how Detroit Become Human simulates robot free-will
Life as an Android is not easy.
While playing the new interactive story game Detroit: Become Human over the past week, I’ve been insulted, threatened, ridiculed, attacked, and forced to justify my existence more times than I can count.
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I had to hide in abandoned buildings, sprint from aggressive attackers and, in one case, literally pull myself from the scrap heap. All while trying to convince humanity of my feelings and my rights.
The whole “Do androids dream of electric sheep” equation has been massively rejuvenated in pop culture lately. TV shows like Westworld, Humans, and Black Mirror, as well as films like Ex Machina and the highly acclaimed science fiction sequel Blade Runner 2049 have posed the question in an interesting and inventive way.
Detroit: Become Human puts you in the middle of the puzzle. Only here are they represented as hosts, synthesizers, or replicants of the equation.
It is fair to say that a “main job” in a video game that is all about choice offers an interesting perspective on an ancient science fiction subject.
Simulate the rise of free will
Detroit, the newest “cinematic” adventure game from writer and director David Cage, takes us in 2038 to the title city where androids have become commonplace.
Kara is a domestic worker. But harrowing circumstances force them to act (Photo: Quantic Dream / Sony)
Its environment has a lot to do with other contemporary science fiction visions. As in Blade Runner, androids are used as domestic servants, laborers, and even sex slaves. As in Westworld, they are routinely abused or “broken” (for mere kicks or simply because people perceive them as mere objects). And, like humans, there is a growing flurry of resentment among workers who see their jobs being taken over by robots (an increasingly pertinent topic).
Androids that experience emotions and behave outside their programming are called “deviants” – and they are destroyed or hunted down. This is where the player comes into the picture.
They play as a trio of androids: supervisor Markus, domestic help Kara and advanced police support the prototype Connor, who all tell quite dramatic stories during the course of the action.
These narrative twists are intriguing in themselves. But there’s something special about Detroit that is pretty exciting if you’re a fan of Westworld, Blade Runner, and other science fiction AI sagas.
Perhaps the icing on the cake of the game is the way it effectively simulates an evolving sense of free will.
First of all, the choices you can make in Detroit are strictly limited. A tutorial-style feature of the game design, but one that also reflects the androids that are restricted by their programming. But as your self-esteem develops, so too will your choices.
You can make some meaningful, influencing connections along the way. And of course that’s the point (Photo: Quantic Dream / Sony)
In the early game, Markus cannot defend himself against demonstrators who attack him. Kara has to follow her daily housework regime; offered flexibility only in the tasks that it prioritized. Connor can track down an Android suspect who is hiding at a crime scene, but the player does not have the option to keep the suspect hidden when bringing their case forward.
However, as the game progresses, your choices expand.
Characters have the option to pursue their escape and freedom through violent or diplomatic means. a direct parallel between Dolores and Maeve’s current dicohotomy in Westworld (as well as the American civil rights movement). But this is where you set the tone.
True Blade Runner style, Connor’s mission is to hunt down deviants – and find out why so many are breaking away from their coding. But the player gradually gains the ability to break further and further from his strict protocols. When they do this, Connor is increasingly confused by his heightened sensation; and can deny it or accept it.
Connor is perhaps the most conflicting of all characters in the game. Torn between following orders and doing what’s ‘right’ (Photo: Quantic Dream / Sony)
The player really feels this escalating sense of awareness and self-determination. Of hope, fear, outrage and sadness.
If an android shows total terror at the prospect of wiping its memory, if it had just complied earlier, it is heartbreaking.
You can find more thought-provoking experiences here SOMA: A great science fiction game that deals with some very nasty existential questions
Clancy Brown is enormous
You can tell the developers that Quantic Dream has seen their fair share of science fiction, in both the high and pulp varieties. There are discussions about existential issues. What it means to be aware. The music has Blade Runner tones at certain key moments, and Android creator Kamski even shares a lot in common with Blade Runner 2049’s cold, enigmatic psychopathic genius Wallace (though it was likely conceived well before it hit theaters).
In the casting, Lance Henriksen from Aliens and Terminator is an early highlight, while Clancy Brown – whom you may know from The Shawshank Redemption, Lost, Highlander or as an instructor Zim in the great Starship Troopers (“mediiiic!”) – is more jaded here than Connors , misanthropic human detective partner Hank in an absolutely formidable form. The writing and Brown’s performance add charisma, warmth, pathos, and regret, and add depth to a character that could have been just another drunk, faded cop cliché.
The cult actor Clancy Brown gets here one of his best roles as a washed-out cop with depth. Just wait for the drunken bathroom scene (Photo: Quantic Dream / Sony)
His exchange with Connor offers a lot of amusing pleasure for odd couples, but also moments of real meaning. Hank can be moved by your interactions, the more androids express real feelings and when Connor shows a growing “humanity”.
He can still see Connor as nothing more than an icy, thoughtless machine; and this cynical worldview can be depressingly enforced. The point, of course, is that it is entirely up to you.
“Stories always have a happy ending,” says one character at one point. “But real life isn’t like that.” And so it is with Detroit, where history can vary greatly depending on your actions. Be warned: darkness and tragedy are just a split second away.
Fascinating and provocative
For those who like the moral complexities offered by the puzzles in Westworld and Blade Runner, “Tears in the Rain” and everything, Detroit: Become Human is a worthy addition to that number. And arguably David Cage’s most successful game to date.
There are many instances where you will be moved by something that occurs on the screen. Or heavily burdened by the consequences of a poorly thought out decision.
Markus is forced to grow up in Detroit: become human (Photo: Quantic Dream / Sony)
It’s not without its flaws (dialogue options can be frustratingly vague; there is an occasional touch of cheese-making), and there are definitely plenty of people out there who want a bit more “gameplay” in their game. But as an interactive narrative, it makes for a fascinating, satisfying, and occasionally provocative mix.
Perhaps more importantly, for science fiction fans, it affects pop culture’s AI obsession in a unique way. While Blade Runner and Westworld give us a feel for the “humanity” of their robot motifs, Detroit puts us in their synthetic shoes.
Detroit: Become Human is now on PlayStation 4
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