[IMPORTANT NOTE: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for this game as well as for Heavy Rain’s BIG TWIST—which will be clearly marked when I get to it. Once again, DO NOT READ if you want to play those games with fresh eyes.]
Similar to the androids questioning their humanity in Detroit, I’ll have similar apprehension towards any future Quantic Dream (QD) games stamped with "Written and Directed by David Cage.” What started out as this smaller team introducing me to the QTE-heavy, narrative-driven adventure sub-genre (Indigo Prophecy) now rivals TellTale Games as the premiere name for this mold. To those familiar with this team's past work: there's no divergence in design but rather a newer model in visual tech, some mechanical tweaks, and reinvigorated flexibility in shaping the narrative. And while my once-wide-eyed optimism of this innovative setup has waned since Heavy Rain—exacerbated by some issues here, the biggest problem comes from Detroit being one of the most ostentatious, treacly-written narratives of this generation.
The setting is 2038 Detroit. Thanks to the corporation ‘Cyberlife’ androids are commonplace among society. The plot centers around three leads. Kara is an AX 400 housemaid who tends to the care of a comically villainous father and his little daughter in a rundown home; Markus is a RK200 android caretaker for a venerated, disabled artist in a swanky mansion; and Connor is a new RK 800 prototype detective specifically designed for hunting down "deviants," unstable androids that've lashed out against their programming, and discovering the cause behind said phenomenon. As with QD’s previous, these three stories intersect with one another as you progress.
The first, eh, half-positive observation I can make about the game would be the panoply of world-building details to take in. What does it mean to have a new type of 'being' walking amongst us? How is their labor integrated into humans’ everyday lives? Whether it’s the military, sex work, menial chores around the house, dangerous jobs like construction, and more, magazines and ancillary interactive objects are scattered throughout presenting the implications of what this means for the US—and the world—moving forward. There's a palpable sense of anxiety when considering an unemployment rate above thirty percent and the psychological sensations in seeing these additions to the population. There's some really good potential in exploring that; instead, any nuance is scrapped in favor of bludgeoning players with analogues of past socio-political strife against ethnic minorities, all bubbling together in a confusing narrative broth. The ocean of speculative fiction topics here is wide but far too shallow.
Making such connections has received pushback due to David Cage declaring it's "really about androids" in an interview and whatever interpretations unearthed is merely subjective (1). Even if pretending authorial intent is the end-all for those discussions, Cage himself even fumbled later asserting it being about “civil rights” elsewhere (2). And if that small quote is miscommunication, it’s still not compelling when such a story has been crafted that so liberally borrows real-world iconography, chants, historical events, and more in order to make a point about androids’ rights.
The first introduction with Markus draws several parallels between his treatment and that of blacks throughout much of America's history. His establishing level to purchase paint brings players face-to-face with a hate-preacher spouting indignant rhetoric, disgruntled ex-employees shouting the simple "he took our jarbs!" line (South Park reference) whilst beating on him for no offense, and being segregated to the back of the bus with other androids returning home. And that's not even the half of it.
Kara's story begins with clear allusions of enslavement by this drug-dealing father. On the run, Kara takes his daughter, Alice, to escape said situation. How do they go about doing this? Well, since laying low around Detroit isn't a viable option, what with androids being discriminated from certain businesses and all, the best solution to their plight is a kind black woman, named Rose, smuggling them into Canada. The motivation for starting this Underground Android Railroad? She just ungracefully exposits the parallels outright. The cherry on top for me is the chapter's name: Midnight Train.
Unsatisfied with only Black America's struggles, Detroit's themes also parallels Jews against the Nazis. This is visually conveyed by all droids having to wear armbands and triangles just as Jews did. The subjection gets worse as the climax centers around, wait for it, android concentration camps—with specialized ovens to boot! I kid you not: I was genuinely curious if the President describing this mass-roundup and imprisonment on TV would've outright said "final solution" at one point. But that would be too on-the-nose, right?
Excluding the obvious hand-wringing, it's frustrating to see just how inconsequential Kara's story is to the rest of the game. Because there is an interesting concept here: what does love look like for a robot mother figure and a human daughter? But even this kind of concept can't be deftly explored because this story utilizes cheap melodrama and a fatuous plot twist. To explain…
[TWIST SPOILERS for both Heavy Rain and Detroit: Become Human]
You remember how Scott Shelby was revealed as the Origami Killer in Heavy Rain? Recall part of that revelation flashbacked to the antiques shop owner being murdered only this time it showed Scott Shelby doing it. There’s issues I can gloss over in that story—and some really are overblown nitpicks, but I never could stand that one. That same kind of faux-foreshadowing is done in the reveal that Alice is actually an android. In the beginning, Kara picks up a brochure in the rundown house while cleaning. The way the camera’s perspective shifts seemed rather odd at the time. Lo and behold, the cover shows an Alice daughter-bot during the twist’s reveal. And it makes no sense! On the thematic side, it upends the original point about an android-surrogate mother developing a maternal bond with a human daughter; in respect to plot holes, it retroactively destroys the logic of how certain humans and Kara would’ve acted. Couldn’t the abusive father have…returned her to the store or sold her in the second-hand market? Wouldn’t Zlatko recognize a daughter-android model? Wouldn’t Kara remember the very brochure she was looking at days earlier? David Cage has a habit of setting up an evident twist that’ll leave me annoyed to no end.
The story of Markus ascending from servant to messiah figure never really rang as anything more than sententious moralizing the entire time either. The dialogue seems like it was as much of a chore for Jesse Williams to get through as Markus’s busywork was in the beginning. The idea of having such a caring master like Carl Manfred (played by Lance Henrikson of Aliens fame) is a fascinating difference of treatment from everyone else. But that’s hurt by this blunt delivery of striving to be who you were meant to be…which eventually leads to Markus spouting a bunch of hackneyed lines about freedom, saving his people from oppression, and being something beyond his programming. In respect to visual storytelling, his chapters try so hard to elicit an emotional reaction from players: constant emotional sweeps in the soundtrack, obsessively recurrent slow-mo camera pans, and other parlor tricks. These pretentions start off quite early with Carl wanting him to paint a canvas in his atelier. It builds up to this momentous instance with a crescendo that feels unearned—even unintentionally humorous; in fact, such unwarranted commendation seems to permeate the android revolt.
There’s such inadequate pacing when it comes to Markus’s rise too. Time slows to a crawl performing tasks for Carl, his “ascent from hell” moment in the junkyard could’ve gotten the point across in half the time, following a discreet paper-trail to find the android refuge is the worst slog in the game, and the quickened buildup towards freedom doesn’t feel authentic. It’s more choreographed managerial work of appeasing faction leaders’ happiness bars instead of sincere activism for the downtrodden.
And the approach to crusading feels banal in two respects:
-Markus acquiring messianic powers which enable him to free androids via touch, and telepathy (dependent on Wi-Fi connection, I guess?) when they need to have their March on Selma. ‘Press X to pay respects’ morphs into ‘press/hold a face button to liberate your brothers and sisters in shackles.’
-This impetuous notion of grassroots movements winning hearts over with regurgitated slogans, some holographic iconography, and constantly peaceful submission until said persecutors think maybe they’re in the wrong—which one may not live to see that come to fruition either.
It’s just a mess. Out of the three stories, Markus’s story elicits the least emotion out of me. There’s a reliance on such boilerplate talking points transplanted into the dialogue without any character or flavor to go with it. And it’s tough to say how detrimental the game’s design is in capturing such a leadership role and peacefully protesting (should you choose that route), especially when the violent path feels more exciting. But even within this restrictive framework, a lot of improvements could’ve been made.
The shining star would be Connor's story. He's paired up with Hank (played by Clancy Brown), a robot-skeptic and functioning alcoholic, to track down deviants and find a connection as for why they go rogue. It riffs a lot from buddy-cop movies, specifically more racially-charged ones of old, and utilizes that formula well to have Hank barrage Connor with nasty language but slowly learn to trust him. And the ways of getting on Hank's good side feel believable; he's not interested in analytical data but of casual talk and respectable deeds. Out of the three stories, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say all of the good comedy is found there too. Unfortunate to say, I can’t help but feel guarded in my praise here if only because the actors supposedly improvised a lot of scenes; in fact, behind-the-scenes info suggests Cage was authoritarian in his demands to stick with the script. So even most of Detroit’s best character dialogue may not be due to the writing anyways!
To grant some credit: integrating the impact of Connor’s possible deaths with his replicability as an android was a great addition. There’s this weird and fascinating dynamic about it: being the best detective ever programmed who’s able to be manufactured by the thousands. The shock of seeing a Connor model meet a grisly fate early on literally FOOLED me into thinking I’d lost out on the rest of his story. Beyond the consequences, it’s also a great concept to contrast with Connor’s mortal partner. While there’s not much depth given in exploring this in dialogue, later action scenes with Connor carried more of an impact by implementing drastic penalties.
Overall, Detroit's story has lofty concepts that are ruined at almost every opportunity. The motifs of combating oppression feels so ineffective because at so many god***n turns the story must flash The Meaning(TM) in big flashing lights, showing little respect for the audience. Even the act of scaling a skyscraper can't escape this with an ad saying "Fight For Your Team" en route to hijack a cable news broadcast. Heck, the very menu screen can’t escape this obnoxious, self-conceited approach as a female android just gawps back at you and provides stupid comments! I can say without reservation that the writing here is more cloying and misguided than a Pure Flix Christian movie (God’s Not Dead series).
With that, the time has come to segue from one of QD's worst qualities to one of its best. Detroit's art style marries antiseptic futurism with real-life Detroit in fascinating ways. The prerequisite dingy, abandoned buildings of Cage's liking are aplenty but gentrified, creating this meshing of old and new. It's part of the reason why certain chase scenes are burned into memory. While there's still that ever-present tussle with the uncanny valley here, especially when it comes to mouth movements, the technical specs are often jaw-dropping. Connor's incipient murder investigation hits as one of the most gorgeous technical achievements of 2018. The moody atmosphere, the immaculate detail of the fat victim, with a bloody maggot-infested shirt, and the lighting are reasons why photo mode needs to happen. And all of this is on a base PS4, mind you.
Soundtrack and sound design have also been one of QD's fortes. The soundtrack deserves great attention, especially in how the roles were divided up: one composer making music strictly for one of the central characters. Out of the three, I'd say Nima Fakhrara’s tracks for Connor won me over. Recall back to Connor's main theme: the quick tempo and cacophony of electro cadences enhanced all of his detective scenes. The other two-thirds, though fine in their own right, never stuck with me to the same degree. Still, the soundtrack as a whole is much better at trying to squeeze emotion than the writing.
Sound design falls close in line with that of soundtrack. My only quibble would be a few sound anomalies here and there. Voice acting wasn't a consistent homerun. I know child actors have a history of being a dice roll, but I…thought Alice wasn’t particularly good. Several secondary actors were bland as well. While the other two leads work well, I'm iffy on how Jesse Williams (Markus) portrayed this character; and yet, it's tough to say whether fault lies ON the actors or in how Cage wanted to direct them. Keeping with the theme here, Bryan Dechart (Connor) and Clancy Brown (Hank) would be among my favorites.
For those familiar with QD games, the same template has returned: dialogue choices regimented to the X, Square, O, Triangle buttons during those scenes and highlighted QTE button prompts during action scenes which vary from being motion-based, button prompts, or use of the touch-pad. Sadly, the more troublesome staples such as gluey character movements and analog stick QTE's for opening doors and the like make their return. I believe that standard has been going on since Heavy Rain, but....we should be past this notion of tying a certain input to the same analog stick that handles the camera. Any imprecision when doing the action sets players back to square one with the camera jerked in an unwanted direction. I know this argument doesn’t go over well in most contexts but I think it applies here: it’s *the current year*.
I've also been of the mind that out of all PlayStation-exclusive QD games, Heavy Rain's handling of QTE’s is still the best. Perhaps that's based on subjectivity and how immersed I felt during my two playthroughs; even with that consideration, my recollection still brings up both casual and intense moments that'd demand a more complex combination of inputs. Crawling through that electric-wire maze as Ethan must've required carefully chained 5-button inputs held in unison. Those kinds of moments, in and out of combat, didn't feel as frequent nor demanding here. A step up from Beyond: Two Souls; then again, that isn’t quite difficult considering how often the game played itself—and how easily I could spot it.
The mechanical feedback and design hasn't moved much since Heavy Rain but that doesn't mean it's gone nowhere. They've acknowledged certain kinks which come with cinematic games and contextualized them. Got annoyed with invisible walls before? Those strictures are still here, but make sense because the android's programming can't flee too far from the objective. Think the "X person will remember that line" feels unnecessary? Well, there’s logical sense designing that here as your characters can’t help but act like robots: analyzing different aspects (facial expressions, tone, etc,) and cataloging them within seconds. How about doing menial tasks when playing as a servant bot? Well...okay...those get dreadful and did stunt the pacing early on, BUT you can't say they don’t mesh with the story’s themes.
Gameplay pacing all but comes to a screeching halt during most moments of Android Detective Mode. To its credit, that first murder case did work as an good introduction blending object discovery and empirical examination. But with Connor, there’s no increased difficulty or complexity after that; for Markus, each instance is about fast-forwarding and rewinding which pre-ordained action route to take. This tedium is exacerbated during a mid-point chapter all about hunting down graffiti geocaches. Sure, an android calculating a suitable route also makes contextual sense…but there’s better ways to not make it feel boring. Imagine a newly-freed Markus having self-determination in a way that played different from the other two characters. Still having a main objective but able to chart out Detroit in a semi-open-world fashion, or an updated control scheme.
Two other separate-but-equally-interesti ng ideas give texture to playing as an android. The first is another set of rudimentary QTE's when one of the central characters is fighting to gain freedom from their pre-programmed state. Outside of their head, they remain motionless; inside, their ‘willpower’ is tearing down a firewall to break free from their binary-code chains. The second is a post-chapter flowchart tabulating all of the potential outcomes—primary or secondary—and revealing this path you decided. It melds perfectly with this game: replicating the analytical mindset and probability assessment of different outcomes like a thinking machine. And there’s the ability of comparing & contrasting the paths taken by all global players, to an even greater extent than what you get in TellTale Games. It's also nice for a 'sub-chapter' select option for players to see the disparate outcomes without resetting the story missions.
Even with acknowledging the panoply of disparate outcomes, I would still sacrifice some of those in the name of consistency. Let's be honest, did we really need a finish-line twist like that in Connor's arc? Master plans where a specific set of circumstances are magically pre-planned by the villains all along are ridiculous. I would take effective 2-phase choices like the end of TT's The Walking Dead: Season 2 over ludicrous shockers any day of the week.
Suffice to say there's highs and lows. When considering the effortlessness to take aim at such a faulty story, it's surprising to think how entertaining some moments can be. But when there's more excitement witnessing the possible experimentation with the flowchart versus playing through all the meandering bits, that complexity can only get you so far. It’s nice to brag about having 50 more complexly-intertwined endings than say Mass Effect 3, but if such plot lines are delivered with such ham-handedness and inept understanding of commentary I'll probably forego replaying the game for those other 49.
I think that’s a weird sticking point between this and Heavy Rain too: that yearning to replay it. Thinking back to my gushing panegyric of Heavy Rain (3) I still recall just how interested I was to watch my friend replay it—start to finish, occasionally contribute, and see the disparate outcomes. Here? While there’s still incredible variance, our collective passion deflated so quickly to where I was the only one interested in finishing it once and viewing some Let’s Plays of the different conclusions.
There’s a cluster of people who may be tempted to use this review as another example towards this question posed: “why are some interested in dragging David Cage through the mud, esp. when considering his enthusiasm?” He isn't shy of exalting games to great heights in respect to holding them in the same regard as other respected mediums. I give due respect for that. But when he’s in this vaunted position in this industry, his call for games to move forward seems like vainglorious preening of his contributions despite his best accomplishment post-2010 being a seven-minute concept video.
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