It’s tough to talk about Detroit: Become Human without going into some specific story elements so I’m dedicating this post to really diving into some aspects I think worth unpacking more.
I appreciate Quantic Dream’s ambition and scope in trying to encompass a whole movement as well as three individual story arcs. However I feel that the plot often suffered due to the truncated time and split focus.
Markus’ story in particular is the hardest to come to terms with. Everything just happens so quickly and there are so many jumps in logic and progression that are needed to get to where the developer wants to land. I just didn’t fully buy his evolution from blissful servant to radical revolutionary in a matter of days. Sure, climbing out of a pit of writhing android parts can prompt anyone towards wanting to take action. But even after Markus crawled out of the junkyard of horror, he never even looked back at the others that were left behind. Next time we see him, he’s at Jericho spouting how all androids need to be free. And how is he even able to convert the others by simply touching and later telepathically?
Next, I feel strongly that Alice should never have been an android. I can see why the developer would want to have such a big twist in the story, but I think it hurt their overall goal of showing more shades of the human/android conflict. I’m not saying that the recycling camp scenes weren’t harrowing, but I don’t think the thematic elements were as strong as a result.
Kara risking herself for the life of a human girl, and that girl needing Kara so much was a more interesting dynamic than an android taking care of another android. Kara having to chose between her own people versus a single human is an interesting dilemma. But the game strips that away with Alice’s reveal. Also, Alice never really becomes aware of herself as an android or becomes deviant. So then is she awake? Is she’s considered for the same rights as the deviants? She has no growth as a character and thus is merely a device for Kara’s journey. And a detrimental one at that.
Overall, I think I wanted a more thoughtful drama of the real vs synthetic argument, and what I got was an action movie. Which I still liked a lot. It was just that it ended up glossing over things that I wanted to dwell on. Not just that androids woke up. But what does that even mean? What is real? What constitutes being alive? Is it self-awareness? Having emotions? Caring for others?
It’s an intricate and delicate scenario, which has been explored before elsewhere. Whether it’s in Philip K. Dick novels, movies like A.I., other games like Nier: Automata, or currently on TV in Westworld. The spectrum can range from the thoughtful attempts to become more like a human such as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the apocalyptic conflict of The Matrix or The Terminator.
I believe it’s such a fascinating topic, not just because it can become a real scenario very soon, but that it also allows us to view our own humanity at our best and at our worst. (Although the game seems to only show the awful, horrible humans.) Humans have traditionally been very tribalistic and prejudiced against outsiders. Racism, discrimination, religious persecution; humans beings aren’t exactly known for their acceptance.
The game knows this, which is why it leans on so many analogies to real human events such as bus segregation, the Underground Railroad, and Nazi concentration camps. A lot of the criticisms about the game are that these references are extremely heavy-handed, to which I agree. You shouldn’t have to bang these ideas into people’s heads. Subtle hints would be a much more enriching experience rather than having some character explicitly spell it out for us. Look at how ethereal Nier: Automata approached the same topics.
I’m mostly disappointed that the game is fully aware enough to touch upon these issues, but isn’t willing to dive deeper into exploring them. In the game, once an android awakens, there’s no dilemma or conflict within about the change. We see no examples of androids grappling or even regretting such a shift in their reality. It’s a blanket viewpoint, and the human side doesn’t fare much better. People in the game are almost without exception treating androids like garbage, and then when seeing deviants, lash out immediately in the form of mass executions.
Yet humanity has also historically shown incredible proof of evolving their thinking and values and to have a capacity for empathy. I just wish there were more examples of that in the game.
I know this is a deep rabbit hole to go into. It’s a way for storytellers to examine human nature. Telling tales of how we interact with aliens, robots, or anthropomorphized animals are just really mirroring how we interact with ourselves. It’s just even more interesting because the android aspect could very well become a reality.
Ultimately, I was looking for a more insightful view on the subject and Detroit: Become Human couldn’t or wasn’t interested in doing that.
However, I don’t mean to come across as disliking the game. In fact, I still loved it. The world building, our not too distant future, seems fully realized and carefully developed. I loved how the three arcs were told on different scopes, and how well they intersected throughout the story. And I love that Quantic Dream had the audacity to even try to represent an issue like this in a video game. While it doesn’t do it as well as I would’ve liked, it still furthers the idea that video games are a potent, new territory for storytelling.
In closing, some recommended things to watch are Westworld and an animated short set in the Matrix universe which I’ve linked below.