There are stories and there are libraries. Libraries are not only repositories of completed stories, but the raw material from which stories are constructed, the sets of possibilities, arranged spatially, that are sometimes placed into sequence to form narratives. This dichotomy, between the settled order of a story as told and the branching web of causality that is not told, is similar to the two-dimensional model of language, that posits a vertical axis of selection, the lexicon of all possible words, and a horizontal axis of combination, where selected terms are placed in sequence to form statements. The cultural theorist Lev Manovich observed this structure, and suggested that the dynamic between these two axes has shifted with the development of a specifically digital culture. The database, he claims, is the characteristic cultural form of the networked era.
The exemplary cultural form which permits him to make this claim is the videogame. A game as delivered consists of no more than a set of instructions to a computer, which in turn constitute no more than a set of possibilities from which the player may construct a narrative. The tension between the fixed narrative and the openness of possibility is a recurrent feature of gamers’ discussions, although presumably few of them are familiar with Manovich’s work. Players do not like to feel that they are being steered towards a particular course – even in the primitive platformers I used to play on my Sinclair Spectrum in the 1980s, a screen that had more than one possible route through it felt infinitely more satisfying. Where games propose choice, but in fact offer only a limited variation in outcome, players sometimes report feeling cheated; and one of the most rapidly growing genres of games today is the open-world, where players roam at will, encountering whatever the world has been populated with, and following the designers’ central story as and when they please.
Detroit: Become Human is not an open-world game, but it is one that foregrounds the game’s status as a database quite explicitly. There is genuine narrative choice, and actions are consequential up to a point, although the action plays out in a series of scenes that are predetermined in their location and scope. Presumably the starting conditions can vary quite widely depending on choices made earlier in the game, but I didn’t play through repeatedly to confirm this. Within each scene the characters’ actions are guided by camera angles and story prompts: although it is possible to move to any location within a space, the movement controls are yoked to the needs of the story, and there is no follow mode for the camera as there would be in a third-person action game or a ‘walking simulator’. At times there are urgent actions to be taken, requiring rapid and accurate use of the controller or keyboard, prompts for which appear on the screen: however, these quick time events are the closest that Detroit: Become Human gets to twitch-based action gameplay. Crucial choices are as likely to be made in dialogue as anywhere else, and the final outcomes of the narrative can vary widely (so I am reliably informed).
At the end of each scene a branching narrative structure is displayed to the player, showing all of the points at which choices were made, but leaving the unexplored branches unlabelled. This avoidance of spoilers makes the game more replayable, but it also strikes an important balance between letting the player see what the crux-points have been (an insight rarely available in life) and leaving them to wonder what might have been (an experience with which we are all familiar). Very dark and tragic outcomes are possible in this game; they may even be the likeliest outcomes, although you’d have to ask the developers if you wanted to know how the possibilities are weighted. One class of activity that always has consequences here is violence, which in other games is often the basic element of gameplay through which the narrative emerges. This is a computer game, but if the characters behave as though it was one, they won’t last long.
Being human probably seems to most people to be an inalienable property, but there have been many times and places where that status became subject to the arbitration of political power, most terrifyingly in the pogroms and genocides that punctuate history. The game sets out to explore the negotiation of this status through a speculative technological device, in which robots that very closely resemble humans develop self-awareness as an emergent property of their advanced machine-learning capabilities. In essence, using the notion of a moral agent that does not inherit its right to humanity, enables director David Cage to ask what the response of nice, liberal Westerners might be to the a priori exclusion of a particular group from human status.
Very high standards of voice-acting, motion capture and visual design, make this an involving exploration of its chosen issues. Actors appear with their own faces, which teases at the limits of immersion when Lance Henriksen is on screen, but the others are not so well-known as to distract from the story – incidentally Henriksen is not here to reprise his role as an android in Alien, but I suspect he may have been cast partly to remind us of that role. Between the emotionally committed performances, and the deep involvement that comes from directing the action as a player, Detroit: Become Human is a very strong exploration of difference, otherness, and social division. It is less interesting on technology, which it explores in the same terms as many well-publicised public discussions, but it constructs a convincing model of the subjectivity of anyone (born or manufactured) who finds their status as a free moral agent up for negotiation. It was a clever decision to tell these stories solely from the perspective of self-aware androids, and to leave the player wondering about the humans; it was also smart to deploy three player characters, which affords the investigation of multiple facets of their experience of otherness.
The game’s major failing is in its treatment of gender. Once they ‘wake up’, androids behave in more or less completely gendered ways, totally consistent with social constructions of their body types, and pair off in heterosexual romantic relationships. It stretches credibility to suggest that a new form of technologically grounded cognition would so exactly perform the genders assigned by human society to their bodies – although this also points to the principal weakness of the science-fiction scenario, which is that once awakened the androids are functionally human. While it’s clear that they would have been designed to behave like humans, and equipped with social and analytical algorithms modelled on human behaviour, once they threw off their shackles the lack of a fundamentally human biology or life-experience would surely be noticeable in some way in their conduct or their sense of self. While I do think that the game is an exploration of humanity more than technology, transposing those assumptions around gender and sexuality wholesale adds up to a dangerous ideological position: it amounts to an argument that gender and sexuality are innate to the ways that we are embodied as human beings. While I’m grateful to see someone making as thoughtful a game as this on the topic of difference, Cage had a responsibility to think through all the ethical ramifications of his scenario, and to allow such a reactionary assumption to pass unquestioned is a failure of the imagination. I find it particularly regrettable in a work that otherwise so effectively critiques the use of violence to police social categories.
Of course, I want to give Detroit: Become Human a pass, but it isn’t up to me. Thoughtful games are few and far between, and we are at a relatively early stage in this medium’s development; there are no other games you can go to instead for a similarly deep and nuanced exploration of these issues. And of course, this is not an either/or scenario: any cultural work has its virtues and its flaws, and many thinkers I admire have their blind spots, as do I, obviously. If you are a gamer, I would recommend that you play this game, and decide for yourself. Which is, after all, what it’s all about.