If Jesus Were a Robot: Android Rebellion, Religious Belief, and the Messiah in Detroit: Become Human
I know enough about the video game subculture to know better than to call myself a serious “gamer.” Even when I was younger, when my parents might have gone so far as to call me “addicted,” I knew that I could never hold a candle to my friends and the hours they would sink into perfecting their button-smashing skills. That’s mostly due to having cultivated a niche area of interest when it comes to the medium. It would have been more accurate to say that I was “addicted” to story.
Truth be told, I’ve never had much patience for the shooty-bang multiplayer video games that have dominated sales charts for years now. But what I have always appreciated is story. I am the only person I know who purchases a Call of Duty game to play through the single-player storyline without ever touching the online multiplayer component. This is because video games are poised to offer the most unique medium of modern storytelling through unprecedented levels of emotional immersion. They go beyond merely “inviting” the player to be a part of the game’s world, instead enabling the player to become an active participant in that world.
So, I’m always intrigued when I find a game that aims to capitalize on that idea of player immersion in new and interesting ways, which is how I first came across controversial French video game developer David Cage and his Paris-based company, Quantic Dream. The first Quantic Dream game I played back in high school was Heavy Rain, a twisty noir-thriller in which players are given control of four separate protagonists to navigate through their respective—but sometimes interweaving—stories. I was immediately hooked by the unique approach to gameplay; rather than fostering a muscle-memory reflex into smashing the correct buttons in the right sequence, Heavy Rain upended every notion I had of what video games were and could be by playing out more like a lengthy, interactive movie.
Games of this ilk are sometimes described as “narrative-driven,” but I’ve come to think of Quantic Dream’s catalogue more as “moral dilemma” games that prioritize emotional character beats over innovative gameplay techniques. The tension in these games comes from putting the protagonists (usually an ensemble cast) in “morally gray” situations, and then demanding the player make hard ethical choices in a short amount of time. Whereas most other video games give you (the player) an objective and then railroad you toward the completion of that objective, Quantic Dream’s games let you fail the objective; or, in some cases, if you didn’t feel like doing that objective, outright ignore it. Either way, the story progresses. Players don’t have to shoot the bad guy to win. You could choose to spare him. Or, the bad guy might incapacitate or kill your character, and the story would go on, and the other characters would deal with the fallout of your decision, or lack thereof. Thus, no two players ever experience the same story in a playthrough, and the endings are stratified and intricately tied to decisions made by the player throughout the course of the game.
In Detroit: Become Human, Quantic Dream’s 2018 dystopian science-fiction video game, the year is 2038 and artificial intelligence has evolved to the point that humans have begun producing lifelike “androids,” machines that look and function like people and are well on their way to replacing the human workforce. Ground zero is Detroit, Michigan, a city known historically for its engineering innovations that has since fallen into a legendary economic decline. Androids now work the large manufacturing plants. Families purchase androids to take care of housework and help raise the kids—walking, talking, sharper-than-a-computer babysitters that bear every resemblance to their human makers, apart from that pesky thing called a conscience. Detroit, previously ravaged by economic hardship, is thriving once again as a sprawling, high-tech metropolis. Of course, this picture-perfect utopia is going to be short-lived.
The game opens to a coin being flipped, foreshadowing the many life or death decisions that the player will have to make before the credits roll. Elevator doors open, the man flipping the coin steps into a darkened hallway, and a Detroit City police officer in full SWAT gear radios out, “Negotiator on site.” Before this “negotiator” can reach the end of the hallway, a hysterical woman being escorted by another officer grabs him. “Please!” she clamors. “You gotta save my little girl.” Then her eyes register the strange blue circle glowing in his temple, and she realizes that this man is not a man at all. “Wait,” she says breathlessly to the other officers, “You’re sending an android?” The policeman drags her away. “You can’t do that!” she shouts. “Why aren’t you sending a real person?”
Thus begins the game. The android “negotiator” in question is an RK800 model called Connor (Bryan Dechart), an advanced prototype specifically designed to assist law enforcement in hunting down deviant androids—basically, the Blade Runner of this game’s universe.
As the player assumes control, the situation is dire: something has gone seriously wrong with a family’s beloved android, whom the daughter affectionately named “Daniel.” Daniel has killed the father and taken the daughter hostage. The deviant android now stands on the precipice of the high rise in which the family lived, threatening to jump with the girl unless his demands for a means to escape are met. The player, as Connor, must attempt to defuse the situation as it unfolds in real time. Do you choose to risk time by investigating the family’s apartment, to gather evidence that could potentially help you resolve the situation with no further loss of life? Do you attempt to talk Daniel down peacefully? Or do you acquire a weapon and prepare to neutralize the deviant android as efficiently as possible before the machine can hurt the child?
The opening sequence is a microcosm of the larger plot of the game: androids—humanity’s children—are rebelling against their creators. This is a central conceit in science fiction, and indeed in mythic literature in general, from the story of humanity’s rebellion in Scripture, to defiant Prometheus in Greek mythology, to the monster’s insurrection in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even to the robotic Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. Such ideas make for timeless storytelling devices, and it was only a matter of time before these themes would penetrate the video game medium.
After Connor, players are introduced to an AX400 android called Kara (Valorie Curry), owned by a stocky and loud-mouthed single father named Todd Williams (Dominic Gould). Todd uses her to take care of the shabby residence, serve him beers on demand, and tend to the needs of his daughter, Alice. Players get to know Kara as she goes about her daily routine of house duties, only to discover through her bond with Alice that Todd is an alcoholic with a history of violence, toward both his android and his daughter. It is here that the game turns players’ emotions against them, as the connection players form with Alice leads to Kara developing maternal instincts, turning deviant, and going on the run from Todd.
The third and final character players are introduced to is Markus (Jesse Williams), by far the game’s most archetypal heroic figure, yet also one of the more compelling portrayals of a messianic figure in recent memory. Players first assume control of Markus while he is going to pick up an order of paint for his owner, Carl Manfred (voiced by and modeled after legendary science fiction actor Lance Henriksen). Carl is a bedridden artist who lives alone in a mansion of a home, his only companion being this sophisticated RK200 prototype android gifted to him by a friend.
When Markus returns with the paint, Carl encourages him to find something to do to occupy his time rather than stand ready to serve at any given moment. The player is then given any number of options, from reading Shakespeare or several other classical works of literature, to playing a piano, to sitting down for a game of chess. Carl watches how Markus interacts with the world and encourages him to “find himself.” By nurturing Markus and his autonomy, Carl takes on the role of the mythical “wise old man,” helping to guide Markus toward independence.
But where many video games that incorporate these mythic themes might see the traditional hero undergo some sort of physical training at the outset of their journey, Detroit: Become Human sees Carl encouraging Markus to become his own person through the liberation of the mind. At one point, Carl suggests that Markus paint something on a blank canvas. Markus, an android, starts to respond with “my programming does not allow for this,” but Carl insists that he simply close his eyes and draw what he feels. The wise old man tells him to “draw something that doesn’t exist, something you’ve never seen.”
In this particularly haunting scene, Carl encourages his android to make use of his imagination, a singularly brilliant moment that made me wonder how C. S. Lewis might respond to such an idea. Markus’s first steps toward consciousness—what science fiction writers often call sentience—begins by unlocking his imagination. Perhaps one of the most neglected components of salvation and sanctification is the effect Christ has upon the faculty of the imagination. Lewis himself described his salvation experience as having begun as a “baptism of the imagination” through his encounter with George MacDonald’s classic work Phantastes. The android has the perfect body; it will never deteriorate. It has the perfect mind; it can think and calculate as quickly as a computer. But what it doesn’t have is an imagination. At least, not until someone comes along to awaken that within them.
Throughout the course of his investigation into the deviant androids, Connor uncovers references to a mysterious entity called “rA9.” No matter how many times players pick through different iterations of the story, we are never quite told directly what or who rA9 is. What is clear, however, is that the deviants have come to revere rA9 as a kind of messianic figure—some claim him to be the first android to “wake up,” to achieve sentience. Others whisper that he will one day return and free the other androids still enslaved to their programming. Elijah Kamski, the creator of the androids, claims that rA9 represents a strange phenomenon, a kind of religion or spiritual belief system that has spontaneously arisen from within the android consciousness. And as Markus’s journey puts him on the path to lead an android uprising, the game solidifies the connection between the imagination and religious belief.
But perhaps the most compelling aspect of the game is hinted at in its subtitle: Become Human. Many science fiction stories deal with the dreaded technological singularity—few have ever explored the concept with as much nuance and immersivity as Detroit: Become Human. By grounding players at the onset of an artificial intelligence rebellion, the game not only gives players the freedom to explore this fascinating phenomenon from multiple perspectives, but also forces players to confront their own ethical presuppositions regarding rapidly advancing technologies. This is no surprise, as the writings of eminent futurist Ray Kurzweil proved to be major sources of inspiration for the game’s nearly 4000-page script.
Yet, as a Christian, I find that Detroit: Become Human also invites a wholly other kind of discussion through its immersive gameplay. Looking through the artificial eyes of the android, the player experiences firsthand the springing up of consciousness and autonomy, the birth of decision-making with consequences. As players guide these androids into autonomy, they end up reexperiencing that fateful moment of choice in the garden of Eden.
When the man and the woman disobey their Creator in the early chapters of Genesis, when they take up the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). In Detroit: Become Human, Markus’s awakening demands that he makes careful decisions as he takes his first steps toward self-rule—and every choice comes with a consequence. If Markus leads a violent android rebellion, even if the player has established his motivations as pure, the human citizens that populate the game’s world will respond in kind. Violence is met with violence. Sometimes, even mercy is met with violence—but occasionally hope springs eternal.
As the player, you are asked to inhabit three non-humans and effectively carry them into their humanity. The degree to which your protagonists exhibit the human traits of compassion, for example, is the degree to which you choose to exhibit them through these characters. Players are first introduced to Connor, the cold, calculating machine, then find themselves attached emotionally to Alice through the character of Kara. But this is not enough. We must be formed in our humanity; our imaginations must be stimulated by something. The attachment must be imbued with meaning. And that search for meaning is embodied in Markus’s journey. Perhaps, the game suggests, he is rA9—the android messiah—incarnate. But who is he willing to destroy along the way? Better yet, what is he willing to sacrifice?
Christians, of course, will easily recognize the ideas at play in Detroit: Become Human. Even David Cage, an avowed atheist, seems to understand the power of mythic archetypes to draw us further up and further into the reality of redemption wrought by sacrifice. It is little wonder, then, that he positions Markus as the game’s primary Christ-figure. But in this medium, the choice of messiahship is turned over to the player. As Christians, we know what Jesus has done. As players, we look at the landscape of Detroit: Become Human and see all the potential for what Markus can do. The question that Cage poses by resting the power of choice with the player is: what will you do?
To answer that question, one should play the game. Do it thoughtfully, and you just might discover something about yourself in the process.