Platform: PS4

Ever since the original Kara short film, I’ve been looking forward to Detroit: Become Human (DBH). This seven minute gut punch of a film showed off what was graphically possible with the PS3. Unfortunately, the gameplay in DBH feels last-gen, and the emotional heft of the narrative is hamstrung by shallow writing and the limitations of motion capture graphics.

Detroit: Become Human is set in a near-future Detroit, where androids have replaced a large segment of the workforce and have become a fixture in many people’s everyday lives. They take care of the kids, clean the house, go to work, and even fight our wars. They are the slave race that underpins the world economy. You play as Kara, Markus, and Connor, three androids swept up in an uprising of deviant androids demanding freedom and equal rights.

It’s a promising set-up that is all but squandered in the execution.

Graphics

All of Quantic Dream’s games are built using a process that involves filming, and motion capturing live actors. The problem is: this process does not work. When this graphical system cannot realistically replicate a human smile, then it’s a system that’s obstructing, not enabling the story. When North (played by Minka Kelly) smiles during the climax of the game, it’s ghoulish and inhuman, plunging deep into the uncanny valley. This is a game centered around the notion that androids are people and deserve human rights, but its graphical systems cannot facilitate the portrayal of human emotions.

That’s a serious problem.

The graphics of DBH don’t fail because they’re not beautiful; they are, in that they show every strand of hair and every pore. They fail because they stand in the way of our engagement with the characters and story.

Performance flaws

This system particularly falls flat when the game shows you closeups of the actors, which it does, often. Much of the plot centers around Markus (played by Jesse Williams) and his burgeoning android revolution. He’s meant to be an inspiring leader, and Williams certainly has that capacity as an actor, but something went terribly wrong here. He has two expressions through most of the game: “flat” and “ouch”.

Valorie Curry and Bryan Dechart do a much better job as Kara and Connor, respectively, and I wonder if this stems from their background as actors. Curry and Dechart spent time in the theatre, where larger, more physical expressions of emotion are key; the audience members in the back of the house need to see you emote. Williams got started in television, where intimate closeups are frequent and subtle emotional portrayals are key. DBH’s motion capture system fails to portray these emotional nuances, and this may have hindered his performance, though his voice acting isn’t stellar either.

A great deal of fortune and effort have been sunk into this motion capture system, from the days of Indigo Prophecy, released in 2005. Back in the days of the PS2, you could credibly say that hardware limitations hindered this graphical style. But thirteen years later, with the power of the PS4 available, no such excuse exists. (Note: as far as I could tell, there’s no graphical difference between playing this game on the PS4 and PS4 Pro.)

The stylized graphics of games like The Walking Dead should stand as an object lesson to Quantic Dream. While no one would argue that TWD’s graphics are cutting edge or photo realistic, they do a much better job of conveying the complexity of human emotions.

Gameplay and writing

Anyone looking to play Detroit: Become Human should understand that it is an interactive cinematic experience, not an open world game. It’s less Witcher and more Choose Your Own Adventure book. Some reviewers may be annoyed by the frequent walls that pop up and stop you from exploring environments, but I wasn’t. There is a pre-defined script you need to follow, and pre-defined moments of choice. You have choice, but only so much. Gamers should set their expectations accordingly, and those who have played Quantic Dream’s past games know exactly what to expect.

The best gameplay moments are the early crime scene investigations where Connor, a police android, must gather clues to reconstruct events. The opening hostage scene puts you under intense time pressure to get all the clues to confront a hostage-taker and save a little girl’s life. When I first played through the scene, I was checking a pool of blood when a SWAT officer took a bullet. I literally jumped and thought, “Maybe I need to get out there and deal with this!” Even though my chance of success was only 70%, I charged into danger. Unfortunately, later scenes lack this intensity, and aren’t nearly as engaging as a result. Once you’ve done this for the third or fourth time, you realize you’re basically just clicking to advance the plot.

In most other scenes, the game gives you more than enough time for sufficient exploration, and it seems that’s generally what Quantic Dream wants you to do: feel out the environments they’ve created, and see how lived in and real they are. And they do feel incredibly realistic. You will find digital magazines throughout the game that tell you about mass US unemployment due to androids, a conflict between the US and Russia over the Arctic, and the fact that the president is an unqualified vlogger (who, for some reason, looks a lot like Hillary Clinton). DBH’s world-building is excellent.

But for some reason, DBH insists on thrusting you into action scene after action scene wherein your main form of interaction with the world is through the dreaded QTE. Aside from feeling deeply antiquated in 2018, these sequences are basically just a glorified game of Simon Says.

It presents a paltry reflex-based challenge, and little else. Instead, it should be asking the much more interesting question, “Which action should I undertake? How far is it morally acceptable to go in pursuit of safety and freedom?” While certain moments in the game agonize over the choice to be peaceful or violent, when the action sequences kick in, there’s no question over whether or not the android characters should kill humans - they do, almost without question.

The most jarring example of this is when Kara, whose story centers around nurturing and motherhood, must fight human soldiers, and blows them away without a second thought. Earlier in the game, you agonized over whether to shoplift $40 from a convenience store to stay at a motel. Was Kara protecting herself? Yes, absolutely. Was she justified? Probably. But there’s no time spent exploring this choice, because we have to run down a hallway and deal with another QTE. The moral turns of this game are enough to give you whiplash, and they occur not to develop the characters or deepen their dilemma, but because Cage felt the need to throw an action sequence at you.

The root of the problem

And this gets to the root of the gameplay issues in DBH. This game’s mechanical limitations mean that it will never feel like God of War or Far Cry 5. And it shouldn’t try to be like these games. Its best moments arrive in quiet contemplation and agonizing moral choices, but these are soon replaced with the need to press X to not die.

The most annoying moment came when I was chasing down a deviant android as Connor, and the controls wouldn’t let me properly turn down an aisle to continue pursuit. This is a problem from Pac-Man. If you can’t solve Pac-Man level control issues, then maybe you shouldn’t have so many action scenes. And thematically, issues of selfhood and self-determination are not enhanced via QTE-driven gunplay or kung fu. The Matrix might seem like a counterexample, but when the sequels started focusing on the action at the expense of the narrative, the movies suffered. The same thing happens here.

Script problems

Despite a strong connection between the choice-oriented gameplay and the script’s themes of free will and liberation, DBH’s exploration of these themes is ankle deep. The backbone of every great film (and this is much more of a film than a game) is a great script. It’s the base upon which the superstructure of its aesthetic edifice stands. And DBH’s script is rickety.

The beginning of the game is very strong. Before Kara and Connor become deviant and gain free will, there are a few wrenching scenes wherein you, the player, expect to have a choice, but do not. You’re still a “normal” android, and you’re programmed to obey. Taking choice away from the players helped drive home the androids’ near impossible situation. You can tell that Cage was intrigued by the core thematic concept for the right reasons, but like a game developer playboy, he flirts with many great ideas but refuses to commit.

Markus’ storyline revolves around his increasingly desperate attempts to free androids, but rather than explore the messy implications of this struggle, Cage breaks it down into a dichotomous choice to be violent or peaceful. This is simplistic, and does a disservice to the serious issues at hand. Haven’t we had enough of the paragon/renegade dichotomy?

A few characters exist merely to advocate for violence or non-violence, but little reason is given for their beliefs. Political positions should not be a character’s sole development. Cage should have gone deeper into the complexity of these issues if he was going to attempt to explore them as primary theme of the game.

Unfortunately, the game also stumbles in its portrayal of certain supporting characters which could be accused of falling into the “magical Negro” and “black sidekick” stereotype. Come on, guys. It’s 2018. We can do better than this.

DBH explores the value and meaning of android life, but relegates human soldiers to being cannon fodder for action scenes. While the soldiers are committing reprehensible actions throughout the game, this cannon fodder treatment does the game’s narrative a disservice. The question of violence versus nonviolence has far less bite if one group’s lives are unquestionably expendable.

The game flirts with the imagery of racial oppression (androids have to stand at the back of the bus), but shows little appreciation of how those forces have shaped America and Detroit in particular, and how they might also shape this struggle. And yes, Quantic Dream is a French developer, but if you’re going to set a game about oppression in America, you should do your homework - the same goes for a hypothetical American developer creating a game about the French Revolution.

That being said, Cage is smart enough to not immediately dismiss violent revolution as doomed or immoral. Androids are facing extreme oppression, against which extreme measures may be necessary. France has had a complicated and violent revolutionary history, and I was glad to see some of that complexity filter into the game.Despite these narrative deficiencies, there are some genuinely affecting moments in this game. Most of these take place between Kara and Alice, a young girl that she tries to help. The buddy cop dynamic between android Connor and his human partner (played by an excellent Clancy Brown) is a predictable but enjoyable ride nonetheless.

The game also shows you the flowchart of scenes as you play and after you complete them, showing you where decision points take place. This allows you to revisit checkpoints after your playthrough is done to see how the game could’ve gone differently. It also lets you check to make sure you’ve covered everything in a section before moving on to the next. I’d avoid looking at these too closely during your first playthrough. There’s some fun to be had in doing your second playthrough and realizing, “Wait, there’s a branching path here?” and seeing where that leads.

It’s been eight years since 2010’s Heavy Rain, and Quantic Dream’s gameplay formula hasn’t evolved much since then. However, the story game market has seen a great deal of evolution. Telltale Games, Fullbright, and Campo Santo have led the charge, showing that there’s a better way to tell a story in a game. DBH ignores these innovations in favor of the same old thing. The problem isn’t that Detroit: Become Human is bad. The problem is that it’s mediocre, and could’ve been so much better.