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