Quantic Dream's Detroit: Become Human is a collection of contrasts. A compelling and timely story is balanced by anvil-over-the-head lack of subtlety and reliance on cliche. Amazing visuals and masterful performance capture bring the characters and future Detroit to life but are contrasted by awkward dialogue. And finally, a game that is all about player choice and opportunities taken or missed is married to a plot that is ultimately linear and incapable of change in the larger sense. Still, despite its flaws, Detroit: Become Human is engaging and thought-provoking.
Set in near-future 2038, when global warming has become a coastline-changing reality and the android workforce has created both an economic boon and a social crisis, you alternatively play as three android models: Connor, a police who is tasked with hunting down rogue machines; Kara, a caretaker who watches over a young and often abused little girl, and Markus, who begins as the servant of a elderly artist and who eventually becomes the leader of an android revolution. Told in nearly perfectly paced chapters of 15 or 20 minutes, Detroit: Become Human's storytelling structure is masterful.
Less accomplished is the game's overarching thematic exploration of our treatment of machines (a very ham-fisted stand-in for commentary on racism, complete with "back of the bus" and "I have a dream" moments), what it means to be human, and our overall relationship with technology, which has been infinitely better explored in decades of science fiction and fantasy. If Detroit: Become Human was a film or novel, we would probably be appalled by its cliche-ridden dialogue and lack of originality, but the three main characters are incredibly interesting and there are dozens of individual scenes, moments and interactions that are surprising and emotionally substantial despite the familiarity of the game's central conceit.
As an interactive game experience, Detroit: Become Human asks the player to make dozens of choices in branching dialogues and actions. The results are interesting, occasionally frustrating or bewildering, and graphed at the end of each chapter, making additional playthroughs of the 10-hour game almost required. There's an impressive amount of content that is locked away by the many branching paths, and some of the characters can be played in tonally different ways, unlocking new paths, NPCs and relationships. What unfortunately never changes is the sometimes irritating and imprecise control scheme and plethora of Quicktime events that control the action. Detroit: Become Human is story-heavy game that feels obligated to involve the player when sometimes just watching would have been enough.
Watching Detroit: Become Human means experiencing some of the best motion capture and graphics of this console generation, with everything from the design of futuristic Detroit to the most subtle of facial expressions given equal and loving attention. The detached yet emotionally engaged androids are animated and voiced with the perfect balance of machine-like inhumanity and the human characters are bursting with life. Overall, the main characters and many NPCs are voice acted extremely well and the music - by a trio of composers - perfectly captures the mood of each character's arc.
Detroit: Become Human is audacious, and Quantic Dream is to be applauded for exploring issues that are, and will increasingly be, central to our relationship with technology. What does it mean to be human, and can machines in fact have more humanity than their flesh and blood "owners?" It is disappointing that too often the writers took the easy and cliched path through these thorny issues, and that the experience of actually playing and controlling the game wasn't more finely tuned. Detroit: Become Human is a great discussion-starter, and an entertaining and impressively rendered experience.