Detroit: Become Human by David Cage was something that I bought a long time ago but never got around to playing because I’d heard so much bad about it. I also heard about David Cage’s general awful behavior and that soured me on it too since he was both the writer as well as director of the game. However, since the game was bought used and I’m a fan of Bryan Deckhart, who plays one of the three protagonists, I decided to give it a shot.
Overall, my feelings are mixed. On one hand, the game is gorgeous and is one of the few games I can honestly say has actual branching storyline. You can complete the game in multiple different ways, all of the protagonists can die, and all of the narratives generally hold up whether you win or lose. The motion captured actors do excellent acting jobs (with one exception) and the story is right up my alley. Robots gaining sentience and planning a revolt in a dystopian capitalist near-future? Oh my yes. The fact you can play a Blade Runner-esque robot hunter who is also a robot? Perfect.
The downsides? The game doesn’t know anything about restraint in terms of the allusions its making. Robots have always been metaphors for the working class, dating back to the first use of the word in Rossum’s Universal Robots circa 1921. However, David Cage doesn’t know when to stop with allusions versus actually have the androids say, “I have a dream” and reference real life atrocities on the nose. The X-men comics have the same issue but usually have a bit more restraint. There’s also almost no gameplay in the actual game beyond dialogue and quicktime events. While I love things like Telltale’s Walking Dead and Life is Strange, some people may object to this.
The premise is that in the near-future, humankind has replaced the working class with lifelike human androids. This has been so successful that there is now 40% unemployment, and the US economy is still chugging along. Androids are cheap enough that even the unemployed can afford them and I am interested in the world-building enough to wonder if there’s a kind of UBI to keep the populace from eating the rich.
As the title says, the story is set in Detroit where most androids are manufactured but none of that wealth is trickling down to the public. The story may be a failure in terms of commenting on race relations but has a plausible critique of capitalism and how forced labor warps its functionality.
Protagonist Connor (Bryan Deckhart) is a Cyberlife-constructed detective android who has been given the job of hunting down and destroying “Deviant” androids. He’s basically a Blade Runner and is an earnest dorky guy who can leave a huge body count. Connor has, of course, a buddy cop relationship with a burnt-out android-hating cop named Hank (Clancy Brown). Secondary protagonist Markus (Jesse Williams) is a caretaker of a old man named Carl (Lance Henriksen). A chance encounter with Carl’s drugged out son results in him getting scrapped and awakening in a hellish landfill to seek out other rogues. Finally, Kara (Valorie Curry) is a domestic android bought by an abusive drunk named Todd (Dominic Gould) to care for his daughter Alice (Audrey Boustani).
Of the three plotlines, Connor’s plotline is the best because there’s never going to be cyberpunk detective stories involving rampaging robots that I am not 100% behind. Bryan Deckhart is also charmingly goofy in this role and if you play him as a good guy it’s great. It’s amazing when you play him as a monster, though, because he completely switches gears. Kara’s story is the next best one as it gives a “slice of life” perspective that is far more down-to-Earth and really deserved its own game. I never realized how much I would love a road trip about fleeing robots pretending to be human until this. It’s pretty much what Life is Strange 2 tried to be but failed at.
Unfortunately, that leaves Markus’ plotline and that goes over like a lead balloon with me. This is especially problematic because Markus is the basis for the entirety of the game’s plot-plot. I was perfectly content hunting deviant androids and being a robot nanny. Markus is supposed to inspire the revolution, but I only cared about his story when I was serving as a live-in nurse. Which is either a sign of bad writing, skewed priorities on my part, or both. It doesn’t help that Markus either has to be all-pacifist all the time or a violent sociopath in order to get a decent ending.
There’s some excellent emotional content, particularly when the story is not focused on its premise of android revolution but world-building their strange little world. You get more out of Todd the drunken robot owner, a tense confrontation with the police inspecting a home, and a sleazy strip club investigation than you ever get from Markus’ tepid speeches. Still, other things are cringingly ridiculous like the fact all the androids must sit at the back of the bus or the little triangles on all the uniforms. Also, a “twist” regarding one of the supporting characters being an android that has become infamous in its silliness.
I think the big thing this game does for me is remind me that my tastes are evolving and there’s room for slower-paced and more cerebral video games out there. Don’t get me wrong, this game can be laughably dumb at times and most of its twists are telegraphed a mile away. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t try to do something different storytelling wise, and I appreciate the effort. If it rips off Westworld, Blade Runner, and Humans then it has stolen from the best.
In conclusion, Detroit: Become Human is a flawed game, but it is one that I absolutely recommend. I also recommend you play it with a minimum of spoilers as well as backtracking. The controls are jankey and reloading can be done if you screw up a scene because of being unable to get them to work right but otherwise it’s best if you play out the consequences of your actions. I got a three good playthroughs out of the story. It’s certainly worth it’s now-discounted price, especially if bought second-hand from Gamestop. I also will buy almost anything that allows me to be a Blade Runner robot hunter and is even vaguely cyberpunk.