David Cage’s back with another sci-fi story that, almost reluctantly at times, also happens to be a video game.
Tortoises may look a lot like turtles, but if you throw one in the sea it’s not going to have a fun swim.
Likewise, while French studio Quantic Dream and writer-director David Cage have fulfilled their ambition of making a cinema-like story in game form, you may not enjoy playing Detroit: Become Human as much as you might have enjoyed watching it.
Progressing like a long interactive movie, Detroit is mercifully broken into a series of brisk chapters. It’s your job to effectively direct these scenes, making the calls to cue the next line, move to a specific spot, or pick up a prop.
But whether such a narrative-driven video game will sink or swim depends largely on the quality of the story, and unfortunately, Detroit feels like a rather cliched affair.
OUT OF CONTROL
Detroit's scenes can play out with all manner of explosive confrontation, fists flying and guns blazing, but how these are prompted is more about the decisions you make, narratively, than your reaction time with the X button.
Controls can seem unintuitive too, often relying on the manipulation of the right analogue stick, sometimes at the same time as holding a trigger or two – but they’re in line with Quantic Dream’s past form.
The intent is to loosely represent character movement, rather than explicitly map buttons to actions like a regular third-person action title. And as such, Detroit isn’t a particularly testing game – at least not when it comes to challenging player dexterity across a control pad.
Detroit will sometimes impose a countdown on choices – do you act mercifully, maybe, or enact brutal vengeance? But there’s little here to stress you out, even when the game is played on its “experienced” mode, in which you’re explicitly told: every one of your characters can die before the end credits. In fact, you may even be glad to see the back of a few characters…
The story is told through the eyes and actions of three protagonists, each of whom is a hyper-realistic robot rather than a flesh-and-blood human.
One, Kara, is protective of a child abused by her violent, drug-abusing father, and the two are seeking asylum across the border in Canada.
Another, a prototype android named Markus, looks to lead the mechanical revolution that forms the narrative core of the Detroit experience. And while that sounds rip-roaring fun, his bland character somewhat dampens the experience.
And finally, there’s the police-assisting Connor who’s the stand-out controllable ‘droid. His odd-couple partnership with veteran police officer Hank – your traditional too-old-for-this, hard-drinking cop – delivers the game’s best writing, and even a few welcome laughs.
Clancy Brown, perhaps best known for his role as the quick-tempered prison guard Byron Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption, puts in a terrific shift as Hank, lending a good slug of his craft to a role that could have been hopelessly two-dimensional in less-experienced hands. Also in the cast is Aliens star Lance Henriksen, who despite his android past appears here as Markus’s open-minded master and father figure.
The story tells of a near-future America in which (Detroit-assembled, hence the title) androids have entered the workforce, inevitably attracting the resentment of those they’ve made unemployed.
From menial jobs to military frontlines and medical emergencies, they’ve bumped humans from the pecking order, and one of the first commotions we see in the game is a protest against their continued production.
Throughout, it’s not hard to see where fictional divisions between humans and robots end, and (rather on-the-nose) real-world metaphors concerning race and religion begin.
Indeed, there are scenes in Detroit’s second half, particularly concerning Markus’s quest to free his people, that are clichéd and cloying enough to have you wondering where the fast-forward button is on your DualShock 4.
THE BLAME GAME
The fact that this is a video game often gets in the way of the story's momentum, causing pacing issues that smash apart the seriousness of the situations that certain characters find themselves in.
Connor aside – who’s actually the most machine-like of all three protagonists – it’s hard to truly connect with Detroit’s heroes, going through as many predictable motions as they do to fulfil their own destinies.
In a movie, better yet a TV series, it’s possible to form favourites, and feel attached to their fates. Here, we skip from scene to scene, character to character, in such a skittery way as to nullify the impact of what we’ve just witnessed; and as such, on returning, we feel no great desire to steer them towards a certain fate.
It’s more a case of pressing buttons until the scene stops, and if it ends well, so be it. If they die, they die. And besides, if Skynet means anything to you, you’ll probably want these independent contraptions to cease to function.
READY FOR ROUND TWO?
Most chapters offer several routes to their conclusions, with all manner of different outcomes laid out as a flow chart once they’re finished – and some of these paths will unlock new scenes for much later in the game.
This is, ostensibly, a means to add replay value, the game teasing you with all the scenes you’ve not seen. But whether you’ll really want to go around again to see Connor in a very different light will depend on your enjoyment of Quantic Dream’s stock-in-trade productions, and the narrative adventure genre as a whole.
There’s really no shame in playing through Detroit just the once, and then checking YouTube for everything you missed. The effect will be much the same.
If Detroit’s story had been more original, restarting it for a second playthrough (stick it on casual this time, though, to make your life easier) wouldn’t feel like such a drag. But there’s not one beat here, not one twist, that doesn’t feel telegraphed through a lifetime of watching similar tales told in cinema and television.
DETROIT: BECOME HUMAN VERDICT
Upon reaching Detroit's end credits for the first time you’ll likely wonder: would that have been a more effective and engaging experience if concentrated into a considerably shorter motion picture? Almost certainly, yes, it would.
Cage has had a few cracks at this kind of cinematic adventure game now, and that this latest effort shows no significant progress (visuals aside) from his past two suggests he may have hit an underwhelming creative ceiling.
It could be that he rises up, like Markus here, and tries again to merge two pretty distinct mediums. But as a fair few outcomes of Detroit make clear, that doesn’t guarantee a happy ending.