Speaker: Victoria Lagrange @vlagrang
Affiliation: Kennesaw State University
Title: Individualized Communal Experience: Players of Detroit: Become Human
Abstract (long version below): Digital interactive narratives are co-constructed: narrative designers create a branching narrative and players decide how the narrative evolves. In this paper, I apply mixed methods to the study of the reception of Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human. I ask: Which factors contribute to immersion and drive choice-making in a branching narrative? Which elements affect the replay value? I show that interactive fiction promotes high immersion through players’ agency. Digital interactive fiction also allows for a seemingly paradoxical individualized communal experience leading to replay to explore the different narrative paths. It also promotes biased empathy for the different protagonists.
Players of digital interactive fiction question and combine media. They are active, make choices, identify with the characters, and participate in a communal experience in an individualized way. Digital interactive fiction – narratives that evolve in response to players’ choices – places the audience at the core of its narrative: the spectator becomes, in a way, the “creator” of content. However, considering the player as a single entity in digital interactive fiction can lead to misconceptions. New media platforms all benefit from a constant internet connection, and most new releases today benefit from a communal investment in the narrative content. For instance, the practice of fanfiction writing has been popular since the 2000s, and so have forums dedicated to fan communities of a specific title or franchise. On video game platforms, users can access data representing the choices made by other players. This data allows users to compare their own choices against those other players have made. Furthermore, the multiple possible narrative paths embedded into digital interactive narratives are discussed on social media (sub-Reddit group, Facebook group, YouTube playthroughs, Discord servers, Twitch, Twitter, etc.) with users asking for advice for other playthroughs. Therefore, the individualized experience of the interactive narrative in video games is rendered communal by the existence of the data and forums dedicated to discussions linked to users’ choices.
In this paper, I choose to focus on the video game, Detroit: Become Human (Quantic Dream 2018), for two main reasons: it involves multiple playable characters in the narrative and includes a visible flowchart. This decision tree indicates which choices lead to which narrative path and contains users’ data for each choice. The game has proven to be highly popular: ten weeks after the release of Detroit: Become Human in May 2018, 1.5 million players had spent 20 million hours in the game (Holl 2019). As of January 2023, the studio had sold over 8 million copies.
In this video game set in Detroit and the year 2038, androids are part of everyday life. They are thought of as replacing usual services – house cleaning, babysitting, police, sexual work – and have all become very affordable. The video game’s narrative focuses on the appearance of “deviant” androids who have begun to feel empathy. The player makes choices for three different characters, who often have contradictory goals: Connor, a police investigator android, whose mission is to track down deviants, accompanied by Hank, a detective with a profound hatred for androids; Kara, a deviant housekeeper android, who tries to save a little girl from her abusive father by taking her to Canada; and Markus, a deviant caretaker android, who wants to free the other androids and ends up leading the liberation movement in Jericho. After each chapter of the game, a flowchart appears on the screen, showing users a decision tree that only unlocks the choices the player has made but allows them to compare their choices with those other players (or their “friends” on the platform) have made. In the game, each of the characters can die, and the narrative continues without their storyline (except for Connor, who is just replaced by another model, erasing the user’s previous attempts at making him a deviant).
I hypothesize that interactive fiction video games increase immersion and first-person identification for characters while promoting a paradoxically individualized communal experience. Because digital interactive narratives are co-constructed (they evolve depending on users’ choices), it is impossible to understand them entirely without focusing on the player’s experience. The purpose of this paper is to analyze how players respond to an interactive fiction video game that incites them to replay, and what consequences this type of narrative has on immersion, empathy, and identification with the characters.
In this study, I ask:
- Are interactive fiction games immersive and what contributes to immersion?
I hypothesize that interactive fiction games are highly immersive and that the individualized story as well as the world-building and compelling characters contribute to immersion.
- How do people make choices in interactive fiction?
I conjecture that the players anticipate the outcome of their choices by referring to the context given by the fictional world that they are playing in.
- Do players replay the game, and why?
I hypothesize that most players do replay the game to explore different narrative elements of the game.
- Do players feel empathy for all characters or is it one-sided?
I predict that players feel empathy for specific characters but not necessarily balanced empathy for all of them.
- Can interactive fiction video games induce behavioral change?
I conjecture that interactive fiction video games can affect players’ attitudes shortly after finishing the game.
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