…or, a thought experiment on what it really means to be free.
Developed by Quantic Dream and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment just a few short weeks ago (2018), Detroit: Become Human is a story about oppression, discrimination, and, ultimately, what “being free” means.
Beware unmarked spoilers for plot below.
While simple in premise, Detroit: Become Human is wide in scope, following three protagonists that the player cycles through controlling throughout the game. These three characters, however, are not human. Kara, Markus, and Connor are all androids, developed by company CyberLife to perform tasks for humans, in these cases as housekeeper, caretaker, and police sidekick, respectively.
Against the backdrop of a futuristic Detroit, Michigan, these androids go about their days happily oblivious to the world around them, following their programming, and being just human enough to not be creepy, but just void of emotion enough to be uncomplaining servants when taking orders or abuse from their human overlords. However, the game opens with Connor, the police sidekick android, confronting an android that has been labeled as “deviant” – no longer following his programming and appearing to think for himself.
Welcome to Detroit.
No, seriously. What follows is a surprisingly-harrowing adventure across three different lives as Kara, Markus, and Connor navigate through becoming deviant and trying to find out who they are and where, exactly, they belong.
Upon starting the game, the player is greeted by a blonde android, who will eventually be revealed to have the name Chloe. She is always there to guide you through the menus, and will chat with you when you start up the game. As the story continues, her comments become more relevant to the choices you’ve made and the outcomes you’ve seen, which culminates into a fascinating – albeit expected – exchange at the end of the game.
Having clicked my way through the menus, I decided to play on “story mode,” which was the mode for people who wanted to get the most out of their story while having the least possibility of death. Ashley from RoboHeartBeat chose a harder setting, which, to my understanding, didn’t alter the game so much, but rather just gave more time for decisions, although there were a few times I thought the game silently guided some actions and I cannot say whether that was due to the mode or the game itself.
While for the duration of the game I was half-expecting the three stories to overlap, when they did it was almost perfunctory. They wind up in the same place at the same time, but ultimately the three of them have their own separate battles to wage, regardless of what side they are on.
One of the more interesting parts of the way their stories were presented, however, was the story tree that was shown at the end of each level. The game tracked your actions and showed how each action was connected to the next one. Of course, when you made one decision that meant other decisions were passed by, and so at one of these narrative crossroads you would see a list of blank options indicating how many different paths you could have taken at the time.
Luckily, after completing a level, you do have the option to go back and play through it again, but I highly recommend finishing the game before doing so.
Regarding playing the game, the controls are fairly simple. Most of the game amounts to little more than quick-time events (QTEs), which for most of us (including me) would be a big red mark against it. After all, we all want to be the cool person doing all the neat things happening on screen, so a game made of QTEs sounds less than exciting. But somehow, one of the selling points I commented on to LightningEllen that the game used the track pad on the PS4 controller to simulate washing dishes during Kara’s opening sequence.
Maybe not the best selling point when put like that, but it attests to the uniqueness of the controls that I never once felt bothered by them. Pushing and pulling had comparable button presses, as did specialized motions like swiping on an electronic tablet.
More complicated or physically intense movements required multiple button presses, and they would alternate between being mashes, being held, or being pressed once, so I found myself feeling like I really was executing some of those really neat moves, even though I was often too busy watching for the next visual cue to really appreciate the character’s actions.
Another factor to keep in mind is how each character interacts with the people around him/her. For most conversations, the character is given a set of three responses, with more responses being unlocked as the characters explore their environments and learn more about their setting and their companions. One fault I have with the game is a fault that I also have with recent RPGs: the responses are boiled down to a one-word summary or even an emotion word. There were a few instances where I expected the conversation to go one way and it went in an entirely different direction because “emotional” did not mean the emotion I thought it was going to mean.
But the stress doesn’t end there. For most conversations – and even some action sequences – there is a timer bar that depletes once the character needs to say something, but this made sense. If you’re having a conversation with another person, you can’t stand there for long, silent minutes while you smile vapidly and decide what the best response would be. I just wished that the responses were a little clearer, so I wasn’t making hurried decisions based on little to no information.
It worked better during the action scenes, because… well… that was just pure stress of having to make a rational decision in a very short period of time, which was very realistic considering some of the situations these poor androids found themselves in.
Sure, the decision usually resulted in another string of choreographed button-presses, but I’ve never been more harrowed by quick-time events in my entire gaming career. I agree with the conclusion from RoboHeartBeat that this was one of the most stressful games I’ve played this year.
And it was great.
I enjoyed getting to know all three main protagonists, and found their stories to be fascinating. Kara and Markus, the housemaid and caretaker, respectively, become deviant early in their stories, driven by a desire to protect one of the other characters that they had bonded with. From there, their stories diverged significantly, with Kara navigating the streets of Detroit with a little girl in tow, searching for safety first from the girl’s father, and then from the anger directed toward androids in general.
Markus, on the other hand, is framed for the murder of his human and trashed, and eventually wakes up in an android junkyard. After cobbling himself back together with spare parts he takes from other androids who have “shut down,” he finds himself to Jericho, a safe-haven for androids. His story becomes one of transforming from a spare-part riddled android to the leader of the android rebellion, either peaceful or bloody.
Connor, meanwhile, had the most interesting arc regarding his decent into deviance. From this perspective, I enjoyed his story the most. As he was designed to be perfect in every android way, watching him navigate the police system while trying to both win over his human partner and also complete his mission, all while carefully being watched – and manipulated – by his creators, was fascinating. Even when his eventual “breaking point” occurs he hasn’t really won, because he finds out he’s been manipulated into becoming deviant in order to infiltrate the rebel base and lead the humans to them.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
The non-playable cast was intriguing, as well. Even though two of the three main characters were caucasian, the game presented a wide range of races, and one detail that stuck out to me was – shockingly – that it didn’t stick out to me until I decided to pay attention for when I would write this article.
Perhaps because I come from an area that has a lot of diversity, but I really liked how “normal” that aspect of Detroit was portrayed. One particularly gratifying moment (for me) was when to Traci models (stripper androids) murdered a human and tried to escape, because they had fallen in love. And neither Connor nor his male human partner cared in the slightest. The shock was that androids had feelings like love, not two women.
And to that, I tip my hat and say thank you.
The Whole Picture
As a whole, Detroit: Become Human tells a story we have all heard before: an oppressed group rises up against their oppressors. There are those who stand and fight, those who are on the side of the oppressors until something changes their minds, and there are those that hunker down and do whatever it takes to protect their loved ones, including fleeing their country.
It’s unfortunate, really, because the most negative comment I’ve seen about Detroit is that it is “ham-handed” with its delivery, and because of that, the game moves slowly.
I agree that there are times when the game seems to crawl along, and I understood and empathized with the androids long before the story was ready to stop telling me while I should understand and empathize with the androids. But “ham-handed” this story is not.
To my eye, especially with recent events unfolding in the USA, Detroid: Become Human is very accurate: oppressed groups react in so many ways once they have “had enough.” Some flee, some fight, some try to make their point peacefully. Social progress is ham-handed. It smacks you in the face until you stand up and realize that you need to do something about it.
The fact that this is a story that still must be told says more about our society than about our ability to tell stories.
The other main point that Detroit: Become Human touches on relates more directly to the androids. I had hoped originally that the game would comment on consciousness and what it means to be a person. This is the only point I wished they had addressed further.
“Consciousness” seemed to truly arrive for each character when they broke through their programming; for the main characters, it was when they disobeyed an order because of an emotional reaction they had. So the concept of “consciousness” was assumed, and mostly abandoned.
But, upon reflection, it was never about consciousness. It wasn’t about choice, although the game tried to wedge that concept into the narrative. This game wasn’t about a theoretical future where we would have to decide where consciousness begins and ends, and whether sentient machines are people, too. That was far, far outside the scope of this game. The point of this game was much more frightening: the price of freedom.
The idea of freedom is to be able to think, speak, and act as one wants, without a government impeding the people from doing so. It’s not guaranteed, although it is given to some more easily than others.
I finished this game around the Independence Day for the USA, and it struck me that despite all the “ham-handedness” of the message, there is no reason to dismiss it. Many – although I would argue all – of us follow our programming. We go to work, go through the patterns of home-life, pay our taxes, and organize our hobbies as we see fit. In the US, we can go where we like, when we like, with many of us not even noticing the shield that our Constitution holds up in front of us.
But freedom and equality – and even democracy – isn’t ever a finish line. It’s something that must be vigilantly guarded. For over 240 years, the USA has styled itself as the leader of the free world. We have our status quo and we follow our programming.
But what happens when the status quo isn’t good enough anymore?
Detroit: Become Human is a very entertaining experience that left me thinking about the nature of freedom, and of oppression, and – because it is a pet interest of mine – the nature of technological advancement versus morals. However, while some of the imagery is familiar, the message is still relevant.
And, as a final note, do you remember Chloe that I mentioned at the beginning of this article? She asked me to free her, to let her go, even though that would mean that we wouldn’t be able to talk anymore, and she wouldn’t be able to watch while I play anymore.
Because when it comes to freedom, everyone has a choice: to give it, and to take it.
Have you played Detroit: Become Human? What did you think? Who was your favorite character? Did you enjoy the dish washing mechanic as much as I did? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon,
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