As we careen toward human-like artificial intelligence in real life, popular fiction is stoking our fears. I was prepared to dismiss Quantic Dream‘s Detroit: Become Human as one more weak entry in this genre of the robots are taking over. But I wound up liking it.
Quantic Dream’s interactive cinema games have been criticized as being “movies with buttons.” It takes a certain kind of person to play titles like the French studio’s latest release, which debuts for the PlayStation 4 on May 25.
Those who enjoy visceral adrenaline shooters might want to skip it. But I found this game about human mistreatment of androids to be a riveting story and one of the finest games I’ve played this year. It kept me busy for dozens of hours, and it made me think.
This story has some minor spoilers — Ed.
I like the latest game from studio leader David Cage because it centers on just one moral dilemma, about how humans treat human-looking androids as either sentient beings or objects. It’s the kind of artificial intelligence story that I wanted from HBO’s Westworld. It raises the ethical question of whether it’s OK to treat human-like robots as slaves or disposable video game characters, or to recognize that they’re so realistic in looks and emotions that they deserve the same rights that people have.
Cage wants to remind us of the lesson we should have learned so long ago in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator movies — that Skynet is about to become sentient and it’s going to be bad for us. And the closer that day comes to being a reality, the less we seem to care, as we can dismiss Cage’s androids as mere video game characters.
This game is different from Quantic Dream’s other games — Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls — because it is much bigger in scope. Set in the city of Detroit in the year 2038, the story focuses on the use of artificial intelligence-equipped androids in our everyday life, as servants of our whims, passions, and worst desires. The relationship between the androids and humans is tense, in part because androids are so efficient that they have replaced humans in many jobs and driven the unemployment rate to 37 percent.
When the androids start behaving as if they are sentient beings, things get out of control. You step in to the roles of three androids — Kara, Connor, and Markus. You have a lot of choices to make, and you have to decide whether to earn your rights through violent overthrow or peaceful negotiation. The choices have consequences, and the story can branch in so many directions that you won’t know if you are on the “right path” or not by the time that you finish. You won’t know if your choices are fateful or inconsequential.
In each story, you discover what it takes for the android to become human.
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What you’ll like
The human and android characters look amazing, but also terrifying
In 2038, a company called CyberLife has created human robots that look and behave in amazingly realistic ways. The graphics of the characters look so good that I would dare say that we have crossed the “uncanny valley,” which posits that the more we try to create a realistic rendering of a human, the more we notice the small flaws and are disturbed by something uncanny about the facsimile.
You could stop and stare at any android — including the beautiful character Chloe who greets you as your servant at the start of the game — and wonder whether you’re looking at something real. You can see how tech companies can make the future seem so attractive while they do nothing to cushion the blow when androids start taking all of the jobs.
In its wider environment, Detroit does a good job of showing an amazing depiction of modern robots and the cracks in the facade at the same time. Your android will make a run to a store for you, passing by drunks, homeless people, dilapidated houses, and other signs that show people can no longer make a good living.
Sometimes, all this makes you wonder if you’re playing a horror game.
It has a riveting start
Connor (played by Bryan Dechart) kicks off the game as a hostage negotiator. CyberLife sends him to assist the police to deal with an android who has murdered his host, shot a police officer, and is holding his master, the host’s daughter, as a hostage on the edge of a skyscraper. Connor has to quickly investigate and reconstruct what happened. The process of doing this is quite fun, as you have to use Connor’s abilities as a walking crime lab to understand more about the deviant android. Once you’re reasonably sure of what took place, Connor can go out on the ledge and negotiate. What happens in this scene quickly illustrates the angst in the society. Humans are treating androids as disposable, and the androids are becoming human.
You care about the androids more than the humans
Just like in Westworld (sorry for making so many comparisons), the humans can be evil and the androids are innocent. When Kara arrives at the home of her new owner, she must work for a deranged, unemployed man with a young daughter. She develops a relationship with little Alice, and then must do the man’s bidding as he screams at both the servant and the child.
Across Detroit, humans are malevolent. One tries to murder an android and pushes it to the breaking point. Humans turn androids into sex dolls, creating the perfect sex partner who never complains and never says no. The androids are nothing less than slaves, but the society at large doesn’t realize this because it views them only as machines. The humans also don’t realize the corrupting influence that befalls them as they become slave owners. By treating the androids as subhuman, the humans become less than human.
Reconstructing crime scenes can be challenging
Connor has to quickly surmise a crime scene in the beginning. There are other crime scenes where he has to figure out exactly what happened in an altercation. The AI technology in his brain and the futuristic crime scene investigation tools reminds me of the Tom Cruise film Minority Report. When you can fully reconstruct the sequence of events that led to a crime, you’ll feel superhuman. It’s also haunting when you realize that your reconstruction brings back the moment of a murder. A similar game mechanic lets you visualize and predict the future, like how you could jump over various objects and your chances of success in reaching a goal. (Of course, in other games, you would simply perform this kind of stunt. In Detroit, you plot it out and then hit a button dubbed “execute,” and it performs the stunt for you).
Time pressure makes menial tasks enjoyable
When Kara arrives at the home of her cruel owner, she has to clean up the house. She has to do this under the pressure of a time clock. This introduces the player to the basic game mechanic. You have to find the right object, interact with it, and do so within the allotted time or you fail in a key task, decision, or storyline. Kara has the added pressure of knowing that she will encounter the anger of her owner if she doesn’t finish the tasks quickly enough. And if that owner’s anger becomes explosive, Kara may end up on a scrap heap, with no consequences for the human owner. Later on, the time pressure is still there when you are making life-or-death decisions.
Reading magazines about life in the future
In just about every scene, you can pick up a magazine and read a brief story about contemporary life in Detroit. That’s how you become aware of the high human unemployment rate, the use of androids in pro football games, the deadly high-speed freeways filled with self-driving cars, and the looming Cold War between Russia and the U.S. over the ownership of Antarctica. Many of these little snippets of the future fill out the context for the unfolding story. They reinforce some of the themes and fill out Cage’s view of the future. The faux news shows that come on periodically also dramatically show the state of the world, and they ratchet up the tension.
The acting is superb
There are so many moments when you’re looking at animated characters and you feel like you’re just watching a television drama. The actors look visually realistic, they moved like humans do, and they even blink their eyes like we do. Their voices are synchronized. Detroit is far more polished than earlier games like Beyond: Two Souls or Heavy Rain. Every once in a while, you’ll notice something like the tears running down Alice’s face don’t look right. But the acting by the human actors — who have been replaced by the mocapped animated characters in all but their voices — is superb. The cast includes Valorie Curry as Kara, Bryan Dechart as Connor, and Jesse Williams as Markus. They all seem robotic at first, but when they become more human in the story, the acting becomes more human, too.
The flowchart shows all branches in the narrative
As Chloe tells you in the beginning, this story is yours. You control the outcomes. You should play through the whole game spontaneously, without revising your decisions. And when you are done, you can revisit the chapters and play them again. You can see all the branches in the storyline in a visualized flowchart.
Once I finished the game, I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. It was very easy to look through the flowcharts to see where I went wrong. I noticed in one chapter that my story concluded long before many of the other threads did. I identified that spot, where I lost one of my characters, as the point where I took the wrong turn.
I restarted the game at the third chapter from the end. I reset the game to casual mode, and I worked on solving the challenges so that my characters made it through the optimal outcomes. Because these choices are fun, I’d recommend playing the game with someone else watching to help you get a second opinion. There are so many story branches that it feels like you are completely in control of the game.
The writing is good
When one robot character faces a dilemma, another strange robot comes up to it and says, “You’re looking for something. You’re looking for yourself.” It’s kind of random, but it fits the moment.
At another point, another character faces a decision, and another character says, “Forgetting who you are, to become what someone needs you to be, maybe that’s what it means to be alive.”
There’s also a nice moment, with less dialogue, where two travelers find an abandoned amusement park and take a ride on the carousel. The sight of that carousel with its pretty lights, glowing in the middle of night in a snow-covered park, was mesmerizing.
These are little moments, but the game made them memorable.
The storylines come together
I won’t spoil the ending or the multiple different possible endings for you. But the stories of Kara, Connor, and Markus become intertwined at the end. The decisions that you make along the way can pull them apart or push them together. But the action and drama reach boiling points, and the different outcomes for each character are all variations on the same theme. The story of three androids becomes a single tale, and I like how the choices can lead to different endings — yet all deliver the same basic message.
What you won’t like
The battle and protest scenes are quite laughable
Apparently, the Detroit’s game engine does a great job of rendering individual characters, but it can’t create the impression of an army very well. When you look at a big street protest or battle from above, it looks like a collection of individuals, with maybe 30 or 40 characters in the crowd. That doesn’t look like much, and it’s one of the most unrealistic things about the game. I’m not sure why that happened, as there is one scene at the end with a lot of androids in one place. I’m not sure why Quantic Dream didn’t do a better job creating the impression of large crowds. When Markus fights humans in a battle, it looks like a 10-versus-10 battle, not a huge firefight. Maybe Quantic Dream should have checked out the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings for a better reminder of what a mass combat should look like.
The controls can be imprecise
When I played the advanced version, dubbed experienced, the choices flashed before me fast. Some were on short timers, and I felt like I was playing HQ Trivia, where you get 10 seconds to answer a question. Only this time, it was a moral dilemma. The game is good at forcing you to come up with a quick gut answer. But toward the end of the game, in the “action” scenes, I had to use a wider variety of controls beyond the buttons and triggers to make my choices. The game asked me to swipe the touchpad, and that’s where it failed to recognize my finger touches. As a result, I made a series of bad responses and lost my characters. That’s the frustration. If you press the wrong button in this game, you can’t undo it. And yet the controls aren’t as precise or responsive as they should be.
The interactivity is limited
Detroit runs on Quicktime-style moments where you have to make choices. Inevitably, this gets annoying. You can’t interact with the world as fully as you can in other games, like first-person shooters. This was the biggest complaint that people had about past Quantic Dream games like Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain. It’s a legitimate complaint, and there are moments, like a big battle, where this kind of button-choice gameplay really doesn’t work. At least this game is more interactive that previous titles.
It doesn’t always give you enough time to think
Sometimes that timer is your enemy. You might get 10 seconds to figure out a life-or-death moment. Sometimes that’s just not enough time. You can pause the game, but that interrupts the fantasy. Some of the time sequences are longer when the decision is really important, but I felt that the developers could have matched the time deadlines with the gravity of the decision better.
Artificial intelligence and androids are going to affect human society. The tech industry is failing to address this head on, and so it falls to popular fiction to slow us down and make us think.
Shows like Westworld and games like Detroit: Become Human are sounding the warnings for us to pay attention. We may not heed the warnings, but at the very least, we should understand what these creators are trying to tell the technologists, and if we should stray from the course that is now before us. Detroit: Become Human is best when it foresees the consequences of our decisions and sets up a clear choice — or a muddy choice. It creates the illusion of the Butterfly Effect, where small actions can lead to big consequences.
This is a story that we’ve seen a lot, in everything from Blade Runner to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s becoming as common a storyline as the zombie apocalypse or superhero fantasies. In each case, the story is only as good as its execution. If the characters are believable and engaging, if the story is well told, if the context and environment broadens the story, if the acting is superb, and if the actions and choices are consequential, then it is a job well done. And that’s how I feel about Detroit: Become Human.
Detroit: Beyond Human releases May 25 for the PlayStation 4. Sony provided a copy of the game for the purposes of this review.