Ever since Ridley Scott's Deckard had us asking whether androids dream of electric sheep we've found the concepts around sentience and man-made life to be among the most enthralling of sci-fi themes. Quantic Dream, building on the foundations laid down over many years but most recently in the form of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, has in 2018 presented us with Detroit: Become Human, a cinematic interactive experience that takes us twenty years into the future to a world teetering on the precipice, where mankind has mastered technology to the extent that we can build convincingly human-looking machines to do our bidding.
The studio's vision of the future is pitched just close enough to our own modern reality to feel entirely plausible. Events unravel across a trio of stories starring three androids from different backgrounds, each of them coming to terms with their growing self-awareness. As they grapple with existential questions the world around them is threatening to ignite and the wider narrative is slowly revealed through environmental storytelling; news reports and electronic magazines paint a grim picture.
The compelling setting and Quantic Dream's excellent world building contribute to a stellar opening half and, for a few hours at least, we wonder whether we've got yet another first-party classic on our hands, but then Detroit starts to move through the gears a touch too quickly and some of that early groundwork is left behind as we get into the meat of the story, where player choice - or the illusion of choice - threatens to derail the excellent early pacing of the narrative. Luckily that didn't happen, even if there are a handful of scenes that feel just a little undercooked. Before too long one of our android characters, Markus, is delivering rousing speeches to his synthetic allies and preparing to storm the proverbial Bastille; we helped plants the seeds of rebellion, but perhaps they weren't given enough time for their roots to take a firmer hold and truly justify our call to arms.
Detractors are always going to point to quick time events (QTEs) in games like Detroit and, for some people at least, there's simply no getting around the fact that these kinds of experiences offer very little in the way of genuine player autonomy. Quantic Dream's latest adventure is unashamedly cinematic and the skill here isn't in taking down epic bosses or lining up a succession of headshots (although there are some frenetic moments where the action comes thick and fast), rather the reward comes from executing the inputs accurately and in a way that further enhances the cinematic qualities of the game. When you get into the groove and that translates into fluid action on the screen, it's actually very satisfying.
Detroit isn't all QTEs though, and Quantic Dream has mixed things up nicely throughout the campaign. There are interrogation scenes, chase sequences, combat scenarios, and lots and lots of dialogue options. Beyond that the studio has added texture to the world and you'll regularly be called to interact with things via a swipe of a touchpad here or a flick of an analog stick there. Some people are going to find some of the more trivial actions in the game superfluous, but we never felt like there was too much busy work to attend to and most of our interactions felt like they connected us better to the story.
There are a couple of interesting mechanics at work, and they suit the setting brilliantly. Building on the AR tech that saw Norman Jayden scanning crime scenes in Heavy Rain, the androids in Detroit can switch to a secondary visual filter where time pauses and certain points of interest are flagged. Deviant hunter Connor benefits most from this trick and analysing the things he discovers can yield clues to further the story. More interesting is the mechanic that lets him simulate events based on the evidence he uncovers, letting him visualise events as they likely played out. The rebellious Markus has another trick whereby he can simulate environmental traversal and by planning his moves you can plot a course through tricky terrain and then have him execute that plan to perfection while you watch. It's slick and intuitive and turns a light puzzle into a cinematic moment to savour.
Detroit is all about emotions and these are often expressed via mechanics that define the relationships between the characters you meet. As soon as you jump into the shoes of one of the three protagonists - Connor, Markus, and Kara - you're told how the people around you feel about you, which is useful information when trying to decide a certain course of action. Each of the three narrative strands is thematically linked with occasional intersections, but they're independent of each other for the most part. Connor, for example, is a top-of-the-range model programmed to hunt down deviant androids and this objective leads him to crossing paths with both Kara and Markus. Kara, on the other hand, is a housekeeper on the run from a violent owner, while Markus becomes self-aware and then works to inspire revolution and rebellion among his synthetic brethren.
Several characters have the potential to make a big impact as the story progresses but Quantic Dream is also quite prepared to let bad things happen to them, which keeps the action tense at times. There's always the fear lurking that one wrong move might spell disaster, although you'd have to actively try to fail to see the most disastrous of outcomes. We managed to keep everyone alive (kinda) during our first run, but during our second we were happier playing things fast and loose and we lost a couple of key characters along the way. One of them, an NPC with a fairly major role to play, died rather unexpectedly during a sequence we'll not spoil, and another series of events saw one of our main characters retired early. When we delved even deeper we discovered that even main characters can be cut out of the story very early on, although you'd have to really screw things up for such a catastrophic outcome.