Detroit: Become Human Review: Android Atrocity
Note: Video version here. The text below is a transcript of the shooting script. Some wording might be slightly different between the text and video. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I would like to say that Detroit: Become Human was disappointing. But that would imply I had any hopes of it being able to deliver on it’s initial pitch of telling a complex story about androids and humanity, which I didn’t. So I guess I can say that Detroit is pretty much met my expectations.
Detroit: Become Human. A game by David Cage. I know, I know, chocking up an entire game to just one person is a bit messy. A lot of hardworking people come together to make games. But if there’s someone in this industry you can point to who has a very clear influence on the direction of a game, it’s David Cage. And that’s Detroit’s biggest problem.
Detroit puts it’s best foot forward in multiple ways. For one, It looks fantastic. If Quantic Dream does one thing well it’s making things look pretty. It’s a real technical achievement. Character models and facial animations don’t even give off that creepy uncanny valley vibe to me. Well, except for maybe the children. But at this point I think we as a society just don’t have the technology to make good video game kids. Even the android fashion looks great. Like this sweet jacket. Seriously, I want that jacket. It’s hot.
The other thing it does to give a good first impression is starting you off playing as Connor, who I think is maybe the most interesting of the playable characters. Connor is an android detective. In the opening scene, he walks into a hostage situation. You spend the chapter digging around the area looking for clues to gain insight on the situation. This leads up to a confrontation where you need to use the information you find to talk down a deviant android before he kills the little girl he’s taken hostage. And there are various different outcomes to that situation. That initial sequence is tense, and is maybe the best sequence in the game, unfortunately.
Like other David Cage games, Detroit: Become Human has a narrative focus with branching paths. In this case, it’s a story about androids who become sentient, or “deviant” as the game calls them, and their struggles in a world that only sees them as tools. Detroit starts with something that at it’s core could be interesting, but it falls apart in every which way, as a David Cage game tends to.
Take the controls for example. If you have played a Quantic Dream game, you know what you’re in for control wise. It plays the best of all the games so far, but it still has it’s issues. Often I found myself walking in circles, going a different direction than expected, or just straight up not moving at all as I pointed the stick forward. This was usually when I was right next to a corner or a character model. Also, because the right stick controls both the camera and the character action prompts, it leads to situations where I mean to interact with something but end up swing the camera around. The button prompt is on screen, but I guess there’s a sweet spot where the game wants the camera before it registers a movement as a prompt interaction. It’s all a bit clunky.
On the narrative side, boy, there sure is a lot to talk about here. Let’s start with the characters. You play as three different androids, Connor, Kara, and Markus. Like I mentioned before, I think Connor is the best of bunch. Bryan Dechart’s performance is the most convincing of the three. His delivery and cadence actually feel like a robot slowly learning the nuances of human emotion.
Part of Connor’s story is investigating the deviant android incidents with his human partner, Hank. The interactions between these two were my favorite moments of Detroit. Yes, the old cop stuck in his way who eventually warms up to his partner is an old cliche. But it’s one that works for me with these two. I’d happily play a game that was just Connor and Hank solving cyber crimes instead of, well, the rest of Detroit.
Speaking of cyber crimes, the investigation aspects are another reason why I think Connor’s segments are the best things Detroit has to offer. They’re the only parts of the game that I find mechanically engaging. While I don’t actively dislike the simple button presses, short stick movements, and quick time events that most of the game is built upon, they don’t necessarily make me feel like I’m doing anything all that important either. It’s much more like i’m going through the motions just to get on with it. At least in the investigation segments, the added layer of searching an area and finding things to scan felt like I was doing something. It’s really not much. It might as well be a child’s hidden picture puzzle. But it was something.
The other two characters are where David Cage’s lack of writing ability begins to show. Kara is kind of a nothing character. She becomes deviant after an event that involves a young girl, Alice, and her abusive father. They escape together and you spend the rest of their segments trying to find a safe place where they can start new lives. That’s the entirety of her arc. You can easily reduce it to “robot woman discovers the joys of motherhood and finds meaning in life,” because that’s what it is. Kara doesn’t get any meaningful character development. She is here to protect this child and that’s it.
And then we have Markus. He’s the android assistant to Carl, a famous artists. He’s Carl’s caretaker. You become deviant after an altercation with Carl’s shitty son, in which you are left for dead. Once you come to, you learn of a group of androids who are in hiding after escaping their previous lives and join up with them. Markus is easily the worst character of the three. It is like Jesse Williams just phoned this one in. His performance is bland and thoroughly unconvincing. He’s supposed to be this charismatic leader of the android resistance. But his performance has about as much weight as a sheet of paper floating in the wind with “RESIST” shoddily written on it. Markus’ scenarios are also where most of android revolution storylines occur. The protests, the resistance, the fight for equal rights, that’s all his story.
Which leads me into the core themes Detroit is trying to represent. It’s narrative is executed so poorly it’s practically insulting. The use of robots as symbolism for racism and classism is well worn territory at this point, with varying degrees of success. But even considering that, it’s incredible by how much Detroit misses the mark. Detroit doesn’t try to explore these themes on a deep and thoughtful level. Instead, it reduces them to their most basic, in your face concepts, tries to pass them off as subtle allegory, and uses them for mere set dressing.
Some of the more blatant moments have already been shared all around the internet. The androids literally riding in the back of a bus, Markus graffitiing “We have a dream” to make a statement, the woman who agrees to help you across the border because “her people” faced similar hardships and needed help along the way. That last one happens in a chapter called Midnight Train. Cant really get anymore obvious than that, besides calling it Underground Railroad Part 2.
So, you have those poorly veiled allusions to race relations and slavery, with more littered across the game. But then there are moments where it seems like David Cage is just so blissfully unaware of any implications his writing can create. There are two that come to mind right away.
The first happens in Kara’s story. She’s sitting down, talking to Luther, and android who happens to be black. Luther goes on about his previous life. How he used to be a laborer, only built for work and to carry heavy loads. This entire moment doesn’t feel like it was a purposeful reference. It felt like clumsy writing from someone who lacks any amount of self reflection to realize that these lines may have a completely different connotation when spoken by a black man.
The other is on how androids become deviant. For your main characters, you go through a sequence where they internally struggle with their orders and must break through their programming to do what they feel is right. But later on in the game, you eventually just go about gently touching other androids and whispering “you are free” to turn them deviant. It just, spreads, I guess. Almost implying freedom is like a virus. Again, I didn’t think this was a purposeful metaphor the game was trying to make at first. But then a character literally equates freedom to a virus so fuck if I know. It’s gross comparison to make.
As if those horrible attempts at allegory weren’t enough, the rest of the story is just a slog to get through. There isn’t anything very interesting to drive it forward. Detroit places a big bet that you’ll become so invested in these three characters that you’ll want to see what’s next. And with Connor being the only one I have anything remotely positive to say about, Detroit loses that bet.
Like I said, the game has branching paths and multiple outcomes. After every chapter you can see a flowchart of all your decisions and even jump back to see other routes without losing your progress. That’s a neat feature that’s wasted on a game with a story I had no stakes in. There was nothing compelling me to play through alternate outcomes. I’d rather just watch them online if I was really that curious.
At least in a game like Beyond Two Souls, which I do not like by the way, there was a narrative thread that I wanted to see the end of. It was just enough to coerce me to keep going, even if it all fell apart in the end. Detroit just doesn’t have that. I just wanted to get over with it.
Speaking about endings, the ending I got in my playthrough of Detroit was one of the hokiest, stupid things in this entire game. I want to be courteous and avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say that I got the good ending. And it amounts to some ridiculous power of love bullshit that completely undermines the themes of revolution and change the game was trying to evoke.
If it isn’t already clear, I did not enjoy Detroit very much at all. It’s half-hearted attempt at depicting a serious set of themes sure left a poor impression on it’s own. Add that to the accusations towards Cage and the work environment at Quantic Dream, and his response to double down on his “integrity” and sue journalists, it all just paints a really gross picture.
Is there some enjoyment to be had with Detroit? Sure. Maybe play it missing all the prompts, trying to get the worst ending, having everyone die, dunk on the shit writing. But that’s not the game Detroit wants to be. It wants to be something more. It wants to send message, but the only message it sends is one of ignorance and a complete misunderstanding of actual human hardship.