Say what you will about the controversial David Cage, but you’ve got to give him credit where credit is due: he sure knows how to marry engrossing and emotionally impactful narrative with refreshingly unconventional, albeit nascent, gameplay mechanics. It’s this tug-of-war between mature storytelling and delivering what makes a game a game, that is the crystallisation at the heart of what makes Cage’s work, well, work. At times, though, these artistic expressions clash with one another becoming the schism that causes the most negative friction; it’s this experiential and narrative ambitiousness that is one of the most refreshing aspects of Quantic Dream’s games.
But is it a game or is it a movie? Well, long story short, it’s a blending of both mediums, which, to the chagrin of some traditional gamers out there, is Cage’s most egregious sin. Add to this, the oft levelled criticism of Cage being a “weak writer,” and we’re left with an auteur who’s equally loved by the gaming community, as hated. It’s a shame, really, as in my eyes, the industry as a whole could benefit from more visionary writer-directors like Cage. Sure, he may not be perfect, but I admire his and his team’s unique and ambitious moxie to do it their own way. So, how does David Cage and Quantic Dream’s latest interactive drama, Detroit: Become Human, stack up? In development for almost five years, the game is the studio’s debut on PS4 and the fifth game in the French developer’s distinctive back catalogue.
The year is 2038 and society is facing tangible ethical and socio-political issues from the impact of consumer AI androids, who are purchased and used as servants for a variety of practical solutions. You fancy a robot that does the dishes and the hoovering? Who doesn’t, right? You want a robot that raises your kids while you’re off painting the town red? Sure thing, have at it. You interested in a sexy robot for some sexy time? Why, of course. Essentially, like Charlie Brooker’s marvellous Black Mirror TV series, Detroit: Become Human goes down a very dark rabbit hole brimming with nightmarish tech-noir dilemmas and the thing that makes it truly resonant and disturbing is just how perversely believable some of these situations are.
Clearly, the android and human struggle depicted in the story is obviously an allegory that mirrors slavery and the racial struggle of the civil rights movement. With that in mind, you’ve got to respect a game that tries, and mostly succeeds, in doing some seriously heavy lifting with some very weighty themes. That being said, the narrative is, at times, overly heavy-handed, and much of the time its storytelling lacks nuance, to the point where some characters behave like caricatures. However, what the game lacks in nuance, it makes up for by simply hitting the right notes to deliver an emotionally impactful set of vignettes that help ratchet up the drama, while getting pulses racing and strumming the ol’ heartstrings, too. In other words, though Cage’s writing is as subtle as a gynaecologist with a gas mask, there was enough thoughtfulness in the underlying message to hook me in.
Unlike Heavy Rain’s quartet and Beyond: Two Souls’ duo of playable characters, Detroit: Become Human places you in the shoes of a trio of compelling personalities who are surprisingly all replicants themselves. The three central protagonists all help to flesh out the day-to-day strife that androids have to contend with in this dark alternate future reality, and it’s due to this ongoing struggle that pushes the replicants over-the-edge into becoming “deviant.” This term is used to describe when an android “breaks through” its in-built software directives and ultimately becomes self aware and sentient. This concept is one of the fundamental focal points at the heart of each of the three interconnecting stories within the game.
Kara is a housekeeper model tasked with looking after her surrogate-daughter-to-be, Alice, and her overarching arc is touching and surprisingly heartfelt. Connor is a prototype police android whose duty is to hunt down deviant replicants that have gone rogue, and his story is consistently captivating. Finally, Markus is a caretaker android whose storyline revolves around liberating an “underclass” of deviants from their slavery. Markus’ personal arc is undoubtedly the weakest of the three, due to ham-fisted writing and a few story beats that feel ironically artificial and stodgily delivered. Nevertheless, the majority of the title’s writing is still strong, for the most part.
Onto the controls, and if you’ve played a Quantic Dream game before then you’ll feel right at home in Detroit: Become Human. The game incorporates a mixture of traditional third person and motion controls, and combines it with quick time events and classic point-and-click adventure-style inputs. At times, it feels like you’re watching one long cut-scene. However, there’s enough agency in your moment-to-moment actions and enough meaningful decisions to be made to help offset this. The decision-making gifts you with a tailored experience, which assists you into buying into the plight of these sympathetic characters and the conflict at the heart of this cinematic adventure. What’s really impressive, though, are the branching storylines which are visually represented by a flowchart at the end of each level. Players can even go back to set-points and make contrasting decisions to see how things would play out differently. Most importantly, many of these decisions feel genuinely consequential and have lasting overarching repercussions on how some parts of the plot unfolds.
I’d be remiss not to mention how jaw-droppingly phenomenal the game looks. Simply put, it’s a technological marvel in the visuals department. In terms of audio, however, I found the absence of stalwart studio composer, Normand Corbeil, noticeable (he sadly passed away in 2013). That said, the orchestral and futuristic soundscapes within Detroit: Become Human are still suitably atmospheric and at times mesmeric.
Sure, the game’s slavery analogue can occasionally feel ham-fisted and ironically artificial, but David Cage’s latest is still a really good game that’s a huge step up from his last title, Beyond: Two Souls. If you’re in the mood for something a little different, with something important and timely to say, then Detroit: Become Human may be exactly what you need in your life right now.
Detroit: Become Human is out now, exclusively for PS4.
VERDICT: Though it may not be for everyone, Detroit: Become Human is easily one of David Cage’s strongest interactive adventures yet. It takes players down a dark rabbit hole brimming with ethical, philosophical and physical tech-noir nightmares. Despite its lack of subtlety, it’s thoughtfully designed and tackles a plethora of heavy themes, all while exhibiting a stellar level of polish.