A new David Cage game comes with a lot of hype and a lot of high promises. Does Detroit: Become Human meet the hype for the first time in Cage’s career? Sam Brooks reviews.
This is a completely spoiler-free review for this game, so you can safely read this if you want to play the game and do not want to be spoiled!
Heavy Rain is mostly famous now for its JAYSON meme, and Beyond: Two Souls is mostly famous for its awkward behind-the-scene clips where Ellen Page acts with a lot of dots all over her face, visibly uncomfortable with both the process and director David Cage. Both games were critically acclaimed when they were first released, but once the sheen of impressive graphics and engaging narratives wore off, the games quickly dropped off the radar. They became jokes and reasons why the interactive film genre just doesn’t work. We need not even speak of Indigo Prophecy and the Mayan god AIs.
Detroit: Become Human comes with the usual burdens of a David Cage press cycle. In a world of microtransactions and e-sports, Cage is one of the few video game auteurs to retain their full triple-A backing. Where titans like Kojima have fallen out of favour with their overlords, Cage’s backers (Sony, and his own studio Quantic Dream) have doubled down on Cage’s signature narrative-driven interactive film video games. It’s a relationship that benefits both parties, I assume: Not only do Cage’s games allow Sony to show off the capabilities of their console (incredibly, both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls had groundbreaking graphics for the time) but it allows them to showcase an increasingly rare type of video game: The triple-A title where the primary relationship the player has is with the game, not anybody else.
So Detroit: Become Human comes with a high expectations, impressive tech, a huge publicity campaign, and a lot of pre-release hype. Does it meet these expectations? As with every Cage, and every Quantic Dream game, the answer is an initial yes, a few backstepping maybes and some hard nos. It’s a game that doesn’t invite a concrete response to it, in any way, shape or form.
Detroit: Become Human throws us twenty years into the future, and is set, as you might expect, in Detroit. In this future, androids have become a huge part of society, and humanity uses them in a variety of ways. They perform customer service jobs, serve as companions (and if you think Cage is going to explore the sex worker route, you think correctly) and have become a huge part of how society functions. It’s a classic sci-fi tech thriller set-up, and as you might expect from any tech thriller that revolves around the relationship between humans and androids, the androids start to develop a mind of their own. Things do not go smoothly after this point.
We’re given three characters to follow, and propel, through this world. One is Markus (Jesse Williams), an android who cares for an ageing artist who slowly opens him up to the potential of his own free thought and identity. Another is Kara (Valorie Curry), a housekeeping droid who is hired by an abusive father to take care of his house and daughter. And the final, most interesting one is Connor, an android who is tasked with tracking down and neutralizing ‘deviants’, the game’s name for androids who have discovered emotions and disobeyed their programming.
For the first time in a Quantic Dream game, these narratives remain genuinely engaging until the last shot. If you’ve played any of their previous games, you can pretty much pinpoint the moment when each of their previous games went off the rails (Mayan AI, Scarface shootout, submarine), but Detroit: Become Human has no such shark-jumping moment. It’s an engaging tech thriller, with a surprisingly effective emotional undercurrent, all the way through. Cage and lead writer Adam Williams (it’s no coincidence that Cage’s best and most human sounding game is his first with a co-writer) have created not just a world, but a society and a cast of characters that read and play as people whose stories we want to see play out.
I’ve never seen a character like Connor before in a video game. The idea of a machine struggling with his programming and encroaching humanity definitely isn’t new – but one portrayed with as much tenderness and humour as this is new and exciting. The opening scene (which wisely also functions as the demo) is a great example. You play Connor as he gathers information, like an android would, and then tries to rescue a young girl who is being held hostage by a recently deviated android. There’s a subtlety – and there’s a word I’ve never used to describe anything in a David Cage game before – to Connor’s interactions, the way he uses the android’s name and plays on his affections for the girl, that reads as a terrifyingly fence-sitting portrayal of someone on the cusp of humanity.
Moments like these are scattered throughout all three storylines and all three characters, and there’s absolutely no doubt that these are buoyed by some of the most impressive acting I’ve seen in a video game. It’s not that the writing is bad – although sometimes it absolutely is – but without the incredibly detailed motion-capture work a lot of this game wouldn’t work. There’s a level of emotional engagement that you simply can’t have when you’ve got a superior voice performance fighting with sub-par animation or motion capture, and Detroit: Become Human leapfrogs any achievement in motion capture in video games to bring us something that is as close to watching a film or TV show as possible. It’s so close to reality that you often forget you’re watching a video game, and not a live-action film.
Because these are performances. Not just voice-acting and not just motion-capture, but legitimate, nuanced and beautiful performances. Bryan Dechart is a standout as Connor, capturing a petulant adolescence in the android’s internal struggles, but Valorie Curry also does beautiful work as Kara, whose own brushes with internal humanity come at the same time as her fight for survival and her newfound motherhood. Even the smaller characters have beautiful moments of performance. As the engimatic possibly-AI, possibly-human Amanda, Simbi Kambi manages to lend her character an imperiousness that offsets her warmth
I can’t understate how strange it is to be taking about actual performances in a video game, and how that excites and terrifies me a little bit. On the one hand, it’s incredible to have this kind of emotional engagement with a game – where it feels like the game is meeting you halfway and drawing you in, rather than the player having to provide their own imagination and fill in the gaps. But on the other hand, it’s scary if this is where gaming is going – we’ve already got movies and TV, do we really need another medium trying to mimic these forms rather than do what they do best?
And that’s where Detroit: Become Human falters a bit: the actual gameplay. While this plays smoother than previous Quantic Dream games, it’s the same kind of gameplay. Mash buttons here, press a button on time here, press these buttons in conjunction to win. When you’re caught up in the narrative, it feels fine. But when you’re walking around as any of the characters and scanning for things to interact with (you will be holding R2 a lot, and you will have to learn to hold it if you don’t want to miss things) it can get oddly repetitive and boring. Whenever a character is required to walk around and explore, the story stops dead, and as a result, so does the game.
When the cutscenes are working so hard to engage you, to not be hooked in by the gameplay is a massive missed opportunity. It’s a shame to see Quantic Dream make such huge leaps with its graphical technology, even for all the potential drawbacks, and to remain so stubbornly conservative in the actual gameplay. If video games are going the way of interactive film, then surely it can’t be so bad to think of new ways to interact with that film?
Because the huge selling point – and perhaps the huge selling point other than the graphics – is the ability to interact with the story and have genuine agency. To put the image of a facetious Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada into your head for a moment: Groundbreaking. This is what Cage has done with all his games, but they’ve always been limited by the illusion of choice – regardless of what happens, you’re still railroaded into the next chapter, because we’ve only got so many endings you can choose from. Incredibly, Detroit breaks free from these limits. In talking to other journalists who received review copies of the game, I was stunned to learn I was the only one who got this particular ending, and even stunned that a lot of seemingly huge specifics changed based on small things you do throughout. But even more impressively, the game gives you not just narrative scope to explore, but philosophical scope.
Now, let’s not overstate it. We’re talking ‘first years passing around a joint’ kind of philosophy, not anything that will make you question your life and the way you live it. This is a game that introduces the clumsy image of androids having to sit at the back of the bus but never does anything with that image – it introduces you to the idea, trusts you to get it, and then move on. More often than that, the choices you make are between the usual video game binaries: violence and non-violence, burn down an orphanage or take them all under your wing forever, this character or that character. The themes of freedom, choice, identity, and humanity are the means to hook you in, rather than anything you need to dwell on in any depth.
In saying that, there is a surprising nuance to the way that Detroit allows the characters, their philosophies and choices interact with each other. An approach with one player character towards their humanity has huge consequences for another character, and when their approaches actually come into conflict with each other there’s a genuine struggle as to who you actually agree with more, or which matters to you more. There’s even a menu option where you can see exactly how many choices you’ve missed, and what potential endings those could lead to. If you’re a completist, it will ruin your life; if you’re a narrative completist, say goodbye to your next few months.
It’s a unique sort of meta emotional engagement, a struggle that plays out within yourself rather than in the narrative. And I’m excited to see more games explore it, because it’s fruitful territory.
But… it’s a David Cage game. So it’s not perfect.
For every five scenes that are good, there’s one that’s great and there’s one that is jawdroppingly terrible. To wit: An early scene involving the spiritual rebirth of a character is a masterpiece of body horror, using every technology asset that a video game has to put you in a harried and unsettled space. Hands reach out at you, as you slowly work to regain your character’s senses and life. It’s the best scene in Cage’s career thus far, hands down, and I guarantee it will be one of the most talked about scenes of the year. Nothing else in the game quite comes close to utilizing the power of video games as well as this does, and it’s disappointing that Detroit doesn’t mess around with the medium or players anywhere else in the game.
However, then we’ve got an early scene with Kara, featuring an abusive father and his daughter. It’s not the very fact that domestic violence is depicted that’s terrible – if this was handled well, it would’ve been a great scene. But… it’s not. The father is written as though David Cage saw Precious once ten years ago and tried to rewrite the mother from that, but as a dude. It’s rife with cliches – he’s a drug dealer! His wife left him for an accountant! He hits his daughter but it’s not his fault! – to the point where it crosses from ridiculous into offensive. It reads like a creator trying to hotwire an audience’s empathy, when he doesn’t trust his performers or his story to do it for him.
The game doesn’t resort to this often – though there’s the obligatory Cage™ Woman in Peril scene about halfway through which serves the plot not one little bit – and whenever it does it’s usually a quick fifteen minute jaunt to the next scene. And this is where Detroit: Become Human also succeeds where other Cage games do not. It never goes entirely off the rails, and there’s a solid, just above speed-limit drive right through to the end of the game to keep you playing. When it needs to make a point or twist a knife, it’s never subtle about it, and towards the end the scale of the thing gets more than a little ridiculous, but it’s almost always effective. After the messes of Heavy Rain (JAYSON!) and Beyond: Two Souls (that homeless chapter, you guys) it’s a huge, huge step in the right direction.
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Is it a mess of a game? Absolutely. It’s a game where you can get the camera stuck for a good thirty seconds, a game where an android tests blood by putting it in his mouth for no reason and a game where too many problems are resolved by choosing to shoot someone or not choosing to shoot someone.
But it is a fun game? Oh, god yes. It’s a schlocky tech thriller that’s perfect for a weekend where you get in a few pizzas, drink a few beers (or your alcoholic beverage of choice, I personally went for gin and soda) and pass a controller around while you blame each other for their choices that messed up your game. Then, when you’re done with that run of the game, you can play it again and stay up past midnight and make your own choices. Because incredibly, and most noteworthily, this is the first David Cage game that’s actually worth more than one playthrough.
Detroit: Become Human has broken the curse. And thank whatever god androids worship for that.
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