Flip it, stick it, play Donkey Kong on it.
David Cage occupies a strange place in video games. He’s a man who harbours clear ambitions to go beyond the medium, a man who often, it seems, would rather be making movies than slumming it in games, yet consistently gets trotted out by Sony as their ace-in-the-hole auteur pushing the boundaries of the medium. He’s a man whose work is both consistently derided and critically acclaimed; clunky gameplay and often bizarre story decisions seemingly forgiven for little more than a transparent yearning to be something greater than it is. Unfortunately for Cage – a man who desperately pleaded to be judged on his work after allegations of sexual misconduct were brought against him in recent months – games have moved on since the days of Heavy Rain, and sheer ambition is no longer enough to earn a free pass for his faults. Detroit, at its heart, embodies everything wrong with Cage as both an artist and a game developer.
Right off the bat, it’s tough to divorce Detroit’s worth as a game from its creator. In much the same way that Metal Gear is tied to Hideo Kojima, Detroit wants you to know this game is absolutely the product of Cage’s genius; it wears that fact proudly as a badge of honour in the same way James Cameron might attach his name to Avatar. I say this because any criticism of Detroit isn’t merely critique of the game, but of Cage; his views on the world and how we relate to it, and his deep, often baffling misunderstanding of serious societal ills.
Despite Cage’s insistence to the contrary, Detroit is most definitely attempting to make a political statement, albeit in the most laughably on the nose, yet somehow toothless manner possible. Detroit posits a world twenty years from now where just about everyone has their own android assistant; an intelligent, near superhuman robot that can, as Cage is sure to let you know multiple times, pass face-to-face Turing Tests with ease, yet has no emotion or free will of its own. The androids walk, talk and act like humans (except for when plot purposes dictate that they essentially become monosyllabic human-shaped husks), and are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from “real” people. What this leads to are some absolutely atrocious attempts at likening the plight of the androids to various real-world minority groups, all of which make you feel like Cage himself is standing next to you screaming “DO YOU GET IT?” into your ear while bashing you over the head with a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights.
Androids in Detroit’s world are barred from patronizing most business establishments, relegated to roles as janitors, sex workers, and every other type of work that society deems undesirable. They stand in their own compartments at the back of busses, get left in designated “android parking” spots outside shops (during which they apparently lose all motor functions and processing ability for reasons that are never explained), and are regularly accosted on the streets by preachers and anti-android demonstrators who scream about having their jobs taken away by machines. One early scene sees Markus, one of three androids whose intertwining stories you’ll play as, buying some paints for his owner, a famous artist played by Lance Henriksen. Along the way to the paint shop, Markus is yelled at for being ungodly, stops by a guitarist playing in front of a sign espousing the virtues of human music (it has a SOUL), and gets beaten up by protesters. This all happens in the space of about five minutes – if that – and really sets the tone for a long, frustrating twelve hours.
As bad as all these parallels with real-world oppression are, what really hammers home how tone deaf Detroit is is that in this world, androids appear to be the only group suffering from any sort of social stigma. Reality is never that simple, and to even posit that twenty years from now there’ll no longer be any kind of racial, religious, sexual or nationalist tension in the world is, of course, laughable. Equally laughable is Cage’s positioning of Canada as some sort of ultra-progressive, problem-free society. Throughout the game Cage builds the nation up as a sort of promised land for androids, a place where they can freely live without fear of repression or stigma; something which demonstrates Cage’s complete lack of understanding that Canada itself has a far from perfect track record of human rights, especially in relation to its native population.
Detroit’s story alternates between the perspectives of three androids, Kara, a maid android who rescues the daughter of her abusive owner and flees, Connor, the detective android tasked with solving android related crimes, and Markus, the assistant android to a great artist, treated like a son, who must flee after defending himself from said artists real son during a drug-induced outburst. Any hope that these stories will individually coalesce into something special goes out the window fairly early on, with both Kara and Markus’ storylines being damn near intolerable. Markus, after winding up in a scrap heap for no real reason other than to find himself there, quickly ascends to the status of Messiah for the androids, a pained and hamfisted metaphor that’s driven home even further by his leading a collective known as Jericho (yes David, we get the reference) in the quest for freedom. While Kara’s storyline is similarly bumbling and heavy-handed with its anything-but-subtle references to the Underground Railroad, complete lack of a sense of place as it moves from downtown Detroit, to somewhere in rural Michigan then back to Detroit, and an absolutely laughable twist, it’s with Markus that the game becomes downright unbelievable at points.
Markus’ storyline is everything wrong with Cage’s work distilled down to its purest form. Whether it’s the shocking inconsistency of tone as it flits from horror movie, to The Bourne Identity, to heartfelt pleading for tolerance every few minutes, or the absolutely ludicrous choices Cage offers up (including invoking MLK’s famous I Have a Dream speech), it’s a series of constant missteps that drags the game down and prevents it from ever really getting onto a solid footing. The tone is worryingly inconsistent throughout the game, and Cage’s repeated hard pivots to horror film imagery are never not jarring, especially when you consider that he pulls from classic zombie flicks like Dawn of the Dead often, and never with any consequence. There are two scenes where Kara and the little girl she’s protecting, Alice, are overrun by a herd of zombie-esque androids. Both scenes are resolved peacefully within a few seconds, rendering them totally meaningless, and one even ends on a happy moment, which in itself is almost unheard of in a David Cage game. Even more ridiculous is the dissonance that comes inherent to scenes portraying androids – who Cage repeatedly insists are living – as being akin to the walking dead, and merely acts as an example of Cage really not thinking too hard about his own imagery. Doing something because it’s a cool visual is all well and good, but when said visual is antithetical to the statements you’re trying to make, it only serves to look hacky.
As bad as Kara and Markus’ stories are though, it’s not all bad. The third android, Connor, actually has a relatively effective story, that while nowhere close to being up there as one of the medium’s best, does at least offer a fairly well thought-out character arc and some solid interactions with his reluctant human partner, Hank. Hank himself may be a fairly paint-by-numbers disillusioned detective, but his interactions with Connor are not poorly put together, and Clancy Brown’s performance in the role is easily the best in the game. Where Connor’s storyline falls apart comes from his interactions with Amanda, a mysterious woman dressed in white robes who seems to be the sole occupant of a lush, tranquil paradise garden (yeah, I know) who acts as Connor’s guiding light. These segments, mercifully short as they are, have the exact opposite effect as intended, stripping any sense of ambiguity or nuance from Connor’s story in favour of spelling things out for the player; something Cage just doesn’t seem able to stop himself from doing at every point.
Detroit’s supporting cast are, much like their leading men and women, a mixed bag. North, who acts as both Markus’ main collaborator and possible love interest, is terrible, a character whose motivations appear to change from moment to moment as she flip-flops between wanting armed android insurrection and bowing obediently to Markus’ every decision. The other prominent Jericho androids, Simon and Josh, are effectively not characters at all, with little to no reason to care about anything they say or do. Luther, Kara’s bodyguard-turned-implied-kind-of-husband-figure is a hulking man-mountain who says little and contributes even less to the story, while everyone else is pretty much inconsequential. The vast majority of the performances are fine, with Clancy Brown the standout, though both Jesse Williams and Minka Kelly seem completely uninterested in their roles. At the very least, for the most part Detroit avoids having any baffling European accents on supposedly American characters, at least until the president, a painfully performed Hillary Clinton stand-in, appears in the final hour.
When it comes to gameplay, it’s quickly apparent that Detroit is even less of a game than previous iterations of Cage’s Misery Series, of which this is most definitely the fourth chapter. Traditionally Quantic Dream games have been pretty simple affairs; you walk around a space, occasionally pick up an object or pick a dialogue choice, and once in a while go through a series of quicktime events. Detroit is true to form here; and while that’s to be expected, what’s surprising is how little agency is put on the player, even in comparison to something like Heavy Rain. There are many sequences – presumably owing to the fact that your lead trio of characters are all androids – that play out almost automatically, with little option on the players’ part other than to press a single button to start things off. As an example, there are numerous scenes where Markus, played by Jesse Williams, must parkour his way around some obstacles. Where Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls would have you at least press a button for each stage of these sort of sequences, Markus just sorta… does it himself.
If there’s one thing a QD game doesn’t need, it’s stripping what little actual gameplay already exists down to the bare minimum, and it certainly doesn’t help when you consider how much of what’s left over plays so badly. There are plenty of people who’d argue (not incorrectly) that Quantic Dream’s games have never played well, but Detroit somehow handles even worse than normal. With both the camera and the majority of actions controlled by the right stick, it can be a pain to do simple things like picking up an object or opening a door, and while that’s not the biggest sin the game commits, it’s definitely not going to change any minds.
From a purely technical standpoint, Cage’s work has always met a pretty high standard, especially since being signed up as Sony’s creative heavy hitter. But while Detroit looks really, really good and has some admittedly very cool visual moments with its use of UI and solid camera work, it’s also got a tendency to push the PS4 past the limit on occasion, with some very noticeable slowdown occuring in any scene with more than a handful of people walking around. The world itself looks great; and while Cage has clearly never stopped to think about what the second half of the word cyberpunk means, he has at least created a world that’s visually appealing; mixing both modern architecture and cyberpunk aesthetic, it’s not too far flung in the future for modern structures to have been totally replaced, but rather added to by future tech. The score is fairly decent as well, but at times it’s hardly noticeable, and the game’s sound design in general is nothing to write home about, which is strange in a way, given Cage’s musical background.
There’s also plot holes aplenty; the big one alludes to a mysterious android named “rA9”, the supposed first android to “wake up” (a term Cage uses constantly) who will lead the androids to freedom. While the implication here seems to be that Markus is rA9, he is very clearly not the first android to gain free will. That doesn’t really matter though, because they just sort of stop mentioning rA9 altogether for the last third of the game, so it’s probably safe to say that Cage either just didn’t think about it too much or someone got in his ear and managed to convince him that he couldn’t take yet another game down a potentially occult route. There’s also a lot of strange inconsistencies with the setting noticeable in the background. While the game is set in 2038, it also makes ample use of real-world stock footage, which shows a world completely at odds with Detroit’s setting – after all, it’s fairly unlikely that anyone’s going to be watching a Boston marathon from somewhere in the 2010’s on TV in twenty years. That may seem like a minor issue, but it serves to break what little immersion the game does manage to build badly, especially when featured prominently.
Unfortunately for Cage though, creating a nice looking world with a handful of passable scenes does not a masterpiece make. Cage clearly sees himself as video games’ analogue to someone like Krzysztof Kieślowski in cinema; a master of subtle, emotional and human storytelling with a flair for weaving complicated thematic threads together, but Trois Couleurs this is not. Detroit, for all its ambition and cocksure gravitas is largely a misstep, a game that believes it has something deeply profound and revolutionary to say, but really has nothing.