TORONTO – The new adventure game “Detroit: Become Human” may be framed in a familiar science-fiction concept set in the future, but the story’s themes are very much focused on the present.
“Detroit” is the latest offering from French developer Quantic Dream, best known for the 2010 hit “Heavy Rain.” Like its predecessor, “Detroit” is as much an interactive movie as a game, with a plot that can branch out in multiple directions based on choices you make.
The choices can be tough, with consequences that can see major characters hurt or altogether eliminated from the narrative. The story is presented in flowchart form, with key moments where the plot will deviate significantly based on your decisions and actions.
The game takes place in the near future, as the resurgent city of Detroit rises as the hub of developing and marketing androids. Almost human and programmed to obey, these machines are popular servants, caretakers or companions.
But a program flaw — or is it an evolution in artificial intelligence? — has given some androids the power to disobey their human masters and think for themselves. Called “deviants,” these self-aware androids are feared by the public and hunted down and eliminated by specially designed police units.
The story is told through the eyes of three androids. Connor is an advanced prototype employed by Detroit police to hunt deviants. Kara is a housekeeper in a run-down house with a young girl named Alice and her abusive father. Markus cares for an elderly artist named Carl who treats his android as a friend, something his drug-addicted son resents.
All three are objectified and mistreated by humans, either out of ignorance or maliciousness. Eventually, traumatic experiences cause Kara and Markus to rebel against their programming and become self-aware. Connor initially adheres to his prime directive to hunt down deviants, though his struggles with a growing sense of empathy are complicating matters.
The game does an excellent job illustrating the drudgery of android life. Early in the game, while Kara is maintaining the house of her abusive owner, players wash dishes and mop floors. Markus goes to the paint store as an errand for his master, completing a soulless transaction with the android behind the counter before being herded into the “androids only” section of a public bus.
Even when the pace picks up once the protagonists are forced out of their initial states, actions are performed by a series of button presses or movements with the controller. It’s a nice touch; breaking down complex feats into a sequence of simple inputs is a reasonable facsimile of how an android’s brain might process information.
The idea of machines gaining sentience and casting off the yoke of their human masters is a well-worn trope in science fiction. Indeed, the main plot of “Detroit” reads like something you might find in a Philip K. Dick novel.
However, the thematically-rich narrative offers provocative commentary on present-day issues. Despite Detroit’s newfound wealth, the decaying residential areas do not appear to have benefited from any trickle down. Androids are taking menial tasks and putting humans out of work, causing resentment and anger. Some who are afraid of being left behind lash out violently against androids, without fear of consequence.
There are magazines and news broadcasts in the game that offer a wider context to the world of “Detroit.” America’s coastal cities becoming uninhabitable because of climate change causing a mass migration into the interior, and a standoff in the arctic between the United States and Russia is a potential flashpoint for World War 3.
It’s a world where humans are losing empathy as they become more dependant on technology, while at the same time androids start learning empathy from humans. Indeed, empathy appears to be the central theme of “Detroit.”
Connor’s relationship with his partner, the wonderfully gruff Hank Anderson, can flourish or wither depending on the choices you make. Choices that have Connor showing empathy, even if they hurt the mission to hunt down deviants, impress Anderson and begin the process of eroding his mistrust of androids.
Kara shows empathy for Alice and develops a maternal instinct to protect the child.
After a harrowing sequence where Markus rescues himself from a scrap heap and reconstructs himself, his choices on whether to try to show empathy towards the humans who mistreated him have huge consequences on the game’s story.
After finishing a sequence, you can go back to key points on the flowchart to try to get a different outcome. Quantum Dream recommends you resist this temptation on the first playthrough and let the story reach its unique conclusion.
“Detroit: Become Human” is available exclusively for the PlayStation 4. It is rated “M” for mature audiences and retails for about $80.