Detroit: Become Human is the narrative adventure I’ve been waiting for. I didn’t realize it — I’ve just always loved story-driven games with great characters, and fictional worlds where I can make decisions that have realistic consequences. With Detroit, David Cage and Quantic Dream have somehow perfected that recipe to craft the most intense decision-based game I’ve ever played.
In this story, you play as three different androids in a futuristic Detroit, where androids are purchased and programmed to obey their owners. Kara is essentially a servant, cooking and cleaning and running errands for an abusive man who hates AI. Markus is the caretaker of an elderly painter, now confined to a wheelchair, who treats Markus with an appreciation and affection that feels almost paternal. And Connor is a police droid, paired with a human cop to solve crime cases that stem from android deviancy — that is, when androids break their programming and go rogue.
It’s interesting to explore the future of what AI could do, and how we would treat robots who resemble us to such a degree that they look and act human — yet who we purchase and own as objects or property. And given that I’m a sucker for sci-fi, I’m having a blast navigating a world where androids have charging stations on the streets; highways are closed off for high-speed, self-driving vehicles; and if you pass an advertisement on the street, you can tap the screen to buy it and have it delivered to your house. The world-building, along with the themes it ushers into play, are beautifully created.
But what makes Detroit truly unique to me is the way the game plays. There are two difficulties: a Casual mode that gives you simple controls and a little leeway with your decision-making; and an Experienced mode with more advanced controls and more dire consequences for your decisions (and for failed QTEs).
I’m playing on Experienced, and I’m really glad I chose it. There are plenty of QTEs, but there are also time limits for certain missions. For instance, in a recent scene, I had to interview androids to locate a deviant before the androids’ scheduled memory reset occurred. (I failed.) I’ve also had a character die on me — and I’m pretty sure I know which decision led to that. There have also been intense scenes of physical abuse and narrow escapes, which I’m sure could have ended differently had I failed just a few more QTEs or chosen a different path out of the house. There’s no going back in this game. Whatever happens, happens.
At the end of each scene, you are able to see the full tree of actions that could have been taken. They’re all locked, so you can’t actually see the details of the paths you didn’t take — that would be spoiler territory if you wanted to replay the game! — but it’s interesting to see the route I took, versus where I could have made a different decision and clearly faced a different end scenario.
I’m also really enjoying the complex controls. On the Experienced difficulty, QTEs are not just tapping buttons — you also have to jerk the controller up to lift a window, down to hit something, or left/right to dodge. You tap and swipe on the DualShock 4’s touch pad to read magazines (which also provide more insight on this future world). I wouldn’t say the control scheme is outright difficult, but the fact that it uses the PS4 in such a unique way makes it a challenge just for being a first. I love the creativity of some of these controls, and they’re never too strange to figure out or perform quickly, which is appreciated.
All of that said, Detroit is proving to be a much more intense experience that I originally imagined. Normally, I’m relaxed with story-driven games. I get more stressed out dying repeatedly in a boss battle than thinking through a dialogue choice. But in Detroit, even though I’m not fighting or dying (most of the time, anyway), there are no restarts. Everything that happens is final. The story continues, even when Connor doesn’t solve a crime or Kara gets caught stealing.
For me, that’s so much more poignant than a game that already has a strict story in mind, and just lets you “fail” it and try again. Not to say that Detroit doesn’t have plenty of scripted moments and story beats that every player will hit — it has a very specific story to tell, after all. But how you get to the next story beat, and even the details of that beat, can be unique depending on how you play.
In this way, I feel like I’m enjoying a well-crafted experience, but with tons of agency — almost a scary amount, at times. I’ve never been more terrified of losing a character than I am in this game. When the pressure is on in a scene to escape from a bad situation or figure something out, my brain switches on like it never has in a video game before. I’m on the edge of my seat, focusing on nailing those QTEs and trying to parse where I should go next to succeed at whatever I’m trying to accomplish.
I’ve failed at things before, but when I make the right choice — when something pays off, when I gain respect, when I solve something I could have missed — I feel like I’ve truly earned it. And every step of the way, I’m creating a unique story that has all of my intellect and emotions invested. That’s what makes Detroit so special.