Arts video game review

Weaving a complex narrative

Player choice drives ‘Detroit’ through a less-than-perfect narrative

8633 dbh kara
The everyday from Kara’s chores to Markus’ caretaking is rendered with beautiful graphics
8633 dbh kara
The everyday from Kara’s chores to Markus’ caretaking is rendered with beautiful graphics

Detroit: Become Human
Developed by Quantic Dream
Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment
Rated M for Mature
Available on PS4

A smiling Chloe greets you on the home screen as you begin your journey in Detroit: Become Human. She warns you that your choices matter before you are thrown into the moody future through the stories of three different androids. And they do. I found myself tense and nervous at every decision, worried for my characters: Connor, Kara, and Markus. Quantic Dream brings us another gorgeous game with a detailed world and a complex branching narrative subject to your gameplay. While the game is more linear than it feels, Chloe rightfully warns you that your choices matter as you negotiate what it means to be, well, human.

Choices range from picking dialogue to escape routes to morally questionable actions. While life or death moments never let up on tension, choices often matter for more than just the survival of an android — they define their characters and shape their goals. Markus spearheads the android revolution, but the method of its unfolding is left to the player. Kara’s fugitive journey of searching for a place she and Alice can live a normal life is steered by players. And Connor, an innocent high-tech android detective, needs serious help from players in working with the cynical Lt. Hank Anderson and investigating cases of android deviancy. I was emotionally invested in each of their stories and tried to drive them towards my idea of a “good ending.”

My choices also shaped relationships between my characters and others. I found Hank and Connor’s relationship the most compelling and tried very hard to make Hank like Connor while completing missions. Hank’s confused reactions to Connor’s attempts to (awkwardly) get closer were golden. And I felt genuinely guilty at Hank’s outburst over Connor choosing to secure the deviant over him. It’s those tender, awkward, real interactions in the relationships (exempting a couple of Markus’s) that makes Detroit shine. The relationships built greatly defined characters and were ultimately developed by me — the player. I felt ownership over the clumsy, innocent Connor that emerged from my play. And that’s an incredibly satisfying and intimate feeling.

Choices are mainly presented explicitly on screen as selectable options. But player performance also constitutes a choice to the plot. For example, while playing Connor, I chose to fail quick time events and slowly meander to allow Kara and Alice to escape. My choice to fail did not lead to a game over. It led to a different ending. Although there weren’t terribly many “performance choices” like these, I found moments of choosing to fail immersive and a novel way of weaving action and choice.

While I was emotionally invested through most of the game, jarring moments of clumsy writing broke this immersion. Results that did not match what I thought my choice meant had me turning to my friends in confused frustration. Obviously Connor’s idea of being understanding was different from mine. And Markus’s “determined” approach resulted in force, which was out of line with the way I played Markus as guilty for hurting Carl’s son. In those moments, I felt like the game hijacked my intents.

In addition, plot holes and moments of bad writing stuck uncomfortably in my mind. I can’t overlook them. For a game that tries to make gameplay meaningful to the greater narrative, it would be irresponsible to dismiss narrative problems.

My biggest gripe is with the consistent, blatant references to the civil rights movement that were not handled well. Detroit draws parallels between the android revolution and the civil rights movement through “subtle” references like segregated buses and overly explicit ones such as “we have a dream” and Rose’s monologue. They are more than distracting; they are careless. The references redirected my attention but then weren’t commented upon by the game. While Detroit very obviously portrays androids as sentient, independent actors (“Become Human,” anyone?), it gives little guidance on what we should make of their civil rights metaphor. How far does it extend? And problematic implications also arise if you simply take the allegory at face value. Either ways, Detroit does little to address this nuanced discussion and carelessly throws references in without properly framing them in the otherwise heavy-handed story. My gripe isn’t with making that reference but rather the poor handling of it.

Gaping plot holes such as Markus’s randomly acquired powers and a sudden plot twist that never really amounts to anything also contributed to my dissatisfaction. Some twists and patches almost discredited earlier play. For a game with such an immense attention to detail, major flaws in the writing tainted my experience. Detroit: Become Human presents compelling characters and weaves plot and gameplay together in interesting ways. The multiplicity of endings and complex relationships is compelling and evocative, but its problematic writing cannot be severed from the rest of the game.