by Jed Pressgrove
Developer Telltale Games, known for titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, doesn’t just allow players to make choices in its games; it tells players that their choices matter — incessantly and obnoxiously. With Detroit: Become Human, director/writer David Cage offers a variation of Telltale’s player-choice marketing. After you complete a chapter in Detroit: Become Human, the game shows a flowchart of how your actions, such as talking to a certain character or not killing someone, ultimately resulted in the concluding scene of the chapter, and as a bonus, the chart reveals other paths you could have taken if you had made a different choice. While the narrative of Detroit: Become Human preaches about the potential humanity of futuristic robots, Cage’s presentation of player-driven consequences is distractingly mechanical.
In Detroit: Become Human, you alternate between playing as three androids in the year 2038: Connor, who investigates “deviant” androids, a la Rick Deckard in Blade Runner; Kara, who is designed to do chores for humans; and Markus, who takes care of an aging and ailing artist. The stories of these three characters evolve according to how you play. If you, say, overlook a clue at a crime scene as Connor, you may fail to nab a perpetrator. There are limits to your impact as a player, though: the three protagonists move toward different destinies as outlined by Cage. Connor must come to grips with whether his mission matters more than his shared humanity with the suspects he tracks down. Kara learns what it means to be a parent as she protects a formerly abused little girl. And Markus becomes a leader in a political movement that seeks to end the slavery of androids, who are seen as disposable by humanity at large.
The variety of consequences in Detroit: Become Human is interesting, especially considering that the story never stops moving. There is no Game Over, so a lack of attention to detail on your part can have repercussions that flow through the entirety of the game. But instead of allowing the voice acting, animation, and other audiovisual cues convey how the player’s actions impact people in the story, Cage uses contrived text messages in the top-right corner of the screen to spell out how other characters feel about your decision-making.
This “reputation meter” of sorts recalls Telltale’s awkward “He/she will remember that” statement, which appears when a nonplayable character perceives your decision as significant. Although Cage intends for this feature to inform you of character emotions, the messaging cheapens the emotion in generally well-executed scenes. For instance, if you want Markus to be more of a pacifist leader, a woman named North will often show signs of disapproval. But apparently, such signs are not enough for literate audiences. In addition to North’s on-screen reactions, you will see her name at the top of the screen with a downward-pointing red arrow beside it when you disappoint her. Conversely, if you please North, you will see her name and an upward-pointing green arrow beside it.
At best, Cage’s laughable reduction of human dynamics to traffic-light colors and a thumbs-up/thumbs-down binary is unnecessary. At worst, it shatters what the images of the game can say to you. One scene depicts Kara and the little girl snuggled up in an abandoned car. You wouldn’t be unreasonable to perceive warmth and security in such a picture, but during my experience with Detroit: Become Human, a screen message indicated that the child was “Distant.” Not only did this text seem to contradict what the game was illustrating, it also rejected my natural interpretation of the scene itself and asked me to buy into an idea that I personally would have no logical reason to accept without the shoehorned description.
Perhaps this sense of artificiality is intentional on Cage’s part. After all, Detroit: Become Human involves androids having messy awakenings about the purpose of their existence. Take Markus. His story has been criticized for evoking the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. However, these critical accounts have rarely mentioned the other references in Markus’ story: the perspectives of Descartes and Gandhi are alluded to via quotes and actions, and Markus frees the minds and spirits of other androids by touching them, a frequent reference to the miraculous hands of Jesus Christ. Although the allusions can feel like flippantly borrowed ideas with little depth, is it possible Cage is trying to say that androids are rather green and confused in their newfound humanity?
If so, the emphasis on our roles as players with choices throws a monkey wrench into Cage’s goal as an artist. Compared to the protagonists in Cage’s story, the audience of Detroit: Become Human has far more experience with the state of being human. We know that relationships in life often can’t be boiled down to whether someone likes us less or more, as implied by the game’s red and green arrows. We know that sometimes when we make choices, we’re not necessarily thinking of locked and unlocked paths in the vein of the game’s post-chapter flowcharts, which encourage us to admire the story for its replay value rather than its moral value. Despite how engrossing Detroit: Become Human can be, its player-choice marketing is always ready to rear its robotic head, separating the audience from the supposedly visceral and contemplative feelings of its heroes.