When I first learned about Detroit: Become Human, the upcoming game by Quantic Dream to be released on May 25th, the parallels to Deus ex: Human Revolution seemed glaringly obvious. But, are they that obvious? Let’s have a look at these factors: protagonist(s), setting and central conflict(s).
Adam Jensen, hero of Deus ex: Human Revolution and Deus ex: Mankind Divided, is a human, an ex-cop turned chief security officer at Sarif Industries. He’s got some mental baggage, but apart from that, he’s a fairly regular guy (if you disregard his unique genetic makeup and, later, the augmentations that turn him into a cyborg).
The three protagonists of Detroit: Become Human – Connor, Kara and Markus – are androids, automatons that resemble humans, with no will of their own, and programmed to be whatever their makers choose them to be, perform whichever task and obey without question. The three of them have different tasks that give them different perspectives and will later gain sentience, yes, but they are not, in fact, human to begin with.
“The year is 2027…” Adam Jensen intones right at the beginning of Deus ex: Human Revolution‘s Icarus-trailer and the place is Detroit. Detroit, the former center of automotive progress has made a comeback and been remade as a major center for human augmentation technology. Same city, but 11 years later, in 2038, is the setting of Detroit: Become Human. Here, the city has also made an industrial comeback and is now the birthplace of androids. That’s pretty much all of the similarities I can find here at a cursory glance.
I will have to generalise here, because I have yet to play Detroit: Become Human. So the android uprising has been a prominent feature in all the trailers. And while it may seem from the trailers that Deus ex: Human Revolution was about an uprising of the Augmented, it was, in fact, not. It was about Adam Jensen coping with being different and constantly manipulated while trying to prevent the Illuminati from turning the augmented crazy via a software update.
I have played the Detroit: Become Human-demo that came out yesterday, the Hostage Situation involving Connor, which has been the subject of numerous showcases already. Suffice to say I would have appreciated a new setting. But what I learned from that is that deviant behavior, straying from a given task, is a possibility for these androids. I actually knew that, of course. Why they are able to deviate, whether that is the cause of bad programming, errors in the system, as Connor tells Daniel, the deviant android who takes a little girl hostage, or maybe the result of a sinister organization hacking into the androids, I do not know.
While deviant behavior apparently can be corrected and the software stabilized, it appears, that the realisation of the possibility of deviant behavior and the realisation of freedom of choice is what triggers these androids to become sentient and question their existence as well as their makers. To humans, they are malfunctioning machines, dangerous, and therefore a threat. I am actually looking forward to seeing how the game handles the aspect of stabilizing a deviant android when it comes to the three protagonists. Will anyone try with Connor what he did with Daniel? And how will he react? Will he realise he’s being manipulated? Or is he set on investigating the other two?
The central conflict in Deus ex: Human Revolution is a different one. Adam Jensen is a human to begin with, a human who is turned into a cyborg, a human with technological enhancements. The fact that Adam Jensen’s augmentations are fairly extensive may make him seem more like a robot than a human, but he was born and raised to execute his free will. The moment he apparently turns into more machine than man, people start dehumanizing him. Yet, contrary to the androids of Detroit: Become Human, who are regarded as tools from the start, Adam is either regarded as a human freak or the next step of human evolution. Only later, in Deus ex: Mankind Divided, in a post-Augmented Uprising-world, are all Augmented seen as dangerous and less than human. Which is, of course, the irony of the game. Those who were once the spearhead of evolution now find themselves at the bottom, as outcasts.
One might say that, where Deus ex: Human Revolution is about magnificent Icarus falling, burned by his own ambition, Detroit: Become Human is all about rising up, out of the abyss. Adam was a member of human society, until his augmentations made him an outcast. Connor, Kara and Markus were never part of the society they now either strive to join or rival with a society of their own.
What does it mean to become human?
Androids are programmed to act and interact in certain ways. They are tailored to their specific tasks. Cyborgs are humans embracing technology (more or less willingly in Adam “I never asked for this” Jensen’s case), to interact with software, to go beyond their natural limits. This may open their minds, already shaped by their upbringing and socialization, to new experiences, but they will interpret them according to their experiences, morals and mental capabilities.
An android that gains sentience does not have that advantage. From the deviant behavior Connor is diagnosed with in the demo if you choose to save the fish flopping on the ground outside of its broken tank, what I understand is that the decisions the three protagonist of Detroit: Become Human make will determine whether or not they become human. But, is it decisions that make us human? Decision-making can be learned, or, rather, imitated, by an observant machine allowed to learn and adapt. Yet compassion is a feeling, as is empathy.
So, the question I am asking is this: If I, as an android, embrace the socially acceptable, compassionate approach, does that make me human, or just a very clever and very well-adapted machine? My answer? I am still a machine. We shall see how Detroit: Become Human handles it.
Update: Having racked up quite a few playthroughs of Detroit: Become Human in the meantime I can confirm that it is not like Deus ex: Human Revolution at all.
Until then, keep on playing!