Like it or loathe it, HBO’s Westworld isn’t afraid to deal with lofty topics. Currently midway through its second season, already the show has attempted to relay what it means to be human, to be treated by humans if you’re not, and what exactly are the right actions to take when seeking self-aware autonomy. All questions which look to be very prominent in the soon to be released Detroit Become Human. Granted, with each new episode it seems that Westworld runs the risk of becoming more pretentious than progressive, but its ambition to get viewers thinking via well-acted characters and top-notch production is to be commended.
Westworld’s ability to hook people week-to-week is all the more impressive, considering that the show was inspired by an aspect of video games which is all too often overlooked. Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, and BioShock all serve as inspiration as revealed in a 2016 interview with IGN’s Alex Osborn. “A lot of interesting storytelling [is] happening right now is in video games,” expressed Westworld co-creator and show-runner Jonathan Nolan. “…fascinated by the concept of writing a story in which the protagonists' actions aren't part of the story.”
By sheer coincidence, at the time of writing, we now sit just under two weeks away from the release of David Cage’s Detroit Become Human, an interactive, narrative-driven experience which places the similar theme of artificial intelligence at the forefront. And irrespective of where you stand regarding the French auteur’s nature to generate controversy, using three alternating android perspectives the game looks to have thoughtfully considered its approach. With a script reportedly over 6,000 pages long, we’d expect no less!
This is immediately made evident when playing through the Detroit Become Human demo currently playable on PlayStation 4. Placing you in the role of android negotiator Connor, the ability to make choices is apparent, but you’re constantly reminded of your character’s coldness. Purposefully designed to aid in the capture of artificial deviants, in the demo your actions are cold, calculated, with flickers of emotion only rising to the facial surface if it’ll help you achieve your goal.
We’re reminded of this in the way Connor licks blood spatter to find DNA evidence, the way he strides past the police captain carelessly when he has succeeded or failed in the hostage negotiation. The tone of the game is set that despite only doing what he has been programmed for, Connor is hated for what he is even though, ironically for a Quantic Dream game, he has no choice in the matter. Contrastingly, within the idealized setting of Westworld guests are only too happy with the tasks their androids have been given.
While maybe not quite as subtle or sophisticated as HBO’s Western Sci-Fi drama, already in its opening hours does Detroit look to add something new to the debate surrounding AI. This time, by placing players at the center of it rather than just an observer. Even in such literary works as Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and William Gibson’s Neuromancer is the android’s side of the equation rarely explored – Blade Runner being the seminal exception. In both Westworld season 2 and Detroit Become Human, however, this looks to be changing.
In addition to negotiating the safety of hostages against deviant androids, we already know that Detroit Become Human will be placing you in many uncomfortable positions and scenarios. After all, who could forget the stir caused by the game’s Paris Games Week trailer, whereby android housekeeper Kara is thrust into a very uncomfortable domestic abuse situation. The biggest problem here was a lack of context. This particular section could never have shown well on its own. We’re yet to see how it’ll play out fully in the finished product, but there’s at least a bravery in Cage’s willingness to push the boundaries of what’s possible to execute in video games.
It might be hyperbolic to say that Westworld is changing the face of TV. But for my money, I like the fact that I’m being challenged by a show that actually requires my attention in an era where services like Netflix almost demand shows to be binged rather than processed. The great thing about Detroit Become Human, like all games, is that such attention is a pre-requisite. Most would argue that to be successful, Cage’s game only need only weave a coherent story where players can feel like their actions have a substantial impact. But with its emphasis on character-driven narratives, multiple viewpoints, and an immediately engaging near-future world, I think there’s a slight chance it could stand toe-to-toe with some of sci-fi fiction’s best.
Will Detroit Become Human’s multi-faceted dialogue about AI do for games what Westworld is attempting to do for TV? Thankfully, we don’t need to wait too much longer to find out!