It’s pretty much established wisdom that a huge part of the appeal of computer games is down to the escapist power fantasies that most of them offer.
In other words, they allow us to get away from the stresses and strains of real life into a world of dragons, elite soldiers, mythical warriors and all manner of superhumans. Mostly, you’ll save the world, get the girl, and kill a few hundred enemies along the way. While there are some exceptions, games generally put you at the heart of the action. You are the force that drives the story forward and the world pretty much revolves around you.
Warning: this contains spoilers for Detroit: Become Human
One one level, Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human functions in the same way. Playing as two of its three main characters does make you feel pretty badass, whether you’re leading the android revolution as Markus or using high-tech abilities to solve crime as android cop Connor. The third, though, is a little different. Household android Kara simply wants to keep one little girl safe in what quickly becomes a terrifying world. What’s truly striking about playing as Kara is how often you feel something you hardly ever feel in games: powerless.
This is evident from her very first scene as you awake in an android shop unable to do anything but look around as customers evaluate their potential purchases. You’re then picked up by a an unkempt middle-aged slob and the dialogue establishes that you’ve been fixed and reset due to previous damage. Your owner mumbles something about you being hit by a car but even at this point, it’s fairly clear that wasn’t the case. He then takes you to his house and tells you your duties. You need to take care of his daughter (“baths, homework, all that crap”), cook and serve meals, and clean the house.
Essentially, you’re a robotic slave and treated as such; the message from your owner is ‘get on with this crap and don’t bother me’. And so, you do; you don’t really have any choice after all. You walk around the house and, through a series of quick time events, you wash dishes, collect rubbish, tidy up the bedroom, and collect drying laundry from the garden. You also clean the toilet, although even Quantic Dream draws the line there, with the camera panning away and the sound of scrubbing conveying what needs to be conveyed.
During all this, you’re basically ignored unless you get shouted at for getting in the way of the TV or your owner shouts that he wants a beer. At one level, this is of course very dull; it’s all the tedious parts of real life in videogame form. However, there’s a value to that tedium – the point of Detroit: Become Human, and Quantic Dream games in general, isn’t to offer fun in the conventional sense. Instead, it’s all about immersing you in the story, making you feel for its characters so that you fully understand the decisions you make later on. This sequence, and much of Detroit: Become Human‘s early playtime, is all about illustrating the subhuman status of androids in this near-future society so that you understand why they rise up later on.
As Kara, at the beck and call of a thoroughly unpleasant man, you feel almost completely powerless and it’s something so rarely explored in games that it feels quietly revolutionary. This isn’t getting captured in an adventure game and then escaping a few seconds later, or doing a boring fetch quest for some gold. This is the feeling of truly having no control; of doing something because you’ve been told to and being able to do nothing but fulfil that task. In some ways, it feels like gaming’s ultimate taboo; to strip the power from the player. It’s for this reason that this scene endures long after the later, more action-packed sequences have faded from memory.
Of course, even Kara eventually rises up, unable to stand by while her owner physically abuses his daughter. She steps in, takes the child, and goes on the run. However, her story never turns into the standard videogame narrative of heroism against the odds. Instead, she’s just trying to survive, attempting to find shelter and warmth, keep the child safe, and somehow get to Canada where androids have no legal status and she can live a new life as a human.
In Detroit: Become Human‘s triptych of stories, each has a clear purpose. Markus is the closest the game gets to a standard hero; he’s a charismatic, dynamic figure who, depending on your choices, will lead either a peaceful or violent revolution. Connor, meanwhile, has all sorts of fun as an android cop, analysing crime scenes and hunting down deviants (androids who, like Kara, have broken their programming and displayed free will) before eventually having to choose to side with either humans or androids. Kara though, Kara makes you feel and she provides the strongest emotional connection in the game. More than anything else, her story is a telling reminder of just how much can be achieved by flipping gaming’s power fantasy on its head and taking away the one thing that truly defines the medium: control.