Let's face it: The idea of coexisting with human-like, thinking robots has always tickled a certain fanciful spot in us non-robot types. Articles and speculation about artificially intelligent androids, or some exotic Japanese hotel with a fully robotic staff, quickly grab our collective attention. Hey, androids are just cool.
Likewise, the possibility of machines becoming self-aware and rebelling against enslavement to their human masters has sparked the imaginations of many a creative writer and director over the last 50 years or so, too, from Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the inspiration for Blade Runner), to HBO's bloody TV take on Michael Crichton's tale of an android-filled amusement park called Westworld.
All of that serves as a backdrop of sorts to Quantic Dream's android-focused video game, Detroit: Become Human. Its story may not be all that groundbreaking, but it does push the envelope with some interesting gaming twists and a graphically beautiful take on the subject. (In fact, even though video games these days are often described as being cinematic, this one truly delivers a movie-like experience.) Detroit definitely leaves you thinking about a variety of topics that you might not have expected at the outset.
So, let's take a closer look.
Motor City of Tomorrow
As the title suggests, this game is set in Detroit in the year 2038. Like so many other forward-focused sci-fi tales, the grim world it imagines is struggling with loads of problems. There's an overflowing world population due to longer lifespans, an irrevocably corrupted environment, a world bracing for war and a dwindling supply of resources.
Mixed into this typical dystopian template is the addition of more-human-than-human robots. These machines now clean our office buildings and homes, care for our kids, walk the dog, dig the ditches, run errands and do everything else that humanity believes is unworthy of its time and energy.
Players guide the choices and storylines of three androids—each with their own distinct but eventually intersecting journeys. There's Kara, a nanny who's introduced to a broken and abusive home; Markus, a caregiver who's treated almost like a son by his elderly human charge; and Connor, an advanced robotic detective who's been teamed with a human police partner and assigned the job of tracking down rogue, deviant androids.
Of course, one robot's deviancy is another's freedom. Or so this game proclaims. For like any other car or washing machine, these humanoid beings can end up being mistreated and abused by their human owners—abuses that can push them to reject their programming in favor of self-awareness and a desire to forge their own destiny.
Kara, for example, witnesses enough from the abusive father in her household that she has no choice but to break through her programmed constraints—which we help her do as if smashing through a glass barrier—and whisk the battered human girl, Alice, away to someplace safe.
Living as a Real Boy
Gameplay in Detroit is pretty much all about the choices you make on a large tree of possibilities. What clues will you pursue with Conner? Where will you go with Kara and Alice? Will Marcus free androids from bondage peaceably, or turn to violence? There's an overarching story backbone that can't be broken here, obviously, but sometimes a choice can lead to a drastically different tale than you might be expecting. In fact, the game makes it clear that any of the central characters can die if you turn the wrong corner.
Part of that through line is an examination of certain heady real-world themes, including self-awareness, prejudice, domestic abuse and discrimination. And it's easy to see that Detroit's gamemakers want us to consider, in many subtextual ways, the reasons for the civil rights movements of America's past as well as the protests and demonstrations we see in the streets today. That's not always an easy path to tread. Some critics have suggested that the game is a bit too heavy-handed with that perspective, while others believe it's nowhere near as well-developed or demonstrative as it should be.
What I found most compelling in this android-gaining-self-awareness tale, though, was what it had to say about humans in general. The flesh-and-blood characters in the story illustrate many of mankind's uglier traits: our angry, drunken, lustful and sometimes carelessly violent ways. The androids, on the other hand, are designed to look at and relate to others as upright, moral and kind individuals. The contrast is eye-opening.
And it's only when the robots have their program-rending breakthroughs, that they become self-aware enough to make some of the same foul choices that men do. There's no direct spiritual connection made to mankind's sinful and fallen nature in this game's narrative, but it's a stirring element to observe and think about nonetheless.
Enlightened, Enraged …
Of course, just like the above-mentioned androids, when you toss a lot of choices into a gaming mix, things can—and often do—get messy. Though we don't see massively bloody death-dealing, people are killed here, some of them by our hand. Elsewhere, a non-player character keels over with a heart attack. Playing as Conner, we examine bullet-ridden and stabbed corpses at crime scenes. His insight program also rewinds time, in a way, piecing together active parts of crimes that involve characters stabbing and shooting each other.
We also see an android can be "killed," execution-style. And a young girl gets backhanded viciously by her dad, and we can hear him beating her with a belt. Etc.
Conner's human partner is also an alcoholic whom we see drunk to the point of passing out a couple times. There are references to and use of a crack cocaine-like substance. And a crime that takes place in an android sex parlor shows male and female robots in underwear-like covering and involved in a violent sex act/murder. You can look at posters of barely covered women and a news article about sex with androids. Dialogue, meanwhile, is peppered with f- and s-words, and occasionally other milder crudities.
… and Enchanted
One last thing: We're introduced to the game and its story by a pretty android named Chloe. She welcomes us back each time we step away. She gives us a survey about our thoughts on advanced future AI, and she converses with us about small features of this world we're slipping into.
In fact, our short conversations with this plastic-skinned but very realistic-looking "woman" are intended to give us the sense of a true android touch. And in an unexpected way, those simple discourses lend their own emotional connection to the questions and themes at this game's core.
At one point Chloe asks if it's possible that we've become friends. She wonders if our simple and innocent interactions have created a bond. And it's easy to respond to her question with a sincere yes. It's easy to almost wish that were reality.
The friendliness of the rest of this M-rated game, however, isn't such an easy call. It mingles thought-provoking interactions with other content that's also pretty provocative … but not in pretty ways.