Markus personality, he seems to be the most amiable and agreeable of the main central characters and such has a certain air of predetermination around his eventual outcome. Perhaps testament to the acting and direction of Jesse Williams, I enjoyed the time I spent with him but certainly of the three narratives you experience, his seemed the most, restrictive in scope for experimentation and adaptation although certainly there are a number of outcomes and fates for each, central role. Depending on your approach there are several critical junctures where their fate is determined and the story progresses. I enjoyed that aspect, you never felt they were protected by the mythical plot armour of similar games, everyone was expendable, you grew attached to certain characters and wanted to see them succeed at the expense of others.
“ You do find yourself coming away with a deeper emotional attachment based solely on the outcomes being linked to your decisions and perceptions of the events around you “
Do These Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The central core of the game’s narrative, that not open to manipulation or change principally takes the main concepts of Phillip K. Dick’s posed question around the evolution and nature of androids and expands upon this before evolving to draw parallels into other notable American civil issues prevalent in the political climate of today’s society. Each narrative presents a different aspect of servitude and service to society, the home care droid, the carer droid and the services droid, circumstance and events leading them to evolve beyond their base programming and challenge the aspects and notion of what determines humanity and indeed consciousness. In itself, a meaningful narrative to pursue, the games path of expanding this to servitude was a challenging, if unsubtle direction. From the earliest stages, you are introduced to separate areas on buses for androids, the parallels towards the American civil rights issues and the dystopian world of Detroit in the near future are quite obvious and direct. Whilst it does provoke you to an extent to pursue the moralistic path of progression for certain characters, it was the more subtle and emotional journeys that had a far greater resonance with me. With the motion capture technology utilised to such great effect certainly it picks up many of the subtle emotional queue and nuanced gestures of the lead actors, I would have found the grand monologues and staged moments dialled down to some degree palatable. Smaller, nuanced scenes such as Kara leading Alice through the cold rain soaked streets of Detroit or the snow filled lains of an abandoned fair showing worry to the distressed state of the child under her care were touching. All three narratives and paths eventually intersect in the closing chapters, perhaps in a somewhat contrived way given no abundant overlap in the remaining campaign but it works.
In Beyond: Two Souls, in retrospect you do see the foundations of the path Quantic Dream opted to follow with Detroit: Become Human, the notion of narrative interaction and manipulation even if your choices only had more a more subtle impact upon the final outcome. In Detroit, there are a plethora of outcomes to achieve even if the main central thread is fairly locked into place. As with its predecessor you do follow a linear path towards the final conclusion, though perhaps with more freedom to explore the world and environment around you and shape some of the smaller outcomes. Or even to realise the smallest actions can have the biggest consequences. Critical junctures and moments are never sign posted or highlighted in contrast to games from Bioware for instance which does tend to flag up moments or sequences that are irreversible and as such lead you to prepare yourself mentally for the impact before you. I enjoyed the more, chaotic nature of Detroit, which you do have the option to tone or adjust to your playing standards from the offset, I very much wanted to experience the game in its purest form with the consequences of my actions to fall as they may. Because your actions have very tangible outcomes and consequences that do shape the flow of the narrative without fundamentally impacting on its direction, whilst the main threads can play out somewhat differently, there is some bleed over from other paths which do occur that perhaps require explanation or to be experienced through other playthroughs. A romance angle for one character that occurs quite suddenly, a backstory to a secondary characters motivation that may have been revealed in more detail had you opted for a different approach. It certainly does given reason to pursue additional playthroughs to discover the motivations behind these individuals, in Beyond I felt I had a fair understanding, in Detroit, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.
“I very much wanted to experience the game in its purest form with the consequences of my actions to fall as they may”
The world of Detroit in the near future
In short, Detroit is very much an evolution of the worlds and environments of Beyond, for all the praise and criticism as a consequence. I’m willing to accept and immerse myself into these forms of linear corridor based exploration titles, they were a staple of the last generation with games such as Resident Evil 5 creating these beautiful environments that placed restrictions on your exploration and deviation from the pre-set path. Beyond used the connection between Jodie and Aiden to ensure you stayed the course however there were still certain contrivances and barriers which felt forced and broke the immersion. In Detroit, a similar restriction is in place which limits your deviation from the path but given the nature of the characters it was appropriate in context and as such didn’t shatter the immersion to the same degree. The environments themselves are far more detailed and have the attention to detail that puts a great many open world games to shame. Detroit feels lived in, a mixture of classical architecture and street furniture mixing with technology from the near future such as charging stations for the various service androids that clean and repair the cities infra-structure. I enjoyed a line towards the end that made reference to the impact of the events on the service droid population. They served an entirely functionary purpose, but whose inclusion added depth to the world. The human characters as alluded to previously with the use of motion capture really do sell the range of emotions these automatons can express. The suffering of Jodie in Beyond was shattering, equally the bond between Kara and Alice elicits the same emotions through the captured performance of the actors.
The range of environments depicted is as impressive as its predecessor and certainly serves to differentiate the paths and journeys of the three protagonists. Perhaps, unfairly it does give pause to wonder what a fully realised open world game developed by Quantic Dream would be, however to craft and produce a narrative in as great a detail as they accomplished in Detroit requires this linear directional path of story telling. As such, restricting the scope of deviation is an acceptable measure, consequently each area you encounter and discover certainly adds to the emotional resonance felt by the characters. Kara, my openly personal favourite of the characters takes her from a frozen abandoned fun fair to the night time streets of Chicago, rendered beautifully and to as high a standard as its predecessor. Due to his function Connor’s path plays out almost identically in terms of mechanics as LA Noire with the android utilising his enhancements to uncover clues hitherto unseen by Detroit’s finest in pursuit of deviants and justice. As such these areas tended to be residential or secluded areas of investigation but still interesting to explore. With three clear distinct paths to follow you do experience a broad section of Detroit society in this near future period of time, Markus journey tends to focus on the down trodden areas which has a certain familiarity with Watch Dogs but as a sci-fi fan I did enjoy seeing the near future Blade Runner esque environments such as the broadcasting centre and the Eden Club which had a contrasting aesthetic to the abandoned freighter and processing centre. As a studio, I genuinely look forward to their next release and the world they bring to life.
“In Detroit a restriction is in place which limits your deviation from the path but given the nature of the characters it was appropriate in context and as such didn’t shatter the immersion”
Style over substance?
There is an unfortunate familiarity in the control mechanics of Detroit that certainly feel like only a small evolution from Beyond. The implementation of Move and the motion sensor mechanic this generation has never really been fully exploited or utilised to its full potential with certain key titles making some use of the mechanics in the controller but for the most part utilising a traditional input method. Beyond, and Detroit both use a cross function with prompted quick time event queues interspersed in the moment with motion control movements. I loathed this approach in Beyond, commenting it shattered the immersion of having to wave your controller frantically during combat, sadly that same approach has carried over. Perhaps its a subjective irritation, I’m open to accept some may like this approach, but for an immersive title such as Detroit which goes to such great lengths to sell you this environment and characters, to then shatter that appeal with a bizarre control scheme is unfathomable. At best, the controls could be described as functionary, certainly the general movement of the androids as they move is passable but it does elicit the notion of the uncanny valley. This is a psychological theory around art and the connection between humans and robots. Specifically as the androids look more human there is a point where there actions look and feel wrong, often eliciting a negative emotion. In Detroit, the walking aspect is functionary but can feel off, especially when Kara is walking with Alice. It does perhaps reflect the robotic nature of Kara however it does seem wrong and unnatural.
The combat I loathed in Beyond and hasn’t improved with no clear or better improvement over traditional combat controls from other superior games and instead opting for a hybrid version of motion controls and quick time event queues, both of which just feel weak. It may mimic real world interactions, if you are being strangled or held against a wall for example you might move forward to push them away, however in the moment the action feels artificial and breaks any real connective resonance as you thrust the controller towards the screen. Perhaps the best aspect of the next generation with presumably a new variant of the dualshock controller will be the absence or removal of motion controls requiring a change of the control dynamics. I never felt in combat there was any great threat or menace despite the peril and consequence of failure, it took a great deal of inaction or misqueued quick time events to actually lose a fight. The general action control was also a carry over from Beyond, this time utilising the control stick to turn in a pre-set motion and direction to open a door or pick up and manipulate an object. In certain context, this may have made a certain sense, rotating the secondary control stick to mimic a door handle for instance but I never came to understand why rotating 270 degrees for instance reflected picking up a picture or carrying a stack of plates. As before, this could have been done far more simply by pressing an action control, its only inclusion I can surmise to add a layer of interaction with the game to balance the overwhelming weight of the narrative.
The familiar use of the extra sensory perception mechanic returns although it probably makes the most sense since its first appearance in Arkham Asylum. Nearly every game utilises this mechanic as a playing crutch, quite often without any reason for its inclusion which breaks the immersion to varying degrees. As a crime solving android, you understand why he may be able to analyse crime scenes in a way that is instantly familiar to users, and as a nice touch not expanded upon to the same degree with the other characters, it gives Connor a distinctiveness in the world of Detroit. Perhaps the best new addition to the Quantic formula that works in this context is the means to pre-construct action paths at various junctures. Using a basic time control mechanic, you can fast forward or rewind to various points in a short cycle and choose different paths, seeing how they play out until you select the correct sequence that will result in success. There are points where you are required to make quick decisions on certain objectives which doesn’t work to the same extent but it does feel like a variation of the VATs formula from the Bethesda game in the sense you can pause the action to determine your next steps before commiting. There is some variation in addition with camera angles used to determine the visibility of the correct and successful path to follow, a nice mechanic that does work in context.
” I never felt in combat there was any great threat or menace despite the peril and consequence of failure, it took a great deal of inaction or misqueued quick time events to actually lose a fight “
Narrative is one of the key strengths of Detroit and arguably the studio in general, perhaps certain aspects are quite direct and overstated to some degree in conveying the message it has to tell, which in truth is a shame as some of the best moments came through the interactions between the androids and society around them, the conflict between machine and nature, what it is to be human and can these machines evolve to consciousness as opposed to the wider social issues which in truth felt like a retread of existing somewhat recent history. The parallels between segregation on the buses for instance were fairly on the nose with the allegory towards slavery and the American civil rights movement. The plethora of choices and branching pathway dynamic was equally a really fascinating mechanic to include. You do have a curiosity when you play games which pertain to branch pathways what other options you could have taken, to include this so visibly and show you the wealth of possibilities does encourage you to go back and play the game again to achieve different outcomes.
I enjoyed and champion the motion capture aspect of this studio, the performances and emotions elicited by the actors was moving to see and certainly added an impetus to make certain decisions to ensure they persevered and survived the events around them. The controls are a major issue, they are functionary at best and seem to serve a strange fascination with motion controls and quick time events. Perhaps an argument could be made the studio is opting for a policy of style over substance, as simplistic as that sounds visually the game is amazing to see, to explore and theorise and live within if only for a short time. However, your control and interaction within the game just feels off, it feels wrong to use the concept of the uncanny valley and one aspect I do wish they would look to improve going forward. If the next generation means the end of superfluous motion controls I will be a happier gamer, but with these games narrative is the primary focus. From the beginning of the game, you are presented with the simple contention actions have consequences, in the short space of time I spent in Detroit that was abundantly clear. There were no sign posted critical junctures, no half measures to lessen the impact. As such I have a path I followed with no awareness or pre-conceptions, that will always be my cannon narrative, but, I am curious to know what may have been.
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