Detroit: Become Human Succeeds By Focusing on Small But Resonant Stories

By Laura Kate Dale on at

[This article contains spoilers for Detroit: Become Human]

The first time I found myself struggling to make a choice in Detroit: Become Human, I was alone in the rain in a rough area downtown, homeless, and responsible for the safety of a young child. Her wellbeing was my primary concern, but there was a tough decision to make. I could get clean clothes and a roof over her head, but doing so would mean robbing a shop in front of her and irreparably damaging the little bit of trust we had developed. She was too young to understand the complexities behind doing something like this, but old enough to know stealing and violence were wrong. I didn't want her to see it, and I couldn't leave her alone in order to 'secretly' carry out the crime.

The only alternative was to sleep in an abandoned car. I wouldn't have to commit any crime here, but the child was too young to understand why we couldn't just stay in a motel; the concept of an adult not having money just didn't quite click with her. Sleeping in the abandoned car also put her at risk of illness — she would be freezing cold in soaking wet clothes — and the car wouldn't offer us much safety or security from the world. It was a sketchy area, and a woman alone with a child, clearly without anywhere to go, was at risk if we were seen.

I had to balance a child's perception of me, an in-control adult she could trust, against her safety and health. There were no good answers. I sat for twenty minutes, talking to the Kotaku UK team, and none of us could think of an easy solution to this complex problem.

In spite of the flaws, I have always been a fan of Quantic Dream's games. Sure they often paint their character archetypes with 2D brush strokes, exaggerating certain traits to the point of ridicule, and the games often struggle to maintain consistency throughout their longform narratives — but at their best, they're heartfelt and engaging in a singular way.

I've not had time to experience every single path through Detroit yet, but I have played from start to finish in a couple of different ways. This is the Quantic Dream game that finally escapes some of the more troublesome issues that have plagued the studio's past work. It's still a game about choosing dialogue options and completing quick time events, but this time there are no gratuitous shower scenes, less of a feeling of caricature, and far more interesting scenarios than I expected.

This improvement over past Quantic Dream games comes down to a few key changes to the way the game is structured. Detroit follows three characters stories, hopping back and forth between them as the narrative dictates. You've got Kara, a recently purchased home helper android tasked with managing household chores and protecting a young girl; Conner, a detective android tasked with working out why androids are starting to disobey their core programming; and Markus, an android carer for a disabled elderly artist who's trusted by his owner to experiment with who he wants to be.

By switching back and forth between these narratives, Detroit focuses more on short stories rather than a single grand arc. Quantic Dream's past work has often excelled in this regard; be it the homeless section of Beyond: Two Souls, or the years-old Kara tech demo that ultimately became Detroit. By rotating between these three narratives, Quantic Dream seems more able to tell a short interesting story, then stop, leave a gap, and come back to the plot at the next interesting point. That change benefits the pacing and makes Detroit feel like it has little unnecessary filler.

On top of this, Quantic Dream has made some bold choices for a narrative adventure game. The first is an open and straightforward flow chart of the choices you made at the end of every chapter. It lets you see in detail where the narrative branches were, how many of a total number of options you found in a scene, which choices would have an effect beyond the chapter you were in, which options only existed because of previous choices, how many ending points a chapter has, which other choices would have led to the same outcome, which choices you made led to character deaths, and which distinct narrative points are avoidable or unavoidable.

Initially I was a little uncertain about this, but over a couple of playthroughs it began to shine. Your choices fill out the blank spaces on this flowchart as you go, making it easy to see where you have the option to find a different outcome, and it made exploring alternate routes through the game more rewarding. It also reinforced the sense that I was making proper choices that affected where the game was going to take me. There was a whole plotline about the first ever android to become sentient that was teased regularly in my first playthrough, but I never saw anything about it. On a second playthrough I deliberately followed that storyline more closely, and got the answers I wanted — at a cost. A character I lied to in the first hour of the game ended up locking me out of end-game content, and the game labelled clearly the moment that had caused this. I never felt like I was unfairly punished for a choice I was unaware of.

Another striking move is the decision to theme the game's opening menu screen around an AI interface. On a basic level it means that all interactions with the menu became a part of the game experience. While I was initially a bit weirded out by this uncanny human-looking face offering me help, by the end of the game I felt an almost emotional connection to the menu screen. It had been commenting on the amount of time I took between play sessions, or the choices I made. It started out feeling uncomfortable but ended up being heartfelt, which I feel reflects a human response to robotics conceptually.

One issue I did have with the narrative of Detroit, was maintaining narrative distance between the multiple playable characters I had control of, primarily between detective robot Connor and the other two characters. Of the three characters you play as, two are robots who broke free of their constraints and want to avoid being slaves, and one is a detective trying to capture those other two androids and those like them.

There was at one point a mission where I, as Kara, was trying to escape from Connor. Escaping was the only narratively sensible choice to make, but doing so would hinder Connor's investigation and prevent him learning what he needed to learn. I was invested in both characters, but their conflicting aims put me in a difficult situation. It felt odd to try really hard for one character to escape, but then switch perspectives then try to capture that same individual I just helped. It's not terribly common that this conflict arises, but it occasionally requires a bit of mental disconnect and compartmentalisation.

Detroit's world is an interesting spin on a familiar science fiction trope, largely because this world is trying to draw a direct line from now to then. The game is set about 20 years in the future, in a world where androids have progressed to a state where they can be highly beneficial in day-to-day life. In countries like the US, where android adoption is high, job automation is common, which has resulted in a spike in GDP, but a resulting spike in unemployment. Basically, North America prioritises GDP growth over the financial health of individual Americans. With a failure to balance wealth across society, the nation remains technically affluent, but with a greater wealth inequality divide than ever.

Many assumptions are made about the future of humanity in a post-android world that feel like exaggerations – the idea that in 2038, all music concerts will have been replaced by VR, VR holidays will be more popular than actual world sightseeing, and media is created via algorithms with zero human creative input. But as these examples also suggest, part of the game's strength is in how grounded the technology remains, focused on entertaining and serving people.

In this future, androids have been created to mimic humanity, but are not meant to be able to have independent thoughts or experience emotions. That's the justification behind their use as slaves, something which has had plenty of time to set in as the status quo. Without explanation, androids begin to develop the ability to experience emotions, and to disobey their core programming.

There's no avoiding the fact that androids in Detroit are at times used as a direct analogy for the historical slavery of black people in North America, but they're often also used more generally as an analogy for other discriminated minority groups within society. They're perceived as a danger just for existing; they're segregated by society, and many would rather they all be dead. There are moves to legislate them out of public existence, and they are branded in order to ensure they follow the laws set up for them, which differ from those set for the human population. There are analogies to the treatment of 'undesirables' in Nazi Germany, the treatment of transgender individuals and other minority groups, and to the police treatment of black people in America today.

For the most part the narrative draws from other stories about the treatment of these sort of groups, as well as more general stories about small-scale rebellions trying to overthrow those with power. In particular, there were multiple times where I got serious Les Miserables vibes from the plot structure, and certain set piece moments. However, Detroit does occasionally try to make statements of its own that rise beyond the simplistic.

One in particular that I found interesting was its use of different age groups to demonstrate how discrimination is often forgotten once a new group becomes its target. In Detroit this is presented via a generational divide between black characters, with those old enough to have grown up in a world experiencing discrimination fighting for android rights based on their own memories of the nation's dark history of targeting minority groups, but younger generations, who have grown up in a world where a different group is a bigger target, are more willing to advocate against the rights of this newly created minority class. I found this akin to the manner in which, in real life, you sometimes see gay and lesbian individuals pushing for the fight for transgender rights to be pushed out of the LGBT rights movement, because the aforementioned gay and lesbian individuals are no longer the most discriminated against part of that group.

While the example is a fair bit exaggerated – I doubt 20 years of robots would be enough to erase America of racist attitudes towards black people – it does draw interestingly on real world issues, where minority groups often escape open discrimination, but pull the ladder up behind them rather than advocating for the rights of other groups that need them. I'm writing from the perspective of a white woman, so I'm certainly interested in reading non-white perspectives on this particular plot thread, but I found it an unexpected bit of commentary, albeit one using deeply exaggerated ideas to make the point.

I won't go into the actual resolution of some of these threads yet, as it would be a little unfair to give away some of Detroit's twists and turns. Suffice to say that the game's narrative ambition and execution were, even for a long-term Quantic Dream fan, a pleasant surprise. Telling shorter, more disconnected stories works beautifully. The branching narrative flowchart helps set expectations properly for where big choices are to be found, and aspects like the menu AI help this world seem real.

Detroit avoids many of the usual Quantic Dream tropes: it takes narrative risks, kept me gripped from start to finish, and is full of surprises. The studio's products are usually my guilty pleasures, games I love but with heavy caveats. Detroit I just love, no caveats necessary.