Say what you will about Detroit’s plot, terrible tropes, or its handling of its subject matter (and we have). Despite its glaring flaws and painful David Cageisms, I can’t stop playing Quantic Dream’s latest game for one main reason – Detroit: Become Human is possibly the first game that has come through on the promise of a truly branching, reactive storyline.
Narrative games based around the concept of player choice affecting the storyline have become increasingly more popular over the last decade or so, with notable examples like Heavy Rain, Until Dawn and Mass Effect 2 encouraging even more devs to play with the concept.
Telltale got the genre down to an art form – and then to an easily repeatable formula. Yet Telltale is possibly the best example of the trickery of choice-based games, with more and more gamers feeling that their games present the illusion of choice while ultimately herding you down the same path each and every time.
Even the best examples of the genre offer little to change the actual storyline beyond letting characters live or die. In many cases ‘branching storylines’ would be far more accurately described as ‘branching endings’.
This was particularly heinous in Beyond: Two Souls, where the non-chronological structure of the game meant that very little of the storyline could actually change. Even worse, you could choose what ending you got simply by pushing one of four buttons.
Detroit: Become Human, on the other hand, takes this concept to a whole new level. I’ve played through the game twice myself, and watched two other let’s plays on YouTube, and in each iteration different choices have resulted not just in new dialogue lines but in entirely new scenes, characters and totally unique storylines.
I was apprehensive when Detroit’s scene flowcharts were first announced, seeming like the sort of feature that could reveal just how limited the game’s options actually were.
I'm not a programmer. But having grown up with two, I have some measure of understanding when coders get irrationally excited about processes and flowcharts. And with Detroit. Become Human, I've found a flowchart of my own that I can happily geek over.Read more
When I actually played it, however, it was the opposite. The flowchart revealed conversations could spiral off in new directions, or how a single mistake could either change the course of the game or end a character’s story for good.
Near the end of the game, some of the flowcharts are not only expansive, but are interchangeable with multiple other flowcharts that are only unlocked when you take a different route.
In fact, most of the game’s marketing focused on the branching storyline, with the early hostage scene used as an example, but I laughed it off as pure PR speak. Every game like this will try to claim it has infinite options, after all. But surprisingly, Detroit actually came through on its promise.
One of the choices in my first game that really stayed with me – and ultimately ended up driving me to an incredibly bleak ending – came near the start of the game, and actually was made by accident.
In one of Markus’s earliest scenes with the resistance, he leads his posse of rebel androids to the Cyberlife warehouse to collect important supplies for Jericho’s ailing androids. Here Markus is able to kill his first human if you so choose – but this isn’t the decision that has the biggest impact on the game.
That comes a few moments later, when the security android “John” asks to join you. In my playthrough I had every intention of saying yes, but in a careless moment pressed the wrong button and ended up rejecting him. This little mistake created ripples that would ultimately effect every part of my game.
In the short term, turning John down cuts off an extended scene where Markus and the gang have the option to liberate an entire truckload of supplies from the warehouse, a scene I never knew existed until I watched another playthrough.
In the long term, this tiny thing really screwed me over. See, John comes back much, much later in the game.
When Markus and the residents of Jericho stage a peaceful march through the streets of Detroit, the result is decidedly not peaceful. The riot police show up ready to put an end to the demonstration and are ready to use force if necessary. Markus is left with three options: run, fight or sacrifice himself.
Of course in this context there’s no easy answer, but to make your point and stay peaceful most people end up choosing ‘sacrifice’. Which, for most people, is fine. It turns out John comes back and sacrifices himself so Markus can live to fight another day – unless, that is, he never joined you.
Simon can also sacrifice himself for you at this point in the game, but seeing as my Connor had caught Simon earlier, this wasn’t an option either. I lost a character due to a double whammy of sheer bad luck.
So Markus died at this point in my game, and let me tell you: it really fucked things up. But it also meant I got to go on a very rare adventure, judging by the fact that most of my flowchart options from this point on had world stats of only 4 or 5 per cent.
North became the leader of the resistance, which meant that we were locked into a violent war against the humans. Connor became a deviant and interestingly took the role that Markus would have otherwise played during the Jericho conflict, running to the ship’s hold to detonate the bomb. A few things play out differently to Markus’s run – for example, Markus can save Josh’s life, while Connor only comes across him when it’s already too late.
Because Markus is gone, the war fails, and I still haven’t managed to find out if this is automatic if North is the leader or if it’s based on other circumstances. Due to the violent conflict in Detroit, Kara had to sacrifice herself at the Canadian border to make sure Alice could get through safely with Rose.
Even Connor’s ultimate story changes if Markus is dead – it takes away the option to fight Cyberlife’s programming and gives you only two choices: give in, or kill yourself. I chose the latter, but it was a decidedly bittersweet ending for my favourite character in the game.
I replayed to get the ‘everybody lives’ ending, but it really made it obvious how much one little thing could change the game.
In other people’s playthroughs, a shaky relationship with Hank changed the way the end of the game played out. I watched Connor almost die in a room I had never even explored in my games. One mistake on Kara’s side saw her be sent to an android ‘concentration camp’ that she would have to escape, rather than making her way to the border on a bus. I watched Markus stage a peaceful protest, a completely different experience to the tactical war I fought in mine.
I know of a number of other scenes I haven’t even watched other people play, let alone watch. Kara can try to cross the border at the river, or abandon Alice and make her own way. Markus can set off the dirty bomb – an option that had been presented to me in my playthrough but I never got to see play out.
I’ve never seen Connor refuse to go deviant, which unlocks a whole new section of the game and might as well be a whole new character. It adds a unique dynamic to the story when machine Connor faces off against both a newly android-sympathising Hank and his fellow player-character Markus (from what I’ve heard, you can choose which character you control during their final confrontation, which sounds amazing).
And this isn’t even mentioning all the various fail states that can completely change whole parts of the game. The characters of Detroit: Become Human have many, many opportunities to fail or die.
Most games like this give you two, maybe three playthroughs before you run out of new content to find, but Detroit’s scenes just keep on branching.
But that comes with its own problems.
One of the things that was most interesting and certainly disappointing about Detroit: Become Human was the ending. People who were expecting a Heavy Rain-style ending with a small ‘epilogue’ for each surviving character were disappointed. At most you would get one small bonus scene after the credits, but some endings (like my first) didn’t even trigger this.
I think this is a symptom of the game’s hugely branching story. When your conclusion is so personalised, how many ending scenes would you have to make to encompass all the possible options a character could have chosen?
“Detroit is forcing me to do things I don’t want to so I’ve paused it in protest and am just sitting here,” I messaged the group chat on Sunday. </p> <p>I’d resolved to finish the game that weekend, but I’d reached an impasse. It wasn’t caused by the type of question you’d expect from a game - save this or that character, choose between high or low risk and reward. It was because I was being forced into a morally reprehensible act which undermined the central conflict of the game.Read more
Beyond this, the effects of the branching storyline are seen in the game’s often flawed handling of its own complex concepts. In tackling domestic violence, for example, Detroit largely fails by neglecting to ever show the lasting effect those experiences had on Alice and Kara. Beyond a small monologue by Alice in the next scene and a few flashbacks in Zlatko’s house, it’s never mentioned again.
Other intriguing concepts are never really explored, likely due to the fact that not every player even unearths them to begin with. One scene can end with a curious end card stating “Connor Was Traumatised”, where a deviant kills himself while Connor is still connected to his memory.
In a game that wants to explore the nature of humanity and synthetic consciousness, this felt like a breakthrough but guess what: it was never mentioned or addressed again.
Similarly the game toys with psychological trauma if Connor is often killed and replaced by new models – Hank is understandably disturbed by seeing his partner gruesomely killed a number of times and then turning up the next day as though nothing has happened. However rather than exploring the potential trauma Hank is experiencing in this situation, it seems to be played for laughs more than anything.
The breadth of Detroit’s branching storylines is a double-edged sword. On one side it provides a game that’s incredibly replayable, with so much still to discover even after multiple playthroughs. On the other, it dulls the effect of those new discoveries, failing to ever truly capture the depth of those different experiences the characters live.