About three quarters of the way through Detroit: Become Human, which launches on the PlayStation 4 tomorrow, a large group of protesters is marching down a city street. Like many socially marginalized groups before them, their demands are simple: they just want the same rights as everyone else. Just in case the historical and modern parallels haven’t hit you over the head hard enough enough, your character — the head of the group — can lead them in chanting the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “We have a dream!”
But the protesters in Detroit aren’t people of color demonstrating for their human rights. Indeed, they aren’t human at all, but rather sentient androids. And if it seems like a bad idea to bluntly map the complexities of race, slavery, and the civil rights struggle in America on to the struggles of fictional robots — well, it is.
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Detroit: Become Human is the latest game from French director and writer David Cage, which, if you’re familiar with his work, means something very specific. Cage’s studio Quantic Dream is known for producing a very particular kind of interactive drama, one that prizes cinematic storytelling above all else. These games are also infamous for their stilted writing, overwrought dialogue, and plots that can go off the rails in pursuit of creating an emotional experience. Cage is the kind of writer who brags about how long his scripts are.
Detroit is the studio’s most ambitious project to date, and one that liberally borrows themes from movies like Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In fact, there’s very little in the game that doesn’t feel ripped from somewhere else. And as the protest scene shows, Detroit doesn’t just pull from other media, it also eagerly repurposes real-world events. There are numerous moments where the game equates the struggle of androids with tragedies like slavery and the Holocaust.
It’s a game that desperately wants to say something important, but just keeps telling you things you’ve already heard before.
The story takes place in 2038, at a time when androids have become an omnipresent fixture of daily life, handling jobs like construction and childcare and everything in between. Like any good multi-perspective thriller, it jumps back and forth between different characters, all of whom are on separate paths converging towards the same place. Kara is a newly refurbished android housekeeper, owned by a single father with a drug habit and rage issues. Markus is as well-off as an android can be, the assistant of a famous painter, who treats him less like a machine and more like a son. Connor, meanwhile, is the Deckard character, an android whose job is to hunt other, malfunctioning androids, known as deviants.
The game does a good job of helping you experience each character’s role in this world. Playing as Kara early on means doing lots of tedious household chores; bringing in the laundry, washing the dishes, making dinner from whatever meager scraps are in the kitchen. And she has to handle all of this while dealing with a steady stream of verbal abuse from her owner if she’s too slow or blocks his view of the hockey game. When we meet Markus, meanwhile, he’s out picking up some new paint, and when he returns home he plays a game of chess with his owner and they discuss painting.
The story jumps back and forth between different characters
Through Connor’s perspective as an android detective, we learn that reports of deviants are on the rise. And they aren’t just starting to act autonomously and discover emotions; they’re also fighting back, sometimes violently. After a string of murders in which androids have killed their abusive owners and escaped, Connor partners with a human detective to investigate just what’s going on. (Because Detroit is big on cliche, Connor’s partner is an alcoholic cop with a dark past who hates androids for mysterious reasons.)
Eventually, both Kara and Markus discover their autonomy in different ways. Kara breaks free of her programming in order to rescue the daughter of her owner, and she and the child set out to find some kind of normal life. Markus, meanwhile, is discarded after an accident, and when he awakens in a dump, he realizes just what life is like for these androids who live outside of his protected bubble. He starts a new life as part of a growing force fighting for android rights. These paths point all three characters in the same direction: Jericho, a secretive and possibly non-existent refuge for free androids.
So far, not so bad. Detroit pulls ideas from a lot of other stories about robotic life, but it fuses them together in a way that manages to feel cohesive. It helps that Detroit is far and away the best-designed game from Quantic Dream. It’s streamlined, intuitive, and satisfying in a way the studio’s previous efforts were not, particularly when it comes to the investigative elements; for instance, Connor’s android abilities make it possible to gather enough clues to visually recreate the crimes you’re examining, and it really feels like you’re piecing together a grisly puzzle.
The story branches in a way that will be familiar to fans of Quantic Dream (or Telltale Games) and the story will shift and turn depending on the choices you can make. Your decisions can have huge ramifications, and even lead to the deaths of main characters. The chapters, which each cover a short span in one character’s timeline, are also brisk, with near-perfect pacing. It makes the story feel urgent, the game equivalent of a page-turning thriller — at least early on.
The problems begin when Detroit tries to be more than the simple sci-fi crime drama it is. Like a well-meaning but woefully ignorant would-be activist, it wants to tackle serious issues, but doesn’t quite know how. And in the process, it ends up creating some ill-advised equivalences between the plight of the androids and real-world tragedies. A few examples, which dip into spoiler territory: androids are required to stand at the back of public buses; there’s an underground railroad where humans sneak androids across the border to liberation in Canada; and when things get really bad androids are forced into internment camps and the huddled masses are executed.
These 1:1 equivalences are uncomfortable and lazy
Even if you set aside the fact that some of these situations make no sense (if so many androids are caregivers, why wouldn’t they be allowed to ride with their owners on public transportation?) these 1:1 equivalences are uncomfortable and lazy. The idea of androids and AI gaining sentience and figuring out how to exist in human society is a fascinating subject, one that can touch on ideas about the nature of life and changes to social structures that will ensue, and much more. Detroit doesn’t look at any of that. Instead, just about every instance of the android struggle has a very obvious parallel to the real world — adding virtually nothing to our understanding of either real life injustice or the very different ways oppression would likely manifest for sentient machines.
Initially, this dearth of new ideas isn’t so egregious; plenty of stories have aped Blade Runner for slick, sci-fi thrills and still managed to be insightful or at least entertaining. But when the game uses the language of slavery and the Holocaust as a cheap attempt to infuse Detroit’s narrative with unearned gravitas, it’s hard not to cringe. Drawing from this well without saying anything new also isn’t very compelling; while I loved the smaller, individual stories of Detroit, I found my interest drifting whenever the empty, heavy-handed moralizing kicked into gear.
Detroit is a beautiful game, one rendered with a level of visual care and detail that’s rare even in the lavish world of blockbuster video games. But all of that work feels wasted, tied to a story that, by the end, feels meaningless. In Detroit, androids can dream. But the game’s creators can’t seem to dream of anything new to say.
Detroit: Become Human is available May 25th on the PlayStation 4.