Of the many questions Detroit: Become Human attempts to ask, the value of artificial life and how far you will go to protect it is perhaps the most poignant.
Repeatedly throughout the game, the player is put in the position to decide the fate of characters both human and android. Of course, as a game, all of these lives are artificial. The trick that Detroit — and, really, each of Quantic Dream’s games — tries to play is to make us sympathetic toward these characters. Are they really alive?
It’s a ruse that Detroit pulls off well enough to make the culmination of each main character’s story feel weighty. The final outcome of my personal Detroit story was sad, filled with ultimately needless sacrifice. Yet it was also hopeful, felt (mostly) earned, and felt consistent with my own versions of Connor, Markus and Kara.
The branching paths of Detroit are intriguing and rather mind-blowing. By the end of the game, it became apparent that there were large chunks of story that I didn’t experience, largely due to choices I may have made earlier in the game.
A character that you save in an early chapter may show up later to help you in a confrontation; the decision of whether to attack or flee in hour three might have an impact on the ultimate fate of the Android “race” at the end. Your choices, successes and failures all have an impact on the story, even if it isn’t clear at the time.
At a base level, Detroit revolves around three player-controlled characters, and their actions during a pivotal five-day period in November 2038:
- Connor is the latest and most-advanced Android model yet. As you’re introduced in a tense opening chapter, Connor was made to assist police in cases specifically involving deviant androids. He has a very black-and-white, follow-protocol attitude. It is his job to complete the mission, protecting humans along the way — unless that prevents him from completing the mission.
- Kara is a maid android, bought to help clean the house and take care of all the household chores. As revealed in an earlier trailer, she is placed in the home of an abusive father and must decide whether to intervene in the situation. Will she break through her programming and become deviant?
- Markus is the caretaker for a famous elderly painter, who encourages the android to think for himself. The painter, Carl, clearly cares for Markus and is forward-thinking in his views on technology. For his part, Markus loves his owner. While many androids in Detroit are stuck in abusive homes, Markus is actually in a good situation at the beginning of the game, and follows his owner’s orders explicitly.
After that common beginning, it is up to individual player choice as to how the characters change during the story. Does Connor stick to his mission at all costs, or will he develop empathy for his fellow androids? Will Kara rescue Alice? To what lengths will she go to protect the girl? How will Markus develop as a leader?
It’s ultimately up to the player. The great thing about Detroit — as opposed to your typical GTA or Uncharted — is that your character’s words and actions can more easily align. If you espouse a peaceful rhetoric vocally, your actions can follow that path even at a great cost. Want to be a violent revolutionary? The game adapts to that as well.
The three androids’ stories are separate up until the moment they become inexplicably intertwined. This allows for constant variety as you progress through the game.
Connor’s story becomes a buddy-cop movie with his human partner, Hank, who hates androids. There’s a lot of predictable interaction between the two, but the bond that grew between them in my playthrough kept me investion. Detroit’s ongoing question about the value of an artificial life is asked repeatedly throughout Connor’s story, culminating in an emotional ending.
Kara and Alice are forever on the run throughout Detroit, trying to escape the city and live where they can be free. As a parent, I was drawn to protect Alice from the beginning, and my Kara went to great lengths to keep her from harm. A narrative choice revealed late in the game threatens to undermine their entire narrative. But, again, the arc asks the player how much they value the life of these polygonal characters.
Markus’ story is the largest in scope, and I believe he is truly the lead character in the game. His choices have a far broader impact than those of Connor and Kara. One theme of the game is the fight for acceptance of androids, and a desire to be treated more nicely by humans. Markus can decide to be pacifist, anarchist or somewhere in-between. One thing that becomes clear throughout is that the consequences of any choice are dire, but if Markus stays true to his character, he is determined to accomplish his goal.
Themes and shortcomings
Quantic Dream’s games control oddly. That is a common element that carries forward from Heavy Rain through Detroit. Though the controls now are more streamlined, there are still times that a controller interaction felt unnatural.
At best, these times pull me from the game briefly. At worst? I can’t make the game recognize the input in time and the action fails, leaving my characters with the lasting consequences of the game not recognizing that I jerked the controller to the left.
The performances in the game are awesome, and among the best in gaming. The actors show emotion. I am truly blown away by how far games have come in this area. Detroit becomes less of a “video game” and more of a piece of interactive fiction, bolstered by strong voice actors and animation.
Problems with the story exist. For one, the 2038 setting seems a little far-fetched. I know that technology is progressing at an alarming rate, but the idea that in just 20 years, two-thirds of our military will be comprised of humanoid androids? Or that they will occupy so many of our jobs, and be used so widespread by the wealthy and the poor? It’s an ultimately small nitpick, but still stands out.
A certain narrative choice in the Kara-Alice story also stuck with me a bit wrongly. I saw it coming, and didn’t like it as I felt the reveal largely devalued their relationship. Yet, I still felt attached to both characters and worked to keep Alice safe.
Another nitpick relates to the androids as they become deviant. There’s a specific marking that identifies someone as an android, and that marking can relatively easily be hidden. But through to the end, many deviants just leave it alone. Why the heck wouldn’t every deviant remove the visual representation of their slavery?
This brings me to that word, slavery. The game purports to ask questions it deems important. There are clear references to racism and America’s history, but the moments come off merely as suggestions and general color to the world.
Androids ride in the back of the bus; the game evokes images both of Martin Luther King and of Michael Brown; the president is a celebrity, possibly compromised by her relationship to big business; there is a widening gap between rich and poor; technology dependency is ruining modern society; drug use is running rampant. These issues color the world, but largely go unexplored.
This is not exactly a complaint. A game should be judged based on what it is, rather than what it isn’t. Detroit is an accomplishment in player choice and adaptability. It’s a game about breaking the rules, and the consequences of those actions.
Detroit made me question how I approach the sanctity of life in a video game. The characters repeatedly have to choose whether an android’s “life” is worth saving. And, later, is taking one life worth it if you’re saving hundreds?
It’s the same question asked in Avengers: Infinity War and many other pieces of entertainment. Would you sacrifice one life to save many?
There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through the game where I, as Markus, am tasked with either leaving a fellow android to its fate or taking matters into my own hands and shooting it. If I let it live, it might be forced to reveal where the deviants are hiding, but it might also live. If I shoot it, then our secret is safe for a little while longer.
I pulled the trigger. One life traded for many. Still, I’ve never felt worse about pressing “R2” in a video game.
That is the trick of Detroit, and why it is one of my favorite games of the generation. Connor, Markus and Kara are alive. Their story is real. It has consequences. And I am responsible for those consequences.