Detroit: Become Human is a game that knows what it wants to be. Subjects like the hierarchy and economic issues that create tension between human and androids are approached with gusto. But when you break down every branch, every choice, and every line of dialogue, the nuts and bolts of the writing falls flat at crucial moments. Throw in some ludonarrative dissonance and Detroit: Become Human becomes something that, honestly, would have worked better as a novel or a movie. In its ambition to do something new, it forgot some basic tenements of fiction writing and gameplay design. Between using death as a hypocritical mechanic and a slew of endings that — while fantastic — contradict philosophically, Detroit: Become Human seems like it’s not 100% sure what to say or how to say it. This isn’t another review (we covered that), and it’s not a critique on some of the more exploitative elements (we covered that too). Instead, this is a look at two different kinds of desires at work in narrative adventures: real desires towards real events, and imaginative desires towards fictional things. Branching narrative games still create a linear story experience, and that linear experience needs to make sense for all the characters’ motivations regardless of the amount of choice.
**Major spoilers beyond this point. Read at your own risk.**
Player agency shouldn’t be prioritized at the expense of the story; every choice the player is given ideally should have the same level of emotional resonance all the way to the resolution of both the short term and long term goals of the game. In other words, game writers shouldn’t throw choices in there just for the sake of it. Detroit: Become Human is guilty of this in a few places, but one of the most prominent is the confrontation scene between Markus, Carl, and Leo. Markus and Carl, after returning from a dinner and art reception in Carl’s honor, discover that Leo broke into the house while they were away to steal some of Carl’s art so he can sell it for drug money. Carl tells Markus to get Leo out of there, but regardless of the player’s response, Leo physically pushes Markus repeatedly. Carl tells Markus not to fight back, but the game gives the player a key choice: listen to Carl and obey your programming, or refuse and immediately become a deviant. If you choose to obey, then Carl dies of a heart attack. If you rebel, then you push Leo back with such force that he hits his head on a hard object, seemingly killing him. (How this isn’t the triggering moment for Carl’s heart attack is beyond me.)
Rebelling against your programming is a much more satisfying choice; having the player assume they killed Leo puts their close friendship with Carl in jeopardy — you killed his son. Leo may be a drug addict that takes advantage of his father, but Carl still loves him. By having events unfold in this way early on, it leaves the story open for the player to visit Carl again before Markus goes full rA9 on society. The player eventually discovers that Leo in fact lived, and is getting treatment for his drug addiction, but Carl is close to death. Seeing a new caretaker android in the home elicits panic, as for a brief moment the story suggests that Carl has completely replaced Markus not just as a caretaker, but as a close friend and surrogate son. At the end of it all, Carl harbors no ill-will toward Markus, and Markus gets to say his final goodbyes before heading out to kick some major police-butt, but if the player chooses to let Carl die of a heart attack, the storyline between Markus and Carl ends anticlimactically.
While Carl isn’t the only NPC who has the possibility of dying in Detroit: Become Human, one major feature of the game is that all three protagonists — Markus, Kara, and Connor — have the potential to go to the great big storage cloud in the sky. Make the wrong choice? Dead. Fail too many quick time events? Dead. Once a playable character is dead, that’s it. You cannot progress their storyline any further…or can you? For this kind of game, this is a terrible mechanic for story development. Take Kara, for instance: in my first playthrough, Kara died after a rough altercation with Zlatko, which is halfway through the entire story. In my third playthrough, she died while attempting to stop Alice’s dad, Todd, from physically abusing her. In both cases, and from a story development perspective, Kara’s story ends long before it reaches the climax. What is the point of being able to play a character in a game if there’s the possibility that they’ll die and become unplayable early into their storyline? While far quieter than an android revolution, Kara’s storyline takes players to some of the most unexpected places, and she is by far the most interesting and unique protagonist out of the three. (One of the biggest surprises to her to story is that Alice is an android, something that is revealed near the end of the game.) Sure, the player can simply go through the game again, but it takes away from fully experiencing the impact the first time.
The game has three protagonists for a couple of reasons: to present multiple points of view of android-human relations, and to make a case for or against android autonomy and civil rights. Permanently killing off a playable character early on not only goes against that narrative vision, but it also makes their personal storyline moot. The fact that Kara can die so early in Detroit: Become Human only shows that her story wasn’t important to the overall narrative, as the main goal of the games — stop/start the androids deviant revolution — isn’t affected. In contrast, Connor can also die, but his character still returns, and Markus isn’t able to die until the Freedom March chapter of the campaign much later in the story, and his followers carry on the revolution. Depending on the path the player takes, Kara is treated as nothing more than a disposable character. That says something about the overall sentiment toward androids in general, but when you first start and select your difficulty level, the game warns you that death is permanent. This sets up a false expectation that all three protagonists can permanently die at any point in the game.
The first time I died as Connor, I was brought to a cut scene with Amanda. She explained that when a Connor model is destroyed, its memory is transferred to the next one — an easy way to advance the Connor plotline and explain away his death, sure, but once you realize that Connor comes back every time, there is no incentive to keep him alive, unlike with Kara and Markus. Markus is an interesting case, because while it makes sense to have him die as a way to crank up the drama and emotion, killing him early has the same negative effect on the flow of his story as prematurely killing Kara. It would be more effective to give the players the choice to die or sacrifice themselves until the final chapters, the “reward” or “the road back” stages of The Hero’s Journey. Choices are a necessity in this kind of game, and most of the time they are implemented intelligently — where will Kara and Alice stay for the night, will Markus lead a violent or peaceful revolution, will Connor become deviant or stay loyal to Cyberlife — but when it’s too easy or too hard to die, the story falters.
Early death, before the player has had the chance to bond with a character, is not nearly as meaningful, as in the case of Kara. But death that isn’t permanent, in the case of Connor, loses its meaning altogether. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula to giving players too little or two much choice when it comes to games like Detroit: Become Human, but in this case the developers have at times erred on the side of too much choice rather than too little. I can understand the appeal of making death a mechanic of choice-based, narrative-driven games, but the absolute best endings happen when either all characters prevail, or when victory comes at great expense. Those life-and-death moments should be saved for the third act, when the stakes are at their peak, when all hope seems utterly lost.
As far as melding the gameplay with the story, Detroit: Become Human mostly does a good job of keeping each protagonist within their own journey through the eyes of the player. Each has separate wants and needs, and all three (if kept alive for the entire duration of the game) have a full story arc. There are times, however, when their stories conflict with the gameplay. I felt this way for Connor’s entire storyline. Unlike Kara and Markus, Connor has an ultimate choice to remain loyal to Cyberlife or become a deviant. Kara and Markus’ storylines rely on them becoming deviant — Kara by rescuing Alice from Todd, and Markus waking up in the android dump and/or pushing Leo — but Connor’s doesn’t. The player gets to make choices throughout the game to act deviant or not, and if you have made enough deviant choices (and didn’t die too much), then the game will allow you the choice to become deviant. While this makes sense from a game design perspective, narrative-wise it cheapens Connor’s character integrity by allowing the players to make that ultimate choice instead of allowing the character to come to those conclusions on his own. Kara’s decisions are based around survival. Markus’ decisions are based around android civil rights. Connor’s can sway either way. It’s much more satisfying story-wise to play him as either an unrelenting villain or as a woke android who joins this resistance. Anything in the middle is too wishy-washy and annoying.
Another example happened in my second playthrough, as I choose to have Kara and Alice set up for the night in the motel. Like in my first playthrough, Connor and Hank trail them to their location and an intense chase across an eight-lane highway ensues. What was different the second time around was that Connor got to them sooner. I bounded across the highway, making sure Alice got across safely, and the game forced me to switch to Connor. There I was, switching back and forth between the two characters, each with a very different goal, and the gameplay was asking me to have both of them reach their goal at the same time.
This is the loudest example of ludonarrative dissonance in Detroit: Becomes Human. It’s fine that it allows the player to experience the points of view of three different characters; the problem with that scene in particular is that the player controls two characters in the same sequence. It’s the equivalent of switching between two first-person POVs in a single scene in a novel. With the addition of game mechanics, this presents conflicting goals and conflicting morals for the player, and while no actions taken ever result in Kara and Alice’s capture by Connor, no matter if the player hits all QTEs, it’s possible for to self-sabotage one of the goals, which is exactly what I did. I sabotaged Connor because I was afraid of being the one to catch Kara and Alice.
A third example of the same kind of dissonance is how the game gives players’ the choice to have Markus commit suicide in the Freedom March chapter. This completely contradicts his character, as some of the other endings to this chapter have him dying while standing up to the police. Markus abandoning his cause and his followers via suicide is unbelievable. The player also has the choice to surrender in the Battle for Detroit chapter, causing Markus to betray his people. If North is alive after Markus surrenders, he says to her, “Sacrificing ourselves wouldn’t achieve anything.” She berates him by saying, “We always said our cause was more important than our lives. Our people died here because they believed in you.” There is nothing in the story that would give a reason as to why Markus would take such an extreme opposite stand on his own revolution. Character development and player agency at these junctions in the narrative are fundamentally incompatible.
Detroit: Become Human can easily attach its players to the characters like any good piece of writing, provided they make the right choices. But also like any good piece of writing, it has a duty to honor the motivations and personalities of the characters first, and player-choice second. Detroit: Become Human caters to player choice too much in some regards, which has adverse effects on the narrative. There is no straightforward format to writing these kind of games like there is for novels and screenplays, but if we honor the story first and foremost, we can continue to get closer to presenting the kind of game that doesn’t waver in the philosophy it tries to present — ultimately creating a player experience that honors both real and fictional desires with integrity.