‘Quantic Dream’? More like ‘QTE Dream’!
Okay, that’s the first and last time I’ll make that joke, but it’s incredibly apt, and especially for those of you who haven’t ever really jumped into a David Cage experience -- the man likes his quick time events, and Detroit: Become Human is full of them.
It’s not entirely bad, it just restructures your thinking brain to put away the usual concepts and reactions to gameplay and character movement you have, replaced largely with waiting for on-screen button prompts. The game works like this because it’s not really a game. At least not in the traditional sense. Or maybe it kind of is? You could argue this is a moving point and click adventure game with incredible visuals and a handful of great performances, but one where you’re forced to interact, even without consequence, just to move the scene forward. And if that statement sounded confusing, you’re right -- but then so is the overall structure of Detroit: Become Human.
There’s a certain irony here in that you play the game as robots, through a series of chapters with parallel timelines that will eventually dovetail into a cohesive whole for all involved. But most of what you do is binary in action. Most QTEs have no hardfail component, while others will simply hang in the air until you do them to progress the action or sequence. Some force you to think quickly, however, and if you ‘fail’ these (usually timed), you’ll break a story pathway and/or open up another one. All of this is tracked by a story flowchart of event nodes and discoveries after each chapter, highlighting what you did to get to the result that played out at the end of the chapter. But to suggest there’s a “gameplay element” to any of this is kind of a lie. The game has preset outcomes based on trigger points through decision. There’s no real ‘action’ to speak of. Dialogue and how quickly you react to QTEs is the loop here, and while some ‘decisions’ would appear to have far-reaching consequences, it’s difficult to really see a dynamic bridging component to player-agency.
This is also all largely compounded by the binary early gameplay. Clean, collect, take abuse -- perform your robotic slave duties. Which, yeah, is on-point with the game’s eventual end goal content but the slavery allegory is super on-the-nose. In fact, much of the game’s themes and metaphors aren’t at all subtle. Cage has never been known for measured exposition, and while Detroit: Become Human is
his and the studio’s best game so far, it’s still not close to the standard of, say, a Remedy Alan Wake or BioWare Mass Effect narrative and character experience.
And just on those last two examples. Both successfully delivered heavily studio-directed narrative, with a sense of choice and player-agency but, more importantly, both offered up actual, tangible gameplay. If Detroit: Become Human is the future of how we absorb and watch episodic TV or movies (Calculon’s paperwork, and such), then it’s to be applauded for guiding the way. But this isn’t really gaming as we know it. The decision and discovery node flowchart system makes for some great replayability overall, but it still comes back to a binary system -- there’s nothing overly dynamic here. You’re not ‘crafting’ your own story, you’re fulfilling a handful of outcomes and storyline/character breakthroughs a writing team in TV or movies tends to struggle with during writing meetings. Only here, they get a chance for everyone’s eureka moment to play out.
And that’s actually not all that bad, in the grand scheme of things.
Where Detroit: Become Human fails, however, is in its forklift approach to gameplay. In another irony, decision and progression throughout is machine-like. You never feel in total control of the character or even your gameplay experience. That there’s even mandatory gyro motion-control actions is ridiculous given how quickly we escaped that nightmare, but it sort of speaks -- metaphorically -- about how this whole thing ‘plays’. I’m not bashing the full product here -- I actually loved the main characters in Kara, Markus and Connor. I was very invested in both North and Luther and in keeping them on side, and my main focus by game’s end was on the Kara and Alice journey.
The writing was phoned in 90-percent of the time. And it’s themes are so on-the-nose it gets ridiculous (the digital magazine articles around President Warren are so heavily Trump, it gets a bit embarrassing after a while). But the actors portraying the characters do a fantastic job of helping sell this arc. And there is a story here, it’s just not all that well handled through both minutia and the aforementioned lack of subtlety. Add to this some intensely amazing visuals and capture performances, hamstrung only by being told where to go, what to do and where you can’t
go and what you can’t
do, and we end up with a game that had the potential to break out of some historical Cage
s (sorry), and really set itself up as something new, unique and compelling. But it really doesn’t deliver on any of those fronts at all.
Being able to track your storyline flowchart chapter-to-chapter against your friends and global stats is awesome, but it’s perhaps the only most forward-thinking side of the ‘game’ here. And that’s a shame, because the budget that has clearly gone into this, as well as the technology that will come out the other side, should have set us up for an amazing experience. But what we’ve been handed is a heavily directed and scripted story (that also isn’t Triple-A in the writing space), with heavily directed and scripted gameplay. The real metaphor for robots being told what to do, when to do it and how they failed, or could have done better, by the player is
the player. We’re kind of the heart of this piece based on its design. But that’s definitely not
intentional, and equally speaks volumes about what Detroit: Become Human is.
There’s value in narrative, if you don’t mind sloppy exposition, telegraphed characters and incentives as well as explosive quick time events that sit at odds with arbitrary quick time events, that sit even further at odds with ‘page-turner’ quick time events. When you get towards the game’s crescendo, which admittedly is handled excellently between the three main robot characters, and deal with ‘action’ sequences that take you out of your nanna or grandpa QTE slumber, the game feels
interesting, but it’s smoke and mirrors. Acting, visuals and a relatively well-conceived future Detroit are the carrots on string here. The problem is our robot horse needs QTEs as well to get going and without enough blue blood, bled by actual gamers, it’s a hard task and road to Maple Syrup ahead.