Publisher: Quantic Dream
Developer: Quantic Dream
Platform: Windows, PS4
Detroit opens in an elevator as we see Connor (an android whose manufacturer contracts with the police department) flip a quarter back and forth at dizzying speed between his hands. The moment the familiar ding notifies Connor he’s reached his destination, we watch the quarter stop between two fingers, Washington’s face shining with perfect detail. The scene is totally unnecessary, but it sent chills up my spine and my anticipation through the roof. I was not disappointed.
I was utterly blown away when I played both Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain, the other two mega hits from Quantic Dream. Despite finding some significant faults in both games, I was just continuously mesmerized and enmeshed in each game’s world. Detroit elicited similar feelings and with near perfect execution.
The opening scene has you, playing Connor, entering a hostage situation where a fellow android has a human girl hanging over the edge of a balcony. The cops aren’t exactly happy you’re there, but begrudgingly allow you to try to resolve the situation without any more casualties. Before barging onto the balcony, you are encouraged to search the apartment looking for clues about the android so that you can better understand and empathize with it during the confrontation. Additionally, Connor has the ability to analyze patterns and reconstruct what likely occurred; for example, he can take a look at a dead body, a blood pattern, and a tossed gun to recreate a mental video of the crime. What’s even better is that Connor can do this at lightning speed, essentially pausing the game while you analyze the area. This type of interaction with the environment is used regularly throughout the game much to my delight. I became so dependent on pausing the game in this way that it took me weeks afterwards to stop trying the tactic in other games.
The hostage scenario can end in one of six different ways depending on how well you negotiate as Connor. While none of the resolutions significantly impact the course of the game, things definitely change based on your actions. Heavy Rain was similar, only it was difficult to tell which scenes had alternate paths. Detroit eliminates that problem by creating a flow chart of every scene so you can tell what other possible branches exist (without revealing how to access them). Not only that, you get to see how your choices stack up against every player in the world. For example, on my first playthrough I saved the girl in the hostage situation and noticed that of the six possible endings, the one I reached was the most common.
I strongly recommend not worrying too much about the paths on a first run-through. Partly because the game’s story holds more weight if you just let it play out without any backtracking. And partly because it’s not always easy to tell if one choice is better than another. In fact, in many cases (especially where moral dilemmas are concerned) there is no correct choice, and the game doesn’t judge your actions in any way. Generally, if you make the choices that are meaningful to you, the story will play out the way that’s best for you. Again, while this was true to an extent in Heavy Rain, any ending that didn’t include saving your son’s life was going to ruin the moment. No such problems here.
Throughout the game you will play as three different androids. One of them is Connor, who gets assigned to work with a hard-nosed detective with an alcohol problem to try and figure out why so many of the town’s androids are becoming defective and threatening the lives of other humans. You will also play as Kara, a nanny android who is brought home by an abusive father. Kara develops a strong kinship with the daughter and sets off to help her find a better future. Finally, you will play as Markus, a companion android to a wealthy painter who believes androids should have equal rights and serves as Markus’s mentor. Naturally, the lives of all three androids will cross paths on multiple occasions, often with conflicting motives.
While there is more problem-solving sprinkled throughout than previous Quantic Dream games (especially during crime scene investigations with Connor), the story’s path is still largely determined by conversation choices and quick-time events. The QTEs are identical to Heavy Rain, executing button presses and joystick maneuvers. There are two difficulty levels. For the casual gamer who is stressed out with action or making quick decisions, the easier setting is ideal. While you can still make mistakes or kill off your characters, it is very difficult to do unless you’re trying. I played on the standard setting and felt the difficulty level was perfect. A few scenes didn’t play out as I had hoped due to mistakes, but as mentioned these mistakes led to perfectly cool plot branches anyway. And while I didn’t kill off any of my characters, I did accidentally kill off a fellow android due to a poor choice in a tense situation. The moderate threat of this occurring (along with solid use of vibration of the gamepad) gave the game the level of intensity I crave without the need for hand-eye coordination skills I lack. And yes, you can kill off any of your three characters, including one very early in the game. If this occurs, the plot will just carry on anyway.
Not surprisingly, Detroit’s overarching theme is the debate on whether androids are sentient beings that should have rights. At the heart of this debate is Markus, a black android who has to decide whether or not to advance their goals via peaceful protest or violent uprising. The allegory to the United States Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is plain as day. Annoyingly, developer David Cage denies this was intentional. especially since I felt he handled it really well. Most white people much prefer the “peaceful” solutions of Dr. King rather than the less peaceful solutions of Malcom X, never mind the fact that King considered violence as an option if necessary. The writing in Detroit is not whitewashed like the life of Dr. King. The game never judges the decisions Markus makes, nor does it present any particular outcome as better than another. Markus is voiced by (and given the face of) Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy, The Cabin in the Woods), a black activist himself. Williams gives a moving, powerful performance that left me in tears at least once. Cage got great performances all around and it’s really cool that each actor provided their likeness as well.
Detroit is not without fault, of course. Kara’s story, while engaging, barely intersects with the other two and has endings that are mostly irrelevant to everything else that happens. Markus’s story is perhaps a bit overscripted. He is joined by three android partners who are fairly one-dimensional. Every time there is a moral dilemma, one always provides a peaceful suggestion, one a practical suggestion, and one an aggressive suggestion without much nuance. And then they all say some version of “But it’s your choice, Markus,” which took me out of the moment each time, reminding me I was playing a video game. Finally, Markus’s love interest is disappointingly shallow and the course of their relationship feels unrealistic and unsatisfying no matter how it plays out.
My first playthrough was about 13 hours and I found my first ending incredibly satisfying. I then immediately started the game over (which I very rarely do) and played another 13 hours, making different choices and filling up my flow charts. I then chose to replay various chapters multiple times to seeing all the different permutations. All in all I’ve probably put 40-50 hours in Detroit, and there’s still many things I haven’t seen. There’s also plenty of behind the scenes footage and game music you can access.
Another delightful feature is the game’s host, an android who greets you every time you load the game. Not only does she explain all your options, provide encouragement, and give specific remarks depending on the time of day (or time of year) you’re playing, her personality changes as you progress, providing a genuinely interesting subplot to the main game.
Detroit: Become Human is in the conversation for the best game I’ve ever played. I’m not sure it gets there as despite everything it doesn’t provide the same adrenaline rush I feel while playing Portal or Police Quest 2. Perhaps it has something to do with playing as androids, even ones with emotions and ambitions. Or perhaps the dozens of plot branches lessens the overall emotional impact. Either way, I had a hell of a lot of fun and can’t wait to see what Quantic Dream does next.