June 17, 2021

Detroit: Become Human – Androids dreaming, sheepishly

6 min read

Is it better to be a lamb or a lion if you’re an artificially intelligent life form seeking liberty? This interactive adventure lets you decide – but decide fast and hold firm you must.

AFTER being wowed by the ­surprisingly ­emotive action/sleuthing game Heavy Rain eight years ago, I didn’t need much convincing to accept the task of reviewing Quantic Dream and writer-director David Cage’s latest effort. A ­couple of hours into Detroit: Become Human (D:BH), ­however, made me wonder if I had been a little too hasty.

Besides overcoming my own gaming rust, there was also the little matter of seeing a whole bunch of old AI sci-fi movie tropes being dredged up as I played through the three ­different story arcs that make up the backbone of the story.

Detroit: Become Human

Something has been happening to the androids and some of them have been rebelling against their programming, leading to some being hunted down and destroyed by law enforcement.

A bit further on, the struggles of the game’s principal characters began to grow on me – helped by the elegant game interface that mostly sustains the illusion you are ­controlling the direction of the story. Mostly.

As in Heavy Rain, the story unfolds ­according to decisions that you make at key points in the plot. At certain critical moments, you also need to pass a series of Quick Time Events (usually pressing the right buttons or control sequence in time) to deal with more serious business.

The game is set in Detroit (duh) in 2038, a time when androids have become an affordable and disposable labour force – and let’s not forget the, er, recreational ­applications of the technology.

(They are so affordable, in fact, that even deadbeat dads who have no jobs and drink all day long can still have one to cook and clean and babysit.)

Only something has been happening to these automatons and some of them have been rebelling against their programming, even to the extent of killing people. Known as “deviants”, they are hunted down and retired by Blade Runn – whoa, I mean destroyed by law enforcement.

The droids you’re rooting for

You alternatingly take control of three characters:

• Connor, probably the most interesting of the lot, an android assigned by Cyberlife, the solitary android manufacturer, to help the police find deviants;

• Markus, a caregiver droid looking after an eccentric semi-invalid artist, who finds himself in some seriously harsh situations; and

• Kara, a housekeeper droid who finds it hard to obey her programming when her owner (the abovementioned deadbeat dad) starts taking out his frustrations on his little daughter Alice.

Markus could not believe it when he was cast alongside one of the Great Old Ones, the android named Bishop. Or maybe its just Lance Henriksen being performance-captured.

Markus could not believe it when he was cast alongside one of the Great Old Ones, the android named Bishop. Or maybe its just Lance Henriksen being performance-captured.

Their respective arcs, or chapters, ­alternate in a way over which you have little to no control – unless you seriously mess up and a major character dies. Don’t expect there to be much depth to the story then.

The respective goals of these characters become pretty obvious quite early on in the story, but their attitude and approach (and of course, success) is usually dependent upon your choices.

Roger-roger

Do they behave passively like lambs or roar like lions? When do they stand up to humans to get their way, and when do they obediently comply?

Your possibilities are presented as multiple-choice lists most of the time, but depending on your earlier decisions, you may actually get more options in some situations.

Bonding with non-playable characters usually makes it easier to get through difficult situations further along in the game.

Bonding with non-playable characters usually makes it easier to get through difficult situations further along in the game.

For example, endearing yourself to certain key but non-playable characters could change their attitude towards you and so, open up more possible ways of interacting with them further down the line.

Sometimes, these extra choices make all the difference between doing things the easy way or the hard QTE-filled way.

Similarly, antagonising certain people could narrow your range of options or even close off some story branches completely.

It is not handled as seamlessly as it sounds, though. Sometimes, characters respond in a way that’s quite inconsistent with how they reacted to you earlier.

Connor has the nifty ability to reconstruct crime scenes based on evidence that the player manages to detect.

Connor has the nifty ability to reconstruct crime scenes based on evidence that the player manages to detect.

And later on in the story, one playable character’s elevation to let’s say, “community leader” appeared to happen almost entirely “off camera”.

The story was one of the winning aspects of Heavy Rain for me, while the control ­system was innovative for its time but had some rough edges in the way it was ­interwoven with the narrative.

The reverse seems to be the case with D:BH. The story will seem all too familiar to anyone who has watched a handful of AI-themed movies (or read similar stories). Also, it glosses over parallels between the androids’ struggles and the Civil Rights Movement, which seems to have been ­forgotten by humanity at large by 2038.

Not like any other machine

What it lacks in originality or thoughtfulness, D:BH makes up for with some ­intriguing moral and ethical choices that at times may even challenge your own ­sensibilities.

Without going too much into them, or ­giving away spoilers, I guess I can say that to get far in the game, you should pretty much go the whole “do unto others” route – at least on the first play-through.

After that, on subsequent tries, treat this broadly-outlined world as your canvas. There are many ways things can go – after each chapter, just review the “mission ­flowchart” and check out the paths not taken to see just how much you missed.

An example of the chapter flowcharts in the game. Dont worry – this is just from the prologue.

An example of the chapter flowcharts in the game. Don’t worry – this is just from the prologue.

(Also, if you “fail” a chapter, just select Flowcharts from the main menu, pick the chapter in question, and reload the last saved checkpoint before you messed up.)

The game’s control system is neatly integrated, and you have the option of casual or challenging difficulty so those who just want to follow the story flow without too much of a blood pressure spike can select the former. Even mundane chores like doing the dishes and serving breakfast are somewhat ­agreeable (don’t worry, you don’t have to do this too much), but there are also some really neat features available thanks to the ­principal characters’ mechanoid nature.

Detroit: Become Human

D:BH‘s story will seem all too familiar to anyone who has watched a handful of AI-themed movies or read similar stories.

The best of these is the ability to analyse situations and compute possible pathways, and then execute your actions. Handy for performing crazy-@$$ feats that probably wouldn’t be possible if you were playing a human character other than Chuck Norris.

As Connor, you also have the ability to analyse crime scenes based on the evidence and then do some neat stage-by-stage reconstructions of the criminal act to obtain even more clues or even solve the case at hand.

End game

On the whole, D:BH just barely manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, the familiarity of the story and the shallow ­handling of the androids’ struggle for liberty aside.

A couple of familiar faces show up in the course of the game – yes, thats the Kurgan on the right with a different Connor than in Highlander.

A couple of familiar faces show up in the course of the game – yes, that’s the Kurgan on the right with a different Connor than in ‘Highlander’.

As a gaming experience, I found it ­absorbing enough to sacrifice several nights of my early retirement to play it through to the end. And then to replay the last couple of (really long) chapters because I didn’t like how I handled one character’s arc.

So on that score, Cage & Co have certainly succeeded in tapping into our own ­“programming”: that hardwired need for a compellingly told story, and to feel that we are in control of our own destiny.

Pros: Absorbing gameplay; slick interface and gorgeous visuals; balanced moral and ethical choices; generous variety of possible outcomes; emotionally strong payoffs (both the good and bad outcomes); atmospheric soundtrack. 

Cons: Story just rehashes old sci-fi tropes; player is forced down arbitrary paths sometimes; having multiple POV character arcs tends to disrupt narrative flow.

Detroit: Become Human
(Quantic Dream)
Survival/adventure game for PS4
Rating: 4 stars
Price: RM209 for Standard; RM249 for Deluxe Edition 

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