Hold on Just a Little While Longer – Further Thoughts on Detroit Become Human

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The following contains SPOILERS

So I reviewed Detroit Become Human (it’ll be the article directly below this one if you want to have a look), and while avoiding spoilers I basically said that it has flaws, but in spite of those I really enjoyed it, and that it’s David Cage and Quantic Dream’s only good game. It’s been on my mind since I finished it, and I’m currently partway through my second playthrough, planning to write a piece going into more detail about what I do and don’t like about it specifically, with no restraint on spoilers. I’m compelled to write it now (or at least start writing it) upon being reminded of a specific moment in the story. It was around two in the morning, I was drunk, Markus’ entirely peaceful, pacifistic revolution had been cornered and had erected barricades outside an Android death camp, because they’re a thing that pop up at the end of the game. Soldiers close in on the four main members of Jericho, whom I had kept alive all this time, and just as things look bleak the game gave me two options: sacrifice self, or sing. I chose sing, and the resulting scene was Markus, then North, then everyone else singing “Hold on just a little while longer” (hence the title of this piece) which, to my relief, isn’t a spiritual. It’s a beautiful, sombre moment, acted wonderfully by Jesse Williams as Markus, in which he simultaneously embodies a last flicker of hope and a weary resignation regarding his own seemingly imminent death. The game is full of moments like this, memorable set pieces that manage to draw out an emotional response. Markus’ entire nightmarish slog through the Android dumping pit; the way the sound is muffled and the primary sound is a rising, harsh tone that peters out when you find a new auditory unit. Kara, Luther and the Jerrys giving Alice a ride on the merry-go-’round. Speaking of which, the Jerrys themselves are easily one of the most interesting parts of the game; a sort of hive-mind controlling a large group of one Android model, all of them dedicated to entertaining children. Connor and Hank’s developing Father and Son relationship, and the noticeable effect it has on Connor if your choices favour bucking his programming and showing compassion. Kara’s scenes are the closest the game gets to Cage bullshit, but manages to pull it back from the brink. Everything with Todd is mercifully brief (and the QTE “Avoid being domestically abused” scene can be completely avoided), and his violent mood swings are explained as the effects of medication rather than being an example of David Cage’s insulting depiction of mental illness. The scene in Zlatko’s house is dumb, almost entirely superfluous to the story at large except for bringing Luther in, and has one of the most on the nose, groan-inducing lines of Cage’s writing career, but Zlatko experimenting on and cobbling together robots is quite effective as a source of horror, plus there’s a robot bear. While I’m on the subject, the game’s biggest issues: Firstly, the two plot twists. Alice turning out to be an Android is clearly a twist that’s included for its own sake, because it doesn’t make sense and the game lies to you about it. Alice doesn’t eat, complains about the cold and rain and doesn’t have an LED or the identifying symbols purely so that the player doesn’t realise she’s an Android, and I’m not sure what the intended pay-off is. Kara’s story is about a mother and child fleeing through a country full of people that hate them, and it’s a good story. Why does the game need to lie to me about it? The other twist occurred right at the end of the game, back in the early hours of the morning when I was drunk: Connor’s A.I handler Amanda planned for him to go Deviant, and plans for him to assassinate Markus now he’s ingratiated himself with the revolution. For one thing, that’s a really stupid time to have him do it; on a stage in front of hundreds if not thousands of Androids Connor himself brought there, especially considering he was going to shoot Markus when he was alone and isolated back at Jericho. It also looks really goofy when you overcome it and Connor awkwardly tucks his gun back into his belt. The weirdest thing for me was how quickly it came and went: Connor pulls his gun, you have to stumble around the Zen Garden then touch that weird stone thing, and doing so magically makes everything alright. The only clue to what’s happening is an audio flashback to Android creator Kamski saying “I always leave a backdoor in my programs”, but that just raises more questions, and there were enough left unanswered as it is. I’d quite like to see a sequel to this actually, I think there’s enough here to go on. The other major problem is the much talked about, and infamous, references to real life Civil Rights Movement/Jim Crow slogans and events. Now I am a member of a minority, but I’m not black, I don’t know anyone who was around for segregation, and I would never claim to speak for those who were. I do think a lot the references made here are poorly handled, and some of them are inappropriate. The big one, “We have a dream”, is like Cage wanted a tie to real life to get people on the Android’s side, and was either too lazy or too stupid to pick something more subtle. I don’t know why he wouldn’t think people are on the side of the Androids though, given how he made humans in this game treat androids like utter shite. They beat them, verbally abuse them and torture them; the whole “The Androids are an abused group who deserve to be treated better” message is being yelled through a megaphone from a rooftop. What’s more the game doesn’t need it. The android compartment at the back of the bus, the segregated escalators and “NO ANDROIDS ALLOWED” signs on businesses just distract from the subject at hand, they elicit a snort and an exasperated “…what?” rather than making the player solemnly nod and think, which I imagine is the intended reaction. I get it, Cage; racism, in this case institutionalised, legalised and accepted racism, is awful. You don’t need to keep telling me that. It’s weird because, like I said in my review, the game does approach one aspect of real life oppression with surprising subtlety, and that’s the glowing blue triangle and armband Androids are legally required to wear. It’s a reference to Holocaust imagery, but no one ever mentions it, if you don’t know what it is then it just works as a sign of oppression in-game, and their design fits in with everything really well, especially Connor’s ones.

So now that’s the out the way, a list of things in the game I really like:

The fact that most androids only have a certain number of faces. Kara, Jerry, North, Simon, David and Ralph are not unique models, nor are they unique to functions
That the Androids’ physical superiority to humans comes not from greater physical strength but their minds, and their ability to “preconstruct” events to see outcomes, as well as adapt. Connor in particular decimates any human foe he faces because his literal computer brain tells him exactly what he needs to do to put people on their arses, channelling John Wick while doing so
That it saves each playthrough chapter by chapter via the flowchart, so you can restart from different checkpoints depending on your decisions, and change things accordingly
The android dumping pit- that whole scene
The merry go round and the Jerrys
All of Connor’s scenes with Hank. Bryan Dechart is adorable, and I love his chemistry with Clancy Brown
The game’s art style, particularly Connor’s armband and triangle; futuristic elements standing out among the desolate, grim locales he investigates.
Connor in general really. He’s the best.
Markus’ badass pacifist revolution. Jericho showing that they’re superior to the humans who oppress them not with force, but with compassion and by staying true to their principles. North’s viewpoint, “Humans will never listen to us so we need to fight them” being so thoroughly shown up by Markus’ viewpoint of “Let’s show the humans who hate us just how wrong they are” that by the end North is completely behind a pacifist Markus. I’m planning a violent revolution this time around and part of me wants to call it off now before it’s too late. It just seems wrong somehow, after the way my pacifist run ended. In the time it’s taken me to write the rest of this and read back through it I’m seriously considering being peaceful again.
Kara getting across that road with Alice, dodging traffic.
Kara getting across the boarder into Canada without sacrificing Luther or Jerry, because Jericho is peaceful, public opinion is good and the immigration officer does her a solid
That the game’s down time is enjoyable, and rather than have you bumble around a preposterously huge apartment waiting for the story to continue, every scene moves at a good pace, and the whole thing has a consistent level of player interaction
Each character having their own composer and soundtrack, all of which are great
The impact the choices have: we’ve come a long way since that bit in heavy rain where, if Ethan refuses to cut his finger off then a police officer will shoot at him and somehow blow off that same section of finger (that’s real, YouTube it): choices matter here. Kara can die early on, Markus can die well before the end for his beliefs, and dying as Connor can make things more difficult later on, particularly when you take into account smaller, less drastic choices. Saying the wrong things, missing things in the environment and failing to act on certain things opens up dramatically different paths, as does keeping your eye on the ball, being proactive and saying the right things. Depending on what you do the game can be drastically different, and that’s a new step for Quantic Dream. The story they’ve written is no longer a sacred cow, with the player’s input being largely flavour, maybe killing someone either David Cage didn’t care about, or at a point where he wanted them dead anyway. There is a certain degree of railroading now and then, to keep things moving and set up certain scenes, but it’s surprising how much of an impact the player can have

Like I said, Detroit is a flawed game. But having said that I still really like it, it’s firmly on my potential game of the year list, and I’m sure it’ll stick with me for a long time to come. I’m genuinely surprised they pulled it off, but credit where it’s due, Detroit is great.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

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Detroit Become Human Review

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I’ve made no secret of my hatred for David Cage and his work. He’s spent his entire career desperately trying to shake up the medium with an output more akin to interactive movies than games, all the while coming across in interviews as a pretentious arsehole with far too high an opinion of himself. In his entire nineteen year career as a video game director and writer he has come close to making a good game only once with Heavy Rain, only to kneecap it with his awful depiction of the sole female playable character as a nurse maid who is constantly almost raped and murdered. Not to mention a poor plot twist, executed after the game snaps its own rules and logic in half to keep it a secret. Fahrenheit and Beyond were both embarrassing schlock that by rights should have killed his career. The former was a decent idea that takes a turn into bullshit supernatural elements crammed in with no rhyme or reason and overblown Matrix fight scenes. The latter was a mawkish slog through Ellen Paige’s entire cartoonishly unpleasant life, with the bare minimum of player interaction and told violently out of order, lacking any weight or substance to its scenes as a result. As for Omikron… well the less said about Omikron the better, for your sake and mine. He can’t handle sensitive subjects, his treatment of women is gross, he forces in romances that spring from two characters having no chemistry and having barely interacted with each other, and his stories are poorly told and badly executed. His games tend to have a smattering of good, or at least decent scenes, but they’re firmly in the minority. I’ll stop here because this is taking up review space and I’m sure a lot of you aren’t interested in personal attacks on game directors, but the man and his success are a constant source of frustration. Anyway this brings me to his latest attempt: Detroit Become Human, a game about race. God help us all.

Set in 2038, Androids are commonplace in America having been created in the titular city of Detroit, and many people treat them with inexplicable contempt ranging from merely looking down on them all the way to physically abusing them. There are three playable characters: Kara, a maid Android who flees her abusive owner with his long suffering daughter Alice. Markus, a unique android gifted to an elderly, wheelchair-bound painter as an assistant, who after experiencing a series of horrors comes to lead a burgeoning Android revolution. Finally Connor, who is basically Officer K from Blade Runner 2049: a prototype Android detective created to hunt down and capture “deviants”; Androids who break free from their programming and gain freewill. The reasoning for deviancy is shaky at best, and by the end of the game even a slight breeze can completely change an Android’s programming, but for the lion’s share of the game it’s brought about by an emotional shock. The analogues to real life oppression are for the most part horribly on the nose; the option to tag “WE HAVE A DREAM” on walls, an Android compartment at the back of the bus, segregated staircases and escalators; it’s all poorly handled. Weirdly though, it does have one surprisingly subtle reference in the glowing blue armbands and triangles Androids are legally required to wear on their clothing, to the point where I’m almost certain David Cage didn’t have anything to do with it. Anyway the race allegories are badly handled, and I’ve gone in pretty hard so far, but let me just say that against all odds I genuinely really enjoyed Detroit. Its three interwoven stories are all well acted, well structured and, for the most part, decently written, with Cage’s flair for bullshit only arising now and then. There are no awkward sex scenes, the zero-chemistry romance is completely optional and easily missed, there’s no supernatural guff, and the choices actually matter, with the narrative veering off in a number of wildly different directions depending on active decisions, as well as any potential cock ups. The game does have two terrible, poorly implemented plot twists in rapid succession right near the end, but they didn’t alter my enjoyment of it. I do need to point out that I knew about them beforehand though, so that may be why it didn’t bother me so much. One of them is covered up by the game actively lying to you, which is never a good look, but it didn’t annoy me in the way that, say, the Scott Shelby twist did in Heavy Rain. The other one goes as quickly as it arrives, isn’t explained and doesn’t affect anything, right at the end of the game. The key thing here is I like the three playable characters: I quickly grew attached to them, I wanted them to all make it to the end, and I enjoyed the time I spent with them, even when the game slows down a little. Having said that, when the game does slow down it doesn’t do so to nearly the same degree as Quantic Dream’s previous games, and it maintains a good pace throughout.

Gameplay wise, it’s back to the Fahrenheit/Heavy Rain, Telltale-style exploring environments and doing quick time events. It’s far more interactive than Beyond, the QTEs don’t have as many dumb six-axis moves as Heavy Rain, and those it does have are generally relegated to down time. Unique to this game is how it displays the effects of your choices: unlocking new paths, dialogue options and actions is shown with a literal unlocking padlock symbol, and every level ends with a flow chart showing what you did, with locked slots depicting what you could have done instead. Some levels are very linear and streamlined, others have flow charts that fan out in multiple paths laden with options. I’ve only finished it the once, but I do intend to go back through it, something that the game seems to encourage for the first time in Quantic Dream’s entire lifetime.

Detroit Become Human has flaws, but they don’t stop it being one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played this year. Its art design, approach to choice and consequence, its likeable characters, acted wonderfully by Jesse Williams, Bryan Dechart and Valorie Curry, as well as Clancy Brown and Amelia Rose Blaire in the supporting cast all redeem it. As a adaptation of the civil rights movement, it’s poor. As a story made up of three interwoven tales of a man struggling with his own nature and trying to do the right thing, a man doing what he can to turn the tide of a living nightmare for his people and a woman desperately trying to keep her surrogate daughter safe on a perilous journey, it works. Somehow, after all this time, David Cage and Quantic Dream have finally made a good game.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit Review

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Captain Spirit earned points right off the bat due to 1) reminding me of the existence of Life is Strange: Before the Storm and 2) a rather clever shot right near the start that implies supernatural powers are in play, only to reveal it was just a camera trick. Announced during E3 of this very year, it’s a sort of prologue to Dontnod’s Life is Strange 2, now announced and slated for release later this year. It’s a short story about a young boy called Chris, who disappears into a superhero identity, the titular Captain Spirit, to mentally escape his humdrum existence, alcoholic Father and, by the looks of things, dead Mother.

Okay so this is a short one and I don’t have a whole lot to say without spoiling it, but I’ll do my best. Chris is surprisingly sweet for a child; his dialogue is well-written and avoids the issue of over-written quirkiness that plagued Max in Life is Strange. His relationship with his Father is well structured, its shifting between good and bad, sweet and tragic as it deals with an only child relying on his imagination, a drunk father quick to say things he desperately wants to take back and a concerned neighbour almost explicitly saying “come stay with us because you’re not safe” in a manner that feels realistic but not so bad as to make the thing too depressing to enjoy. It was said that the game would feature characters that would appear in LiS 2, and given the layout of the story I feel that Chris will be one of them. As it stands he’s a fine contender, and I’m interested to see where the full release takes his story; whether it jumps forward in time and deals with a new story influenced by his relationship with his Father, or stays put in this time period and deals with the issues depicted here. (Interestingly, I was writing this as the credits rolled, and at the end it goes to a screen that says “Meet Chris again in Life is Strange 2”, so now it’s just a question of what story they tell with the character).

Gameplay wise it’s largely the same as LiS and Before the storm: wander environments, talk to people, make choices that have an effect on the character going forward. Most of the choices don’t have much of an effect at all because this is just a demo really, but you can still make some: how you interact with Chris’ Dad, whether you clean up after him, bring up his morning drinking, that sort of thing. The actual gameplay is fine, with the exception of one main change that confused me at first. With some items you have to hold L2 before you can use them, which seems completely redundant. Sometimes it offers a second choice- press X or Hold L2 and then press X to do something else, but when assembling Chris’ costume you can either look at each item or hold L2 and put it on. So most of the time it just made things needlessly complicated, especially considering it didn’t tell me what it wanted me to do. Like Before the Storm it has those bits where you sit doing nothing while indie music plays, to build mood, and rather than push you towards one particular goal it offers you a to-do list drawn by Chris of activities to choose from, most of which revolve around Captain Spirit. I’m interested to see whether this more free-form approach is part of LiS 2, and how the story handles it; here the actual story is progressed through one particular action referenced in dialogue, separate from any of the aforementioned activities, so it felt expansive whilst retaining a sense of direction, which is always a good thing.

I was always going to get Life is Strange 2, because despite the lack of Chloe Price I’m invested in Dontnod and sure of their capability. As it happens this demo for the season ahead hasn’t made me particularly more invested or hyped, but what’s on display in The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit has left me assured that Life is Strange 2 will be just fine, and given my mindset that’s enough for me. I’ll be reviewing LiS 2, and am looking forward to it. So Captain Spirit did its job.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18