Yes, this is a controversial title, and I am definitely playing the clickbait game. Yet, I also believe that it is not that far off the truth. Depending on your viewpoint, you can interpret “The AI Game” as a game generated by AI or as a game whose core idea revolves around artificial intelligence. Detroit: Become Human falls into the latter category.
Broadly speaking, our contemporary understanding of AI focuses on generating text or images, and attempts at creating music also exist. The results are truly astonishing and also frightening. Imagine the political damage a convincing AI-generated deep fake could cause. Leaving this discussion aside, Detroit: Become Human takes AI further and introduces Androids into a not-so-distant future version of Detroit. These Androids look and behave like human beings and are supposed to follow a specific programming for given tasks. Still, circumstances enable some to break free of their restrictions and start thinking and feeling like living beings. And at that point, the question becomes: are they living beings?
Detroit: Become Human tells several stories within this framework. You get to control three totally different Androids. One is a prototype from the Android manufacturer assisting the police in solving the problem of the so-called Deviants, which are Androids that broke out of their programming. The second is a house maiden in an abusive household at the lower end of the societal spectrum. Although the third serves the same purpose, it appears to have much more freedom as you also control it outside the house, running errands in the city. Its owner is a famous and wealthy aging artist who uses a wheelchair and is very tolerant toward Androids.
While Androids are pervasive everywhere, the overall perception is generally on a scale of skeptical to negative. This is immediately apparent in the first scene of the game. You play as Connor, the Android assisting the police in resolving a hostage situation involving a Deviant. When Connor enters the apartment, a police officer escorts the mother of the hostage out of it. At first, she pleads to Connor to save her daughter, but her tone changes as soon as she realizes Connor is an Android. She complains about why they’d send a machine to do the job.
Marcus, the artist’s Android, experiences several human-Android interactions during his part in the city. Most people generally do not respect Androids much. They merely see them as elaborate machines with no personality or rights. People are passive-aggressive or insult them directly and blame them for losing their job and the resulting poverty. If you spend the time to look around and discover everything, you will come across a preacher talking to a group of people. When he notices Marcus looking, he speaks directly at him, saying Marcus is “the one by whom The Evil will come” and “the one who will destroy Detroit”.
Later in the same location, Marcus runs into a group of protestors demonstrating against Androids. In this sequence, people harass and attack him, and he experiences the hatred of humans toward Androids. It is essentially a form of racism.
The third Android, Kara, does not fare any better. Her owner is a drunk drug addict who blames Androids for his situation while at the same time requiring an Android to keep his house in order. The dichotomy. He shows no respect and is openly hostile. The man’s abusive behavior toward his little daughter intensifies this agitated situation further. Be aware of this if you have grown up in a similar environment. It might hit too close to home.
All these early missions do not provide much in the department of exciting gameplay or decision-making. They paint the bigger picture and set the game’s tone. All three Androids find themselves in extreme situations. Whereas the paths of Kara and Marcus are predetermined, both become Deviants due to their surroundings, Connor’s outcome depends on your decisions. Kara saves the little girl from her father and runs away with her. Marcus ultimately follows the preacher’s prophecy and starts a revolution (I only noticed this “prophecy” thing when playing a second time). Connor is on the opposite side, trying to prevent that.
The central element of Detroit: Become Human is the question I posed earlier: “Are they living beings?”. This subject is at the heart of Marcus’ story arc, and his goal is to achieve equality between Androids and humans. His quest leads to Androids protesting and demonstrating. In doing so, the game broaches other social topics like equality, tolerance, and free speech. What actions are appropriate to fight for fundamental rights? Marcus and his group of Androids undeniably commit crimes to make their voices heard. However, it is up to you to determine the course of action. Do you play as a renegade Commander Shepard or the peaceful Mahatma Gandhi? Your choice impacts the public’s perception and influences the other two Android stories.
Irrespective of your approach, the authorities face the Android movement with hostility and violence. The human reaction is out of fear, resulting in camps where all Androids are detained while awaiting decommissioning. I could not help but draw similarities to the movie The Siege or, worse, Nazi concentration camps. Looking at more recent history, you could also compare elements of the game to the Belarusian protests of 2020 and 2021 and the violent putdown of the rebellion – or protests in similarly oppressive regimes. Human history is littered with horrible examples like this.
Detroit: Become Human is not afraid of depicting controversial circumstances and putting you in the middle to decide how to handle them. How far is too far? Does violence breed more violence?
Since I already threw a movie reference into the ring, I am obligated to mention Terminator and the concept of Skynet. There are differences, though. Skynet is a centralized AI, whereas the Androids in Detroit: Become Human are individual entities allowed to think for themselves. However, one very frightening aspect of the story is depicted in the public demonstration of a large group of Androids led by Marcus. He can convince other Androids by merely touching them. Androids support communication through contact, and Marcus utilizes this functionality to override the default programming enabling independent thoughts and feelings. At the demonstration’s peak, Marcus “wirelessly” convinces Androids to join him and changes digital billboards to display the Android movement’s message. This is an alarming prospect and an apparent reason for humans to fear what could happen. Is it reason enough to deny diplomatic dialogue?
Connor’s story is equally important as he acts on behalf of the large corporation that manufactures the Androids. They aim to find all Deviants, study them, and eliminate the bug that allows their behavior change. In doing so, Connor learns about the Android situations and what led to their transformation. Your choices determine if Connor acts as a programmed machine or if these experiences also allow him to evolve.
The emotional aspect of the game comes from Kara’s story. She and the little girl’s journey is impacted by the events around them rather than them affecting the grander motif. That does not make this part of Detroit: Become Human irrelevant. Kara’s and Marcus’ paths cross, albeit both pursue different goals. Kara wants to flee Detroit and go to Canada, where life for Androids is supposedly better. Her story is touching and heartfelt, and I was very excited and nervous about how things would turn out for her and the girl. Marcus’ actions and the public perception of the Android movement also affect Kara in a few instances. On her flight, she is also confronted with a few essential decisions about forgiveness and acceptance.
There is quite a substantial twist to making this happen, so I will not go into further detail.
This should summarize what Detroit: Become Human is about. In the end, you might only see it as an exciting story, which it definitely is, but I certainly walked away finding more pieces to the puzzle that readily apply to our real-world society.
The Nerdy Bits
Before I close out this review, let me briefly discuss the technology powering this interactive movie. Developer Quantic Dream aimed for a photo-realistic depiction of humans, and the overall visual presentation is very impressive. The core cast is based on real actors, like Jesse Williams, who also plays (does he still?) an essential role in Grey’s Anatomy. The faces and people look outstanding, the world is rich and detailed, and the camera often employs a very effective depth-of-field effect. Resulting of this and other design decisions, the general presentation is very cinematic and immersive, and a big reason why the game’s story works so well.
Performance is not always ideal, though. In the beginning, it worked very well on the PlayStation 5, but later in the game, I encountered severe stuttering. The PC version behaves similarly, although I think it was less pronounced. Facial animation and general animations usually look good during the setpieces and more cinematic shots. Still, there are also many moments where characters move less gracefully and look more like robots (no pun intended).
While this might occasionally distract a little, bad voice acting would ruin a game like Detroit: Become Human. Luckily, this is not the case. All performances are outstanding in every situation. It absolutely helps sell the idea of this being a movie. Ambient sound effects and other game audio works well, too.
Famous Last Words
As you may have noticed, I deviated from my usual review format. Instead of a generic intro about why I play a game, I went directly into a broad summary of the story and the topics it raises and discusses. Going through my usual routine would not have done this title any justice, so I spent more time thinking about what I experienced, what it reminded me of, and what the game may try to convey through its story.
Detroit: Become Human has enthralled me like no other game this year so far. I am really impressed by the story, its breadth of choices, and its possible outcomes. Apparently, the game includes over 99 different endings. I sweated every decision, and anticipating how it would turn out in the short and the long run was exciting and motivating. My eyes were glued to the screen when I tried crossing the Canadian border with Kara, and I had an “OMFG, that actually worked” moment afterward.
What raises the stakes further is the little time you have in about 90% of the decisions you must make. Detroit: Become Human almost always enforces a relatively short timeout on the normal difficulty. It tries to convey a sense of urgency and realism. In real life, you also rarely have the opportunity to ponder for minutes before responding or reacting. My counterargument is that different people can interpret concise options of just a few words differently when reading in a hurry. It happened to me more than once in this and other games that a selection turned out to be different than I expected. In that sense, I would have liked more time to think by default. I believe there are difficulty settings to adjust this, but they would also affect how easy it was to lose a person, and I did not want that.
As with all games: it depends on your taste. Detroit: Become Human is for you if you enjoy an interactive movie with decision-making and many quick-time events. But this game is more than just an interactive movie, especially in 2023. It discusses essential social elements like love, tolerance, free will, equality, and today’s hot new thing, artificial intelligence.
Thank you for reading.