- Cindi Knapton
Detroit Become Human: My Android Mind Palace
I love a game world so immersive that I find myself exploring it in my dreams. Detroit Become Human (DBH) is beautifully written, performed, and layered with compelling mechanics that kept me wanting to play.
This game is five years old, so I’m not too worried about spoiling it for you, but if you haven’t played it yet, you might check it out before I dig in.
Set in a future where androids are pervasive, DBH plays out at the moment that androids are gaining consciousness and demanding civil rights. This is my favorite kind of sci-fi. I love a story that scrutinizes man’s historical inhumanity to man and asks the question, “This time, can mankind make better choices about how we relate to those who are different?”
In classic cop-drama format, the narrative follows three parallel crime investigations. Each of these threads focuses on one android/player avatar representing an aspect of the human psyche. At least that’s how I related to them – as aspects of my own personality.
They are Conor, the nerd by-the-book assistant to the police lieutenant investigating “deviant” android crimes. Kara, the nurturer nanny housekeeper working for an abusive father. And Marcus, the creative assistant to an aging artist who considers Markus to be his son, thus angering the artist’s biological son.
These are challenging situations for humans, but the internal conflict is even more complex for androids who have been programmed to obey any direction given by humans.
This time, can mankind make better choices about how we relate to those who are different?
The level design is exquisite and spans a broad range of emotionally evocative environments. The Detroit exteriors capture a logical evolution from its current urban landscape. The residential interiors are loaded with details that silently convey their inhabitant’s relationships, history, social status, and values.
Coming from a corporate architecture background, I was particularly impressed with the high-end office and retail spaces as well as the public transit system. The Japonesque art garden fantasy world where Conor’s AI handler resides is enchanting. In DBH’s darkest moments, the brutality and gruesomeness of the android disposal and reconditioning sites was palpable.
And the weather! I loved the realistic rendering of the weather as the seasons changed from summer, through autumn rain, and into Detroit’s bitterly cold winter snowscape.
I chose the “casual” difficulty setting to focus on the storyline. That choice still presented me with split-second life-or-death moral choices that had narrative-wide consequences.
Chloe the game hostess greets you with a unique message every time you restart the game. At one point Chloe scanned my progress with concern and then wryly asked “Are you sure you should continue playing?” I enjoy her presence and the dry humor of the game.
So… how did the game mechanics support the story and its premise?
Reconstruct First up, how do you make looking for clues at a crime scene interesting? Use your hyper-aware android senses to find the clues, put them together, analyze the physics and build an animated reconstruction of the crime in what DBH calls your “mind palace.”
NOTE: If like me you tripped up on DBH's use of the phrase “mind palace," here’s a great article on the history of that concept. https://www.livescience.com/aboriginal-memory-technique.html
As you assemble the clues you can scroll backwards and forwards through the reconstruction using L1/R1. There will be missing pieces in the reconstruction that need to be found by moving the camera around the room until you find all the pieces and complete the sequence. I found discovering and analyzing the incident choreography very satisfying.
Preconstruct Building on the reconstruct tool, how do you as an android calculate your parkour moves to get into difficult locations? By assessing the possible touch points and testing the physics in your mind palace. Find possible touch/grab points and run an animation winding backwards and forwards with your L1/R1 until you find a functioning path that matches your skill set, then calculate and execute.
Choices At key moments in each sequence, your avatar is given 2 to 4 single word action or attitude choices. These can be anything from the straightforward “O” Convince or “X” Shoot.
More frequently you will be offered three or four dialogue tone choices without knowing exactly what will come out of your avatar’s mouth, for example “∆” Reassure, or “O” Explain, or “X” Say Nothing.
Or in one of the occasional moments of humor, you have the choice to be a jerk to your human partner and point out his unhealthy cholesterol intake.
As simple as the mechanic of choices may seem, these well-crafted and well-timed selection points hit the premise of “Can androids do better?” on the head.
Do I as an android make better moral choices than humans would make? If humans don’t acknowledge our rights and are willing to terminate us without consequence, is violence justified? If a fellow android has killed a human, am I willing to allow the android to be killed without examining the circumstances?
Barriers In “casual” there are invisible guard rails in place to limit searching open neighborhoods and large interior spaces. I’m sure for other players it would feel like a “nanny state” controlling you. But for me, I loved hitting an invisible barrier and activating a “Bus Stop is Not This Way” sign. I’m glad to have some limits on exploring the richly layered environments.
At one point in my first play through Chloe scanned my progress with concern and then wryly asked “Are you sure you should continue playing?”
Short Chapters There are 32 chapters. They vary between about 10 – 15 minutes each. These are very achievable in a short sitting and satisfying on their own. Each has its own moral quandary. Their duration and completeness are reminiscent of a single act in a one-hour cop drama. Speaking of hours. The estimated time to play is 8 to 10 hours. I was super excited to beat it in 10 hours. It’s still a new feeling for me to complete a game in the estimated time.
Flowcharts At the conclusion of each chapter, the player is rewarded with a flowchart of the branching narrative storyline they have just completed. This shows the player decisions and blank boxes where other choices might have led.
There’s an option to show the Global Statistics, meaning what percentage of other players have chosen the same option that you chose. I look at this every time. I guess I always want to know how “normal” or “deviant” I am?
The flowchart also highlights where key decisions were made in previous chapters that have affected this chapter or will influence future chapters.
Fight Capabilities Okay, this one’s kind of minor, but important to me personally. There aren’t many fights in DBH. I don’t love fights and in many AAA games I can never kill zombies fast enough to survive. But in DBH with my controller skills on “casual," I was able to participate. I could mash the “O” and the “X” fast enough to win fights! This is new for me.
It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to fully participate in the game!
Overall, the sci-fi premise, story, characters, performance, and level design all came together beautifully. But it’s the accessible and thoughtful game mechanics that transported Detroit Become Human's mind palace into my dreams.