Science fiction has a long history of covertly (and not so covertly) tackling sensitive subjects of a social and political nature. Issues of race and racism, for instance, have been explored in everything from the original Star Trek and the movie District 9 to such novels as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness Of Ghosts. And now it’s the driving force behind thethird-person cyberpunk video game Detroit: Become Human (PlayStation 4), the newest interactive movie from Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls developer Quantic Dream. It’s just too bad the game isn’t as fun as it is thoughtful.
In Detroit: Become Human, the year is 2038, and human-looking androids have become commonplace. They take care of our children and elderly, they take out the trash, and even assist the police. But not everyone’s happy about it. While some people treat them with dignity and respect, others treat them like glorified toasters with legs, while still others resent them taking jobs away from “real people.”
It is in this world that we meet three androids: Kara [who’s voiced by and modelled after The Following actress Valorie Curry], a home assistant to an abusive, alcoholic, drug-abusing, unemployed father; Markus [Jesse Williams from Cabin In The Woods], an in-home care android for an elderly and infirmed artist; and Connor [The Remaining‘s Bryan Dechart], who works for the police as a detective and hostage negotiator on android-related crimes. In their individual stories, we see how androids are treated in this society, as well as the conditions that leads some of them on the path towards sentience and self-determination. All of which is done through a series of room searches, dialog interactions, crime scene recreations, and the kind of “hit the right button at just the right time” mechanics we used to get a lot in the God Of War games.
Well, except that the controls in Telltale’s games are usually a lot more familiar. As with Quantic Dream’s previous games, Detroit: Become Human ignores established protocols when it comes to its button configuration. Which is why people who’ve played Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls will find the controls in Detroit: Become Human to be just as engaging…or equally annoying.
If you’ve never played those earlier game, though, here’s what you can expect. In the very beginning of Detroit: Become Human, you’re given the option of picking up a framed photo. But instead of hitting “X” like you do in every other game, you have to move the right thumbstick up. Then, when you want to put the picture down down, you have to move the right thumbstick downward and then counterclockwise one quarter (though things are a little less complicated if you play this on “Casual” instead of “Experienced”). It also doesn’t help that the controls can sometimes be inconsistent. Just when you get used to the idea of always pushing up on the right thumbstick to climb, it switches up and tells you, “No, now you have to hit the ‘X’ button.”
Of course, there are times when the controls in Detroit: Become Human make sense, such as when you use a key to open a lock and the motion in mirrored by how you turn the thumbstick clockwise. And you will get used to these controls after an hour or so, like you do anytime a game deviates from the norm. Though even after playing for hours I still occasionally hit “X” when I wanted to open a door. Good thing this never happened when some jerk was trying to kill me.
But then, Detroit: Become Human isn’t about its action. So much so that even when there are opportunities for some, the game sometimes gives you a plausible (though often unsatisfying) story-based reason why it should be more passive. For instance, when Markus has to figure out how to jump across a chasm, he analyzes the structure of the environment — y’know, like an android would — as opposed to running and jumping and hoping for the best.
Along the same lines, while you often have a limited amount of time in which to decide what to do or say, that time is usually more than enough to consider all your options. It’s not about beating the clock. But then, unlike so many games where you’re given a choice, your options aren’t always binary. And I don’t just mean because they’re often multiple choice, but rather because there isn’t always one best answer.
That said, Detroit: Become Human does have a tendency to subtlety nudge you in the right direction. When using the Batman-esque scanning, your field of vision is often limited to the area where you’ll find whatever you’re supposed to be looking for. For a game that’s so much about choice, Detroit: Become Human really doesn’t want you to make the wrong one.
All of which is fairly typical for a Quantic Dream game. And for the most part, if you’ve liked their earlier ones, you’ll like this as well; if you didn’t, well, the new God Of War is really good, go play that.
That said, Detroit: Become Human does have some of its own issues, mostly with its story. There are times when it can be rather cliche, obvious, or heavy handed. Not only does Markus have to ride in the back of the bus, but the event that leads him to take control of his life is heavily telegraphed and something we’ve seen in numerous times before.
The same can also be said for the cyberpunk elements of Detroit: Become Human‘s story, which are also often rote or predictable. Though it’s only a problem if you’ve seen a bunch of cyberpunk movies and cartoons or read a ton of comics and novels. Which is why I kind of regret reading Martha Well’s Artificial Condition — in which a human-looking android tries to pass as human — on the same day I started playing Detroit: Become Human.
All of which is why Detroit: Become Human can be a bit slow, and thus tedious. Though this is somewhat alleviated if you take a lot of breaks, or do what I did and alternate between it and something more action oriented. It pairs nicely with Titanfall 2‘s campaign, if I may be sosommelier-y about it.
Detroit: Become Human also has some more practical problems. For starters, it has the same camera issues as, well, every game that employs a fixed camera instead of a player-controlled one. And no, having multiple angle options doesn’t always help. Similarly, it suffers from the same issues as Batman: Arkham Knight (and Rise Of The Tomb Raider, and every other game where you have a special vision mode) in that your character doesn’t mark objects of interest in a room after you’ve scanned it — y’know, like you’d expect a police android to do — and thus you have to constantly stop and rescan an area.
On the flipside, though, Detroit: Become Human deserves real praise for avoiding an issue that’s so commonplace that I cut and paste the same paragraph into every relevant review I write: the text isn’t too small to read, thanks to having three size options for its captions: small medium, and large.
In the end, gamers who hated Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls because of their controls or penchant for story over action will not enjoy Detroit: Become Human either. Neither will those looking for an action-packed adventure, a unique cyberpunk story, or a less heavy-handed approach to race relations. But if you’re okay with the slow pace, the sometimes awkward controls, and the idea that your decisions may require some real thought, you’ll find Detroit: Become Human to be an engaging interactive experience.