Friday, 4 May 2018

Do gamers fear Responsibility? The real problem behind Detroit: Become Human

On May 25, 2018, Sony Interactive Entertainment will release Detroit: Become Human for the PlayStation 4, a Sci-Fi adventure that has been drawing attention from the media long before its actual debut on the market. Latest brainchild of David Cage, one of the most divisive authors in the game development scene, Detroit places it's narrative foundations in real world issues such as segregation and discrimination. Everything is seen through the eyes of three different synthetic characters inhabiting the same society as humans, and serving as extremely advanced, yet obedient assistance tools. As it often happens in science fiction, some of these androids harbour an independent conscience at the start of the story, or end up developing one over its course, which puts their decision making into a different perspective.

The natural expectation coming out of these premises is that of a social and ethic clash that, as far as the genre goes, has nothing really earth-shattering about it. Detroit, though, embraces the challenge of depicting this clash at different scales: the wide context of society, and the isolated domestic spaces where interactions between humans and robots becomes more granular and nuanced. One of these latter instances marked the exact moment where Quantic Dream's adventure really started to make waves: on October 30, 2017, at the Paris Game Week, the team showed a gameplay trailer featuring Kara (one of the three aforementioned androids, and star of a memorable PS3 tech demo back in 2012), the little Alice and her abusive father Todd. Let's take a look at the scene known as Stormy Night, with a due mild spoiler warning from here on:

As you can see, the player's lack of action or proficiency can cause the death of Alice, which is something that didn't sit right with a portion of the media and the audience. During the following months, Quantic Dream received a slate of accusations such as gamifying domestic abuse, taking things too far in the name of spectacle, or even just dare tackling the issue at all. Part of the concern came from David Cage's debated reputation as a storyteller, something he implicitly acknowledged by seeking the help of professional screenwriters for Detroit, which has the vastest script ever handled by the studio. Some outlets (Le Monde, Mediapart) even tried to root the alleged lack of sensibility in bad corporate culture and toxic work environment reports, ending up sued by the developer as recently revealed by Kotaku's Jason Schreier.

Storytelling doesn't just exists
expose challenges to its audience,
but to 
pose them challenges too.

Now, there's a user comment over at VG247 that in my eyes, summarises quite effectively what's pretty much the real issue with Detroit: Become Human, and it goes like this: "you can tell mature stories without allowing the player to choose whether a child gets beaten to death or not" (link).

... except it wouldn't be that story anymore. If it sounds like an ethical stale, it's because it comes close to being one. This user would rather not be presented with such an hard choice involving a child, than taking responsibility for how the story unfolds and do something to steer it in a more acceptable direction. There's an expectation on his part that whatever happens, a videogame should never make someone uncomfortable. But if we are to endorse the medium's narrative legitimacy as it happens with other forms of expression, requirements such as this cannot be in place: while commercial videogames sure have limits in regard to how explicitly they can tackle controversial events, the medium in itself poses no thematic boundaries. Narrative legitimacy is not a matter of what a videogame can or cannot tell, but rather how the subject is reconciled with the element of player agency.

Detroit's methodological approach is standard fare for Quantic Dreams: it relies heavily on making the player feel responsible for what will happen next by placing strong gravitas on his actions. It leverages extreme visual fidelity, time limits and pressing musical scores to make the player's mental image of the events as urgent and plausible as possibile. Plus, the only element that's actually far flung in the game is the presence of androids: the rest is very near future SF, from the social turmoil and economic state of the city (that are either a mirror of today's, or a credible ramification of theirs), to an urban aestethics that strongly reminds what we can find right now in some asian metropolises. Now, what's the psychological weight of having to take urgent actions in the context of a world that feels so visually and thematically close to ours? What happens when this particular approach meets sensitive themes, and player agency?

The reaction we've brought up from VG247 provides hints towards a possible answer. That real world problems depicted in virtual spaces might elicit the same emotional reactions as they do in reality, is not something new or surprising - it happens all the time with movies and literature. In those purveyours, the user accepts those emotion because he's aware of not being responsible for the events on display; plausibly, he goes looking for them in the first place. But when he's given any sort of hand in those events and problems, he realises something about interactive narration: "it's not real, but it's on me nonetheless". That's where the psychological distinction between simulated responsibilities and real ones becomes blurry, and above all, personal: he's afraid that the outcome of his virtual actions might tell him something he doesn't like about his real self, hence the rejection of the experience.

I think it's important to acknowledge this as an internal issue, something that has to do with how each user relates to a certain treatment of his own values and sensibility, a certain way of challenging them. Storytelling, though, doesn't just exists to expose challenges to its audience, but to pose them challenges too: that's a new dimension of the craft that interactivity brought to light in the last decades, and something developers are fervently exploring in these days of newfound confidence towards narrative driven games. Quantic Dream's efforts are just a part of this larger, natural process.

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