Detroit: Become Human might make me cry.
I’m not saying that, after playing the first three hours of the game during a recent preview event in Los Angeles, Quantic Dream’s latest interactive narrative adventure has already made me cry—or even brought me close to tears. What I’m saying is, the potential is definitely there.
That’s because Detroit encompasses uncommonly emotional qualities for a video game, and it’s not because of the writing.
Sure, the game’s narrative tackles serious social issues within its first few chapters—addiction, domestic violence, broken families, and suicide, just to name a few—but the writing isn’t particularly adroit or graceful. In fact, some of the more intensely provocative scenes can come off as a bit ham-fisted and over-the-top, especially those involving a particularly evil father in one story or a spoiled brat of a son in another.
What truly heightens Detroit‘s emotional resonance is its extraordinary cinematic quality.
I remember watching the on-stage PSX 2017 demo of the game’s opening chapter, which features a prototype android named Connor trying to talk down a deviant android who’d taken a little girl as a hostage, and literally sitting on the edge of my seat, gripped by the pure energy of the scene. The driving music, the weighty sound, and the confident camerawork all brought the intensity of the actual situation playing out on screen to the forefront. It was the kind of skillful, emotional storytelling we rarely experience in TV shows or movies, let alone in video games.
I’m happy to report that the cinematic quality of the opening hostage situation carries over to the rest of the game’s first three hours. There is a confidence in how director David Cage and the rest of the talent at Quantic Dream convey Detroit‘s three storylines that is unique among video games.
Details like how each favors a particular color scheme, or how three different composers each scored one of the game’s storylines, might seem like pretentious excesses for most games, the sort of filmic techniques and sensory motifs that one takes for granted in films like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy. But Detroit: Become Human doesn’t seem interested in being like most games, even other narrative games from Quantic Dream.
Whereas Cage’s previous games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls arguably relied on cheap tricks like mystery and convolution to maintain a compelling narrative thread, Detroit seems more surefooted from the start.
In the game’s vision of 2038, Detroit is seeing something of an economic revival thanks to a booming android-manufacturing industry. But, much like in our reality’s Silicon Valley, not everyone in Detroit is reaping the rewards of this economic upturn, especially not the service industry professionals that androids are increasingly replacing in the workforce, leading to a growing anti-android political sentiment. Meanwhile, a small percentage of androids have started exhibiting deviant behavior in the form of emotional reactions and existential thoughts. Maybe obviously, these deviants have been lashing out in violent and fearful ways.
Given the game’s title, it’s important that Detroit is a fully realized city and that the future setting is equally fleshed out. While the developers (most notably Cage himself when I talked to him) balk at labeling the game as “science fiction,” leaning more towards the more general “speculative fiction,” the technology that Detroit: Become Human portrays is at once completely recognizable and utterly fantastic.
Tablets have totally replaced magazines, and you can read these while playing through missions to get a fuller sense of how culture is reacting to the phenomenon of androids becoming as normalized as smartphones. Economic disparity is cleverly hinted at in the smallest details, such as how doors in a mansion slide open à la Star Trek but lower-income houses look relatively unchanged. Even an android store and repair shop that opens one of the characters’ stories offers both new and refurbished robotic helpers.
Playing as an android is something of a shock to the system. At first, because the androids are so lifelike and similar to the actual human NPCs, it didn’t dawn on me that the character I was controlling was a robot. But that distinction is quickly made when you’re walking around for the first time as one of the three playable characters, Markus.
As Markus, you’re tasked with retrieving some paint from an art supply store for your owner (yes, your owner) and are presented with a lively square in the middle of Detroit. Try to stray too far away from your destination, and Markus’ programming will throw up barriers preventing you from fully exploring the city. This instance instantly struck me as both a clever commentary on video game tropes (namely, invisible barriers) and maybe the first moment in the game where your android-ness doesn’t feel like a superpower the way it does with Connor’s ability to analyze a crime scene with his computer brain. Not to mention that once you retrieve the paint, you have to take a bus home, and you’re forced to stand in a penned area in the back of the bus, cementing your status as a second-class citizen.
If you are one of those people who have criticized Cage’s previous titles for a lack of gameplay, then the opening hour or so seems like a hydraulically extended middle finger pointed straight at you, as this intro focuses exclusively on tasks as mundane as picking up paint. Kara, the third android you play as, is a housekeeper and nanny for the aforementioned abusive father and his suffering daughter. As soon as the family picks up Kara from the repair shop, she’s immediately put back to work straightening up the house. That means picking up garbage, washing dishes, and opening windows. All of these actions are completed with simple button presses or quick flicks of the right thumbstick. Eventually, these inputs are put to use in performing more dramatic actions, but the core mechanics remain the same.
The meat of Detroit: Become Human‘s gameplay, besides some light puzzle-solving moments, is in the decisions you make and how you feel about those decisions. Every interactive cutscene provides the player with an opportunity to create their own story, and the amount of different paths that a player can go down is pretty staggering. Following each chapter, the player is provided with a flowchart that shows how your decisions led to each moment and where those decisions could have branched off into other possibilities. It’s a strange but satisfying way to gamify these moments, and the sheer number of blank opportunities that I didn’t experience—coupled with Detroit‘s unendingly fascinating narrative—made me want to replay entire scenes as soon as I was done.
Cage has said in the past that what he’s most interested in as a game developer is innovation. After playing Detroit‘s opening scenes, I asked him how he sees the game as innovative.
“For me, the most important thing about Detroit is that we tried to create an experience that will be thought-provoking,” he said. “That’s the key feature. There’s not one message in this game, but there are interesting questions, and the player will answer them.”
Detroit isn’t just thought-provoking in an overall, thematic way. Every moment I was walking around as an android, every choice I made, and every one of the game’s reaction to those choices caused some kind of internal provocation. Like the androids I was playing, I also felt like I was coming to life.
It’s still to be determined whether Detroit: Become Human will make me cry, but I can’t wait to find out.