People have been trying tackle the idea of artificial intelligence in science fiction since science fiction was a thing. Early modern examples include Fritz Lang's film Metropolis and Karel Capek's "R.U.R," and even ancient storytellers came up with ideas like Talos and the Golem. We're tangling with it more than ever thanks to the confusing-amusing weirdness of advancements in fields like machine learning and robotics.
The latest take on the question in gaming comes in the form of Detroit: Become Human, the latest offering from developer Quantic Dream and game director David Cage. Cage, responsible for games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls (check out our review), is once again bringing his cinematic eye to bear, this time on that question of robotic consciousness. I've long had an uneasy relationship with Cage's games, appreciating his focus on small moments while finding many elements of his writing and game design troubling or downright rage-inducing. I booted into Detroit hoping to see some improvement from Quantic Dream and Cage not just in visuals but in those storytelling and gameplay moments.
For better or worse, Detroit: Become Human is more of the same.
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe
I think David Cage would get along well with movie director Zack Snyder. They have a lot in common. For as much as they struggle with their stories, they seem to be able to crank out visual flair in their sleep. Detroit: Become Human is an absolutely stunning game.
So many games these days focus on going big. Games like Assassin's Creed, Grand Theft Auto, and Horizon Zero Dawn give us unimaginably huge worlds to roam around. They're gorgeous, but they often are repetitive by the very nature of their scale. You can't make a bespoke game world of that size without bankrupting an entire nation.
Detroit takes the opposite approach. Instead of creating a huge world to explore, each scene is a small space, from a single room to a city block, with every square inch being touched by human hands. The cast of characters is relatively small, too, so the people you spend the most time with are lovingly crafted and matched to performance capture, making for some impressively lifelike characters. This results in a world that is full of gorgeous detail and believably-rendered characters. Rain splashes against and dissipates realistically on skin. Fabric looks soft and moves with characters. Neon is just as eye-searing as it is in real life, especially if you're playing with HDR on.
When the game is in full control of the camera, this results in some truly beautiful scenes that would be at home on the big screen.
Please make me a real boy
It's too bad that so many other parts of Detroit work only intermittently.
Story has always been one of Cage and Quantic Dream's weaknesses, and the five years since Beyond: Two Souls haven't shown any improvement.
Detroit is the story of three androids, all in the titular city, all gaining consciousness and having to tangle with human decisions and moral quandaries for the first time that humans are raised from birth to be able to tackle. The year is 2038, an even twenty years from now.
Some parts of the three androids' adventures work exceedingly well, while other parts feel like a checklist of Film Noir tropes the team went through while creating the game. Detroit wants to be taken seriously, but too often it makes painfully surface-level observations about the world. And sometimes it's entirely off the mark — and totally unaware that it's missed the target to boot.
Small moments in the game can feel really good. An early moment with Markus has you taking care of your master, an elderly and ailing painter played by sci-fi character actor Lance Henriksen – who famously played the android Bishop in the Alien films. Most of your time with this character isn't dramatic or high-stakes, even later into the game. He's a calming element and Henriksen's portrayal plays a big part in this. As Markus, you have to administer the man's medicine, help him into his wheelchair, and act as his legs while he paints. These moments are entrancing and weirdly calming. I wouldn't make a full game out of them, but they feel good, like some kind of video game ASMR. I should also take a moment to call out Clancy Brown as the detective, Hank, another great actor that does his best to keep the story afloat.
But then the game tries to engage with the question of whether or not artificial intelligence can become conscious and what that might mean for us as humans. That seems like an interesting question, but it kind of answers its own question in the game's opening moments and doesn't do much with it after that. Instead, Cage invokes imagery of the civil rights movement and the struggles of people of color in America. Meanwhile, he's said in interviews that he doesn't want to connect the game to these events and time periods.
It's not so much that the sentiment itself is inappropriate, but more that Cage handles it poorly and it comes off feeling cheap. Some of this might be traceable back to the idea that this game was in development back in 2012 when the tone of our country and world were different, but I think a lot of it would've felt tone deaf even back then.
Cage also continues to mishandle and misunderstand his female characters. With one exception that I can think of, the women of the cast are either abused characters or sex workers. That isn't a bad thing in itself – those people deserve to have their stories told in interesting, human ways. But here they're used as punching bags or to move the plots of male characters forward.
The housekeeper android Kara is one of the three playable characters. She, along with the young girl to whom she has inexplicably formed an almost instant mother-daughter bond, are put into non-stop peril. They're moved from one dangerous situation to the next, put in the clutches of men who they then are forced to narrowly escape from, then finally meet a black woman who helps androids cross the border into Canada. This last element comes off as some sort of strange reverse Harriet Tubman thing — a weird, gross mining of American racial imagery instead of an analysis of it.
Meanwhile, there are a whole list of sex-worker androids that serve various plot roles. One as a love interest for android-messiah Markus, two as an empathy test for android-cop Connor, and three who exist purely to show what a weird, twisted guy one male character is.
Even the way the game engages with the idea of the future feels simultaneously immature and uninteresting. The only difference between 2018 and 2038 seems to be the addition of androids and some self-driving cars. Everything else is otherwise unchanged. News articles hint at a world on the brink of war, but the most thoughtful the articles get is literally asking "who is going to win?" And then there's the way the androids themselves interface with each other. Even sitting together in a room without any humans around, the androids still talk with the mouths on their faces. The fact that they're robots only comes up when it's convenient for the plot.
For once I agree with iPhone fans
David Cage has said over and over that he wants games to grow up. He seems to feel that emulating film is the ultimate form of maturity for games, and talks about making them accessible for anyone by putting all the controls on-screen via quick-timer button prompts to progress through the action. It's supposed to be intuitive, but getting past the opening scenes reveals just how weak the "game" aspect of Detroit: Become Human is.
I love gameplay where the consequences of your actions are reflected in the game world. Mass Effect 2, The Witcher 3, and Until Dawn all did interesting stuff with this, each in their own ways.
The problem that Detroit: Become Human doesn't seem to understand is that you have to have some idea of what your action is going to be in the first place for that consequence-based gameplay to matter.
This might be a spoiler if it wasn't the laziest and most parodied trope in sci-fi
This is most painful when you're selecting which dialogue option to use. The game will give you anywhere from two to six options to choose from when faced with a situation, and you're usually on a timer to select one. You'll get options like "Regret" and "Frustration" and "Determined." A huge portion of the time, the dialogue I actually got didn't reflect the word the creators had chosen at all. I don't know if this is because Cage is French and has a French understanding of English or because the selections were just bad, but often I would make a choice and be flabbergasted by the words that came out of my character's mouth. The result was so different from what I intended that I ended up often save-scumming (read: quickly exiting the game and reloading before it could save) to try to take the action I intended to take.
That goes over into the controls, too. It's worth noting that Detroit makes perhaps the most complete use of the PlayStation 4 controller of any game out there. Throughout the course of the game, you'll press every button on the controller as well as using both thumbsticks, swiping vertically and horizontally on the touchpad, and using the controller's motion and tilt sensing. As a tech demo, it works pretty well.
In practice, though, it's a headache. I could never tell when an action was going to require that I shake the controller, press a button, or waggle a thumbstick. It doesn't require memorization of the controller, but it does require you to engage with the whole controller at once. It's no more intuitive than Simon Says, but instead of four potential actions, you have something like fifteen or twenty. I never instantly failed, but when I did fail I was always frustrated by it. As a side note, this game would be hell for a gamer with even mild accessibility issues. There are no nods to limited accessibility in Detroit's options or its normal mode, and if there are in the easier mode, the game makes no mention of any.
This isn't a game you can get good at, simply a game you can memorize. The complexity on offer isn't anymore intriguing than the 1983 game Dragon's Lair.
The only way I feel like it moves the narrative button-masher genre forward is the introduction of a flowchart that you can check during your game and after the fact to see where the branching parts of the narrative are. If you love what Detroit is doing and want to see every interaction, it's easy to see what you should change to get different results by consulting the flowchart on your second pass through a mission. The number of options is sometimes staggering, and this part I do have to give credit to the team for. But giving me lots of options doesn't inherently mean you're giving me an interesting game. I have to care about seeing these other outcomes before I can worry about trying them, and in this case, I definitely didn't.
When I'm making moral choices in this game, I'm frustrated because I don't know what my character is going to do or say. When I'm in action sequences, I'm also frustrated because I have no idea what the game is going to throw at me until after it throws it. Instead of feeling challenged, I feel like the game is cheating.
So what works about Detroit? It's a total visual stunner of a game that works as a great technical demo that looks stellar on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro alike. The small scale means wild levels of detail that you just can't have in other games without the frame rate flagging. Everything is happening in real-time, so if you want to be impressed by your PlayStation, Detroit is a great way to make that happen.
But if you're anything like me, you're not going to have a good time with the rest of it. The muddled, simplistic story and frustrating gameplay constantly hamper any semblance of good ideas or emotional moments the story has. Watch Westworld, Terminator 2, A.I., and just about any other movie or story about artificial intelligence for a deeper and more interesting examination of these concepts, but without the awkward ignorance of race and sex on display throughout Detroit. Like an un-awoken android, Detroit: Become Human is a pretty exterior without anything remotely human inside.
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