Ever since our species was developed enough to speak, we’ve delighted in telling each other stories. Whether it’s sharing fables that immortalise an important lesson for future generations, or simply just spinning entertaining yarns to pass the time – storytelling has always been an integral part of what it means to be human.
Yet, for most of our time on this planet, the ending of each tale has been dictated by those who tell them. Now, thanks to the interactive nature of video games, being a passive observer is just one way of experiencing a story.
Developer Quantic Dream is renowned for pushing the boundaries when it comes to interactive entertainment, and eight years after the innovative Heavy Rain, the studio is putting the story back into your hands with Detroit: Become Human.
But is this a story that’s better for having its audience dictate it?
Much like Heavy Rain before it, developer Quantic Dream has once again shunned fast-paced gameplay in favour of a choose your own adventure-esque narrative. But ultimately, it’s this single-minded focus on decision making that helps and hinders Detroit: Become Human in equal measures.
Taking its cues from Blade Runner, Westworld and Channel 4’s Humans, Detroit sees players put in the shoes of various androids as they are thrust into the midst of a mass sentient awakening. With these once obedient machines slowly breaking from the shackles of their programming, it is up to players to either rise up and lead the android revolution or find a way to accept their programming and co-exist with mankind.
There are moments where Detroit: Become Human is everything you want it to be. When this stunningly rendered sci-fi metropolis and the slow-building arcs of its various characters finally converge, it’s almost impossible not to be floored by the sheer scope of its brilliantly realised web of interweaving narratives.
With your choices in pivotal moments spawning literally hundreds of different outcomes, there’s an exhilarating sense of dread at play whenever you’re faced with making one of Detroit’s increasingly difficult decisions. In a nice touch, at the end of each chapter you are presented a flow chart showing how many branching outcomes come out of each decision, allowing you to go back and replay key scenes once you’ve finished the game.
Unfortunately, many players won’t have the patience to see how their stack of carefully choices end up playing out. While Quantic Dream has given players the keys to unlock a staggering amount of different branching narratives, frustratingly, that same level of freedom simply isn’t afforded to you in the minute to minute gameplay.
Narrative Freedom, Gameplay Shackles
When the game begins, players are treated to a jaw-dropping look at the pristinely rendered city of the game’s namesake. As you enter Detroit via its slew of different android protagonists, the city’s bustling streets are illuminated by a sea of neon signs, with futuristic trains and hovering cars adorning its skyline. In other words, it’s an idyllic-looking metropolis that’s simply begging to be explored. In other words, it’s an idyllic-looking metropolis that’s simply begging to be explored.
Sadly though, you never really get the chance. While for such a narrative-driven game, a true open world was never really on the cards, the level of player agency in each environment feels shocking restrictive in 2018. Like in Heavy Rain, you are largely tasked with wandering a small environment and locating a series of objects before talking to various NPCs.
Yet, whenever you’re finally dropped into the city, you can only go a few steps before being met with red out-of-bounds signs. For a game trying to tell an immersive story, its something that completely drags you out of the experience.
Bafflingly, this sense of restriction even occasionally worms its way into the narrative itself. In one level, players are put in the shoes of android detective Connor and tasked with solving a violent murder committed by a rogue android. After putting together the crime scenes clues we soon manage to track the assailant to his hiding place – the victim’s attic.
Yet, when we finally confront the mechanical murderer and hearing his side of the story, no dialogue options are presented – and we are forced to take him back to the station whether we like it or not.
A Tangled Narrative Thread
It would be easier to dismiss the disappointing lack of gameplay innovation if the story was largely without such issues, but it’s not just the occasional lack of story choice that frustrates. When offering the player a narrative-driven experience, ultimately, the whole game lives and dies on its writing and voice acting. In this regard, Detroit is a fairly mixed bag.
Thanks to some wonky writing there are a few scene transitions that feel hugely jarring, with characters ending one scene only to appear somewhere else entirely with very little explanation as to why they are there or how they arrived.
When Heavy Rain debuted back in 2010, it showed the huge potential for audience participation in storytelling. Yet, despite its innovative decision-based narrative, the gameplay largely consisted of walking down very linear paths until you were faced with a flashing on-screen button prompt.
Sadly, in the eight years that have passed since Quantic Dream pioneered the genre, it seems as though the studio has learned very little from the wave of imitators it spawned. There are a few attempts at moving the gameplay forward here, with players often tasked with finding a few basic puzzles, or playing out little simulations that determine which routes their character takes in an action scene.
Still though, those sections ultimately feel like an arbitrary distraction from the game’s key focus — decision making.
It’s a shame, as games like Until Dawn have proved that you can simultaneously offer players narrative freedom and a compelling interactive experience, with the aforementioned horror game using its exploration sections to ramp up the tension and put players in danger.
Is Detroit: Become Human Any Good?
Detroit: Become Human is a game that really comes into its own during the finale. While most decisions you make during this 12-hour plus journey have pretty immediately apparent outcomes (failing to find a suspect as android Detective Connor for example, changes the outcome of your investigation in the next scene) it’s during Detroit’s final hours where the sheer scope of Quantic Dream’s choice mechanics build into a glorious, nail-biting conclusion.
When all your choices come together and the action scenes see you making quickfire decisions it’s undoubtedly an exhilarating experience — the awe-inspiring blend of cinema and interactive entertainment that gamers have always dreamed about. Outside of its brilliant ending, however, it’s a different story entirely.
Ultimately even its breath-taking cinematic conclusion isn’t enough to stop Detroit: Become Human feeling like at best a flawed classic and at worst a frustratingly restrictive experience. While it never reaches the giddying heights of Westworld, there is definitely an engrossing interactive story worth experiencing here.
If you can endure the game’s more tedious aspects and embrace the bad with the good, Detroit’s branching endings will undoubtedly compel you to dive into countless chapter replays and spark heated conversations for years to come.