Warning: Spoilers Ahead for the beginning of Detroit: Become Human.
As I did a previous week, this week we’re going to analyze a story and how it accomplishes a specific writing element. In this week’s case, we’re taking a look at Detroit: Become Human and how I believe the game manages to give us an immediate connection to the three playable characters: Connor, Markus, and Kara. Obviously, this is simply my opinion, but I think it is an analysis worth tackling.
Detroit: Become Human is a game by Quantic Dream that just came out at the end of May. The game is set in a future where human-looking androids are common place and do menial tasks that humans no longer want to do. The three playable characters, Connor, Markus, and Kara, are all androids with various occupations. Connor is a cop trying to solve why android deviancy is on the rise and what’s causing androids to “malfunction.” Markus, meanwhile, cares for an elderly gentleman who is keen on Markus developing an identity for himself. Lastly, Kara is a recently fixed maid for a depressed, drunken man and his daughter, and she must learn to process the abuse and lifestyle that is before her eyes. While the trials and tribulations all three face are different, each story is connected by themes of what it means to human, and what we should do when our own creations gain sentience.
Given that the game is split into three separate (albeit connected) narratives, this presents an interesting challenge for the story: it has a severely limited time to develop the characters. As such, it is imperative that from the very start the story provide a way for the player to connect with and care about each character. In my opinion, the story does this expertly by utilizing three relatable setups that tap into our emotions of empathy and/or sympathy. At the same time, each setup also provides immediate reasons to care about a situation’s future outcome and/or effect. Let us examine each character one by one.
In Connor’s first mission, the player is immediately thrown into a stressful situation: a murderous android is holding a little girl hostage, and Connor must negotiate her release. Throughout the ordeal, the story emphasizes how time is of the essence, with characters both commenting on it and rushing around. Additionally, the story makes sure the mechanics emphasize the right amount of direness by having Connor routinely see the chances of success. This sort of high stress situation immediately evokes empathy from the player; almost everyone has been in a high stress situation and understands how unpleasant it is. Seeing someone else go through it is generally something people will connect to on a personal level, which is the case with Connor.
However, the premise alone fulfills a key element of making the player care: the outcome is emphasized to be their responsibility. Most people would not want to see a little girl hurt, and because the responsibility is placed solely on Connor (and hence the player), there is an immediate weight to the entire encounter. As Connor is fairly unexpressive during the ordeal, it makes it easier for the player to slip into his shoes as well. In the end, this combination makes it so that the outcome will emotionally affect the player, as it’s their responsibility. By association, the player is thus made to assume that Connor will be equally affected. In the end, this combination of stress and responsibility makes for a relatable stew that invests the player in Connor’s role and emotional well-being.
The next character we will discuss is Markus. Unlike Connor’s high stress situation, Markus’ chapter is short and rather laidback. Between the characters, his involves the most world-building, as it is through him that we discover things like there is an unemployment crisis, vehicles now have no drivers, and other aspects. Markus’ opening chapter is simple in premise as well: he is tasked to pick up paint. Outside of some exploration, there is no real action to be had. However, at the end this changes: Markus is confronted by anti-android humans (at least in the play-through I watched). Though Markus remains stoic and simply tries to go about his business, the crowd beats him up and threatens to kill him, at least until a police officer intervenes. After the situation is solved, we see yet another telling world-building aspect that further colors the situation: androids like Markus are made to stand in a separate section in the back of the bus.
No matter the person, everyone tends to react with disgust when they see injustice before their eyes. Their sympathy and care immediately goes to the victim, especially when the victim wasn’t doing anything wrong. Thus is the case with Markus: he is subjected to injustice for no reason other than existing, and this fact makes it easy to care about him. Additionally so, unlike the other characters, his chapter opens up a conflict that players will have to wait to see the outcome for: what will happen to androids with this division between them and humans. This provides intrigue that the player can care about when it comes to Markus’ character, and this is further added to later on as Markus’ sense of identity is explored. Once again, the story is quick to provide reasons for us to care about a character, this time with injustice and civil rights as the draw in.
Lastly, we have Kara, a maid-programmed android. Our introduction to her character offers two tidbits that almost immediately evoke sympathy. For one, Kara has been reset, so has absolutely no memory of how she was broken, who she was, or anything like that. This is an understandable situation that anybody can feel some sorrow about. However, the second sympathy prompt comes from Kara’s owner, Todd. From the get-go, Todd is portrayed as extremely creepy and suspicious. Unlike other patrons, Todd seems a bit more of a slob, he’s twitchier, and even when he tries to explain how Kara got broken, a pause emphasizes that he’s lying. Yet, despite him being creepy, Kara has to go with him no matter what. Even if Kara doesn’t fear him, the player certainly does. Thus, sympathy is immediately given to Kara since it is her safety on the line.
As her story continues, the sympathy is only compounded further with Todd’s general abuse of her, as he continually yells and bosses her around without a single thank you. In totality, Kara being in potential danger, or at least in an abusive house, is one that truly pulls at all the sympathy strings. There is no reason for her to suffer this fate, and yet she does. However, one of the ends of one of her chapters is what drives home the point of why the player should care about her outcome. After receiving a key from Alice, Kara checks a box and notices some pictures which depict two things: Todd’s daughter, Alice, is potentially being abused, and Kara was indeed broken by him. This proof provides a definitive reason for the player to care about the outcome, because there is no telling anymore whether Kara might survive a few days even. Altogether, this fear and immediate threat to safety is what makes her character relatable and easy to care about.
To summarize, when one has to make the consumer care about a character fast, the best methods are often to evoke an emotional connection. Sometimes this means putting the character in immediate danger, and other times its giving the character a weighty responsibility that could have fatal consequences. The key is to emphasize the points of conflict that any person can connect with. In Connor’s case this was the emphasis on his responsibility and feelings of stress. In Markus’ case, it was his brush with injustice in daily life. Meanwhile, Kara’s case of connection was bred through fears of safety when being around a seemingly dangerous person. All these aspects are relatable in their broadness; combined with there being an immediate presentation there will be good or bad consequences, the connection to the characters is made swiftly. Of course, one cannot simply stop here, and the story’s success is largely based upon the further buildup that happens in later chapters. However, the character introductions provide a good foundation for success, especially considering the time limits placed upon them. Hopefully, this will give you some idea for the next time you introduce your characters, because the faster you can make a reader care, the faster they will be invested in the story.