Release Date: May 25, 2018
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
French developer Quantic Dream has been one of the most forward-thinking, innovative (albeit divisive) studios in the games industry for the past three console generations. Titles like Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, and Beyond: Two Souls challenged players to expand their ideas of what a game should or could be, simplifying direct player control in the hopes of creating cinematic, narrative-focused experiences. When talking about his team’s work, the studio’s fearless leader, David Cage, often sounds more like a filmmaker than a game developer, breaking down themes and “social emotions” rather than discussing level design or gameplay features.
If there has been a weakness to Quantic Dreams’s story-first approach to gaming, it’s that hardware limitations have hindered the movie-like presentation, and with Quantic games, presentation is everything. These stories are about people, but the character models haven’t been quite expressive or lifelike enough in the past to allow you to forget that they are digital creations and truly sink into the game world, at least to the same extent as you would with, say, a Pixar film. Beyond: Two Souls came ever so close to achieving a look that matched the moviegoing experience, but still fell short of true CG quality.
With sci-fi, neo-noir thriller Detroit: Become Human, however, Quantic Dream may have finally broken through that barrier, delivering a visual feast of a game that isn’t just technically astonishing, but uses every ounce of its graphical horsepower to support its story, a three-pronged, open-ended sci-fi drama fueled entirely by the decisions you make. What sets the game apart from its predecessors is that the graphics are so utterly convincing that, ironically, you seldom notice them. In other words, the character models for the three lead actors — Valorie Curry, Jesse Williams, and Bryan Dechart — are so detailed and emotive that they feel like extensions of the performers themselves rather than rigid approximations.
The game opens with Connor (Dechart), an android detective sent to diffuse a hostage situation in a high-rise apartment. Unlike humans, he can’t feel pain, doesn’t eat, and is programmed to do his job within a strict set of parameters. His target is an android nanny, who’s somehow defied those parameterss and is holding at gunpoint the little girl he’s programmed to care for. As you navigate your way through the scenario, deciding what Connor says and how he behaves, the story unfolds accordingly, constantly presenting you with quick, difficult choices that will make your heart race and wreak havoc on your emotions.
The in-game drama feels so palpable because the characters feel and look real. The tough decisions you’re presented with would be a lot less tough if, say, the little girl was low-poly and poorly animated. You’d look at her and subconsciously think, “I’m playing a video game –this isn’t all that serious.” But the truth is, the girl, the renegade nanny, and Connor, are all rendered and animated so well that you can’t help but develop a strong sense of empathy for them, and suddenly, you’re sucked into the story.
Particularly when played on a PS4 pro on a 4K television, the game is an absolute showstopper, and all of the little graphical details — high quality textures, sub-surface scattering, fluid hair rendering, tasteful depth-of-field, and post-processing effects — work in concert to make the environments look real and make the characters feel firmly embedded in the game world, which ultimately means players are free to concentrate on the story as opposed to being distracted by muddy textures or harsh polygonal edges.
The art design is unbelievably good as well. The story is set in 2038 Detroit, with shiny, hologram-draped buildings and android “parking stations” juxtaposed provocatively against the grimy industrialism of the poor neighborhoods (Blade Runner was an obvious influence on all fronts, though you could probably say that for every modern sci-fi thriller). Design elements like the sleek, augmented reality-inspired UI, look stylized without looking impractical, and in fact, almost every visual flourish you see informs the story in some way, which is one of the game’s hidden strengths.
It’s a subtle thing, but the UI actually takes the long-bemoaned video game trope of invisible walls and turns it into a storytelling device. Since you’re playing as an android, any invisible walls you encounter are there as a result of your programming. Your UI displays virtual barricades that read, in bold red text, that you musn’t proceed until you complete your mandated tasks, a needling symbol of oppression naturally instills in you a growing sense of disobedience, planting you more firmly in the characters’ shoes. There are ingenious design details like this all throughout the game, and without spoiling anything, Quantic Dream cleverly uses the AR android UI to create visual representations of cognitive experiences, all of which blew me away.
Gameplay is straightforward and boiled-down, with rudimentary movement controls and well-thought-out quick time events (none of the prompts feel contrived, save for some occasional utilization of the PS4 touchpad, which is forgivable because it almost never occurs during fast-paced action). The most intriguing (and flashy) mechanic is a sort of CSI mode that illustrates Connor’s detective intuition as you use pieces of evidence to construct a rough reenactment of a given incident, represented by wire-frame figures of the assailants and victims, whose presumed actions can be scrubbed back and forth through like a YouTube video.
All of the game’s mechanics here are weaved seamlessly into the three-pronged, branching story, which is the most cohesive, complex, and thought-provoking yarn Quantic Dream has ever spun. Connor’s storyline is one of existential anxiety and unlikely friendship (Clancy Brown plays his human partner in anti-crime, a drunk, gravelly police lieutenant), and Williams plays Markus, an android freedom fighter (fitting, considering the actors’ proclivity for activism) whose journey speaks to relevant social issues like discrimination, free thinking, and chosen family.
Curry’s character, Kara, who we were first introduced to in a stirring 2013 tech demo, gives the dark, cold, neo-noir tale a much-needed measure of warmth as she watches over a young, human girl named Alice. What’s fascinating about her third of the story is that it’s full of quiet, ostensibly mundane moments that pay dividends come the game’s thrilling finale (whichever one you happen to land on). Simple things like bringing Alice dinner or giving her a kiss goodnight feel genuinely heartwarming, thereby raising the stakes any time the girl is in jeopardy. These intimate moments only require you to do a simple button press or flick of a control stick, but the level of engagement is actually very high because, again, the presentation is so cinematically strong (the way Alice looks at Kara will make you melt).
The interpersonal character work here is fantastic, largely due to the spot-on performances by all three leads and the supporting players (Minka Kelly is a standout as a rebellious cohort in Markus’ storyline). But the larger story is also thematically strong, tackling with audacity and nuance the fashionable subject of AI sentience and its implications for the future of humanity. The material is designed to naturally provoke you to ask questions. Are the androids capable of love? Do they fear death? Are they immortal? The game answers all of these in the most brilliant way.
The branching story paths are always the major point of intrigue for these games, and due to the hyper-relevant subject matter of the story, your choices will say a lot about who you are as a person. Your characters will often be harassed by humans on the streets, and your choice to fight back, stand your ground, or walk away from the situation could change the entire outlook of the narrative going forward. At the end of each level (or “scene”), you’re treated to a slick-looking flow chart that maps out the decisions you made and their consequences, and even shows you what percentage of other players in the world chose the same path. It’s a trippy sort of social experiment that offers an interesting insight into human nature in a real-world context.
One feature of the game that doesn’t quite gel is this intrusive relationship tracker that gives you updates on whether or not the secondary characters approve of the three leads. For example, if you choose to leave an ally behind while making a daring escape, you could fall in your standing with one of your other companions, and a little icon will pop up by their face informing you that they like you less (you’ll maybe drop from “trusted” status to “neutral”). What’s disappointing about this system is that it undermines the cinematic presentation. In (good) movies, you can tell just from a look whether one character considers another a friend, lover, acquaintance, or enemy, and there’s no need for any kind of contrived visual indicator.
Another, less offensive flaw in the game’s architecture are the action sequences centered on Markus, who can sometimes “preconstruct” parkour routes to get to hard-to-reach places and avoid dangerous encounters with gun-toting baddies. Choosing the best path to success is sometimes engaging, sometimes not. But it’s never fun, because when you find the best path, Markus does all of the leaping and flipping and vaulting himself (not a button prompt in sight), which is somewhat underwhelming.
For the most part, though, Cage and his team have mastered the art of balancing how much and how little control to give players in order to serve the story and maintain a steady cinematic rhythm (something Beyond: Two Souls struggled with). Many games offer intricate narratives and explore big ideas, but none with the cinematic sophistication of this poignant sci-fi epic. Detroit: Become Human represents a quiet revolution, one that pushes forward the idea that video games can speak the language of cinema as fluently as movies and TV can.