Review: Detroit: Become Human

May 31, 2018

The most engaging moments I had with Detroit: Become Human took place outside of the game’s world. Before you start the first chapter, you’re greeted by the face of an android, its skin glowing, a guileless smile revealing perfect white teeth, its every eyelash impeccably realised.

To begin with, it’s merely helpful, talking you through the game’s menu and options screens. But the more you play, the more intimate it becomes. It remembered the last time I’d logged on, saying things like “Already back? That was a short break!”. When I sat down on a Saturday morning it said: “It’s great to start the weekend with Detroit!”, followed by a concerned “You look tired today, I hope you’re doing okay”.

After a couple of days, out of the blue, it asked “Are we friends?” I said “no”, just to see the reaction. “Of course not,” it stuttered, attempting to smile through obvious embarrassment. It looked heartbroken. Every time I saw it after that it avoided eye-contact, its face slightly flushed, often appearing close to tears. I kept hoping it would ask again so I could reassure it, but it never did. I felt terrible.

Detroit: Become Human is the latest title from David Cage, one of the best-known and most divisive figures in video games. Depending on who you ask, he’s an auteur or an idiot, a high priest or a fool. His work, which includes Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, is unmistakeable, combining state-of-the-art motion capture with branching, choose-your-own-adventure stories, where a split-second decision could irreversibly alter the course of your game.

His titles are also routinely lampooned for their absurd dialogue, terrible voice-acting, embrace of cinematic cliché and jarring binary choices, which often amount to little more than “be good” or “be evil”. The jury is still out on whether he’s dragging interactive fiction in an exciting new direction, or simply accelerating down a cul-de-sac of his own design.

He doesn’t blink with his latest title, doubling down on a now well-established formula. Detroit is a sprawling, hugely ambitious affair – the script is over 4,000 pages, compared to around 120 for the average 90 minute movie – and in terms of acting, dialogue and aesthetics, it outshines anything he’s made before. None of which will make it any less polarising.

It’s set in the titular city in the year 2038, when android production has risen from the ashes of the automobile industry, rejuvenating the once bankrupt city. But progress has come at a cost: the androids – eerily lifelike, discernible from humans only by blinking circles on their temple – have been assigned most of the menial jobs, and it’s feared they’ll soon take the skilled work, too. Unemployment and homelessness are at record levels. People both rely on and despise the androids, and it’s common to see a sad figure laden with groceries being set upon by an angry mob.

It’s a relatable near-future (not an issue of The Atlantic goes by without someone extolling or decrying our embrace of artificial intelligence), filled with barbed references to Elon Musk-type figures building inter-city hyperloops or Martian holiday destinations. It poses questions we’ll soon be forced to answer for real: should robots be allowed to carry weapons? Can you “abuse” something that isn’t sentient? Can you “love” an android?

But Cage – who claims both writing and directing credits – goes further, relentlessly linking the plight of androids to the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Holocaust. Androids are forced to ride in a compartment at the back of the bus; those who gain sentience describe themselves as “slaves”; so-called “deviant” androids are put into concentration camps. There’s nothing wrong with using science fiction as an allegory to explore the sins of the past, but this seems like the opposite: borrowing themes from real-life atrocities to lend gravity to a story about robots.

Detroit is most effective when its scope remains narrow. One of three overlapping stories follows Kara, an android house-maid whose drug addict owner is abusive to both her and his young daughter. You start off doing robot maid stuff: collecting rubbish, cleaning dishes, making beds, the presence of your abuser giving these menial tasks a backdrop of lingering dread. A violent outburst somehow breaks Kara’s programming (unless, of course, you choose to stand by while he literally beats his child to death, which is also an option) and she rescues the girl, scrabbling through a hostile city in search of shelter and protection. The bond between the two is palpable, and her narrative path boils down to how well you carry out your maternal duties.

The second story centres on Markus, a more sophisticated android owned by an ageing artist. After a break-in, Markus is wrongfully shot by police, dumped in a scrap yard, and reactivated to become a revolutionary leader-in-waiting. His subsequent decisions have global repercussions – whether to demand liberty for his “people” through peaceful protest or guerilla warfare – but his story feels overblown and distant.

Both Kara and Markus are decent, moral beings. In fact, with very few exceptions, they act with more humanity than the actual humans. When they gain sentience, they essentially become human – falling in love, dreaming of owning property – which is, admittedly, exactly what it says on the box, but it smacks of lazy writing. For this new form of intelligence to be so crushingly similar to our own seems to me the least interesting of all eventualities.

More compelling is Connor, a prototype android sent to aid the police investigation into deviants, who is constantly torn between his “mission” and his burgeoning conscience. His true character is eked out over dozens of incidental decisions, and his arc is the most malleable (he’s also, in my experience, the most likely to get shot in the face for being insufferable).

The nitty-gritty of Detroit’s gameplay deviates little from Cage’s familiar repertoire: wander around enclosed areas looking for dialogue options, interact with things based on visual prompts, always be prepared for a timed button press. Some areas mix things up a touch, allowing you to negotiate the environment by predicting the success or failure of a given route, or discover details of a crime scene by spooling back and forth through a virtual reconstruction.

These interactions aims for maximum tactility – swipe the pad to turn the page of a magazine, lift the controller to open a window, mash a button to push something heavy. There’s a genuine sense that you could steer these characters into harm’s way if you’re not careful, prematurely ending their story by recklessly guiding them under a bus.

After each chapter, you can view a “flowchart” of the decisions you made and the myriad chances you failed to take, which gives you a sense of the game’s scale, but also made my personal story feel less important, just one permutation among many, many others.

As in other games of this ilk – LA Noire springs to mind – decision-making can feel clunky, with the simplified, sometimes binary choices often leading to unintended consequences. When it works, it can punch you in the gut; I instantly regretted shooting an oncoming assailant, feeling rightly punished by the result. But other times the consequences of your actions seem arbitrary or even counter intuitive. With Markus I went from deliberately playing things safe to organising Fight Club-esque acts of civil disorder. I felt like a back-seat driver, blindly yelling directions with little idea of where I’d end up.

At least it’s a pretty ride. The skin textures and motion capture are stunning, perhaps the most advanced in a video game to date. The hyperrealist environments – shiny office buildings, dilapidated houses, rusting industrial squalor – all pop with colour, and the persistent rainfall gives everything a glossy, artificial sheen.

The dialogue suffers from moments of leaden melodrama but is lifted by some heavyweight voice acting, including strong turns by Lance Henriksen as a philosophical artist, and Clancy Brown as a grizzled alcoholic cop (you may have gathered that few of these characters stray far from cliché; others include a sinister tech-bro and a woman suspiciously close to the “magical negro” trope).

There’s no denying Detroit’s technical achievements, nor its creator’s admirable willingness to probe the boundaries of interactive fiction. Its breadth and depth, the totality of which will be seen by only a tiny fraction of players, makes the mind boggle.

But Detroit so desperately wants to be more than a just compelling game – it wants to be important, and in this, it flat-out fails. Cage simply lacks the writing nous, with his well meaning but tone-deaf references to the civil rights movement merely the clearest example of his shortcomings.

Occasionally you get a glimpse of what could have been, moments when your actions feel important and your decisions weigh heavy on your conscience. But too often these are drowned out by bombast and heavy-handed metaphor. After the credits rolled, nothing had come close to replicating the simple, human empathy I felt for a sad face on a menu screen.