Detroit: Become Human and the Imperfect Ending
After about twelve hours of playing, credits rolled on Detroit: Become Human (Quantic Dream, 2018–19), and I was gutted in the closing five minutes. Twelve hours of following three different androids in not-so-distant future Detroit, and the last scene that played was the one that did me in, fading to the logo before I’d fully wrapped my head around what happened, let alone accepted what happened. The story was ambiguous in its ending, so full closure was off the table…but in a game that had so many different endings for its characters, it felt like I failed. It felt like I got a bad ending at the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour.
That feeling brought me back to an old disagreement I’ve had with a dear friend, regarding endings. We both love Mass Effect, and while I’ve finished the main trilogy, they have yet to see their Commander’s saga to a close. Mass Effect is one of our favorite shared universes, but our approach to the trilogy’s conclusion couldn’t be more different…in that I’ve experienced it, and all its permutations, at least once, while they’ve chosen not to play that far. We may have our own approaches, but now, after so many years, I can finally see where they’ve been coming from.
Make no mistake, I love Detroit. It is beautiful, and complicated, and complex, narratively and mechanically. I think as many people who can play it, should. But that overall recommendation comes with a realization on my end. This is less a review, more a justification for how Detroit, and how stories, can make us feel. How they make us feel. Why they make us feel, and why we let them.
The Investment in Starting
Stories are an investment. Financially, they (traditionally) cost money to acquire. Chronologically, they take any amount of time to experience, no matter your chosen medium. Emotionally, they ask that you be a part of that story for however long you consume it. To connect with the story and its narrative, to be vulnerable to what it says, or tries to say. To empathize with its characters, their plights, and the plights of the world they inhabit. The emotional investment is what pays off the most tangibly at the end; it’s our reward for completing a story, in a sense. We feel catharsis for the characters’ long-fought victories. Vindication for the antagonists being laid low by whatever method. An understanding to a perspective we may not have considered before. In game-based media, triumphant in our own overcoming of the obstacles set before us and our characters. We feel emotions in the wake of whatever transpired. We feel, and that is our reward.
But by design, we rarely know exactly what awaits us at the end of these stories. Spoiler alerts, and all that. Tropes and archetypes may guide many narrative hands, but we don’t know exactly what lies in wait at story’s end. It’s a mystery. The payoff, the full reward for our investment, is withheld until the closing pages, last scenes, or final in-game decisions or victories. Genres may give an indication of what to expect, but you can never be certain. It’s an investment just as much as it can be a gamble, the hope that a story will leave you better, happier, or somehow more by the end of it.
Detroit: Become Human promised, by genre and design, to have a branching narrative impacted by choice, failure, and success in a realistic setting against a new, but all too familiar, backdrop. There would be dialogue, decisions, and androids. All I could do was assume what was in store…and invest.
The Choice to Continue
The middle of a story is where those archetypes and tropes come in full blast. The trappings of a comedy, or a tragedy. Laying the framework of hope, or despair. Reminding us what can be, and grinding us into what is. The middle is where the investment starts to manifest, the world begins to change, the characters begin to evolve into whatever they’re meant to be.
On the one hand, the middle is where we are propelled forward the most. Questions of how will they do it, how is it going to affect the world, what are their reasons for doing this, cliffhangers, expectations of a genre, all beg us to move forward and uncover (or confirm) the answers. The middle steadily ramps our interest and investment in the story, with intent to fully realize it by the end.
But on the other hand, the middle can also be the end. Walt Williams, writer of Spec Ops: The Line (YAGER, 2012), noted that Spec Ops had five endings: four in-game, official endings, “and [one] in real life, for those players who decide they can’t go on and put down the controller.” Granted, this is directed at Spec Ops directly, which deals heavily in the horrors of war and the descent of humanity in the face of it all. But there are countless reasons for someone putting down a book, or a controller, or stopping a movie, or backing out of a show mid-season. Perhaps it wasn’t vibing with you. You didn’t care about the characters. It was poorly executed or realized. The content ended up being too much, in whatever form. Subjective tastes. You had some inkling of what was waiting at the end, and you didn’t like that. So you stop.
My friend stopped playing Mass Effect because they wanted their Commander to just keep living in the galaxy. Yes, there was a war raging for the fate of the galaxy, but at this time, this moment, it was okay. Their Commander was in love, loved others as found family, and had those same people who loved them. From my friend’s perspective, the endings were a no-win scenario, that “there wasn’t any way to end the game that wouldn’t break [their] heart.” There was no ending my friend could fathom that would fix the galactic war and maintain what they wanted for all of the characters they loved.
Given a chance to think about it properly, I finally find myself in their position after Detroit. I could’ve stopped playing at any point, and just let my own mental trajectory, my assumptions, my hopes play out. I could have just imagined the ending that I wanted for these characters I’d grown to care about. There is comfort in ambiguity. Comfort in making our own stories. Our own endings.
That’s what gutted me so much about Detroit. I thought I did everything right. Made the right decisions, accomplished the right reflex tests. And that begged the question, is there a right way, or just your way? Did I fail because I thought a right decision was actually a wrong decision?
Did I actually fail? Detroit is a piece of software, programmed with branching paths and story beats depending on the player’s choices. All roads, whether through successful quick-time event (QTE) input or failure, lead to an ending. And the story is designed to continue, even if a player fails in such a way that a character dies. “Game Over” does not exist in this experience, and seems to be less and less prevalent as games explore more medium-unique modes of storytelling.
But that’s the thing about stories, and investing in them. You can logic your way around the structure and the semantics all you want, but by continuing, you still seek being affected by them, for better or for worse.
The Rewards of Concluding
I restarted the final section of my Detroit run a couple times to see if I could do “better.” But every choice seemed to lead to the same outcome. Barring me going even further back, it seemed I was on a one-way trip for some kind of heartbreak. Remember, Detroit follows three different characters. Two of the characters, arguably, got a pretty good ending. It was only the last one that gutted me so much. The last character, in the last moments of their story. In my few experiments, I didn’t find anything that felt “better.” Just more failure. Different failure. The same failure. And after those experiments, I was reminded of the dichotomy of theater: comedy and tragedy. Happy endings to make you feel good, and cathartic endings in the face of sorrow.
Not all endings are happy. Not all endings should be happy. Accepting that can be hard. Experiencing them can be harder.
Games have long been a form of entertaining escapism. Games have also come into their own as storytelling devices. These are two circles that, at points, intersect to form a Venn diagram, but not always. Not all games are stories. Not all story-heavy games feel traditionally entertaining. But they always evoke something by the time you reach the conclusion.
That was the final act of Detroit. All of the decisions I made throughout the game, all of the character’s winding stories, coming to a head. I felt it in my chest for the final hours, as tense over QTEs and reflexes as much I was the final choices in the game. Hoping that the catharsis at the end would be one of relief. Hoping that I would feel good, but knowing that, regardless, I would feel.
In the end, the emotional investment pays off, in one form or another. The short-term feeling in your chest as you realize a story is over, the long-term ripples as it finally settles inside you, as you begin to think and consider everything you experienced. And that emotional investment came to collect. Someone in the game died, and I couldn’t find a quick decision to fix that. That was the end of my story in Detroit. One of hope, of individuality, and of tragedy. Different decisions might have led to a different outcome. But they were my decisions. It was my story.
I may revisit Detroit again down the line, see if I can’t do differently. Not better, not worse, just differently. Games are like any story, printed, visual, or otherwise. Some are meant to be enjoyed. Some, to challenge us. Some, to make us feel the thrill of victory and overcoming odds. Some are meant to be finished, to share themes, ideas, perspectives. But no matter if we play them to win, to think, or to feel, all stories leave their mark in the end, be it for a moment or for much longer.
All images courtesy of Detroit: Become Human official website and press kit.