I gave Detroit: Become Human to my teenage daughter this past Christmas and the minute she started playing the game, I was hooked. Sitting beside her on the couch, with a half-read book forgotten on my lap, I stared at the TV, fixated.
I watched my daughter play the game over the course of months, until she reached one of its many conclusions. Now, I’m watching her play it again.
I didn’t pick up the controller once, didn’t even fully understand how gameplay worked, but none of that mattered. I was completely riveted by the three main characters and their stories, rooting for all of them from the very beginning.
A belated review
Detroit: Become Human was released one year ago and by then, Quantic Dreams had already released Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls (note to self: order both games today).
The game is reminiscent of a big budget film. The graphics are astounding and the acting superb. I was mesmerized (to the point of distraction) by the careful details in every shot during the first few days of watching my daughter play. The script Is also solid and well-written. Detroit author David Cage has stated that the script is about 2000 pages and took a year to write and a year to film.
My daughter isn’t a huge gamer. She’d always played video games with her older sister, but when her sister died in 2017 after a protracted battle with cancer, our PS4 and Wii consoles sat untouched for nearly two years.
Thus, it was with some trepidation that I turned on both consoles during a particularly miserable week of winter weather here in New York. My daughter mentioned she wanted to play Splatoon on the Wii (confession: I love Splatoon. I’m also terrible at it). She’d been watching her favorite YouTubers play video games and had started getting the itch to play again.
After playing Splatoon for a couple of weeks, my daughter asked for several new PS4 games for Christmas. Detroit: Become Human was at the top of her list.I didn’t know anything about the game except what she’d told me. The name gave nothing away. She showed me the trailer and I was so impressed I watched a TED talk by David Cage, the game’s creator. At this point, I think I wanted to play the game more than she did.
Choice and consequence
In Detroit: Become Human, the story is more than just scaffolding for the game play. In fact, I’d say it’s the other way around. The game play furthers the story. Each decision you make, from each of the three characters’ perspective, leads to a potentially different (and irreversible) consequence.
The stakes are high. This is an important point because it’s precisely what kept me, as an observer, interested in continuing to watch the game as my daughter played.
The truly seductive power of Detroit is that consequences change depending on the decisions you make.
“Big deal,” I said to my daughter. “Isn’t that the case with literally every video game ever invented?”
“Not really,” she said. “Most games seem like they’re giving you a choice, but no matter what option you pick, the outcome is the same — you die or don’t die. In this game, every major decision you make gives you a different outcome.”
Case in point: Detroit opens with a scene that acts as a sort of mini-game within the game, illustrating what my brilliant and technologically-savvy daughter was trying to explain to a nongamer like myself — your choices lead to outcomes that cannot be undone.
The first scene opens with Connor, an android who has been sent to diffuse a volatile situation. A service android has become deviant, turning against his owners and taking the child he was programmed to protect and care for as a hostage.
In the context of the game, deviancy in androids is equivalent to humanity. An android becomes deviant when it starts acting with free will, and not necessarily in the best interest of the humans it’s been purchased to serve.
In this first scene, it’s clear that the fate of the deviant android is inconsequential to Connor. Players are given the option to troubleshoot the scene of the crime prior to Connor’s confrontation with the deviant.
This added context is intended to help inform how you interact with the deviant. Should Connor be reassuring? Accusatory? Understanding? The deviant reacts differently depending on Connor’s approach, and this directly influences the outcome of the scene.
I don’t want to give anything away, but all outcomes are not favorable for the hostage or for Connor.
“My favorite part about the game,” my daughter told me, “is that it feels like your decisions actually matter. A lot of other games trick you into thinking that you’re doing one thing, but if you watch game plays every ending is exactly the same or things are slightly different, the character still dies, but in a slightly different way.”
The characters change
I love character-driven stories. As a writer and storyteller, I pay attention to characterization in movies, books, and, yes, even video games.
Of course, video games traditionally lack character development. Spending too much time on a character’s backstory tends to take away from game play. But Detroit dispenses with this paradigm and that’s another reason the game was so compelling to me as a nongamer.
My daughter, who is arguably much more at home in the modern gaming environment than I am, also enjoyed this aspect of the game.
On her second round of playing, as we accompanied Connor on his mission to save the hostage girl from her deviant caretaker, I made an offhand comment, something like, “I guess the purpose of this first scene is just to act as a demo for game play. It doesn’t really further the story.”
My daughter replied, “That’s not true. This scene shows how heartless Connor is since he shoots one of his own kind in the beginning, but it’s also good because it shows the first deviant, establishing the whole idea behind the game.”
Her observation clarifies one of the game’s key triumphs — the storyline and the characters are essential to the gameplay.
Great storytelling helps you suspend reality
Detroit: Become Human has managed to successfully bridge two different worlds — it is a video game that is also a riveting work of fiction. The game immerses players (and observers) into the lives of its three main characters who, right from the start, are more than just avatars moving mindlessly through a pre-set gaming environment.
There’s real context behind each character’s story. They change and grow (or not), they make good choices or they make terrible mistakes. In each case, their actions have real consequences for the peripheral characters they meet throughout the game.
Throughout the entire arc of the story, the game continued to provide opportunities for a variety of discussions between my daughter and me — what does it mean to be human? Are the androids truly slaves? In some cases, like in matters of life or death, are certain unpleasant choices justified?
It was interesting for me to see what prompted my daughter’s decisions, and kind of gratifying when she admitted that she wanted all of the characters to have what she deemed, “the best possible ending.” (yay! she’s not a sociopath!)
She turned 15 in April and finished the game that same month. In the final scene, she made a decision for one of the characters that had devastating consequences for the human population in the city of Detroit.
We were both heartbroken, but this prompted further discussion about the nature of her decision and if it was even possible for all storylines to have a good ending. We both know that in real life, that definitely isn’t the case.
In addition to having an excellent plot, Detroit: Become Human is also a successful video game with its accompanying frustration, adrenaline-fueled victories and driving, addictive need to finish the game. This is where it transcends anything I’ve ever seen before. It is something entirely new. It gives the player real control over how the story ends.
The sense of control, of knowing that an action you choose for a character can significantly impact not only the story arc, but the gameplay itself, is what makes Detroit so powerful.
Great stories allow you to suspend reality, for a time, regardless of the method that’s being used to tell them — books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, plays, and now video games all have the power to do this.
But video games like Detroit: Become Human may have an advantage over books, TV, and movies because they allow you to become part of the story — even if you’re not actively playing.
Detroit: Become Human became a way for me to connect with my daughter, to live in her world for a little while. This was a gift I didn’t expect. Now, just like any other gamer, I’m highly anticipating the release of the next Quantic Dreams game, though I’m not sure how it could possibly top this one.