Ever since reading my first choose your own adventure book, I have been fascinated with the concept of interactive stories. Playing Deus Ex for the first time, I realised that video games could be the perfect portal for branching narratives, and imagined a future where every game let me shape its story with my choices and actions.
Unfortunately, 20 years on, this is not the landscape we have.
Creating these kinds of narratives is a massive undertaking for developers, and so studios seem to either avoid it or give the illusion that your choices have major implications – as it often is with the Telltale games, for instance.
Yet, despite this shift, Quantic Dream and its founder David Cage have remained committed to developing the form of interactive narratives, with varying degrees of success. Through ups and downs, the studio has continued to push the form forward, and its latest game Detroit: Become Human is the furthest push yet.
Set 20 years from now, Detroit presents a world where autonomous androids have become an integral part of society, performing much of the world’s manual labour. It is a premise that we have seen many times, but Detroit manages to set itself apart from these other permutations with the surprising depth and breadth of its world building.
Throughout the story you encounter situations and find articles which explore the implications of this new android-laden society. On the macro scale, you discover the socio-political situation that has unfolded due this integration – a developing conflict between Russia and the US over the resources necessary to create androids. On the micro scale, the game presents both the benefits and disadvantages of these androids. On the positive side, one of the game’s main characters, Markus, starts off as a home care nurse for a disabled old man. In these moments, it is easy to see how androids could make the lives of people who need a lot of assistance a lot better. But on the flip-side, you are also confronted with many people whose lives have been disrupted by androids, mostly because they lost their jobs.
In its world building, Detroit has a surprisingly deft touch. There are moments where it is presented with Cage’s signature heavy-handedness, such as in an opening scene where Markus gets attacked by anti-android protestors. But for the most part, the game finds organic ways of building out your understanding of how significantly the introduction of androids has changed the world. As a fan of hard science fiction, I enjoyed reading the in-game articles about nitty-gritty issues, like how countries were competing to create the best androids for space exploration, or how 95 percent of the music industry was now comprised of android musicians.
The story of Detroit revolves around androids called deviants who have developed free will, and the revolution that follows. You experience this story from the perspective of three different characters – Kara and Markus, two domestic androids who become sentient, and Connor, a top-of-the-line android programmed to aid the police in the investigation of these ‘deviant’ androids. These three storylines are mostly independent of each other, and as such, explore very different facets of the story and world. For instance, Markus’s story revolves around the revolution itself and so builds out your understanding of the macro story, whereas Kara’s story is on the smaller scale of her personal experiences, and so works to build the emotional hook of the game.
These storylines connect and intermingle in interesting and satisfying ways – especially as applies to the way choices come into play. For instance, there is a confrontation between Kara and Connor in which your decisions have dire consequences for one of them, and you have the power to choose which. It is a unique encounter, one that demonstrates the understanding Quantic Dream has around interactive stories and the emotional and intellectual position it places players. At this point – and many others – the studio seems to pre-empt how you will feel, and uses that knowledge to put you in the most emotionally and intellectually conflicted situation possible.
Jumping between these multiple perspectives also keeps the game interesting throughout, in how it mixes up the gameplay mechanics to keep interactions diverse moment to moment. For instance, in one scene you will be exploring an environment as Kara and making decisions which challenge you emotionally and intellectually, and in the next you are piecing together a crime scene using Connor’s super-detective vision.
In the past, I haven’t liked this multiple perspective structure, because inevitably there is a character I don’t like, so their chapter of the story is always a bummer to arrive at. But personally, I didn’t experience that feeling with Detroit – each character and situation always felt like a necessary step forward for the story. Part of this draw comes from the clever way in which scenes are often structured to finish on a cliff-hanger or unanswered question, which makes you eager to jump into the next scene to discover the consequences of the previous situation.
This structure also gives the story a sustained quick pacing throughout the roughly 10-hour playthrough. This is particularly true in the games final hours, which builds to an intense and grand climax made only more powerful as you see the results of your decisions really come to fruition.
Ultimately, these decisions are the real strength of Detroit: Become Human. Many games have included choices which affect the direction of the narrative, but I don’t think any have achieved as divergent or as impactful a branching narrative as Detroit. Every scene of the game includes significant choices for you to make. Some are small and allow you to create a sense of ownership over the characters’ personalities and motivations, while others are large and will affect the direction of the story, your character, and ultimately, the game’s world.
Interestingly, it is not always clear which decisions will have major consequences and which will not. Sometimes it is very clear, but other times a simple interaction or even just taking the time to look at something in the environment will have major consequences for a character.
This sense of ownership over the story and characters can make your storyline a surprisingly personal reflection of yourself. Do you follow your conscience? Your heart? Your logic? It sounds tacky, but these are three very valid ways of approaching this game. What’s more, the developers are clearly aware of this internal conflict of motivations and will mess with your instincts. There are moments where it seems an emotional response will lead to the best outcome, but it turns out not to be. Because the paths you take is so personal, no matter your approach, the consequences of your decisions are generally quite evocative.
This sense of ownership is only emboldened at the end of each chapter when the game shows you the web of narrative pathways each scene is comprised of. You can see the path you’ve taken, but you can also see how many different directions it could have gone. In early chapters, each scene typically has three of four different outcomes. By the end of the game this culminates into completely different streams of reality, in which some characters may be allies or enemies, or may even be dead.
However, if the strength of this game is in its narrative, the weakness is in the writing itself. David Cage is infamous for his heavy-handedness, and particularly his clunky, often cringe-worthy dialogue. This game features easily the best writing he has done, but it is still deeply flawed. Cage’s characters constantly wear their hearts on their sleeves and will at a moment’s notice scream or cry at the slightest provocation. The script is almost completely devoid of subtext, with characters spelling everything out in often painful detail. Worse is how often they fall into speaking to each other in clichés. One particularly bad instance of this was the patient Markus cares for in the opening scenes repeatedly saying “humans are fragile machines”.
Yes! Thank you, David. We get it.
Though the dialogue can be clunky, this heavy-handedness also seeps into Cage’s handling of the game’s themes. Essentially, the plight of the androids in this game is an allegory for the civil rights movement in America. Firstly, it is a terrible comparison to make, because these machines develop sentience and humans are mostly unaware of this, so vilifying humans for using them as tools is like yelling at someone for not treating their cellphone with more respect on the off-chance it has feelings. It is also an uncomfortable position to put African American people in, because the comparison makes it seem like the developers are saying African-Americans developed a revulsion to their mistreatment, instead of being forced into it to begin with.
If this allegory itself isn’t distasteful enough, Cage then handles it with the subtlety of a bowling ball through a window. The most groan-inducing example of this is how androids must ride at the back of the bus.
As a result, Detroit: Become Human occupies a strange space as a game that both succeeds and fails on the strengths of its writing. The characters, story and narrative are brilliant examples of interactive storytelling, presenting a compelling story with diverse perspectives and approaches that utilises a branch-narrative structure better than any game has before. But bogging this experience down is the continued weakness of Cage’s dialogue and tone.
Overall, the strengths still manage to outweigh the weaknesses, with Detroit remaining a brilliant experience despite the occasional cringe. But still, it is just a shame that the game should be held back by Cage’s insistence on writing the script despite repeated criticisms of his writing in the past.
I am excited to see what Quantic Dream makes next, and how it will continue to push the form of interactive storytelling forward. However, my hope is that Cage will pass the job of writing the script on to someone else, but stay on as creative and narrative director of the game. Looking at his career, he is clearly a great ideas man, but it is time for him to recognise his own strengths and weaknesses for the sake of the medium he is committed to developing.