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What does it mean to care? How, in a face-less digital world can a medium simulate the thoughts and feelings only conveyed between two individuals face-to-face? Is it possible? Should it be? Questions such as these are what I believe the video game company Quantic Dream and creator David Cage tried to answer in their recent work Detroit: Become Human. Critics have given it mixed reviews, as is the trend for Quantic's IPs but the inquiry of gameplay value or graphics pixelation isn't what drove me to truly value the game itself. What gripped my heart most of all was a little girl.
The game consists of three mini-plots that create the overall archplot of the game. In one of these, the player takes on the role of Kara, a female "hand-maid"-type android who eventually gains self-awareness and realizes she has gained maternal bonding with her child ward, Alice. The allusions to Lewis Carrol's work aside, the little girl Alice at first presents a McGuffin trope for Kara to continue her journey, and with that in mind I tossed off any emotional concern the relationship with her would have. Until the game masterfully subverted me to care. Let me explain: at first, the slightly heavy-handed drama forces you to make a life-or-death decision involving the young girl's life. I was a bit obdurate in the fact that the superimposed drama was trying to force emotional tethering to a character I just met. The average person would inherently choose to save a child's life if they could; whether there was a relationship or not and I bet whether the decision happened in a game or the real world. And knowing Alice was the plot device for Kara's story as well, I kept a hard-hearted approach as I pushed the right buttons during the game's quick-time-events. Once the action ended and the scene moved on, the game opens up to a sandbox element, allowing you your first taste of free reign. Yet during your walkabout, you come to realize that you aren't alone as in almost every other sandbox style game. You have the small child Alice clinging onto you, clutching your hand with a force near the snapping tension of an African crocodile. And this, this moment was when I was subdued and found my heart under subterfuge to being a convert for caring for the little one, Alice.
It's late Autumn, near midnight, and raining. Hard. You, an android, feel nothing of course, but your little charge is freezing, anxious, and scared. You push the character out of your mind, and you explore, looking over the environment details, testing the player limits of what you can do and where the invisible walls are. Even trying to make the game clip for the fun of it. And all the while as you take your time, searching this nook and that cranny, that small thing is still there, clinging to you, its face one of worry, and fear. And this in my opinion, was genius. How do you make a character matter to the player? Give them the power over their well-being, and give them time.
The greatest formula for player emotional impact has been time. Games have shown that if time is taken from the player as to making an option that can potentially be plot and emotionally deciding, it creates a stronger catharsis to the overall implementation the player feels they made by the same choices. To simulate that tethering, the absence of infinite time is taken away, just like in real life. But how do you create the same feeling with a character relationship, when the contrary is the very element that makes relationships well? When it comes to Kara and Alice, the developers give you the space and simulated freedom to do what you will in their sandbox space, but with an attachment. You must do it with Alice with you. And you must watch as she shivers, coughs, and stays wet in the cold rain as you do it. You must watch her suffering; suffering you control. It's only a cherry on top that it's a little girl that is hurting. It is hard to ride the line of empathic benefactor and forced slave driver for emotion and I think the motel/laundry mat zone of Kara/Alice does so. And it does by an invisible choice.
While you search around in this level o the game, every self-autonomous decision you make is also a silent decision of empathy. Of caring whether the little girl is safe. Granted, the plot for this part of the game is literally to keep Alice safe (they consistently show those words throughout the walkspace), the expediency to do it is all up to the player. And the more you brush it off, the more you push it away to be yourself and not care for the child's safety, presents an empathetic mirror of you the player, whether you wanted it to or not. And why does it matter, really? She's a digital recreation of a simulated event in a medium of virtual reality. But that's the rub, isn't it? This is a game based upon what it means to be real, and questions whether simulations can hold the same inherent respect for caring as something that IS real. So as in the best stories, what appears to be the weakest element turns out to be the strongest, and the young Alice who, in a world being torn apart by ambivalent adults and possible altruistic/antagonisitic androids, presents a choice simple in its course, but most powerful in its meaning: to be a little girl that needs to be out of the cold, given a warm hug, and told the world is going to be all right.