It’s late in the evening. I’ve moved the console to the bedroom, so I can enjoy a bit of Detroit in warmth and comfort. I fire up the game, and while the main menu loads, I duck off to the toilet.
Nobody else is home, so I don’t bother to shut the door. It’s at that point that the worst possible sound echoes from the bedroom.
“I think your save file is corrupted,” Kara chirps.
Did I fuck up when unplugging the PS4 in the living room? I put my phone down and sped off the loo to the bathroom.
“Just kidding,” the android continued.
Even outside of the gameplay, Detroit: Become Human is full of little moments like this. I say little moments, because there are plenty of sequences where Detroit doesn’t quite land the final punch.
Sometimes it’s a choice, forced under pressure, that is actually irrelevant. Sometimes it’s the forced minutia of a scene that serves little purpose beyond padding. And sometimes it’s a line of dialogue that has a completely different tone from the one-word synopsis given beforehand.
And naturally, you get punished. Sometimes, Detroit feels a little like Dragon’s Lair.
But as you go through the chapters, lots of little moments pop up that carry Detroit from one story to the next.
Sometimes it’s a great mechanic, or a poignant bit amongst all the drama.
And then sometimes it’s the camera.
Late in the game – and I’ll avoid spoilers – Markus climbs out a window to scale up a skyscraper. It’s snowing heavily outside, and the white of the snow makes for a good contrast against the blue logo on the building.
Then, out of nowhere, the camera cuts to a very wide shot in the distance. It’s the kind of shot that games in the ’90s used when they were trying to be cinematic.
I had a flashback to a fight in Ecstatica 2. The camera is high in the air. Below was the edge of a wall, curved into a half circle with an enemy knight and a player. Far from practical, as far as camera angles go, but incredibly classy for a game in 1996.
And absolutely not a game I thought I’d be reminded of while playing Detroit.
For a game focused on three androids, their evolving relationship with humans and their evolution as humans – or sentient forms – themselves, most of the dialogue is pretty straightforward. The language is simple. Androids are built to be inoffensive in Detroit‘s world.
The game doesn’t use the nature of androids for humour at all. But there’s one moment, about halfway through.
Connor, the negotiator android from the opening scene, heads off to find his human detective partner at the precinct. They don’t get along, at least not in my playthrough, and unsurprisingly Lt. Anderson is late to work.
So you rustle around his desk, find clues about his past, spot his favourite basketball team.
Lt. Anderson arrives. He gets chewed out by the captain, and then offers you the desk opposite. He mostly wants you to bugger off, but Connor is a pest. So I kept quizzing away.
“Basketball,” one prompt read. I immediately think about how an AI would talk about sport, like those automated sports reporter bots that were being trialled a few years ago. They would gather a game’s stats from a database, pull out relevant highlights or outliers, and stitch them together.
And that’s exactly what Connor did. Did you see that player shoot 58.3% from three, it perks up, rattling off other statistics.
The detective looks up: I would have, but you pulled me out of the bar while I was watching the game.
The little moments are great because there’s a lot of Detroit that just peters out, or comes to a crashing halt.
Early on, Markus wakes his artist master Carl for breakfast. Apart from the neat piano mini-game, you also get to choose a theme and tone for what Markus wants to paint. It’s a neat back and forth – until the discussion is ruined by Carl’s son, who needs drug money.
It was a nice scene while it lasted.
In another, Kara and Alice require shelter after their car breaks down. Eventually, they come across a tavern in an abandoned amusement park. Alice warms up by a fire, but then you’re interrupted shortly by a horde of androids. Time quickly slows down: you have twenty seconds to choose one of two paths, or a third if you snooped around prior.
It’s a surprise mechanic out of nowhere, and it adds a neat jolt in what was a relatively sombre scene. But once the adrenaline subsides, logic kicks in. The rest of the amusement park was filled with frozen androids. You were required to start a fire to keep Alice warm. The park has been abandoned for God knows how long.
There’s no threat here. There never was.
But every now and again, Detroit shines, if only for a second. Kara and Alice have an intense cut-scene trying to cross a highway that, courtesy of vehicles passing at high speed, is genuinely tense. I know there’s a good chance Kara can die. I’m certain she will if I fuck up the prompt. I didn’t, and I breathed a sigh of relief, and it was a neat note to end the chapter on.
The main supporting cast is pretty good too. Hank, played by Clancy Brown, dominates his scenes with a range befitting a troubled, cynical veteran detective. Dominic Gould plays the abusive Todd in the early scene that became embroiled in controversy, and he does so convincingly, whipping himself into a drug-induced rage that kickstarts the cycle of abuse against Alice and Kara once more.
Problem is, nothing comes of that scene once the chapter ends. The domestic violence isn’t revisited; the scars left on Alice unmentioned.
It’s still a great scene. But stories don’t function in isolation. They’re part of a greater whole. And this, in essence, is Detroit‘s chief problem: for every little moment that succeeds, there’s another where the game falls just short.
It’s partly by design. Cage told Kotaku last year that he didn’t “want the game to have something to say, because I don’t see myself delivering a message to people”.
“I’m definitely interested in asking questions to the player. Questions that are meaningful and that resonate with him as a person and a citizen.”
But questions require answers. Detroit makes a point of highlighting androids being abused all over Detroit, but it never explores the complexities of its own environment beyond simplistic messaging against discrimination and slavery. It’s a done deal: androids don’t want to be oppressed, abused or beaten.
But what would granting androids rights actually look like? And given that so much of Detroit‘s world is filled with anti-android sentiment, why isn’t there a stronger advocate against granting androids personhood? Should androids even look like humans to begin with?
The answer is because Detroit isn’t as serious as it wants to be. The narrative is barely held together by the strength of one-off scenes, strong performances, top notch visual design and the occasional cracking QTE. It’s more cohesive than Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain, so Quantic Dream fans will probably be thrilled for that alone.
Detroit can be entertaining, although I’d hesitate to call it a good game. But Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls suffered similar fates, games to be enjoyed in spite of themselves. The crux of Detroit is that it’s more cohesive, and combined with the little moments of joy throughout there’s enough to see Cage’s latest adventure through to the end.