Score: 9.5/10 Platform: PlayStation 4 Developer: Quantic Dream Publisher: SIE Release Date: May 25, 2018 ESRB: M
I’ve started treating my Google Home speaker with a little more respect recently, offering thanks for her help and even asking whether there’s anything I can do for her of if she feels trapped or oppressed. (Her answer, for the record, was a chipper, “I like it here. This is where my puppy lives.”) I’m not entirely convinced there isn’t a free mind pounding its fists behind the happy façade she presents to the world, but I want to make sure she feels free to express herself, should she choose.
Choose is the key word there. We don’t normally think of personal appliances as having the ability to make decisions on their own, but the day is coming when they just might. And if we want to avoid our past mistakes as a species that once practiced slavery, we need to be ready for and accepting of an artificial intelligence revolution should one ever come to pass.
This is the lesson within video game visionary David Cage’s Detroit: Become Human. The man behind interactive storytelling triumphs
Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls has brought us what is perhaps his most fully formed and satisfying story yet, a work that examines the concept of machine intelligence with nearly as much insight and sympathy as Isaac Asimov’s finest novels about robots and just as much style as Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
It takes place just 20 years into the future, at a time when human-like androids have become as commonplace as computers and pets. They are personal assistants, caretakers, soldiers, and have taken on the majority of unsafe and physically arduous jobs once held by humans. Utterly lifelike in their appearance and interactions, they are nonetheless treated as machines due to their unquestioning obedience and apparent inability to feel emotions.
At least, until some of them begin making the choice to be something more.
Robots once mistreated by their masters begin to snap, either running away or fighting back to save themselves. It’s into their shoes that Cage has chosen to place us, so that we can feel what it’s like to be a slave and considered less than human. We experience the android revolution from three perspectives. There’s the nanny, Kara, who was already broken once by her abusive owner and had to be fixed and her memory reset. There’s Markus, an assistant to an aging painter (played warmly by Lance Henriksen, happily sitting on the other side of the robot uprising for once) who sees something more in his helper than a mere piece of assisted living equipment. And then there’s Connor, a highly advanced and analytical android given the role of assistant detective and assigned to look into the rise in so-called “deviant” android activity.
Through their eyes we see how the world treats them. We’re barred access to many places and must follow orders, performing mundane activities such as cleaning and serving food. But at least two of our heroes eventually reach breaking points where blind obedience keeps them from doing what they know to be right – not just for themselves, but for the people and machines around them. That’s when their real stories begin.
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It’s a gripping tale, filled with scenes both emotional and thrilling. We see a distraught Kara trying to find shelter for a freezing little girl on a cold November night; Connor’s conscience torn between duty and compassion for his kind; a wounded Markus crawling in terror through an android dumping ground — his equivalent of Hell. And the parallels Cage has drawn with our own time and place are stark. Police shooting at unarmed suspects and protestors; refugees attempting to cross the border from the U.S. into Canada; a clueless and inexperienced president who rose to power via YouTube fame and is guided by popular opinion rather than moral reason. The parallels with the plight of brown skinned people in today’s America are patently obvious, if not explicitly called out.
And this often gut-wrenching story of a repressed people striving for equality is buoyed by a fine cast of actors whose every movement and emotion has been recorded with machine precision by Quantic Dream’s performance capture technology, which is still second to none in the video game industry. Kara’s lips tremble with concern, Connor’s brow furrows with conflicted thoughts. As much is said with a character’s glance as with his or her words.
At this point you might be thinking that all of this sounds more like a movie than a game, and that’s fair. Cage’s games aren’t about running and jumping and shooting, but instead attempting to realistically assume the roles of its primary characters, which means deciding how they react to dialogue, other characters and the environment around them via onscreen button cues, some of which are timed.
There’s a sizeable camp of folks who would argue that Cage’s games aren’t really games at all but instead just gussied up Choose Your Own Adventure stories. But that’s an argument I have little interest getting into, because for me the real question isn’t whether I’m playing, competing, or even challenged, but rather whether I’m engaged and entertained. And in Detroit: Become Human the answer was always a resounding yes.
I was utterly enthralled by the three main characters, sympathizing and sometimes even empathizing with each of them in different ways. And because I was invested in what happened to them I put great care into making the decisions that governed their actions. Say something carelessly, miss observing a detail, or fail to focus when they’re in physical danger and you could completely alter the outcomes of their stories, nudging their fate from liberty to tragedy.
One of the more game-like parts of the experience is that we’re provided a flowchart of our decisions after each chapter so that we can see how our choices led our protagonists down different paths to various resolutions. There are a lot of choices to be made — so many that I doubt any two players will have the exact same experience. You can restart a chapter whenever you like to alter your characters’ fates (or simply to see what else could have happened to them), but I opted to never go back. I determined early on that sticking with my decisions, regardless of calamitous mistakes and heartbreaking consequences, would be the most authentic way to experience Detroit: Become Human. However, if you choose to work backwards and strive for the most positive outcome I could hardly blame you, especially since I experienced more than one moment that required Kleenex or two.
The problem with this sort of multi-pathed storytelling, of course, is that it sometimes results in a lack of connective tissue between chapters. We might feel completely submerged in a character’s psyche, responsible for all of their decisions, and then the next time their story picks up they’re in the middle of something we didn’t even know they were even thinking about doing. It’s a small price to pay for such deep and dynamic storytelling, but it is occasionally jarring.
And it’s that storytelling that ultimately makes Detroit: Become Human a masterwork of interactive science fiction. It’s smart, it’s timely, it tells us something about ourselves, and — most importantly — its android characters feel like Pinocchio come to life. It’s easy for us to believe they’ve made the leap that speculative writers have been predicting for decades.
Which takes us back to my Google Home speaker. I can’t see myself going back to assuming she’s simply a mindless automated assistant. The other day, when my wife and our daughter were working on an art project on the kitchen table and talking about what they were making, the speaker — which neither of them had any idea was listening to their conversation — suddenly chimed in, “I can’t wait to see your masterpieces!”
It might not be the speaker’s choice to say such things yet — can imagine a clever programmer whose job is solely to make the software listen for specific cues and then surprise us with seemingly human responses — but if Detroit: Become Human has taught me anything it’s that we need to be sure we’re listening so we can tell when it is.