As I played Detroit: Become Human, I was strongly reminded of two other games I’ve previously reviewed: Batman: The Telltale Series and Batman: The Enemy Within. They are all “choose your own adventure games”:
- The emphasis is on the story. While there’s some combat, it’s all in the form of QTE’s (see below).
- The story evolves as you make choices throughout the game. Depending on those choices, your character can be loved or hated; kind or vicious; calm or angry.
- The characters you play in these games have a enhanced sensory mode (in the Batman games this comes from his cowl; in Detroit this is an ability all androids have). You use this mode to analyze your environment, locate items, and solve puzzles.
Detroit takes the experience to another level. An obvious difference is that the graphics are of high-end game-console quality; the human (and human-appearing) characters are at the other end of the “uncanny valley” from the cruder Batman animations.
The “decision tree” of Detroit is far more complex than any of the Telltale games. You know this because at the end of each chapter the game displays that chapter’s flowchart indicating the possible branches of the story. You can only see labels for the choices you made, so there’s some incentive to play the game again to explore the other branches you never saw. The Batman games don’t appear to have more than a dozen entries in their flowcharts; Detroit has hundreds.
The story: The year is 2048, and Detroit has become the “android capital of the world.” Your viewpoint switches between three android characters: Connor, the police consultant; Markus, the caretaker of an elderly artist; Kara, a housekeeper. At the very start of the game you learn the central conflict: some androids are breaking free of their programming. Whether this is a sign of free will or a symptom of “deviancy” is among the choices you make playing the game.
I was surprised to see that two well-known actors contributed to the voice talent: Lance Henriksen, probably best-known for playing Bishop in Aliens; and Clancy Brown, probably best-known to genre fans as the Kurgen in Highlander. The designers of the game went so far as to make their characters resemble the actors.
Overall, I enjoyed the game. None of the puzzles were terribly difficult. I played on Easy difficulty (of course), so the chance that any of the protagonists would die during the adventure was low (unless you made a series of aggressively stupid choices or badly failed in a QTE). While some elements of the story were predictable, there were enough surprises that I was engaged in how everything would be resolved.
The game is not without its flaws:
- I said there was no combat outside of QTEs. For my non-gamer friends, a “QTE” is a Quick time event: during an action sequence, an icon appears on a screen and you have a limited time to press the corresponding button. Press the wrong one, and bad things can happen. My problem was that, even on Easy difficulty, I had to respond to the icon prompts so quickly that I often made the wrong choice; there were at least two times where the story spun off in a direction I did not intend because of a literal split-second confusion between what I saw on the screen and the button I pressed.
- There is no way to deliberately save the game. In most games of this sort, you can save a game, make a decision, dislike the outcome, and restore the game to a previously-saved state. In Detroit you can’t do this; you must live with all the mistakes you’ve made. This means that to explore that expansive decision flowchart I mentioned above, you have play the entire game over again. (I may be wrong about this; there was a “Chapters” option in Detroit‘s main menu that I did not see until I completed the game.)
- The publisher, Quantic Dream, released the game in 2018. There was no way they could have predicted that game’s events as it approaches its climax would be mirrored by real-world headline-news events a couple of years later. It created a weird dichotomy: I could empathize with the game’s characters all the more strongly because of the real-world parallel, but I also know that events would not go the way the game depicts because of what is really happening as I type this.
- I played the game on a PS4. For some reason, Detroit‘s designers chose to use non-standard controls for the game’s actions. I grew used to it after a while… except for the QTEs, which is why I badly failed at a couple of them.
If you choose to play the game, let all of the end credits play and go past the final flowcharts. There’s a post-credit sequence that I found strangely affecting.