Detroit: Become Human Review on Playstation 4
By Rob Fanzo
In the 1970s Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called, “Robot Dreams” in which a sentient AI robot discovers an understanding of its condition as a slave and questions its own place within the world. It would later become known as the film IRobot, which heavily adapted and extended the story. Enter Detroit Become Human, David Cage’s own take on the question,“What happens when the slaves of the android age are pushed too far and realize their own agency?”
Become Human is the third effort from David Cage and Quantic Dream, and the cumulating effort of years of work within the studio that began with a simple tech demo named Kara back in 2012. Flash forward to 2018 and Kara, along with Connor and Markus, try to navigate three different worlds within a futuristic, yet still grounded city of Detroit in 2038. It’s here, with abusive relationships, cruel acts of humanity, and tension between humans and their less self-aware (temporarily in our experience anyway) androids that we begin to see the story and the answer to that question unfold.
What is immediately striking about the world of Become Human is it is not that different from 2018. Technology has been at the forefront of humanity for the last several decades, and with its rapid growth there remain an increasing number of moral and ethical boundaries Become Human wants us to consider. How comfortable is a world whose top desire is to make life easier with the subsequent replacement of humanity from positions of labor and the workforce as a result of that process? How dangerous is this replacement theology when coupled with our desire to have the latest technology? How will others’ hesitance to fully embrace it lead to conflicts between man and between man and machine? All these lie underneath the setting of Become Human as questions about where our world might be headed in the future.
And because Become Human recognizes this concern around our conflicting feelings about technology, it also manages to spin those concerns on their head by putting us in the place of the machine. This alone is a departure from so many films and series of the past twenty years, and video games are one of the only mediums where this is possible without removing agency.
To extend this exercise in empathy Become Human asks that we remove our rose tinted glasses when we experience android life by showing how inhuman humanity can be not just to one another, but also to the very things we create and desire. ON that premise, this is where Become Human succeeds even more than Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls ever did. In fact, it succeeds on a level that most TellTale games do not by knowing when and where to ratchet up the tension or to lower our expectations and remind us that our own humanity is at its worst when viewed from the lens of a being who does not, at first, fully understand why we behave the way we do. As the game progresses this becomes more complicated, both for our three characters and us, and the questions multiply around what does it mean to be human.
Become Human pulled my heartstrings more than once, relying heavily on my sympathy for androids by creating the “Other” in them. More than once it pushed me to question why I was rooting for androids when I so clearly was or could be in the same position that many of the people of Detroit find themselves in as the obsolete race, or as one character says early on, as a “fragile machine.” Yet, more often than not, realized I felt for Kara, for Markus, and for Connor, who come from different backgrounds. This is what Become Human excels at: it shows us that no class of android, much like no class of human being, deserves to be above one another.
It’s not just the story that absorbed me. Yes, narrative in a game like this must remain coherent, driven, and relatable to succeed. But the moment-to-moment gameplay felt reminiscent of a more robust, more intriguing L.A. Noir. The majority of the gameplay focuses around analysis, environmental awareness, and dialogue choices, with the occasional QTE thrown in for good measure. It was this moment-to-moment examination of the world around me in magazines, tasks, clues, or observations that breathed life in Detroit as a city, but also kept me eagerly propelling myself through the story. Control schemes are simple, interactive, and I rarely if ever questioned why I was shaking a controller, holding down a button, or trying to rotate an analog stick in a certain direction.
More than that is the conclusion of each chapter, which breaks nicely and gave me a much-needed breather after certain scenes. It was these short breaks and the game’s extensive choice tree displayed on my screen that was refreshing for a game all about choice. I would meticulously study my branches, seeing where I would want to consider going if I replayed the scene right then or came back for a second playthrough. The amount of work Quantic Dream’s writing team put into developing these choices for each seen is astounding, and becomes even more overwhelming to think about when considering how many scenes occur throughout the duration of the game over its ten to twenty hours of gameplay. Every action matters, and those most important to the story are marked in yellow, letting you know sometimes after, sometimes in advance, that you’ve just made a small or sometimes large decision that will shape the future of your characters or those around you.
The shaping of choices is impressive in itself, but that characters can die on the higher setting and completely shape the narrative, or even allow you to end the game within a few hours is even more startling, and remains one of my favorite feature Cage and his team brought over from their time on Heavy Rain.
All of the parts come together in the final whole of the game. A driving narrative, simple, but effective gameplay appropriate to the genre of Become Human, and a staggering amount of player agency in a game about androids learning to take control of their agency puts Become Human near the top of my gaming list year as a contender for my Game of the Year. Become Human is a reminder that games can tell a compelling story without a heavy focuses on combat or gameplay mechanics, but that a game can also be more than a walking simulator. It is easily Quantic Dream’s best offering to date, and one not to be missed.