Detroit: Become Human, the latest interactive drama from French developer Quantic Dream, is essentially a milestone in video game storytelling. It explores hard-to-swallow themes like slavery, domestic abuse, and civil rights with such levels of finesse that the experience should be hailed as a lesson to every human on the planet. It wastes no time immersing the player in a futuristic Detroit where androids walk among humans, thanks to the world’s first trillion dollar company, CyberLife. Androids are teachers, assistants, surgeons, intimate partners, and anything else you want them to be; a seemingly idyllic nature of the world is thrown off-balance by the unsurprising revelation that unemployment rates are at a record high, and nations are divided on the opinion of androids being a threat to mankind. Within the first thirty minutes of the game, we learn that androids are treated no differently than people of color were before the Emancipation Proclamation at the hands of President Lincoln; androids are segregated on public transportation and are treated as merchandise; no android walks free—each one has an owner.
Like previous Quantic Dream games, players take control of multiple characters and their independent, sometimes overlapping, journeys throughout the experience: three androids, twenty years into the future. Markus, a caretaker of a paraplegic painter; Kara, a housekeeper who witnesses her master’s violent abuse of his young daughter, Alice; and Connor, a prototype investigator programmed to hunt down deviants—androids that have broken their programming, abandoned their owners, or turned to crime. Switching between each character’s path, we’re faced with life-or-death decisions that have numerous consequences and paths; each chapter has a flowchart that shows the decisions and their respective outcomes, also showing alternate paths that could have been taken with different decisions, without spoiling the remainder. While the game encourages players to go back and make different choices to see the outcome, it asks that you do so only after finishing your first run-through.
Detroit: Become Human excels at storytelling, and raises the bar significantly higher than Quantic Dream’s last narrative, Beyond: Two Souls. It tells an emotional and powerful story of civil rights and justice that truly opens the floor for an intellectual discussion about the future of mankind and the evolution of technology. As the narrative unfolds, we see more and more androids becoming ‘deviant’ and breaking free from their programming due to emotional shock—being abused or mistreated, witnessing continuous injustice—and are calling for a life of freedom and equal rights. Androids were designed by CyberLife to be more advanced, more intelligent, and more capable than humans; it really comes as no surprise that the machines once built to serve are now gaining consciousness and realizing that they are an elite species and should be treated with dignity and respect. Detroit: Become Human makes anyone—with a beating heart and a sense of fairness—feel the emotions being projected and the experience is truly an emotional rollercoaster. Within the first three hours, I’d already cried three times, gotten angry twice, and went to bed the same night thinking about the idea of androids—with the same level of intelligence as in Detroit—and whether humanity would welcome them as they are, or treat them as toys to be thrown around.
It’s already managed to spark a discussion between myself and a few like-minded individuals who are all in agreement that in the world of Detroit: Become Human, where race and gender bias seemingly no longer exists, the new civil rights milestone is how androids are treated. While Detroit doesn’t exactly explore the history of human slavery in the United States, racial or gender bias, or any other kind of injustice, (it is only mentioned briefly much later in the narrative) it’s safe to assume that the humans of the world as depicted in the game no longer see gender or color as a means of being different: the definitive factor concerning how an individual is treated is dependent on whether they are human or android. Androids, despite being created to be far superior to humans in intelligence and ability, do not have rights, a public voice, or even what would amount to a general Terms and Conditions of Use that forbid mistreatment; abuse will just void the warranty, that’s all. It raises the question of what it means to be alive. Is it a soul? Humans have souls, apparently. Do animals? Plants? Despite androids being able to do everything a human can—albeit quicker and more efficiently—because they are machine, they are not “alive,” which is an age-old discussion at the evolution of technology. The question is: if something is able to look and behave like a human, how can it not be treated like one? These are all questions and thoughts that Detroit: Become Human will provoke.
As the player makes decisions in Detroit, it truly feels like every choice carries weight—unlike previous Quantic Dream games where only some decisions actually matter or make a difference, despite being marketed as every choice having a different consequence. It really grasps the concepts of responsibility and accountability for one’s actions, as we shape the journeys of the three protagonists. I never once felt like a choice I’d made was irrelevant or futile and every decision I’d faced left me thinking about it long after the deed was done. There’s some serious enjoyment in going back through a second, and even third time to make different choices and seeing how the paths are affected; to truly experience everything that Detroit has to offer, it will require multiple playthroughs—nothing new to anyone who’s played Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, or even Until Dawn (Supermassive Games)—and the entirety of the experience is so remarkably enjoyable that it hardly feels daunting.
It goes without saying that video games have achieved a visual milestone with Detroit: Become Human. While it is essentially an interactive movie where everything is scripted and there are no algorithms, randomized events, open-world exploration (despite some chapters having some fairly sizeable hub spaces) it is no surprise that the visuals have reached new heights. It’s easily the best looking game I’ve seen so far, with games like God of War, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Forza Motorsport 7 following closely behind. Everything is remarkably detailed, right down to seemingly minute objects like a sponge in the kitchen or a piece of garbage on the street. Naturally, it only amplifies the immersion of the experience; like most games today, everything was motion-captured, which really lends credibility to character movements and facial expressions—everything feels real and I often forgot I was playing a game, despite holding and using the controller. Despite popular belief, Detroit: Become Human does have a good amount of interactive gameplay—fairly more than Quantic Dream’s last two titles—and gameplay to cutscene to gameplay transitions are smooth and effortless.
Overall, I wouldn’t even know where to begin improving the experience if, hypothetically, someone approached me and told me to make it better. I didn’t want it to end, I didn’t want the story to be over. I wanted to follow Markus, Connor, and Kara and Alice for a long time. However, I felt as though the pacing was perfect for the story and anything more would have dragged it out. Detroit: Become Human is easily one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a video game, and it truly put me in touch with my emotions on a deeper level than day-to-day life. I felt sadness, anger, empathy, understanding; it made me cry several times, it made me demand justice and fairness for androids, but it also reminded me to look through my own eyes—those of a human. It raises questions, provokes thought, and provides a platform for discussion on whether androids, more intelligent and able than humans, should be regarded as individuals with wants, desires, hopes, and dreams…or if they’re just mimicking human emotion due to their level of sentient intelligence. Regardless, how do we know that the androids aren’t truly awake, alive, and aware? It’s a concept that is more complex than we think it is, because it really dives into what it means to be alive and what the meaning of life itself truly is.
It brings about the topic of advancement of technology and what it means for humankind; technology will either save us or destroy us, depending on how we evolve it and how we respond to it. We may not understand it, which wouldn’t be the first time, but we fear what we do not understand; it’s human nature, after all.