Is Detroit: Become Human Quantic Dream’s Magnum Opus?
It feels like everything from Fahrenheit, otherwise titled Indigo Prophecy, or even the lesser known Omikron: The Nomad Soul has been building up to Detroit: Become Human. The end result is certainly a great game worthy of praise, or at least a significant mark of French developer Quantic Dream’s achievements over the years.
Although it has been met with wide criticism, the game also released to critical acclaim and commercial success. Personally, I really enjoyed Detroit but I am aware of what some people have to say about the game. The writing isn’t great, that’s true, but I think it is good enough to make for an intriguing and enjoyable experience, even if it is not a subtle one at all. And no one can deny how impressive this games branching narratives work as opposed to others. I’m astonished by the number of different choices, outcomes and endings you can get, and I am still learning about new ones every day.
As far as criticisms to the gameplay are concerned, I understand the main gripe with these kinds of games, but I was never bored and the game certainly punishes those who think they’re safe to put the controller down for a moment. This feature, however, is not about the criticisms of the game. It begs the titular question so as to evaluate the game as a product of Quantic Dream’s history.
Quantic Dream’s first notable success released on 16 September 2005 to PC, PS2 and Xbox. It can perhaps be seen as their first steps, a sure learning process, and the most far removed from Detroit. In fact, however, it cannot be disregarded. The game was billed as an “interactive movie”, a genre which was relatively new and uncommon at the time. David Cage knew what he wanted to do with the game, but this was still an early attempt. By no means was it a failure, but you would have expected Cage to improve from that and surely he does. But what did improvement mean to him?
The game features the same mechanic of cutting between multiple playable characters seen in all the games, bar Beyond: Two Souls. It also uses the same context-sensitive gameplay for QTEs and investigations that would be largely present throughout all the games. Most notably, however, the game features a cat-and-mouse chase between two characters that the player controls and who can fall in love. Equally, it also features something of a sanity system. Bear these two features in mind for the conclusion.
My introduction to Quantic Dream and personal favorite released to great reception on 23 February 2010 exclusively on the PS3. It was concerned with the same gameplay and narrative genres of Fahrenheit but dabbled less with the supernatural (although some believe there to be evidence of this originally being the plan). It is about the trials at the hand of a serial killer of a man whose son has been kidnapped, following four central characters.
It features a range of familiar elements such as the characters’ conflicting and overlapping storylines, as well as memorable moments, like when Ethan Mars (the aforementioned father) has to decide whether or not to execute a man for more information on where his son is. The game is sometimes recognized for fan favorite Norman Jayden, an FBI agent tasked with catching the “Origami Killer”.
It is also the only Quantic Dream game to have had any strong plans for DLC, culminating in the release of one extension of Madison Paige’s story known simply as The Taxidermist. It was meant to be one episode in the larger The Heavy Rain Chronicles expansion but was ultimately the only installment. In an effort to avoid unnecessary spoilers, I won’t go into detail about its content or relation to the main plot but it basically sees Madison trying to escape the basement ‘workshop’ and house of a creepy ‘experimenter’.
Beyond: Two Souls
The most recent release before Detroit, Beyond, came out on 8 October 2013, once again a PS3 exclusive and featured notable performances from the likes of Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page. This one only features one playable character, two if you count the spirit Aiden, but he is inextricably linked to the protagonist. Instead of featuring crossing storylines, it jumps backwards and forwards through chapters of Jodie Holmes’ life, ultimately revolving around her as a fugitive. It has some notable similarities to the other games but it is also the most different.
So what’s the point of this article and everything I’ve touched upon so far? My brief history of the Quantic Dream interactive movies seems like it doesn’t add much to understanding whether or not Detroit: Become Human is Quantic Dream’s magnum opus, especially with my aversion to the discussion of the technical elements.
Technically speaking, Detroit is the greatest game Quantic Dream put out, with some of the nicest visuals and slickest animations in any game of its genre. However, I mentioned in the introduction about many people’s criticisms of the game’s narrative and it was important for me to consider if Cage can write and if he has learned anything from previous games. Sadly, my conclusion doesn’t seem promising.
I like Cage’s games and their stories and found the writing in Detroit to be relatively acceptable as far as the industry standard is concerned. It’s not on par with the greatest narrative games we’ve ever seen such as The Last of Us and the recent God of War, but it sits comfortably among games such as Life is Strange, another guilty pleasure of mine. What Cage lacks is originality. Not simply because of how overt his stories and their social commentaries can be, but within his own work, he seems disinclined to innovate.
I asked you to bear in mind the two core systems in Fahrenheit, the sanity measure and making the player control both ends of a chase/conflict, also present in Heavy Rain. These two features make drastic returns in Connor’s storyline in Detroit. For example, the sanity measure becomes the “Software Instability” mechanic and the player has great control over his investigations and hunts for the two playable deviants. These overlapping storylines from Fahrenheit, accentuated in Heavy Rain, are ever prominent in Detroit. As is Connor seemingly a direct projection of Norman Jayden. Their arcs are almost identical. Their personalities, convictions, mannerisms, looks, even their voices are all extremely similar. As an android, Connor can even use a feature just like Norman’s ARI glasses for investigations, making their segments almost the exact same.
During Kara’s storyline, when the player is at Zlatko’s house, a house of horror escape sequence plays out which is almost identical, from its inception to its execution, to The Taxidermist from the Heavy Rain DLC. In fact, Kara’s entire fugitive storyline bears a strong resemblance to Jodie’s in Beyond and her relationship with Alice mirrors that of Jodie and Aiden. There are many more examples of similarities between the Quantic Dream games, such as Ethan and Kara’s introductions or the prominence of rA9 and writing on the wall like some elements of Fahrenheit, but that’s not to discredit them all entirely. They are unique experiences and certainly have varying effects on the player. I enjoy them and appreciate them all differently. However, some of the most significant similarities between the games cast considerable doubt on Cage’s writing.
Undeniably the most unique moment in Detroit is the Kamski Test. It carries great narrative and philosophical weight and was voted the hardest choice in the game by players in the end-game survey. However, it is entirely unoriginal and recognizing that sees it all break down. It is actually the exact same dilemma as Ethan’s choice in Heavy Rain that I mentioned earlier. Ethan must choose whether or not to kill a drug dealer but father like him for more information, much like how Connor must execute Chloe, a fellow android, for more information. Understanding how feeble the defining line between these two choices causes the whole point of the Kamski Test to break down. It was supposed to make a strong point about empathy and be a defining moment for Connor and all androids in your Detroit playthrough and yet it is seemingly meaningless with the added context and realization of how the exact same ploy was implemented in Heavy Rain.
For me, my favorite moment in Detroit was the opening. Perhaps it wasn’t the best moment, but it was a truly impactful way to start a game and stuck with me throughout my entire playthrough. It felt like a whole new experience but, in fact, it too shares a striking resemblance to Heavy Rain. I’ve already mentioned how the investigations are all far too similar to Norman Jayden’s segments in the game, but the best part of the opening for me wasn’t the investigation but the way you gather more information to equip yourself for a final, dangerous confrontation. This mirrors, to effect, the entirety of Heavy Rain, gathering sufficient information to make it to the end and then confronting someone high up in a perilous position with a child’s life at risk. Quantic Dream’s games are running smoother than ever and look better than most things on the market, but Detroit: Become Human is their magnum opus as much as it is a combination of the best elements of their previous work. I really enjoy their games and think they have potential, but it will never be fully realized unless David Cage can start to innovate with his writing and artistic direction.