This review contains all sorts of spoilers for “Detroit: Become Human,” although I don’t really know the ramifications of spoilers for a video game that has 45 possible endings. Still: space for the cautious.
I’m just resuming serious video games after a ~19 year hiatus, so don’t expect me to know the current industry norms, or to compare this to the greats of years gone by. I’m doing this for fun, y’all.
Summary: Engrossing, psychological choose-your-own-adventure story with gorgeous graphics. Entertaining and very re-playable. CW for suicide, child abuse, bloody violence (human and android), abuse of sex workers, lots and lots of language.
So often in these techno-thrillers the future is clean, shiny, and tall (looking at you, BLADE RUNNER 2049). I couldn’t help thinking, as I wended my way multiple times through “Detroit: Become Human” that despite the grimy, derelict settings of many of the game’s scenes, the office buildings sure did look good. It makes a solid symbol, I suppose, for the rich getting richer and the poor being abandoned—but it’s hard to imagine even massive sums of money could produce so many shiny, streamlined skyscrapers in just a few decades.
But damn, they’re pretty.
It’s 2038, and androids are now a regular part of the workforce. In Detroit—and presumably all over the world—this has had a mixed cultural effect: unemployment is rampant, and there’s a nearly-unlimited source of labor that many don’t see as different from cars or vacuum cleaners. But if you’ve seen BLADE RUNNER you know how this goes: the androids aren’t human-shaped appliances, they’re sentient creatures, and society is on collision course with that reality.
Gameplay rotates among three android characters. It’s Connor we meet first, in a prologue that serves as a tutorial for many of the gameplay features: he’s been brought in to deal with an android housekeeper who’s become “deviant”: gone rogue, murdered his employer, and kidnapped a little girl. He’s now standing on the roof of a building, threatening to jump, and you (as Connor) have to literally talk him off the ledge. Once you do this (it can go a lot of ways, but the game steers you strongly toward the little girl’s survival; if she dies, you have, as The Kid would say, hecked up good), you’re partnered with Hank Anderson, a Detroit police detective assigned to figure out what the heck is going on with all these deviants.
Next we meet Kara, an android housekeeper who’s just been reset after being repaired. She works for Todd, looking after his daughter Alice. Todd is a drug addict (and maybe also a dealer, and really, Todd, never sample the merchandise), and when he’s drinking he gets angry and takes it out on Alice. When she sees Alice threatened, Kara chooses to defend Alice rather than continue listening to Todd. Just like that, Kara’s deviant and on the run, and it’s your job to get her (and Alice) to safety.
And then there’s Markus, who The Kid rather irreverently (and certainly not originally) calls Robo-Jesus, and yeah, this game’s not especially subtle with the symbolism. Markus is a prototype—no model number—working as a nurse/companion for Carl, an aging, ill, and extremely wealthy artist. Carl has gone full Dad on Markus, encouraging him to form his own opinions and think for himself. Markus is leading a particularly cushy life until he and Carl return from a party one night to find Carl’s son Leo (another drug addict—did I mention the game’s not subtle?) tossing the house for cash. No matter what you do here, Markus gets shot and ends up in a junkyard, where (in a particularly nightmarish sequence) he repairs himself, and goes in search of other androids on the run.
So you’ve got Connor, whose mission it is to stop the deviants; Kara, whose mission it is to get Alice to safety; and Markus, whose mission it is to unite the deviants and decide the fate of the world.
This game is not a shooter, but neither is it a one-solution playable story like “Gone Home” or “What Remains of Edith Finch.” Probably 2/3 of the gameplay is you walking and talking your way from cutscene to cutscene, but your choices aren’t simple, and they often don’t have the consequences you expect. (They’re also almost always timed, and the default that’s triggered if you don’t choose isn’t always a great option.) Characters you don’t control will like or dislike you, often based on decisions you made several chapters earlier—and it’s not always clear what the best decision is.
The remainder of the gameplay consists of quick time events: action scenes where you’re prompted either with a sequence of controls to hit, or given choices about where/how to move with a very brief timer. These are the places you, or other important characters, can live or die—and all three of your androids can die in this game. You can set the difficulty, but even in super-easy mode you’ve got to be on your toes—it’s just a little more forgiving of slower reflexes.
The gameplay is entertaining enough, and for me at least never overbalanced into movie-watching; but the strength of “Detroit” is its characters. Kara is faced with having to innovate her way through situations she never would have otherwise encountered, and you can feel how much she’s pulled toward the quiet, peaceful life she was originally programmed to provide to others. Connor’s got a strong sense of duty that he believes is immutable, but from the start he’s learning the world isn’t as binary as his programming wants him to believe. (In the prologue scene, you can trigger Connor’s first software instability, flagged briefly in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.) Markus, the prototype, is thrown into a role he both loves and loathes; he was an innocent, brought up in a soft environment, and abruptly he’s leading people who will kill—or not—at his command.
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have nitpicks. This is not a subtle story, and the analogies with current US culture can’t be missed (although the game was started before the current administration). The Robo-Jesus epithet isn’t misplaced; although you can certainly make Markus go bad, he is absolutely the savior of his people, one way or another. Kara’s an appealing character, but her story is essentially one big escape room. She interacts briefly with Markus and Connor, but is irrelevant to the larger story.
And while I’m at it…yeah, it falls into that trap that waaaaay too many near-future dystopias fall into: women are either mothers or sex workers. The scene in the sex club shows us male androids as well as female, but all the ones we see brutalized are women. Kara’s backstory begins with her repair, which we learn happened because Todd destroyed her in a rage; North, Markus’ would-be girlfriend, was a sex worker who murdered an abusive client and escaped, mirroring a case Connor and Hank have to solve. Rose, a character who helps out Kara and Alice, is something of an exception; but even she’s gifted with a dead husband, and a problematic mostly-grown son (who still, of course, needs her mothering)..
Kara’s written and performed well, and North (although she gets a lot of hate in the fandom) is appealing, determined, and strong, but I have the same complaint I always do: with all of the deep worldbuilding, complex relationships, and varied backstories, surely you can come up with something to make your women strong besides surviving abuse.
But I forgive it all that, because on balance, it’s fun to play, and fun to watch. I’ve run through it twice now, and watched The Kid play through three times. There are bits that are less interesting to me (Kara and Alice sleep in the damn car every time now, because I do not care about the laundromat or the convenience store), and chapters that require mental preparation (“Crossroads” is a long one without a lot of checkpoints, and it’s really, really easy to get everybody killed), but overall, I enjoy meandering through the universe. I tend to play for the happy ending, but I’ve seen less optimistic playthroughs, and it can get very, very dark. But with 45 endings, even if you avoid the dark, you can find yourself taking a lot of different paths without even scratching the surface. There’s a lot to do here, and it’s almost always engrossing.
Entertaining, varied gameplay
Oh, so pretty
Controls are usually not frustrating
The usual dystopic sexism
Seriously, though, I killed all three of them in “Crossroads” and that was at the normal difficulty setting
Liz’s Completely Subjective and Undefined Rating: 9/10, would play a lot.