Potential heartbreak waits around every corner in Detroit: Become Human. At any particular moment, one wrong move could land your favorite character incapacitated or even killed. In the game’s opening scene, where android Connor must talk down a crazed “deviant,” or an android that’s broken its programming from killing a young girl, you have several options. None of them, however, will ensure a safe resolution for all parties, and that’s part of what makes it such a compelling opener. You can successfully defuse the situation without losing Connor or the child, but only if you play your cards correctly. Make the wrong decision and the scene’s ramifications can echo throughout the rest of the game. If you have a tender heart when it comes to the android Daniel’s rights, you may be disappointed, but you learn early on you can’t always save everyone…or make everyone happy.
In a perfect world, that’s how every interactive adventure would play out. You’d be sitting on your sofa, white-knuckled as you grip your controller, agonizing over what the “right” choice would be as you enjoy a multifaceted narrative. Unfortunately, the genre’s overflowing with titles that offer faux “choices” that placate and slightly alter the outcome of a story rather than any real way to make your own path. Detroit: Become Human features exemplary moments that challenge every single thing you think you know about the game and your role within it, and in this, it ensures that choice is far more than an illusion.
Adventure games have evolved beyond the simple point-and-click fare of yesteryear, which relied more on puzzles and logic (and humor, in many situations) to propel players toward an ending. They err on the side of cinematic rather than complex and challenging, and too often your choices never feel like anything more than anomalies meant to appease those in the driver’s seat. Instead of real choices, a simply veneer of free will is slapped on top of a few predetermined paths. We see this far too often in games such as Life is Strange, where one choice may simply find a character’s lines slightly differing if you go down one particular path. Perhaps one member of the cast may like you a little less and react to you with a snide remark instead of a friendly one. Or maybe you choose not to save person X so you can save person Y instead. The story typically moves along the same path, no matter what you choose, with only slight alterations. This isn’t localized to games of Telltale’s ilk, but it’s an epidemic that’s seen far too often in the genre now.
Detroit: Become Human, like most of Quantic Dream’s catalog, doffs that frustrating convention and equips you with important plot threads and story moments that transform themselves and diverge at integral moments throughout the game. For instance, there are entire scenes where, due to a character death earlier in the story, you may swap to a brand new viewpoint instead. Where you may once have explored an area as Kara, you may find that you’re suddenly going through it as Connor instead due to the actions you took earlier in the game.
When there are entire paths, cinematics, and other pieces of the overall puzzle you haven’t explored or unlocked yet because of actions you’ve taken, that feels like a satisfying amount of player agency and choice. When all three main characters can perish because you didn’t execute a quick-time event correctly or you chose the wrong path, that is when player choice transcends illusion and becomes more like the “choose your own adventure” book the title is meant more to emulate.
Detroit has advertised its abundance of paths players can choose to unlock since we first heard about the title, and it revels in the multitudes of narrative decisions that can be unlocked along the way. There are even special branching flow charts to help you go back and find what you missed out on without spoiling it ahead of time, only nudging you in the right direction to get there. It’s all about empowering you to make your own decisions and find your own way through this brave new world, and anything is possible when you do set off on your own.
In this, Quantic Dream has crafted an excellent and compelling tale that doesn’t hold players’ hands to help them make the “right” decision or the “best” choice with its characters’ welfare in mind. It offers plenty of conclusions and ways to reach them, and that’s all that you really need for a game that transcends what looks like player choice and morphs into a series of situations that you need to think on your feet to overcome. And whether you’re deciding whether or not to replace a goldfish in its aquarium or if you should leave one of your Jericho squadmates behind, it all feels so much weightier for it.