The more time thinking about the uncanny valley, the more reason there is to see it as a defense mechanism of the human mind. First forwarded in 1970 by roboticist Masahiro Mori, the theory observes that we will view an object as less favorable when its design has too much of ‘us’ in it, when something inhuman is too human-like. The fear is justifiable: Could you stay relaxed upon knowing the machines can do beyond everything that’s listed in its manual? That they do dream of electric sheep? That, in some fashion, they will resist at the thought of being switched off — Earth Hour or not?
But in Detroit Become Human, the valley is elevated, and by 2038 the norm is to own mechanical help from the company known as CyberLife, the equal to Tyrell Corp in the world of Blade Runner. Naturally, opposition exists; it’s not difficult to find protesters or panhandlers citing the odious unemployment rate of 37 percent, feeling the presence of human-android segregation laws and hearing constant reminders that androids are strictly ‘things.’ Though these thought-provoking, world-building nuggets are strictly window dressers, which is problematic, you will still be entranced by Detroit’s rendition of Motor City — just look at the details, designs and their interactions in the game’s more-open chapters or those with setting changes. It comes with the Quantic Dream territory that interfacing with the world will be limited, but in comparison to the company’s past games, the environments feel lived-in and complete in their presentation. They are more than just dazzling mood pieces, in other words.
Since you’re going to embody three androids — caretaker Kara (The Tick’s Valorie Curry), prototype assistant investigator Connor (Jane by Design’s Bryan Dechart) and servant-turned-activist Markus (Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams), all acted with deep conviction from their respective performers, namely Curry, more time will be spent viewing Motor City’s ritzier parts from a great distance. In the impoverishment, however, your character will unearth the spark to do what the game’s subtitle says. Or stay compliant. Or tear everything down. Or mix and match. Quantic Dream isn’t kidding when it states Detroit is its “most branching story ever,” and bewilderment is guaranteed once you have counted (and witnessed) every available narrative destinations of each character.
Unsurprisingly for a David Cage production, not all of the prerequisites needed to reach a certain beat are satisfying, so be sure not to lose your eyes after rolling them at yet-another hyper on-the-nose choice, most of which are in Markus’ storyline. There is, however, a marked improvement in substantiating their ripples. Where your action, or inaction, in Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls grants extra scenes that function solely as tributes for completionists, here it also unlocks some truly potent shaping, or reshaping, of the narrative, overall progression and, whenever possible, perceptions on certain characters. At last, players can become aware of the gravity attached to their ability to direct the tale rather than just the widely advertised latter.
As expected, since Detroit was developed on current-gen tech from the get-go, production values are heightened, in particular the soundscape. In what is the prime example of “harmony,” the game’s musical triptych functions in chilling unison despite conflicting approaches — ardent (Philip Sheppard’s work for Kara’s journey), steely (Nima Fakhrara for Connor’s) and glorious (John Paesano for Markus’). Like an adrenaline shot, the score livens Detroit with shocking, yet delightful, violence.
That said, this beaut is also a bummer, as what you can’t see is the only element to stay consistent in quality throughout the 32-chapter/10-plus-hour campaign. Graphically, secondary characters don’t receive as much TLC, and the amount of activity on screen may prove too much for owners of the original or slim PS4, and hopefully it will just be a brief set of frame drops (and no need for a forced reset like I experienced). As for characterization, a couple of protagonists have that unwelcoming cartoonish, Gordi Kramer-esque demeanor, but at least their voice actors have the appropriate accent and their animations are just as smooth as the real-time playable characters here.
Nevertheless, it’s Cage himself who needs to stop letting the demons into his creation. The writer/director needs to realize that his love for “one more” — one more button prompt, dialogue option, explosion and tear-inducer — will always undermine the idea he wants to communicate: a message, an emotion, a taste of consequence. In the bigger picture, this puts a massive dent in the hood of Detroit’s storyline, too, which is gladly more streamlined and spared from forced lore.
Eyebrows will be raised at the inclusion of some immersion-breaking features like status changes (an act of sacrifice is enough, so why the pop-ups?), explanation of an obvious motion (right analog stick down means KNEEL DOWN, all right?), availability of influential decisions (feeling your pain, t–, OPEN PADLOCK icon), guides/thought processes (criminally intrusive, these are) and even the post-chapter flowcharts (they show the paths you haven’t taken, along with the fact you’re playing a game). We get it, these folks are machines so they analyze the world differently, but why give them the need to bare their soul and simultaneously weave in mechanics that blemish it? Here’s hoping for a patch to turn them off in-game and move them all the way to the endgame. No, not even the pause menu.
And again, as it is a work from Cage, the shortcomings ultimately won’t usurp the goodnesses. With noticeable evolution in story crafting and technical and artistic ingredients, Detroit is thus far the Quantic Dream game with the fewest wrinkles. As a recurring lyric in one of the game’s songs implores, “Hold on just a little while longer,” some perseverance, ideally half a dose, is needed before jumping on this near-future emotion-driven ride. That’s how the jarring mechanical attempts won’t get to you. That’s how you will exit the uncanny valley of, more than likely, Cage’s own making.
- Kara wears a human shirt in a “half-tuck” style. Only difference to Uncharted’s Nathan is that this is done at the back.
- “Zoe” from Beyond is referenced early in the game.
- In a reversal from Beyond, all the leads are known for their small-screen appearances.