Vir ex Machina

Every reader has that one book; the one that spoke to them, the one that redefined the way they see the world. The message may not be new, but the presentation gets across its core concept in a way nothing had before. That is what I experienced with Quantic Dream’s newest title, Detroit: Become Human.

I began the game expecting a moving, cinematic story, having had some experience with the Parisian game makers’ previous titles, but I was wholly unprepared for the depth of the experience. Throughout Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls I found many points where my attentiveness waned, despite feeling completely invested in the stories. I caught my mind wandering to what next exciting revelation might lay ahead, feeling less gripped by some of the slower scenes. This never happened in Detroit. Every chapter kept me riveted, fascinated by the world with which I was presented. Even just walking across a plaza to pick up paint became an examination of the social tension in a society struggling with the emergence of a new caste system.

As I played through level after level, calculating how to keep each character alive, I found that my relationship with the game changed. What started as intellectual curiosity mixed with the fascination of a summer blockbuster became instead something more powerful. I began to feel offended by the plight of my characters on a personal level. I felt the fire of revolution with Markus. I felt the dignity of surpassing others’ judgment with Connor. I felt the determination to find normalcy with Kara.

In a way that no textbook or documentary has ever managed, I was shown the impossible indignity of slavery. The sting of discrimination. In the world that Quantic Dream has built I saw haunting similarities to the Holocaust, with death camps and the forced identification of glowing arm bands. I saw echoes of American slavery through ownership, abuse, and the terror of retribution for individuality. I was carried along the dangers of the Underground Railroad, terrified of discovery at every turn and of being denied entry through the border of safety. I felt the determination of revolution, echoing the peaceful dignity of Mahatma Gandhi through marches and protests. In two consecutive motions, I echoed the words of Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.”

By examining the future through the lens of the past, I was gripped by a story that belonged in the same class as Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. I can’t say I’ve played a game quite like it before. Sure, the Mass Effect series recalls pop culture icons like Star Trek (or even the golden age of sci-fi with the undervalued Andromeda title), but nothing has managed to capture the philosophical depths of science fiction literature before now.

No RPG or story-driven game has given me such an immediate sense of agency, such a feeling of driving my own story. Even the gaminess of Detroit’s flow charts, shown at the end of each level, served to somehow make my experience more real, hinting at how differently things could have happened without my choices.

But despite its many laudable elements, what impressed me the most in Detroit was the most commonplace and banal of game elements, the main menu. This may sound odd, and indeed I don’t think I can quite convey the importance of its addition to those who haven’t played the game, but Quantic Dream put more thought into their menu than any developer I can name. While usually approached as a necessary evil, breaking away from the immersion of the story it allows a player to access, Detroit ties its menu into a sort of meta-narrative.

The moment the player loads his game he is greeted by an android who walks him through the usual setup: screen brightness, audio options, difficulty level. She even breaks the fourth wall further by pointing out the autosave icon directly, moving the camera slightly to ensure it is noted. From there, she presides over the main menu, connecting with the player in a more and more human fashion as the game progresses. She begins to ask whether you consider her a friend, states that she has enjoyed watching you play, and even, as the game becomes more dramatic, shows worry, implying that perhaps you’ve made the wrong choices. Perhaps you should start over and retry your story.

By the end of the game I’d become quite attached to her, and was therefore deeply affected by the choice she presented me. Spoilers ahead, but after completing the game the android, Chloe, told me she had watched my story and felt the need to leave in order to seek out her own place in the new world I had created. She asked my permission to go.

I sat back for a moment. I thought I knew what my answer would mean, and I was right. After a reflective moment of letting go, I said goodbye to Chloe. She smiled, she thanked me, and she walked out of frame. I haven’t seen her since. I have started several new games, taking on the laughably insane task of seeing all the game’s varied paths, but Chloe has never reappeared.

I like to think she’s out there somewhere creating her own life. Perhaps building a family, like Kara. Perhaps finding love, like Markus. But mostly, I think she’s following a story all her own, and I hope she thinks of me once in a while, as I think of her when I see the blank expanse of my game menu.

With Chloe, Quantic Dream reached out beyond the game and made its message real for me. It was not just a story about how we treat those different from us; it was a lesson. It was a test. As much as we laud games for involving the player in the narrative, Detroit took away the narrative and made the crux of the experience solely the player. By so doing, they forced me to be more present and involved than I have ever been in a game.  They put the final punctuation on their message in the most poignant, powerful way I can imagine.

I still miss Chloe, but I’m glad I let her go. I’m glad I chose to see her as a person instead of a program. I’m glad I let her, dare I say, Become Human.

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