Here’s the level of subtlety you can expect from Detroit, the latest sci-fi story from adventure game/would-be-interactive-movie studio Quantic Dream: Within minutes of the player taking control of Markus—an android designed to look like a light-skinned black man, played by Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams, and one of the game’s three protagonists—he dutifully crams himself into an “android compartment” situated pointedly in the back of a municipal bus. Not much later, writer-director David Cage dispenses with metaphor entirely; the game’s ludicrously humanlike heroes repeatedly refer to their existential plight as “slavery,” and a friendly black woman eventually lays the game’s themes out explicitly, telling runaway robot Kara (Valorie Curry) that she’s helping her cross the border into android-friendly Canada because she sees parallels between the robots’ troubles and those faced by runaway black slaves two centuries before. This happens in a chapter titled “Railroad,” in case you’d somehow missed the 747’s worth of subtext already flying past your head.
But artless as it might feel in the moment (and it does), that bluntness of intent isn’t automatically to the game’s detriment. In a climate where world leaders are perfectly happy to double down their assessment of human beings they don’t like as “animals,” there’s something refreshing about playing a big-budget game that’s intent on talking about issues like equal rights, the conflict between passive and active resistance, and the plight of immigrants trying to find a better life in a distant land. Compare this approach to the issue-dodging indifference of Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5 or even the welcome but one-note “Fuck yeah, kill Nazis” enthusiasm of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Say what you like about Detroit, but it’s trying to be about something, even if its attempts to form a political dialogue ultimately get sabotaged and overwhelmed by its efforts to give players what it thinks they want.
As in Quantic’s earlier games, play in Detroit boils down to a mixture of exploration, moral choices, and the occasional rapid-fire button-slamming quick-time event as you guide three androids—house servant Markus, caretaker model Kara, and “deviant hunter” Connor (Bryan Dechart)—through a futuristic city on the brink of revolution. The trouble is those damn deviants. That’s a future-Michigan euphemism for androids who start developing free will and, thus, resentment for the fact that they’re a bought-and-sold, disposable underclass assigned all the dreg-work of a society that’s willfully blind to the brewing revolt in its midst. When the game opens, Detroit’s androids have suddenly started acting out, killing their masters, kidnapping their charges, and just generally behaving like the angry, pissed-upon people their owners refuse to acknowledge they are.
The ease with which this deviancy seems to develop makes the game’s subtitle, the aspirational “Become Human,” kind of laughable. This is a world where Asimov’s Three Laws are so paper-thin that a few rough shoves and some rude language are all it takes to tear them down, and, outside a removable LED light on their foreheads and a few nifty abilities, the androids pretty much already are human in all but name. (The idea, presumably, being to make it easier for players to identify with them and start catching up to Cage’s eventual narrative goal.) That race to get to the metaphor factory occasionally undercuts the game’s more interesting sci-fi ideas, though. Despite the surface similarities, this is no Westworld, exploring themes of consciousness or identity crystallizing in unknowable alien minds. Detroit’s creations are, if anything, too easy to understand; in practice, “android” quickly becomes little more than a placeholder for any other marginalized or disenfranchised group.
It’s telling that the game’s most interesting hero, the aforementioned Connor, is the one who starts furthest from that magical moment of consciousness. He’s attempting to track down the cause of the deviancy problem with the begrudging help of drunken police detective Hank Anderson, delightfully played (and visualized, thanks to the game’s jaw-droppingly good motion capture) by character-acting king Clancy Brown. Even when his ambitions drag him way too far afield, Cage’s games’ best moments have always been small-scale, single-scene mysteries, and there’s something endlessly delightful about playing the politely analytical R. Daneel Olivaw to Anderson’s pissed-off Lije Bailey. These segments—in which Connor and Anderson analyze, investigate, and reconstruct crime scenes with the help of a very Batman-esque dose of Detective Vision—also lift one of the best gimmicks from Cage’s earlier game, Indigo Prophecy, as they force you to occasionally investigate your own prior actions. From time to time Connor gets called in to examine crime scenes caused by one of the other two protagonists, and choices in those earlier segments—a fingerprint here, a bloodstain there—can give him clues, making it easier to track your other heroes down. These moments, more than anything else Detroit offers, make it feel like a living, reactive world, and it’s a shame they don’t crop up more often.
Said choices, meanwhile, are all logged in Detroit’s one major new contribution to the Quantic formula: The Flowchart. Accessible from a menu at any time, the chart tracks every decision (or non-decision) the player makes, slowly filling itself as an individual vignette branches and progresses. And although it logs the occasional checkpoint, allowing you to change an unwanted outcome, its largest benefit is purely psychological. Narrative-driven games like Detroit are often frustratingly unclear about how much power the player actually has; choices that feel heavy in the moment can reveal themselves as completely meaningless after a quick GameFAQs search. (Looking at you, Telltale.) The Flowchart does away with that draining ambiguity. By presenting the entire skeleton for a scene—including those choices both taken and not—it makes it clear how fraught a particularly hard-won outcome really was (or, conversely, how many different ways a particular bad choice could have gone). It even goes so far as to mark moments and pieces of information that have consequences for much later scenes, underlining how much power the player has over Detroit’s ultimate narrative.
It might be too much power, though. Cage and his team frequently struggle with how much wish fulfillment they want to put on the player’s plate in this ostensibly “realistic” tale, especially as the story reaches its climax. In my playthrough, for instance, the android “revolution” progressed with improbably little bloodshed. Because I’m a pacifist weeny, my heroes painted slogans and sang protest songs instead of rising up in armed revolt against the people who, moments before, had literally been happy to throw them in the garbage to die. And because I was thorough in my investigations, diligent in my quick time events, and just generally successful at playing “the game” of Detroit, those choices led to a pretty positive outcome by the time the credits rolled. On reflection, it’s a profoundly weird fantasy to offer a cis, straight white guy who’s never been pushed around or discriminated against, allowing me to impose my politics of passive privilege on a population of hunted, desperate people and being rewarded for it with pretty speeches and a confirmation of all my favorite biases. It also functionally destroys Detroit as a meaningfully political piece of art, especially since I’m reasonably sure I could have gotten a similarly successful outcome (albeit, with a lot more dead dirty humans) if I’d gone the more revolutionary route, but still gotten all my R1s, circle buttons, and right-stick flicks correct.
Which is to say, Detroit never pushed back against my politics with a message of its own, and that’s why it fails at any intention higher than tickling the dopamine receptors in its players’ brains. Interactive to an almost spineless degree, it’s willing to offer a “good” (or at least “successful”) ending to anyone who takes the time to truly engage with it. That might be a smart choice, entertainment-wise, but it leaves the game feeling more like a big-budget Rorschach test than the fable about human rights and dignity it aspires to be. Imagine if an Aesop story ended with, “And then the thing you wanted turned out to be the right choice all along.”
There are other problems, too. Cage still can’t seem to write a single fucking game without tying up his female lead and stripping her of agency for a quick, cheap thrill, and it’s hard for me to judge how people from actual minority groups will feel about the way the game so frequently co-opts the imagery and iconography of disenfranchised people to tell its story. There are also structural issues. Despite the mental benefits of the Flowchart, it’s remarkably hard to actually use the damn thing to tinker with past outcomes and explore the rest of that big, branching path. Because there can sometimes be as much as an hour between checkpoints (with no option to skip dialogue or jump past tedious chores), replaying sections to see different outcomes can be a numbing experience, one that breaks whatever narrative spell Detroit might have managed to weave. Sony suggested avoiding the mechanic entirely on your first playthrough, and it’s probably right; the game is at its best when you take every decision seriously, as hard as that might be.
Like all of Quantic’s games, Detroit is a big, stupid swing for the fences, yet another attempt to get Cage’s dream of “playable movies” off the ground. Skeptics of the studio’s previous games won’t be convinced, but there are plenty of small improvements that make it Quantic’s best offering to date: Indelible images, like an android graveyard filled with broken faces and reaching, disembodied hands; great performances that manage to instill Cage’s typically stilted dialogue with energy and life, especially Dechart and Brown, who make a great Odd Couple team; and it’s impossible to discount the intoxicating tension of playing through a high-stakes story where things could veer wildly off course at any moment thanks to a mistimed button press or a decision you made hours earlier. But once the adrenaline has worn off, the hollowness sets in and you realize the game only told you the beautifully drawn, emotionally gripping story you expected, and wanted, to hear. It’s only in hindsight that you realize there’s very little soul staring out at you from behind Detroit’s pretty, almost-human eyes.