Review Scan: Detroit: Become Human
Updated: Jun 22, 2018
Review Scan is a periodic feature here on EEDAR’s blog, where analysts take a recently released title and break down critical reviews of it, laying out the game’s major strengths and weaknesses. Just as EEDAR does in our custom Mock Reviews and Game Evaluations, suggestions are then provided for how the game could have reviewed better and been received more positively. You can get feedback on your work-in-progress title just like this! To do so, contact Cooper Waddell at email@example.com.
Detroit: Become Human is the latest title from creator David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream, known for making complex “interactive story” titles, where players have the chance to make lots of different choices during the game’s story, strongly impacting how things play out (sometimes even killing playable characters partway through, allowing the story to go on without them). Two of Cage’s previous titles, Beyond Two Souls and Heavy Rain, were generally praised by critics but proved to be very divisive titles, so let’s look at how Detroit: Become Human was received (and how the reception might have been improved).
Very impressive visuals invite you into the world of 2038
Reviewers agree that the biggest strength of Detroit: Become Human is that the title looks great. The game is set in the near future of 2038, and there are a lot of well-designed environments that make use of the setting in an entertaining way. The team at Quantic Dream has definitely created some very strong designs here, and they’ve found some really impressive ways to show it off (with cool water effects in puddles, and even some stained glass and sci-fi holo effects).
Character models are also very impressive, according to reviewers, and while some of the game’s elements cross over into the uncanny valley, the title apparently benefits from having so many android characters – their weirdness works for them at times. According to reviewers, there is some suspension of disbelief required (especially considering that the writing is rough in places), but for the most part, Detroit presents a believable future setting with a whole lot of cool sights to see.
Plenty of choices allow the player to make a big impact
Detroit’s other big strength, of course, is that it places many of its story beats in the hands of players and gives them the freedom to direct character progression and the narrative as they see fit. The game isn’t even limited by a character’s death – if a main character gets put in a situation that they don’t survive, the game will just go on without them, allowing players to see different circumstances based on their choices. This has been a strength of Quantic Dream’s games in the past, and it remains a strength here. Reviewers really enjoy how deep and complex some of the choices in the game are.
This strength is helped by an end-of-chapter screen that shows the player a flowchart-like graph of all of their choices, and even shares some information about how friends have decided to play. The game also rounds up previous choices before every chapter, so it’s easier to follow what’s happening and what’s been done before. Additionally, Detroit splits its focus into three different protagonists. Some reviewers saw this as a negative (because some storylines and characters were more compelling than others), but in general, EEDAR would call it a strength; if players don’t like their choices in one story, they can move on to the next relatively quickly. Detroit delivers well on placing choice in the player’s hands.
Strong audio helps drive setting and action
Finally, this is a more minor strength, but reviewers also praised the game’s audio. The acting is generally solid all around, effects are used to make the visually detailed world even more believable, and the game’s soundtrack also received praise. Not all reviewers called out the game’s audio, but those that did said it contributed well to pushing the game’s drama forward.
Plot holes and strange choices drag the story down
While Detroit’s story was praised by reviewers, the biggest issue with the game is that the story is also dragged down by some mistakes in plotting and some strange narrative choices. Sometimes during the game, future technology is shown being used, but when a problem comes up that could be fixed by that technology, the game’s characters conveniently don’t use that technology. The stories and characters in the game are often clichéd (from the angry, drunken father to a no-nonsense police chief), and pretty often during the experience, characters will mention information they never learned or talked about (usually because the player’s choices have skipped past relevant dialogue).
There are other story beats that just aren’t explained well, either. At one point, one of the game’s androids seems to suddenly have the superpower of granting sentience to any mechanical object. Certainly, this is a speculative future setting, and many of these choices were likely made to raise the game’s drama or stakes. Still, big holes in the story (through negligence or necessity) hurt believability and make players less invested in these characters and their lives. A little more consistency to the narrative and characters could have made the story even more immersive and compelling.
Lacks the nuance to really engage with the heavy issues it suggests
Detroit: Become Human does raise some really heavy issues with its characters and narrative, including classism, family abuse, racism, drug addiction, systems of oppression, emerging AI and sentience issues, and (from a long point of view) humanity’s overall purpose in the world. Too many times, however, reviewers say that the story references these issues superficially, without really engaging them in a meaningful way. In the game’s world, androids are often called “tin cans,” an epithet that is meant to evoke other racist terms. That term doesn’t have the weight of history and a legacy of suffering behind it, however, and the game’s comparison feels too superficial as a result. Quantic Dream, reviewers say, throws in references to social issues without really exploring the complex systems of inequality behind those problems.
Another instance noted by reviewers is the use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase “we have a dream” by one of the game’s androids as they fight for political freedom. Rather than respecting the history and context of such a reference, the game essentially tosses it in a dialogue and asks players to make the connection themselves. Ideally, Detroit’s references to real-life issues and controversies would show a deep understanding of those issues, and perhaps shine a light on why they happened, or how they could move towards a solution. Instead, however, reviewers say that the game paints controversy in such broad strokes that the connections feel weak and incomplete. Most reviewers agree that Detroit’s story is compelling, but say that references to social issues are just too shallow to really explore the issues they put forward.
Controls can be rough, and movement doesn’t look or feel real
Finally, reviewers call out the game’s controls as a weak point. Most of the interactions are “quick-time events,” and while that has become standard for games like this, it doesn’t make them any less repetitive, and they can be more problematic for immersion (it’s hard to believe a setting is real when a giant button prompt routinely appears in it). In Detroit, the right analog stick is also occasionally overloaded with camera controls, so reviewers said that sometimes they would move to take an action in the game, and instead send the camera angle flying.
In general, the game’s movement animations also feel pretty wooden – while that might make sense for some of the android characters, at other times, the androids don’t move so robotically. It can be very silly to watch characters move in straight angles around a room, rather than smoothly walking to their destination. The game’s controls aren’t so poor that navigation is impossible, but they’re not nearly as smooth as other popular titles like Uncharted 4 or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Focus on the story rather than the issues
Detroit’s story is interesting, but the game’s plot holes can be very distracting, and too often it feels like the references to real life issues are inserted to try and make the game feel more socially relevant, rather than originating from the actual characters and situations of the narrative. If Quantic Dream is going to work on a game like this again, it will be important to let the characters drive the story in a realistic way, and expand things from there, rather than trying to shoehorn in references to social issues.
Of course it’s very hard to develop a clear story when players have such impactful choices across an entire campaign, so EEDAR does have some sympathy for the developers who need to keep all of the narrative lines straight in all of the possible situations. Still, the game’s narrative would be even more powerful if it was more consistent, and the references to real-life social problems would be more effective if they were deeper and more endemic to the game’s situations. Following the characters’ passions will undoubtedly lead to conflict, and that will enable a clearer connection to social issues. Just throwing in weighted phrases or using obvious parallels leave the commentary feeling shallow or even (at the absolute worst) exploitative.
Rethink the game’s controls in a way that feels more consistent
Quick-time events (or QTEs) are a pretty established standard in this genre, and the characters are usually performing so many different activities that it’s hard to create controls that can be used in a lot of different situations here (an FPS game will focus on shooting controls, for example, but in a narrative title like this, the characters’ activities are very different from moment to moment).
That said, however, it might be worth exploring a control scheme that is more consistent overall. Right now, players might want to get a cup of coffee in the game, and a prompt might appear that asks them to press X to do so. A different scheme, however, might give them happy or sad options, where they could press X to grab a cup and creamer, humming while they do so, or press O to fill up the same cup, but look down and depressed while doing so. Other characters could come along and comment on their mood, providing more nuance to the interaction.
Alternatively, the game could group buttons by speed, so pressing X might allow players to do an activity quickly (perhaps getting them to the next scene more quickly, with a chance of making mistakes while performing the action), or pressing O would make them do it more slowly (more carefully performing the action, but perhaps taking time from the next scene). Obviously, there are other concerns here (creating more options for actions would increase the need for animations or voiceover content), but in general, creating a different control scheme like this would give players more options and would help to add both some consistency and nuance to the game’s interactions. Rather than giving players a different control scheme for every action, tying moods or speeds to a specific button like this would make the controls feel more unique and more intuitive.
Use feedback to keep players interested, moment to moment
The main focus of a game like this should be feedback – every time the player makes a choice or performs an action, the game should provide them with clear feedback that shows both that their choice has been registered, and that the game’s world has been affected by that choice. Short-term, that’s easy – the game can flash different colors on the screen to show if a player has successfully completed an action or not, and in the dialogue, other characters can immediately respond to whatever the player has chosen. Longer term, however, it can be hard to see how a player’s choices are affecting the action. The end-of-chapter branching paths option is a good idea, and other games have tried to provide good feedback here as well: The Walking Dead famously tells players if an NPC’s opinion has been changed with a “Kevin will remember that” pop up, and Until Dawn uses supernatural totems to show possible futures or outcomes of player choices.
Another system might allow players to see the internal moods and feelings of their character from moment to moment – saying or doing something in an interaction might make them feel more embarrassed or more confident, and seeing that will give players clearer feedback on how their actions have affected the game’s narrative. Detroit: Become Human already does call out significant choices well (so players know when they’re about to make a big choice), but it could provide more solid feedback for short and medium-term choices, and make the game feel more rewarding overall.
In general, Detroit: Become Human is able to tell an interesting story, and does so with great visual quality and production. The game is still very polarizing, however, and a few low review scores have brought the overall score down a bit. If anyone looking to make a game like this can polish off those rough edges while still delivering on the core premise of an interactive narrative, reviewers and players will find more to praise and less to lament.
Manager of Game Evaluation, EEDAR
EEDAR often performs analysis like this on work-in-progress and pre-release titles for Game Evaluations and Mock Reviews. If you have questions or needs around a reliable and insightful evaluation of a title in development, contact Cooper Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org.