If there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing Detroit: Become Human it’s that David Cage doesn’t trust his audience.
He seems to be convinced that players won’t get a point unless it’s scrawled on the side of a bus and driven through their living room wall.
That’s not to say that Detroit: Become Human is suitable only for the scrapheap, but this interactive-movie style adventure is dragged down by some horrifically clunky writing. The game’s premise is that, in the not so distant future, service androids have become commonplace since, you know, no-one’s ever seen Blade Runner. Or The Terminator.
This review contains minor spoilers for Detroit: Become Human.
Unsurprisingly, some androids start to gain sentience, which is where you come in. You alternate between playing as one of three androids: there’s Kara, who goes on the run with an abused little girl; Markus, who finds himself unceremoniously thrown on the scrapheap; and Connor, who is charged with hunting down rogue androids, dubbed “deviants”. Their paths cross at various points throughout the game which throws up some rather interesting dilemmas. As Connor, do you go all out to capture Kara, knowing that doing so may harm her chances of survival in future chapters? Or do you deliberately fail some quick-time events, just to let Kara get away? Decisions, decisions.
There are other choices to ponder, too; early on in the game you’re tasked with finding somewhere for Alice, Kara’s charge, to sleep. One option requires you to rob a store and steal some clothes, but I struggled to follow this route. Not because I couldn’t justify stealing; because of the heartbreaking look Alice gave me (the animation in Detroit: Become Human is top-notch). To its credit, the game frequently throws up challenging decisions which are so fuzzy that you’ll feel some degree of guilt no matter which option you choose.
Not so subtle
Less appealing, however, is Detroit‘s script. One minute you’ll be ducking and dodging through traffic, grinning like an idiot as you narrowly escape certain death. Then, mere seconds later, you’re shaking your head at some utterly awful writing.
One of the game’s trailers was openly mocked for featuring a one-dimensional “deadbeat dad” character, but there are plenty of similar moments where the game abandons any attempt at subtlety. At one point, a character who just happens to live in a spooky mansion tells Kara that “everything we need is right down in the basement.” He doesn’t have a moustache but if he did you can bet he’d be twirling it a fair rate of knots. You know it’s a bad idea. Alice knows it’s a bad idea. But the game steadfastly refuses to let you do anything other than follow Captain Sinister into his sex dungeon. Unsurprisingly, things go very badly for Kara. Who could have seen that coming, eh?
Markus’ sections of the game suffer the brunt of David Cage’s ham-handed writing. Detroit: Become Human draws parallels between the androids struggle and the civil rights movement. But it does so in a bafflingly awkward way, with frequent overt references. You’re even given the option of scrawling “We Have a Dream” on walls, for crying out loud. During another scene, Markus literally lights the way for a group of androids who, until his arrival, are suffering in the darkness. I do mean literally; he finds them in a darkened room and goes around lighting braziers for them to stand around, since that apparently hadn’t occurred to them. And calling a chapter “Shades of Colour” and having Markus travel in a segregated bus compartment is just crass.
Missing the Markus
Throwing out Markus’s sections would, in fact, make the game a much more pleasant experience. Despite the shaky writing, Kara and Connor’s stories have some degree of appeal because of how personal they are. You’ll care whether Kara finds a new home with Alice; and you’ll smile as Connor slowly gels (or doesn’t, should you so choose) with his cop partner. And there are a few genuinely great moments, including one with Alice that is almost as beautiful as The Last of Us‘ giraffe scene. But Detroit: Become Human stumbles when it attempts to tackle loftier topics. Coupled with the fact that Markus is the least interesting character in the game, the game’s third act becomes a real chore.
There’s definitely some joy to be had from Detroit, particularly if themes of artificial intelligence and sentience intrigue you. But there are other games and movies that do more with them (Soma, for example). For a game that relies so heavily on its narrative to carry it, Detroit: Become Human fails to excel. And having to tilt the controller for the nth time, just to perform a basic action that could equally be accomplished by a single button press, doesn’t add to its appeal either. In theory, the game is replayable – on my initial playthrough, Kara’s ending was rather grim – but faced with wading through its middling mechanics and patchy, often superficial story, I’m in no hurry to make a return trip to Detroit.