Detroit: Become Human doesn’t shy away from today’s most heated topics. Instead, they compose a core part of the narrative game’s experience — something director David Cage is well aware of.
A new demonstration of the game, shown to Polygon behind closed doors during E3 2017, focuses on what will likely be the most politically charged strand of Detroit’s branching narratives. Marcus is an android from a dystopian version of Detroit. In Cage’s futuristic reimagining of the city, the abandoned car factories have been replaced with android manufacturers.
Marcus has a gift: He can free his fellow humanoids from servitude, awakening them to free will — and to resistance.
Like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, we’re told that Detroit: Become Human’s narrative twists and bends based on players’ choices. During the demo, when your companion gives an order, you can choose to ignore it. This changes the outcome of the scene.
These decisions come with their own ramifications that impact the narrative in dramatic ways. But what was more striking to us was a version of the scene that occurs should Marcus choose to incite a major android rebellion.
In this scene, he can send a pro-android message via non-violent methods, such as tagging monuments with digital graffiti or planting flags of independence. Alternately, he can encourage his newly freed companions to wreck shit: lighting fires, breaking glass.
Unlike the strategic choices in earlier parts of the playthrough, here Marcus’ choices take on a moral weight: he can set an example of pacifism or violence. It’s a binary that calls back to the Civil Rights movement — think the deification of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the vilifying of Malcolm X.
Although players can combine pacifist and violent choices, their actions are ultimately represented on a scale: blue to red, pacifist to violent. Yet even with this attempt at nuance, the result felt clear-cut. Our demo ended with a city engulfed in flames and Marcus questioning his methods: Maybe violence wasn’t the right answer.
Cage said that the black-and-white conclusion of this scene was an anomaly, and that the game as a whole explores a moral gray area. Overall, he said he didn’t want the game to pass judgment on modern civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter.
“We are very aware of Black Lives Matter and all the things happening in the U.S.,” David Cage told Polygon. “We want to be very respectful. We had discussions with Jesse Williams [who performs the role of Marcus], and that’s very important to us.”
It is notable that a person of color leads Detroit: Become Human’s most politically relevant narrative line. Although his race was not remarked upon in the demo, Marcus is modeled after Williams; the androids he freed were also composed of myriad races, many of them black.
We asked if Quantic Dream was hesitant to hew so closely to such a recent moment in the U.S.’s political climate, when similar games like 2016’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided did so and received backlash in response. Mankind Divided’s use of the phrase “augs’ lives matter” read to many as an appropriation of an important social movement for the sake of entertainment.
“It’s a fantasized version of the United States,” Cage said of Detroit. He spoke about watching American films while growing up in France, and how America became a neutral backdrop for stories. At least, until he went there.
“You realize the distance between [them] based on these films and what the country actually is. As a writer, I just try to be aware of this distance. I try to assimilate the social background.”
Quantic Dream visited Detroit — which comes with its own loaded history — and interviewed residents to help do that. But Cage admitted that this can only take the team so far. At the end of the day, he’s still “a French guy talking about an American. It’s great because it creates a distance, and distance can become a good thing. But at the same time you have to make sure you don’t misunderstand things.”
That awareness hopefully bears out in the rest of Detroit: Become Human, as players assume the roles of two other androids alongside Marcus and are challenged to make meaningful, tough decisions. The overarching themes of liberation and racial injustice will continue to form the crux, however — but Cage insists that this is a game first, not a political statement.
“You have to be respectful because this is a game,” Cage said. “We put a lot of passion and we’re honest and sincere. But it’s nothing compared to real issues and real people in the real world. We try to be aware of that and we want to be respectful of real things.”
There’s no release date yet for this PlayStation 4 exclusive.