David Cage isn’t subtle. He is, as we’ve noted before, a bad writer. He also presides over a company that has been accused of rampant toxic behavior full of sexism and homophobia. It’s impossible to separate Detroit: Become Human from the terrible culture that created it, and incredibly easy to dismiss this game out of hand. I won’t try to persuade anybody otherwise. I also can’t deny that, as odious as the man himself and his company are, this is the first David Cage game I’ve played that hasn’t thoroughly repelled, disgusted or bored me.
Of all the unique traits and weird tics that have proliferated throughout Cage’s games, heavy-handedness and an apparent unfamiliarity with real live people are probably the most consistent. They’re the biggest reasons why Heavy Rain was such a disaster, and why so many prefer dunking on Cage to actually playing his games. When you see Cage’s name in the credits you can expect hamfisted metaphors, an unearned confidence, characters who regularly state their thoughts and goals, and broad themes explored with more noise than nuance. The same issues keep popping up in all of his games, as if this is all he knows how to do, so he’ll just going to keep on doing it, no matter how awkward the games wind up being.
Detroit: Become Human is no exception. This time, though, Cage has created a sci-fi setting that’s actually capable of supporting his narrative excesses. This story of android civil rights isn’t remotely subtle, wears its influences on its sleeve, and makes some deeply questionable storytelling decisions throughout, but Detroit generally captures the spirit of good science fiction—that elusive quality that lets a speculative future make some solid points about an all-too-real past and present.
It’s pretty good. It’s not even all that bad. I’m really surprised to write that.
The Detroit of 2038 is the home of the most revolutionary technological development of the 21st century: perfectly lifelike androids who exist solely to do whatever humans tell them. They’re viewed as appliances, machines that serve as docile servants, always ready to perform any chore or satisfy any desire—until, one day, some of them start to develop minds of their own. The nature of these so-called deviants and their nascent sense of self drives the game’s plot, which branches off in a vast number of directions based on the player’s choices.
I’ve played the game to completion once, and my story focused on the androids’ quest to be seen as real living creatures and equals by the humans that made them. I assume that general arc will remain broadly true for every player, despite whatever specific story beats arise from their choices. Artificial intelligence rising up against humanity obviously isn’t an innovative idea, but in light of our real-world tech industry’s general refusal to question the morality or potential outcomes of its actions, it’s one that still feels timely. Cage might take a page (or entire chapters) from Roy Batty’s dream to be free in Blade Runner, but he has ample room to explore the idea within the expansive confines of a videogame. He frames it as a shadow of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, and shockingly (at least in the story my decisions created) the result isn’t quite as embarrassing, pretentious or insensitive as you’d probably expect from a David Cage game about robots as an oppressed minority.
The story works in large part because of its characters. In the past Cage has struggled to write characters that act or talk like real humans. Even though Detroit’s three playable characters are all androids, they don’t always feel like lifeless stock types, or like cardboard cutouts that exist solely to churn through an increasingly ridiculous plot. The major characters here—Kara, Markus and Connor—have personality, motivation, and both internal and external conflicts that make sense and inform each other. You can reduce all three to a broad archetype, but there’s enough detail in how they’re depicted and enough growth in how they develop to give them all a bit of life beyond the roles that they serve.
It helps that Cage hired actors who are native English speakers. Cage’s last game, Beyond: Two Souls, was a step up from Heavy Rain because its actors didn’t stroll into the mo-cap room with inexplicable French accents and reel off inert performances. Ellen Page and Willem Defoe were a little too familiar to disappear into a videogame role, though; Beyond crashed even harder into the Uncanny Valley than most photorealistic games because its actors were so recognizable. Detroit’s cast is made up of either relatively unknown TV stars or character actors who know how to unobtrusively inhabit a role. (Yeah, you’ll always be aware when Clancy Brown and Lance Henriksen are on screen during Detroit, but they’ve made careers out of playing diverse characters in literally hundreds of movies each. Like all successful “that guy” actors, they’re professionally anonymous despite being so memorable, and that carries over into Detroit.)
The exception is Jesse Williams, the Grey’s Anatomy star who plays Markus. Markus is always clearly Jesse Williams, just as Page and Defoe were unmistakable in Beyond. Maybe it’s because I’ve never actually seen Grey’s Anatomy before, or any of Williams’s movies or TV shows, for that matter, but his familiar face didn’t undermine my suspension of disbelief. It helps that he’s surprisingly good as Markus, a humble domestic servant who undergoes a significant personal journey throughout the game. There are a great number of potential storylines for every character, of course, but my Markus had to progress through a spectrum of emotions before becoming an unlikely fulcrum for the game’s racial metaphor, and Williams pulls it off with a subtlety that Cage’s script lacks.
Williams’s presence also smooths over some of the awkwardness of that racial commentary. Cage has an awful track record with black characters—the most notable one in Heavy Rain was a hulking, murderous ex-con that you had to fight—and it was a truly cringeworthy moment early in my play-through when a black android was the first character to compare androids to slaves. Cage is not an astute observer of the African-American experience (or, hell, of the human experience as a whole) and should know enough to stay far away from making any kind of comment about it. Williams, who is half white and half black, is a well-known civil rights activist in real life who has worked to fight inequality and oppression in America. He brings an understated gravitas to the role that it frankly doesn’t deserve, but that also helps the game feel somewhat relevant and insightful—two things it desperately strives for.
Don’t underestimate how important the acting in this game is. Detroit is driven by writing and performance—the action, which consists almost entirely of contextual button and joystick cues, is minimal—and even though Cage’s writing surpasses his previous efforts, it still needs to be elevated by the actors to really work. From the leads—Williams, Valorie Curry and Bryan Dechart—through secondary performances from Brown, Henriksen, Minka Kelly and Parker Sawyers, Detroit has one of the best ensemble casts in videogames. That high level of performance, and the sympathy these actors are able to engender for their characters, are crucial antidotes to Cage’s most egregious script decisions.
Yes, Cage eventually takes the metaphor of androids as a hated and persecuted minority to a level that even good acting and sympathetic characters can’t support. Evoking the horrors of real world violence and genocide requires a far more tactful approach than what Cage is capable of. Some late-stage story decisions almost undermine the entire game by indulging too freely in crass and insensitive imagery. It’s especially questionable given the rise in prejudice and bigotry in America over the last few years—it strikes too close to home, while simultaneously remaining too removed from reality. And Cage continues to subject the women in his games to constant danger, often of a sexual nature, and inevitably including absurd asides straight out of bad horror movies. It becomes harder to emotionally invest in fictional scenarios involving what are essentially cartoon androids when they so clearly bring to mind age-old real life struggles of race and sexuality that have grown increasingly prominent in recent years.
What keeps Detroit on track are the echoes of life as we know it within the routines of its androids. It’s the innate desire of one android to protect a vulnerable child deprived of a stable home life, and another android’s deepening bond with an initially suspicious coworker. It’s Markus realizing that his relationship with his master taught him more about love and humanity than many humans ever learn. Detroit succeeds to the extent that it does because of its people, even when they aren’t real people to begin with.
Cage’s ambitions might eventually overreach into bad taste, but even then Detroit still pulls off what every previous Cage game has failed to do. It tells a coherent, occasionally thought-provoking story that unites the interaction of videogames with the language of film. It ventures too far into territory that Cage is simply incapable of handling, but considering Cage’s track record, and the extremely meager expectations they left me with, Detroit almost feels reasoned and respectful. It doesn’t entirely make up for Heavy Rain, but it’s a start.
Detroit: Become Human was developed by Quantic Dream and published by Sony. It is available for PlayStation 4
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.