‘I was Connor. I was designed as a prototype android to be used for detecting other deviants. When I was Kara, I would have had to save Alice from my master, the monster. But I couldn’t. The consequence of the fact that I couldn’t save the little girl was brutal. I was destroyed. When I was Markus, I did my best to serve my master Paul. I respected him. I even thought he could be my ‘dad.’ It’s not true that I murdered my dad. But I am destroyed and dumped. When I woke up, I decided to change the world. I needed to survive.’
– From my game playing notes
Kara (Quantic Dream, 2011)
The Announcement Teaser of Detroit: Become Human (Quantic Dream, 2015)
Launch Trailer of Detroit: Become Human (Quantic Dream, 2018)
At the Game Developers Conference in 2012, Quantic Dream presented a short film, Kara, about the story of the birth of an android named Kara. In the film, she is disturbed with a bug that becomes the catalyst for making her feel human emotions. After three years, Quantic Dream released a teaser of the game Detroit: Become Human, set in the near future in Detroit. In a futuristic cityscape, Detroit is depicted as a site where “androids have been invented and are changing the fabric of society.” This is the description on the website: “We wondered how we, humans, would react if we were confronted with a new form of intelligence, how androids conceived as machines would be perceived if they started to have emotions.” As an exclusive title of PS4, Detroit: Become Human was finally released in May 2018.
To enrich the narrative with users’ decision-making actions resulting in different final outcomes, the game rearranges the formation of the three android protagonists, Kara (AX400, a housemaid), Markus (RK200, a domestic caretaker), and Connor (RK800, an advanced prototype of a deviant hunter). Using those characters, a player is invited to Detroit to explore the dehumanized labor environment affecting the high rate of human unemployment and its aftermath. Such labor market rigidity further becomes a catalyst for accelerating humans’ aversion to androids in the city. Under the threat of ruin, the players—Kara, Markus, and Connor—must answer philosophically (and even ethically) challenging questions while reaching the fork in a road toward multiple ending scenarios between the peaceful coexistence of humans and androids, the total collapse of the community, and etc. In other words, the end depends on how the player navigates the story.
In resonance of the rise and fall of Detroit, Detroit: Become Human evokes the history of the radical change of human labor conditions and the standardization of mass production and consumption during the time of the acceleration of the US economy in the early 1900s. Instead of the nostalgic revision of the history of modern economic development, the game reconstructs such historical and social memories of the side effects of economic prosperity and the dehumanization of the community: What if I am an android living in Detroit on the verge of collapse? Together with the question laid on the multiple-ending narrative structure, the role of the player is transformed into a new participant of the production of a “counterfactual” narrative of the history. More importantly, such a question in “subjunctive mood” allows the player to renegotiate the history in a playable time and place called Detroit (Hillman 2006, 228).
In his article, Roger Hillman argues that the “counterfactual history” in a “subjunctive” mode is intended to open a new criterion for challenging the history in singularity represented in visual media such as film. For Hillman, the production of counter-scenarios of the history in visual media functions as a catalyst of not only multiplying the layer of historical narrative but also rehabilitating histories marginalized from the “official” history (Hillman 2006, 224). In this sense, the counterfactual history could be intended to trigger an alternative performance of remembering the subject(s) omitted in the history. However, what complicates the visualization of such an alternative scenario is a predetermined law of causality in its narrative structure. As the “most conservative” model of historiography, commercial video games such as the Call of Duty franchise rely on specific historical references. As Steven F. Anderson points out, in Technologies of History (2011), they have been restrained from the “teleological implication of algorithm-driven simulations based on known outcomes” (Anderson 2011, 145).
Official Call of Duty®: WWII – Story Trailer (Sledgehammer Games, 2017)
As for the first-person shooting game, it is true that Call of Duty: WWII, in particular, has partially failed to convey “a sense of engagement, possibility, and self-conscious historical agency” (Anderson 145). This is because the player strictly navigates by the power of the historical narrative of warfare. Such a delimited engagement with the history in this model of digital historiography also confines the possibility of exploring a counterfactual scenario. Furthermore, the goal-oriented design of the Call of Duty franchise is intended to stick to the repetition of the WWII scenario in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Despite the fair critique of commercial video games, Detroit: Become Human reconsiders the player’s role as a new historical agency invited to participate in the production of cultural memories in the subjunctive mode. It sheds light on the rupture of history; more specifically, the new agency is encouraged to command the course of resisting the history of slavery, poverty, and other factors in the dehumanization of the community while performing as the three android protagonists and their voices.
Also, engaging with the history within the Detroit: Become Human’s virtual landscape transforms the role of the player’s bodily experience into the “conduit of prosthetic memory,” to adopt Allison Landsberg’s term. “Prosthetic memories,” she argues, could be considered a “result of a person’s experience with a mass cultural technology of memory that dramatizes or recreates a history he or she did not live” (Landsberg 2004, 28). More interestingly, one’s bodily engagement with another time and place through technology further reinforces the “technological intervention” into an individual or collective identity or subjectivity. In a more playable environment, the “prosthetic memories” refers to the new cultural memories mediated by the player’s bodily experience as a new historical agency who reconstructs the history. In the range of possible endings, any condition of outcomes of the stories the player has branched in Detroit: Become Human tells us that the game itself challenges the prior deterministic model of visual historiography deployed in the domain of commercial video games.
Having “prosthetic memories” of the subjective voices neglected in history, the player-as-android’s experiences are also encouraged to resist the social oppression of the android’s right to fight for freedom of speech and expression. The player-as-android is forced to contend with organizing or contributing to the protest movement either individually or collectively. In doing so, what is most striking is that the utopian impulse of the narrative structure in Detroit: Become Human is embodied in different forms: total utopian, partial utopian, partial dystopian, or total dystopian, including multiple hidden endings. It tells us that the happy ending is not the only outcome derived from such a utopian impulse in the gaming environment. As the perplexing consequence of the utopian drive that the player pursues in the game, the dystopian end of the android’s resistance could also be a means of embodying the counter-narrative rejecting and remarking the history of dehumanization and class or racial discrimination and its aftermath. That is to say, Detroit: Become Human encourages the player to not only rethink the former practice of historiography constructed through digital and online gaming but also to be associated with an emerging moment of a counterfactual narrative of the past.
Before closing this post, I will add another note from my virtual expedition to Detroit as a historical site set in the near future from an android’s point of view: “If I wasn’t destroyed, I (as Kara) could escape Detroit and go to Canada to give my poor little Alice a normal life but could be killed in the recycling camp with Alice as well. I need help anyway. As Markus, I was able to become a leader of our people but lost everything I had earned and protected as I frequently failed to accomplish my missions. On the D-day, I had to be troubled with deciding to either surrender or keep fighting. Well, we did not surrender anyway. While being Connor, I’ve gone through a lot from a deviant hunter and undercover android police to a renegade of the Cyber Life. Whether I join the revolution or not is my decision.” I (as player-androids) am still struggling for the ‘best’ end of my and our stories in Detroit.
Anderson, Steve. “Digital historiography.” In Technologies of History: Visual Media and the Eccentricity of the Past. 2011.
“Detroit: Become Human.” Quantic Dream. <http://www.quanticdream.com/en/#!/en/category/detroit>
Hillman, Roger. “Goodbye Lenin (2003): History in the Subjunctive.” 2006.
Landsberg, Alison. “Prosthetic Memory.” In Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. 2004.
Sledgehammer Games. Call of Duty: WWII. 2017.
Quantic Dream. Detroit: Become Human. 2018.
Quantic Dream. Kara. 2011.