Detroit: Become Human is the kind of game the recently-closed studio Telltale Games always promised but could never deliver.
Using point-and-click gameplay in a narrative-driven adventure, players are presented with a drastically branching story. This is, for now at least, the closest thing to genuine narrative freedom the rigidly on-the-rails genre seems capable of. Unlike most Telltale properties, the game is insular and not tied to future seasons, allowing the stories’ paths to truly branch out and make each play-through reach drastically different conclusions.
Players are incentivised to stray from the path their HUD objectives lay out in order to unlock secret scenes and areas. Entire storylines and characters can be passed over and discovered on subsequent play-throughs, and you can easily lose the life of one of the three player characters early if you aren’t careful. These are bonafide stakes other point-and-click adventures have never had.
Written like a season worth of TV drama and using motion capture from Hollywood actors, fans of the exposition in last year’s Quantum Break will find Detroit a familiar treat.
The game stands out visually for its seamless environments and various fluid animations. There does, however, seem to be unreached potential when contrasted against God of War’s incredible one-shot cutscene transitions.
The story is clearly one of class consciousness, but not of the Neomarxist kind. It’s more evocative of the contemporary nationalist idea of the betrayal of the nation’s population by its ruling elite via population replacement.
In many ways the would-be rulers, humans, are stomped on by a corporate oligarchy quietly instituting the new order of things while maintaining the appearance of the status quo. The common man is made to endure depths of suffering driven by their own runaway materialism and unending addiction to incrementally-driven consumption that promises a work-free paradise that never materialises.
Technocracy by the Cyberlife company has fast enveloped Detroit in the late 2030’s setting. An early scene evokes the increasing anti-humanism of the consumer technofuture as every surface in the city is swamped in corporate brand names and digital graphics.
The arts seem to thrive financially with the assistance of revolutionary technology, characterised by the extravagant wealth of Carl the painter. But he himself is heavily depressed, as he puts it, “just an old man clinging to his brushes”. Carl, a paraplegic, is enabled in his daily life by the assistance of technology, but emotionally burdened by the breakdown of the social fabric of society that has occurred over his lifetime.
Todd’s family (or what’s left of it) is a part of the left-behind middle class. Development is literally rolling over him, suburbs dilapidating as the American Volksgeist descends into degenerate consumption out of suburban desperation in a world increasingly built by and for the metropolitan drones.
Diminishing human connection caused by the endgame of economic liberalism and the value of consciousness are serious philosophical questions raised. The beauty of the game is that it lets you flesh out the implications of different answers.
While the game is, as its name suggests, set entirely within the city of Detroit, the broader geopolitical turmoil occurring is expressed in the beautiful minor touches, such as CENTURY magazine, a parody of TIME. An issue can be found in almost every level, each with new and interesting articles shedding light on the 2030s world.
For those who feel worn out on dystopian sci-fi, the story can be a bit of a ham-fisted “what if robots but too much”. It’s far more Blade Runner 2049 than it is Blade Runner: Director’s Cut.
But I recommend it as a piece of interactive fiction which takes seriously the not-too-distant-future of a society that shuns the virtue of work and raises questions about the role of government intervention in disruptive technology to safeguard humanity against its own tendency toward hedonistic self-destruction.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give the game is that, while most games in the genre are marketed for their replayability, I have never felt the need to go back over the same territory for a few missed dialogue options or to make different choices. With Detroit, however, I went immediately to a second play-through.