Jul 2, 2022

Adventures of a new, old, gamer: Finishing (and not finishing) a game

I’m not sure that I’ve ever finished a console game before. When I was playing as a kid and a teenager, I would always get hung up on a certain level, or a certain boss, that I just couldn’t pass. There weren’t enough lives, not enough continues, and inevitably I get frustrated and give in. Today, I finished my first PS4 game—Detroit: Become Human. Or did I?
Connor in Detroit: Become Human
Produced by French company Quantic Dream, and written and directed by David Cage, Detroit: Become Human is about as far from what I would picture as a traditional video game as anything I have played. To a great degree (at least on the setting I played it at for my first run-through), it feels more like an interactive TV show, or a visual novel. The game takes place in 2038. The overarching story sees humanity in a place where ultra-realistic humanoid androids have become commonplace, many are home helps of some sort, while others do menial work and still others provide… more adult services. The narrative cuts between chapters in which you play as three androids (controlling one at a time). Connor (Bryan Dechart) is a detective, brought in to investigate the ‘deviants’, and partnered with an irascible detective (Clancy Brown), who doesn’t like androids. Kara (Valorie Curry) is a domestic model, who breaks her programming when the alcoholic father of the girl she looks after (Alice, played by Audrey Boustani) beats his daughter. Markus (Greys Anatomy’s Jesse Williams) looks after aging, disabled artist Carl (Lance Henriksen), and is prompted to break his programming when Carl’s adult son tries to bully his Dad for money. Within this setup, and the overarching story of an android uprising, there are a multitude of choices of actions that you can take with each character, driving the story in myriad different directions.

Besides setting the difficulty to ‘casual’, I made a few determinations early on. It was clear a lot of the choices the game asked you to make would be about situational morals, and I decided I would chart, where possible, a consistent path with each character on my first playthrough. This wasn’t always easy with Connor, as his arc within the story is often about his moral quandary between doing the job he was programmed to do and being swayed by the deviants. As an overarching principle, I decided that Kara would always try to do what was best for Alice, and that Markus would remain, again as far as he could, a peaceful revolutionary.

The first chapters are fairly simple, even a little dull. Connor has an investigation that introduces the game’s key mechanics, but then Kara has to do housework, and Markus runs an errand and serves Carl’s breakfast. It’s only quite slowly the key themes and action bleed into Kara and Markus’ stories. And yet, mundane as these openings were, they began to effectively ground the characters. This is aided by some exceptional graphical work. This game is four years old now, but as I’ve not seen the PS5 work, it’s probably the best-looking game I’ve ever played. The main characters are astonishing. The textures are lifelike; hair, clothing, and skin all look almost as if you could reach out and touch them, and the animation is nuanced. The facial animation on Connor is especially brilliant, with it and Bryan Dechart’s performance both giving the struggle of the ambiguity of ‘his’ existence real life. The supporting and incidental characters are understandably less detailed, but key ones are close to the same level of detail, and the world they inhabit, while maybe not as bustling as it could be, is well realised.
Kara and Alice in Detroit: Become Human
I don’t want to talk too much about how the story played out for me on this occasion, but even aside from the moment I mentioned in my last piece, where I realised I didn’t want to fulfill a game objective because I had grown attached to the characters, there were many more instances that put my heart in my mouth. Some of these happened because dialogue prompts can be a little vague. During a speech I had to give as Markus, I worried that one button press that ended up saying something other than I intended would undermine the way I’d been crafting the character. Similarly, almost every moment with Kara and Alice as they went on the run was nailbiting. All I wanted was to get them a happy ending, as I found myself ever more invested in that relationship, thanks to a standout performance from Valorie Curry, in one particularly great moment, she had me convinced that Kara was about to cry. At one point, I thought something I had failed to do had scuppered Kara and Alice's chances, and that felt genuinely terrible.

Markus’ section of the story is where David Cage leans hard on allegory, and it’s fair to say it’s not subtle. The civil rights parallels are clearly well-meant, and shockingly prescient at times, but the dialogue laying them out, despite a powerfully restrained performance from Jesse Williams, is often rather clanging and obvious. That said, this section is often the most engaging to play. It seems to give you the greatest chance to shape the direction, and tone, of the story. Let’s just say that there’s a much darker version I might see if I can pull off next time I play.

At the end of each section, you view a decision tree of what you’ve just done and see the boxes indicating things you didn’t do, choices you didn’t make, and paths that are now locked off. It’s tantalising, and will draw me back for more goes at this story. I was always rather skeptical of the potential of computer games as vehicles for storytelling and especially for characters you could really care about. Detroit: Become Human makes me look a little foolish on that score. It’s not a difficult game, but then it’s not meant to be. Deaths, if and when they come, aren’t there to frustrate you and send you back, instead, they fold into the story (not everyone got out of the telling on this run for me), and a subsequent game will allow you the chance to experience the story, be it that element or potentially almost the whole thing, very differently. I elected to get a PS4 because I wanted to see if I could get involved in a game in this way. I’m very pleased I could. I look forward to diving in again, and to picking up the remasters of Quantic Dreams’ previous games, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls

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