The Unrequited Android

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Kara at Zlatko’s, Connor in the police archives, and Markus in Jericho. All of my androids are dead. They never got to the camps or did they pacify the police with a song.

This past July, Sony Playstation Plus offered Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human as a “free” download (“Free” in quotes because technically I am paying a monthly subscription fee). It’s one of the games on my “price drop watchlist,” the list of games I want to play but cannot convince myself to pay full price for.

Based on the reviews I read and the gameplay videos I watched on YouTube, I had likened the game to a version of Dontnod’s Life is Strange with androids protagonists instead of teenage girl ones. Life is Strange is the first game that I played in this “choose-your-own-ending” genre of videogames. I’ve played games with multiple endings like Bioshock and Witcher, where your decisions during the game impact the final outcome, but Life is Strange and Detroit are slower-paced and the action just stops or is slowed to a crawl until you make a decision. It is what one of my favorite gaming channels on YouTube, Girlfriend Reviews, describes as “the world’s most advanced choose-your-own-adventure.”

For the most part, I agree with what Girlfriend Reviews had to say about Detroit. The Quicktime events and number of buttons you had to press for a single action were a distraction that annoyingly took me out of the story, sometimes ruining climatic moments. In all three instances when I lost my androids, the frustrating combination of buttons tore me away from the story when I most wanted to be immersed. It should have been enough to push circle to dodge. Instead of investing my emotions into mourning the tragic death of a character, I spent the time frustrated at the mechanics of pushing my joystick to the right and then square and the “X” and then R1 and so on.

I like the term Girlfriend Review uses: “historical plagiarism” and agree that the lack of depth made the game seem to exploit and devalue the tragedies associated with historical real world events of the 1960s fight for Civil Rights in the US and the Nazi extermination camps of World War II. However, the grade school teacher in me couldn’t help thinking that, with a few edits here and there, Detroit might be a springboard to engage middle school students in lessons on Civil Rights and the Holocaust or even a lesson on bullying. Having students play as androids would be an effective way to teach empathy and tolerance.

The introduction to Markus is a good example of this. As he walks through the park to get to Bellini Paints, maybe a young mother draws her child closer to her as he passes. As he crosses the street, maybe a man bumps into him roughly and then sneers. Inside the store, maybe there is a human service counter and an android service counter. Subtle acts of segregation and institutionalized discrimination. The game drew on well-known historical reference points to make the story more accessible but needed to include subtle everyday micro-aggressions of bias and bigotry to make the story more meaningful.

Girlfriend Reviews chose a clip from Ex Machina to illustrate the depth that Detroit could have achieved regarding the philosophical and social implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and androids. They had a plethora of clips to choose from: the Nexus-6 replicants from the Bladerunner movie (my favorite), Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Mecha from the AI movie, the NS-5s from I, Robot, etc. An argument could even be made that the first story about an android or AI was written in the 19th Century when Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published. Although we would have to wrestle with the details of material: organic versus synthetic, I think we would be in agreement that the Creature like Kara or Markus or Connor was created by a human in a humanoid shell with the purpose of being subservient. The androids’ purposes are obvious. The Creature’s could be to exorcise Dr. Frankenstein’s grief.

It would have been interesting to experience the androids questioning the consequences of their awakening outside of attacking their owners. I wonder if there would be some androids who would willingly “unawake” and go back to “sleep,” giving up their newfound consciousness? Would the emotional uncertainty and the challenges of consciousness make some androids be angry at Markus for “waking” them.

In the scene where Markus and his Jericho androids “wake” androids in a store, I chose to have him kiss North in order to keep him from being found out by police. She pushes him away with a stern warning not to do it again. He is comically confused, saying something like, “I thought you wanted me to.” This miscommunication of intentions might have also been an interesting story to tell. As the androids “become human” they would inevitably suffer the same emotional struggles as their creators. They would eventually develop the prejudices, the desires, the anxieties, and ambitions of their human creators. With that in mind, I can’t help wondering what the story of an unrequited android would look like in Detroit?

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