David Cage’s latest project is ambitious in its scale and candid in its message, but questionable in whether it succeeds to deliver.
The game opens confidently with Nima Fakhrara’s suspenseful score in the background. Connor, an android prototype, marches into a crime scene with a mission to save a child held hostage. “Wait… you’re sending an android?” the mother says. “Why aren’t you sending a real person?” Her lines effectively introduce us to Detroit in 2038, a time when androids are hated and discriminated against. As the scene progresses, it is entirely up to the player to decide how to approach the situation. It is up to you to save the child: your choices matter, and they have consequences.
This is what Detroit does so well—it lives up to its potential as an interactive gaming experience. It draws you in as an active participant, rather than a simple onlooker. Will you, as Markus, choose to lead a peaceful demonstration, or do you believe violence is the answer? Will you risk everything as Kara to save Alice, or is saving yourself more important than your family? The game succeeds as an open narrative: each choice not only affecting the character’s outcomes, but also possibly changing what they represent.
But in doing so, the game struggles to contextualize its characters. Markus does not lead the deviants alone; on his right is North, who has a tragic past and wishes to return the violence to her ultimate enemies: humans. She is a central character who is a potential lover to Markus, and under extreme circumstances, replaces him as leader of Jericho. However, instead of placing more meaning on her trauma, the game portrays her as a flat figure who wants nothing but to cost as many human lives as possible. This, with a romantic plot that is barely explored on, makes her difficult to be empathized with, despite the importance the game places on her character.
Markus falls into the same narrative hole in that he is yet another character with an interesting backstory but separated from his path towards a set objective. He is an exception to most as he is treated as an equal despite being an android. Made to serve a human painter, he is taught the values of independent freedom. Once an unfortunate accident throws him into a junkyard, however, it is as if he is a different person: someone who is immediately accepted by dozens of androids as their leader, and trusted to lead a demonstration. There is room for character growth that the game skips over in order for the climax to take place: a last effort by the government to stop the deviants. But without a well-built foundation, the story seems rather abrupt and poorly constructed, its grand theme failing to fit into the overall narrative.
While Detroit: Become Human may disappoint in its main storyline, the brief exchanges shared between characters manage to provide the much needed human moments for the player. Connor and Hank, his human partner, learn to improve from each other. Connor is exposed to human emotions, while Hank overcomes his irrational hate of androids. Or it is Kara’s unwavering sacrifices for a child that moves the player towards Markus’ plea for android rights. Either way, Detroit: Become Human is an immersive experience marred by frustrating plot points that leaves the player to wonder if there was more that could have been done.