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Detroit: Become Human

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Quantic Dream
Release Date: May 25, 2018


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PS4 Review - 'Detroit: Become Human'

by Redmond Carolipio on May 24, 2018 @ 5:00 a.m. PDT

Set in the near future, Detroit: Become Human takes a look at how humans would react if we were confronted with a new form of intelligence and how androids conceived as machines would be perceived if they started to have emotions.

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Detroit: Become Human starts with Chloe. She's an extremely attractive, realistic and completely synthetic android that serves as the "face" of the game, greeting you and talking you through the features. As you play, she starts to make comments about the time of day you're playing, how long you played, gives you survey questions, and at one point, asks if you're friends. As you look at her and progress through the game, her facial expressions change from being Stepford perfect to curious, pensive, introspective — even doubtful. Her gaze even starts drifting to the side, away from you and to all corners of your TV screen. It's creepy and mesmerizing, as if she's starting to wake up. Is … that what you want?

We are eyes-deep into the era of woke robots, thanks to shows like "Westworld" and movies like "Blade Runner 2049" and "Ex Machina" reigniting the age-old discussions about artificially intelligent lifeforms wrestling with the idea of their own humanity.

It was only a matter of time before Quantic Dream tackled this realm of creativity, and they do so in the form of Detroit: Become Human, a shape-shifting beast of storytelling that might not reinvent the way we think about our synthetic sci-fi brethren, but attempt to leave you rapt in their struggles.

If you've never played a Quantic Dream game before (Beyond: Two Souls, Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain), it helps to know that the French studio is generally viewed as one of the godfathers of the "interactive drama," a cinematic experience with gameplay elements intertwined within an emotional, gripping narrative instead of the standard action/adventure fare of combat systems or RPG attribute building. Players are forced to make choices to characters they (hopefully) get attached to, and the outcomes can be myriad.

Writer and director David Cage presents a futurescape of Detroit in the year 2038, where the city once known for its innovation in the auto industry is now the epicenter for a new kind of life-changing creation: androids. Detroit is known as the "city of androids," though it's pretty clear that's not a welcome distinction for a lot of the machine-fearing human public, whose jobs have been taken by the machines — which leads to record unemployment and gallons of resentment toward synthetic beings. Androids in this world serve a multitude of functions and are bought, sold and used, not unlike any other tools of society.

Players absorb Detroit through the eyes of three distinct androids. The first one we see is Connor (Bryan Dechart), an advanced law enforcement android from Cyberlife, the corporate monolith responsible for creating the androids. When we meet him, he's negotiating a hostage situation with a family android that has killed one of his owners and is threatening to jump off the roof while clutching onto a little girl. The next one we see is Kara (Valorie Curry), a household assistant android who was reset, reactivated and then brought back home, where a little girl named Alice and her abusive, drug-addicted loser of a father reside. Finally, we encounter Markus (Jesse Williams), a high-end assistant android to Carl, a wealthy, world-renowned and aging artist. Carl treats Markus with a fatherly benevolence and respect, something that doesn't sit well with his adult, human son.

The link among all three of these characters is how the androids begin to deal with the concept of becoming "deviant" — more and more androids are breaking from their programming, leading them to act out in different ways, sometimes leading to fatal ends for anyone near them. Connor is partnered with a grizzled, android-hating human detective to track down what's happening and eventually face down the questions of his own existence; Kara evolves from a docile robo-maid to a maternal, survivalist guardian; Markus emerges from tragedy to become the revolutionary face of the androids' movement and fight for freedom.

We've seen enough entertainment to know how the general dynamic of each of these stories is going to feel, but it was still fun to experience: Connor and his human partner Hank putting their own spin on the odd-couple-buddy-cop vibe, Kara being a possible stop-and-nothing mom figure; Markus becoming the reluctant ray of hope for an entire people.

What sets apart these stories — and this game — from anything else is sheer multitude of different directions each story can go and how they are presented to the player. In perhaps one of the riskier storytelling elements I've seen, Detroit ends the conclusion of each chapter with an elaborate March Madness-esque flowchart that shows all of the decisions and small discoveries you made en route to a certain conclusion. However, you'll also visually see on the chart a litany of decisions and paths you haven't taken, presented in the form of blocks, brackets and branches with small locks on them (and blank). Each chapter is replayable, though the game does suggest you play it straight through once without changing anything.

This mechanic made the whole experience utterly fascinating, giving the story a malleable, constantly changing texture. It was intriguing how one act or choice can change the rest of the story, even across chapters. For example, some evidence I helped Connor find at a crime scene early in the game came in very handy near the end when I only had a limited time to raid the evidence room and crack a part of the case. For Kara, a gun I took from a house ended up being useful down the road — but if I didn't discover it, I'd have had to find different solutions, which then led to different actions.

You rarely get this kind of control over a story's ripple effects, and in a way, it made the story a living, breathing character in and of itself. Seeing whole branches containing webs of locked and potentially deeper story pieces and thinking about their impact sets the game's replay value on fire for dozens and dozens of hours. You become the owner of the story in a strangely empowering way. Do you want your classic blockbuster endings, or do you want to see some depressing indie stuff?

I also found myself getting more and more attached to the characters, and that's mainly due to game writing and strength of the actors' performances — for both the lead characters and the people they encounter. There's an extra bit of gravitas to Jessie Williams' presence as Markus, the activist, as Williams himself is no stranger to speaking out against injustice in real life. Dechart is picture perfect as Connor, walking that line between being dutiful and emotionless, but also conflicted about what's happening around him. Valorie Curry as Kara is the game's emotional engine, giving you equal helpings of desperation, fear and strength.

In signature Quantic Dream fashion, the game is visually impressive. What the Gran Turismo series does for cars, Quantic Dream seems to do for people. Every bit of detailed emotion, facial tick, sense of tension in each conversation is easily readable because of the crystalline visual clarity you see in everyone's face. It's not every game where you can actually see someone act out "introspection," but Detroit pulls it off.

The gameplay itself is pretty accessible. As opposed to combos or complicated play mechanics, the Quantic Dream experience is making real-time decisions and choices using corresponding face buttons for choices and timed actions, and left or right thumbstick motions when appropriate. While this system is practically universal for all three characters, I did enjoy how each one seemed to have certain play elements emphasized.

Connor, as an investigator, focused on a lot of walking around a crime scene and analyzing pieces of evidence with the holding of the Triangle button, visually rewinding and playing a reconstructed scene with the trigger buttons (not unlike what you may have seen in Batman: Arkham Origins), and then moving the camera around with the right thumbstick to find different angles to examine. Kara's journey was heavy on making moral decisions and taking critical action for survival, such as looking around for items to help her escape or choosing whether to play dead, surrender or keep running when a crowd of androids she's in gets fired upon. Markus is both a fighter and a bit of a parkour expert, mapping out routes by scanning possible jump-off points (holding down R2 is a general scan of objectives and areas of interest for all of the characters), then using that play/rewind feature to see if the route Markus explores actually works before executing with a press of Triangle.

I encountered more than enough old-school game tension, it was just presented differently. There were times to mash buttons, and there were time-sensitive countdowns, such as when a deviant pulls out Connor's "heart" and he has to find it to survive. God of War fans might enjoy some Quick Time Events (QTEs) when the characters have to fight or survive the odd encounter.

Symbolism and gameplay unite the moment when the "deviant" characters shake loose the bonds of their programming. The floating instructions and rules they have to follow become metaphorical glass walls they can break, and the only way to accomplish this is with button presses and thumbstick motions. This reckoning is when the journey truly begins for them, and it's a very cool narrative cornerstone.

If I have any gripes, it's because (so far) I thought some of the story chapters had somewhat predictable or shallow paths, and I wonder if some of the messaging and themes might come across as a little too on-the-nose, heavy-handed and/or preachy. Markus' journey sometimes felt like protest-story-archetype-central, where there's a friend who wants peace ("we can't use violence!!!") versus one who wants to use force all the time because "that's the only way!" There's plenty of emotional weight there, but perhaps not enough depth. Counter that with I found on Kara's journey, which has left me either joyously relieved or falling into a ditch of sadness, depending on the path I choose.

I am still working to unlock floating branches on this Yggdrasil of a story tree, so I'm almost certain there are dark corners of this world that will give me more of what I'm looking for. The concept of self-aware robotic people has been explored for decades, and Detroit: Become Human makes sure you have plenty of reasons to explore it for at least more than a few hours. After all, the story, much like Chloe, shows plenty of life.

Score: 8.5/10

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