What does it mean to be human? It’s a question that philosophers, artists, and scientists have attempted to answer since the dawn of recorded history. Why was humanity, of all the species on this green earth, selected to bear the singular burden of conscious thought? Unfortunately such questions have no universally accepted answers – at least none that we are currently capable of providing. That doesn’t stop David Cage from attempting his own exploration of such ephemeral conundrums in his latest magnum opus, Detroit: Become Human.
Cage and his studio have been criticized ever since the 2010 launch of Heavy Rain for being less concerned with implementing compelling gameplay and more with the creation of interactive movies. That Cage alludes to himself as an auteur certainly hasn’t helped matters, as such “highfalutin” language is liable to put off the majority of the gaming populace who tend to see games as a form of entertainment, not as high art. The quick time event driven and dialogue-heavy nature of his work often results in the perception of Cage as a wannabe movie director in-waiting. In fairness the point stands: both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls felt more like cinematic choose-your-own-adventures than anything else. However, the same thing could be said about the point-and-click adventures released by Telltale Games ever since their surprise smash hit contribution to the The Walking Dead franchise revitalized an otherwise defunct genre. Detroit: Become Human is a game that exists in exactly the same vein and doesn’t deserve to be judged overly harshly because it unashamedly wears its brain on its sleeve rather than its heart.
The narrative of Detroit: Become Human is heavily informed by the likes of Blade Runner and West World but Cage has never been one to be overly troubled by the anxiety of influence. Set just two short decades from now in the year 2038, it tells the story of a burgeoning robotic revolution that sets its three principle android protagonists Kara, Connor, and Markus all battling in their own way for the rights and survival of their kind. The underlying arc is entirely linear, but there are multiple intersecting branches to the story that allow players to determine exactly how they arrive at the foregone conclusions of its various endings. No matter how it unfolds or ends, the story can be familiar at times but it’s nevertheless told in a fresh and engaging way that allows it to succeed on its own terms.
Each of the main characters serves in some fashion to highlight the deficiencies of us, their creators. Over the course of a masterfully constructed plot that covers a surprisingly robust range of social and political issues, the central performances of Valorie Curry, Bryan Dechart, and Jesse Williams are always brilliant resulting in some of the most touching scenes I’ve encountered in my time as a gamer. There are a few bum notes in the script – understandable given that it’s at least 2000 pages long – that could have proved disastrously hilarious were it not for such sterling work from a skilled and dedicated cast. At all times the action is supported by a surprisingly affecting soundtrack written by a trio of experienced composers known for their film and television work. From the opening moments where Philip Sheppard’s sweeping symphonic étude for Kara dominates the introductory credits right up until John Paesano’s synthesized strains play us out to the final seconds, players are treated to one of most gorgeous scores in recent gaming history. This goes a long way to restoring my faith in the old fashioned theme tune that seems to have been mostly abandoned in favor of the sprawling post-modern soundscapes that pass as game music these days.
Titles from Quantic Dream have never been known for the quality of their game mechanics, and Detroit: Become Human makes no attempt to move away from the formula of their previous releases. Player ability to interact with the various environments and locales of near-future Detroit is entirely limited to contextual button prompts and quick time events. From opening doors or climbing ladders to acrobatic fight scenes or frenetic traversal sequences, every action is determined by a series of context-dependent controller inputs. Granted players are given the option to select difficulty modes that increase the challenge of the quick time events that define almost literally every single second of a playthrough, but that never fundamentally alters the experience in any significant way. This wasn’t particularly impressive or interesting when it first came to the fore and time or familiarity hasn’t improved matters. Being restricted to such limited interactive possibilities means that players are never really given the opportunity to fully engage with the game world.
The resulting experience can feel rather transitory as player options are often curtailed in order to meet the requirements of the design. This is a problem with the point-and-click genre in general but it is a particularly glaring issue here because the world that the developers have built is one so full of lavish detail that it begs to be explored. That potential sadly goes to waste because of the on-rails nature of the gameplay. If the team had been given more latitude to expand the control scheme and game mechanics to match the under-utilized scope of the expertly crafted environments then that could only have been an improvement. Having said that, clunky and routine as the quick time events are, in this instance they do an admirable job of conveying the logical and consistent behaviors and actions of machines. The game is predicated on a vast array of options; some of which are inconsequential, whilst others drastically alter how the story plays out. Each command prompt entered in isolation can be dismissed as nothing more than a basic input, but when considered as part of a greater whole they each become inextricably connected links in a chain of events forged by moment-to-moment player choice.
Choice, self-determination, and the freedom to exist on our own terms are inalienable human rights. Without them we would be nothing more than bio-organic mechanisms performing rote functions until we die, devoid of any method to explore our consciousness to its fullest extent. The emergence of consciousness in technological machines of all types, from advanced computers to anthropomorphic robots, is a long established trope in science fiction stories across the genre spectrum. Mankind’s obsession with our own seemingly inexplicable possession of self-awareness provokes us to constantly debate if we are either the unique creation of a higher power or just an accident of evolutionary happenstance and cosmic folly. Narratives in which we become the creator of new life in our own image have always been preoccupied with the notion of our worthiness not only to assume the mantle of godhood but also with whether or not we ourselves deserve to be supplanted by the fruits of our intellectual and creative labors should they prove superior. Which for better or worse they almost invariably do.
In her capacity as guardian, Kara proves fiercely protective and resolutely compassionate in ways that no human had otherwise demonstrated themselves capable of being. However it ends for you, hers is a tale of bittersweet anguish that admirably demonstrates that even when our lives are at their lowest ebb there is still some measure of hope to be found. Connor, the investigative android assigned to assist in the pursuit of emotionally unstable deviant machines, is the embodiment of naivety. His initially good intentions are methodically undermined by either his growing awareness of the horror of the situations he finds himself in or by his unwitting participation in a grand conspiracy against android and human alike. Markus, the carer turned revolutionary would have to represent our desire for justice and retribution. His fight for android recognition takes him from his comfortable home with artist Carl (adroitly voiced by sci-fi veteran, Lance Henriksen), to the hideaways of an underground movement, and eventually to the barricaded city streets. In their own way, all three of the main characters draw attention to the fact that the line between terrorist and freedom fighter, and the distinction between heroism or villainy in everyday life is a lot less clear-cut than most would like to think it is.
It would be all-too-easy to classify the narrative of Detroit: Become Human as a somewhat dated metaphor for America’s perennial problem with race relations. It’s made particularly evident by overt references to slavery and highlighted by world design which creates segregated spaces for human and android characters. Whilst there are obvious parallels between the androids’ quest for recognition as living beings and the struggle of African Americans for freedom and civil rights, to confine interpretations of the scope of the game’s narrative to that one aspect does it and such subject matter a disservice. What truly lies at the core of the game’s story is an examination of socio-economic class. In our supposedly meritocratic world, class is something of a dirty word and is widely believed to have been consigned to the history books not long after the end of the Cold War.
But for those of us at the sharp end of the stick, as it were, class is still very much a reality and is largely the single greatest divisive factor in societies the world over. Whether people like to admit it or not social class, or economic status, does more to determine our life choices than race and gender combined. The androids in Detroit: Become Human aren’t modeled exclusively on a single ethnicity or sex, rather what defines them as a group is the fact that they are expected to do all the dirty, dangerous, nasty, and just plain boring work that society has decided they should do. Just like billions of us around the world today, they are expected to perform the same tasks without question and with no choice until they eventually cease to function or are replaced with more efficient, newer models.
Cage’s androids wake up, they do their jobs and then they shut down day in and day, year after year, with no thought given to the consequences of such relentless servitude. The reason that labour disputes are so ruthlessly curtailed in reality is because the people who control our lives and determine our functions, understand that if we were all to realise the truth of our situation and act to change it, then the world that the 1% rule so haphazardly and unjustly, would come to an end in an instant. The developers of Detroit: Become Human may not handle such subject matter with any great deal of finesse or subtlety, but they are at least addressing it and that might just be a first for the gaming world. I don’t think any other game, with the exception of perhaps the Deus Ex series, has ever really even attempted to broach the subject of class in a meaningful way. In a world where zero hours contracts, the gig economy, and wage subsidies from central governments are the norm for the vast majority of us it’s very salient of Quantic Dream to attempt to highlight the dangers of treating an entire section of the population like they are disposable tools.
Detroit: Become Human is by no means perfect, but what flaws there are can generally be overlooked if you’re not hellbent on lampooning it simply because David Cage penned the script. Although the gameplay, such as it is, can be clunky and some of the scenes do feel like they provide little more than extraneous exposition but on the whole it is a best-foot-forward moment for Quantic Dream and stands out as one of the most impactful and meaningful gaming experiences of 2018. If you’re not a fan of Cage, his work or the controversies that surround it then feel free to give this game a pass. However, if you’re the kind of gamer who relishes the opportunity to truly guide a story from beginning to end then I’ve no doubt that Kara, Connor, and Markus might just be the androids you’re looking for.