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Detroit: Become Human Is a Total, Transfixing Mess

Photo: Quantic Dream

It’s not difficult to parse the title of Detroit: Become Human. Spoiler: The robots become human. It is not a subtle story, and neither the performances of the game’s actors or the underdeveloped world that they travel through do it any favors. The latest brainchild of David Cage and his studio Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy) is an ambitious failure. Cage specializes in … well, I’m not sure what to call them. I guess they’re the video-game equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure book — narrative-heavy games where the story lines branch apart and wind together in response to player choices. The characters in the game are motion-captured actors, lending believability to their movements and facial expressions.

Many of the scenes in Quantic Dream games play out like a film, but with button prompts allowing the player to interact at key moments. When an action can be performed a prompt will appear onscreen, letting you know whether to do things like mash on the X button (to break out of a struggle), or rotate a joystick (in a way that mimics opening a door). Sometimes, the player will have to use the controller’s motion-sensing features to vaguely mimic a certain type of action. Oftentimes, these actions are needed to advance the story, although if you don’t pull certain ones off in time, they can send the narrative in a different direction.

But, man, is Detroit a mess. This is a game that features androids indistinguishable from humans, who are granted free will and then march through the streets of Detroit (a city with a well-documented history of real racial tension and violence) chanting “We have a dream” and demanding civil rights. Its story — at least, the version I saw — is nonsensical, ham-fisted, illogical even by the game’s own malformed internal logic, and cheap. It’s also groan-inducing and predictable in parts, such as in a climactic scene in which a police officer has to figure out which of two identical androids is the evil one. Cage’s story is so bad that it feels disrespectful to real-life civil-rights movements (and meanwhile, Cage is suing journalists for reporting on alleged toxic working conditions in his studio).

And yet, once I got through the game’s opening slog, I found Detroit difficult to put down until I reached its conclusion. It has nothing to do with the specifics of Detroit’s story, which crosscuts between three androids who each subvert their programming by, uh, watching people be mean to other people and realizing “that’s bad.” It does appear, however, that Cage has found the exact right framing for the unique style of game he’s made — ones that are heavily scripted but in which the player can exercise some freedom and move around the virtual set as they please. The problem with Quantic Dream’s games in the past was that the player could break their fiction at any time by standing still, or moving around in weird patterns; players can often appear conspicuous and out of place as they attempt to role-play as whomever they’re controlling in that moment.

When you play as a human character, these behavioral quirks can disrupt the world and pull you out of the narrative, especially if the character acts in ways that you as the player have not anticipated. In building a story around robots trying to be real people, Cage has found the right vehicle to sidestep how awkward his games can be. Take the very first scene (or level?), in which a police-detective android named Connor enters a luxury apartment. Something bad has clearly happened — police officers mill about, signs of a struggle are apparent, at least two dead bodies lie on the floor. Outside on the balcony, a so-called “deviant” android holds a little girl hostage. There’s a lot of action going on but as Connor, you progress through the apartment stiffly, like a puppet who has just transformed into a real boy and does not entirely understand how his body works and who sounds like he is just learning to speak for the first time.

I doubt that this was Cage’s intention, but it works nonetheless. As an android navigating human society — and as a player navigating a crowd of automated video-game characters — the effect of being just slightly off helps enhance whatever you as the playable robot are doing, whether that’s investigating a crime scene or tucking a child into bed. Detroit becomes more engaging when you forget the story (admittedly difficult to do) and look at it as some type of meta simulation — a robot, controlled by a human, trying to pretend to be a robot who wants to become human. The game has its most interesting moments when the immersive simulation breaks. In a first for Cage’s games, Detroit presents a flowchart at the end of each scene to reveal junctures in the story line.

For a long time, humanity has been fixated on the promise and fear of robots pretending to be humans — computers passing the Turing test, or more recently, Google’s anxiety-inducing Duplex robocall system. Multiplayer games like The Ship and Assassin’s Creed reward players who can pretend to be part of the machine rather than apart from it. The recently released Spy Party takes this notion of human-controlled artificial intelligence to the extreme, urging players to study how its computerized characters move and interact so as not to reveal their own avatars as player-controlled.

In an ideal world, Detroit: Become Human would have effectively translated this game mechanic, which hints at broader anxiousness, into a compelling single-player narrative. Instead, we’re only left with flashes of unintentional insight.

Detroit: Become Human Is a Total, Transfixing Mess