“Detroit” focuses on the stories of three androids: Connor, Marcus, and Kara. All are built by CyberLife, the world’s first trillion-dollar company. CyberLife’s runaway success stems from the widespread adoption of androids for everything from commercial to intimate purposes. A corollary to this is that unemployment stands well north of thirty percent with human beings — from construction workers to university faculty — being displaced. Inevitably, each of the three playable characters are on the receiving end of some sort of human resentment. Early on, Marcus runs afoul of a crowd of disgruntled protesters that blame machines for depriving them of their livelihood while Kara is made to serve an unemployed, hot-tempered, alcoholic man.
Though androids are programmed to obey humans, a minority have bypassed their built-in limitations and have turned on their masters. In 2038, when the game opens, Connor is dispatched from CyberLife to help the police uncover why some androids have become “deviants.” Hank, the human partner to whom Connor is assigned, is another hard-drinking, irascible man. This cop straight out of central casting — try not to laugh when he dramatically yells at his boss — doesn’t hide his displeasure at being given a partner who bleeds synthetic blue blood. (It would seem that android blood has been color coded to suggest that they are our natural betters. They’re blue bloods, get it?)
“Detroit: Become Human” was written and directed by David Cage. The French game developer became well known in the video game world for “Heavy Rain” (2010). At the time of its release the game was lauded by many critics for its attempt to add to the repertoire of experiences depicted in big budget video games. (I recall leading a character through a set of everyday chores which, back then, struck me as a nice reprieve from the usual kill-or-be-killed scenario.) “Heavy Rain” became associated with a certain style of narrative-driven gameplay that made ample use of quick time events or on-screen button prompts. Moreover, its branching story line allowed players to progress through the game with or without all of the main characters, giving the game a choose-your-own-adventure feel and an incentive to replay it.
I never took to “Heavy Rain’s” control setup. The abundance of on-screen prompts distanced me from the experience by turning the controller in my hands — normally an afterthought — into an encumbrance, something to be regularly considered. Furthermore, my initial interest in its story quickly petered out after one too many scenes reminded me of so-so television. That said, I liked Cage’s short film “Kara” (2013), which tells the story of a fresh-off-the-assembly-line android that astonishes a quality-assurance technician with its self-awareness. Writing for GamesRadar+, David Houghton noted that “Kara” owes an apparent visual debt to Bjork’s music video “All is Full of Love.” “Kara” is remarkable for how swiftly it moves the viewer from viewing Kara as an object, a sexy new piece of tech, to a person worthy of empathy. Though it was clear since its early trailers that “Detroit” looked to channel the energies of “Kara,” I can’t say that I was particularly gung-ho to get my hands on it.
Looking past the game’s reliance on quick-time events, I was less-than-enthused with how characters broadcast their motives. When, say, an artist, junkie, or coarse-looking middle age guy shows up you can be sure that each will behave exactly how you’d expect — the artist will speak out against conformity, the junkie will try to steal something, and the middle-aged guy will exhibit some kind of sadistic behavior. This lack of subtly extends to the game’s overall story line which draws parallels between the plight of the androids and the civil rights movement. I groaned when I saw that androids were compelled to stand at the back of a public bus; I rolled my eyes when a black android confessed to Conor that he assaulted his owner because he didn’t want to be a slave anymore; and when it grew time to decide between leading a group of freed androids in a peaceful vs. an armed struggle to obtain their rights I was ready for it because I saw that fork in the road coming from a mile away.
Yet, for all of my issues with “Detroit,” I can’t say that it was hard for me to want to see it through to the end. The designers do a good job of cutting back and forth among the three main characters and ensuring that events chug along at a good clip. Like quality junk food, the game was not exactly fulfilling but it was a bingeable experience.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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