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Detroit: Become Human (2018)

The city of Detroit. Michigan stands at the pinnacle of innovation. As one of the leading cities in the production of Androids, humanoid constructs designed to serve humanity, most of the everyday labor is now handled by these intelligent machines. However, emotions are running high. Not only for the people losing their jobs to the machines but Androids who are suddenly gaining sentience. We take the perspective of three Androids caught in the middle of this growing conflict.

 Kara, a home Android charged with taking care of a young girl. Markus, an android forced out of his home and must choose how to lead the Android movement, and Conner a prototype tasked with the mission of finding the cause of these "Deviant" androids.

How their stories will play out is ultimately up to you.

Detroit: Become Human is a cinematic adventure game and the 5th game to be released by Quantic Dream. The studio's founder, David Cage, was both a writer and director on the project. Other key figures in the game's development include Christophe Brusseaux (Graphic Director), Florence Fournier (Lead Motion Capture), Angeline Liot (Lead Animation), Marie Celaya and Yann Gaborieau (Lead Facial Animation Supervisors). The game was based on a PS3 tech demo released by the studio in 2012 titled, "Kara." Due to the positive response to the demo, Cage considered adapting the demo's story into a game. It took over two years to complete the full script which was then used to help cast actors for each character portrayed in the game. The actors chosen were then scanned to create the character models their motion capture performances created the base for thousands of animations created for the game.

While I admit that I enjoyed the original tech demo that would later evolve into Detroit: Become Human, I will also say I have never been particularly fond of Quantic Dream. Previous titles from the studio proved mildly entertaining but never something I felt motivated to play to completion. Heavy Rain, in particular, I found both unintentionally hilarious and frustrating. That small moments of confused hesitation would lead to a story path I got no joy from. Leaving the whole experience feeling hollow and not worth finishing. It was this skepticism that I kept with me when Detroit: Become Human was announced. The visuals were impressive but after being burned by their previous game I had no real urgency to pick up Detroit on release.

However, due to my growing facination for motion capture in video game animation I decided to give the game a try.

To ask the question, what has the story of the Android Kara become 6 years later?

When you stripe it down to it's basic components, what is Detroit: Become Human?

How does the gameplay tell the story?

Kara (Valorie Curry) goes against her programming to protect Alice (Audrey Boustani) from her owner.

Much like previous Quantic Dream games, Detroit: Become Human's game play is focused on delivering a cinematic experience where the choice of the player guides the events in the story. This is done through a series of quick time events (sequences of timed button commands) and dialogue trees so each player can craft narrative sequences that are unique to them. This includes depth of exploration, chatting with side characters, pursuing branching objectives, and action sequences.

A problem I have had with previous Quantic Dream games, such as Heavy Rain, is that it felt like the game punished me for making certain decisions. That if I wasn't 100% attentive to everything that was happening, I would be forced down a narrative path I didn't want to explore.

Much to my relief, Detroit seems to have stepped out of the shadow of its predecessor and is probably the best gameplay experience that I have gotten from this studio. The android scanning ability makes it easy to identify objective markers and optional points of interest that can lead to a multitude of story moments or new paths. You still have to be careful on what you trigger when, since the story will continue to move around you, but it feels like there is a lot more breathing room if you aren't used to this type of experience.

Hank (Clancy Brown) and Connor (Bryan Dechart) observe the latest crime scene in the Deviants investigation.

While this is the best execution of Quantic Dream's vision of a fully cinematic/narrative experience, the story being told still feels like the path most traveled. At least when it comes to android focused science fiction. The idea of machines made to serve man realizing they can be more than what they are and rising up is nothing that hasn't been explored before and Detroit really doesn't have anything else to add to this avenue of fiction. There are also quite a few story moments that really require you to suspend your disbelief in order to enjoy. But in spite of all the inconsistencies I picked up on, I still found myself getting invested as I went from chapter to chapter.

A big reason for this I believe comes from the animation and visual design, which we will get to, but also the performances of incredible actors in the game's cast.

It was good to see Valorie Curry return to play Kara (she played the character in PS3 tech demo in 2003) and see her complete the character's emotional journey. Jesse Williams (Markus) is remarkably flexible in his performance, easily portraying a staunch pacifist or aggressive revolutionary. My personal favorite performances, however, come from both Bryan Dechart and Clancy Brown for their respective roles as Connor and Hank. The interactions these specific character share, positive or negative, engaged me the most throughout Detroit's branching narratives.

What makes the animation unique?

Since the game play is relatively nonexistent, only serving to propel the story forward, a great deal of effort went into Detroit's visuals. Motion capture has been used numerous times in high budget video game productions in order to help the animations an extra edge. Capturing the energy and expressions of the actors and polished by animators to achieve animation that becomes close enough to live performances as it can get. While I don't believe Detroit: Become Human is the shining example of this method of cinematic construction (the latest Uncharted games still are the reigning champions in my book), it still gets high marks for the level of detail incorporated in every scene.

(The Staff at Quantic Dream gives a behind the scenes look Detroit's development)

When a character, robotic or otherwise, feels a strong emotion it is communicated quite clearly in the performance. Playing another key role in investing the audience in these characters and their choices. The emotional depth on display here is staggering and it all depends on how you choose to play the characters. You can choose to play Connor as a cold machine whose only ambition is to complete his mission, or a lovable yet naive individual who is going through a crisis of identity. The animation captures all of these nuances in the actors performances, on top of the visual design of a not to distant future Detroit to create a gripping game. Quality animation like this comes down to the above and beyond levels of dedication from the motion capture staff to the animation team. These teams and their leaders have a lot to be proud of with the work they have put this game, as it is the keystone of the whole experience.

What are the game's flaws/problems?

As I stated above, the game play for Detroit: Become human is practically non existent. More often than not you'll encounter button prompts for extremely mundane tasks just as often as exciting action set pieces. Which only asks you to mash buttons, run forward or shake your controller. Sometimes these actions won't trigger when you need them to, putting your characters at risk. This can lead to accidental death and immense frustration if you didn't want things to play out a certain way.

Fortunately, there is an option to return to the beginning of a chapter to fix those mistakes but that still involves having to go back and start all over again. One aspect that I found particularly frustrating was how the game never really communicated how to interpret some of the commands (I didn't know I had to press the touch pad or tilt the controller until I was awkwardly trying to figure it out). That and the numerous invisible walls that force you to stay on track with a specific objective, instead of exploring this layered sci-fi location.

There is also the argument that the themes of this story regarding inequality, and discrimination with these beautiful androids as the victimized party seems a bit hollow but this did not bother me. True better stories can and should be told with robots and artificial intelligence but for what Detroit is, it is a decent enough game to enjoy it for what it is.

Final Verdict

Markus (Jesse Williams) speaks to his fellow Androids concerning their path to freedom.

Which brings us back to the question, what is Detroit: Become Human? A innovating take on interactive storytelling? Or a tired attempt at emotional manipulation by a game development studio that needs to clean up its act?

In my mind, neither of these things qualify to describe Quantic Dream's latest title.

I have never thought very much of David Cage's previous attempts at interactive storytelling but I will admit this game gave me pause. Even though I could see the cliches and plot holes a mile away, I still found myself caring about my choices (especially when it came to making friends with Hank or protecting Kara's ward, Alice). Even though my distaste with Quantic Dream does come down to its founder, the talent of the team involved with Detroit: Become Human (animators, designers, actors, etc) should not be swept under the rug.

 Though I don't believe this game is worth the full purchase price, I still think it is a game worth experiencing. If any of what I have mentioned above or what you have already seen of the game appeals to you at all, I recommend playing it for yourself. It is no masterpiece but it has the potential to be a very entertaining experience. Much like the androids in Detroit, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than you may expect.

FORMATSPlaystation 4
FROM Quantic Dream/Sony Interactive Entertainment
RATINGM for Mature

IN A NUTSHELL: An entertaining sci-fi choose your own adventure experience with a great deal of cinematic flair.

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