I Hope Our Bleak Future Resembles the Music in ‘Detroit: Become Human’
The video game is as triumphant as it is traumatic, and – in the case of one character’s story – that’s down to the work of composer Philip Sheppard.
A still from 'Detroit: Become Human'
The future is weird. Or as Motion City Soundtrack once put it: it freaks me out. Yes, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic but from time to time I think about where our species will be in several years, then slightly panic. Think about the myriad of disasters looming on the horizon: nuclear war, global warming, extraterrestrial invasion, etc. And then there’s Artificial Intelligence, which is terrifying. Just look at this disturbing mechanical dog, or Sophia the Robot (who binned Will Smith on a ‘date’). Fuck that. Terminate.
Still, there are folk who believe Artificial Intelligence could be humane – something explored in Detroit: Become Human, the exclusively PS4 video game released last month. Detroit is gaming on a grand, blockbuster scale. Set in 2038, the story follows three protagonist androids – Connor (a police investigator); Kara (a housekeeper); and Markus (a caretaker) – as they navigate their way through a human-dominated world, often attempting to gain consciousness. Given that the subject matter veers almost into Black Mirror territory, it’s a beautifully profound and unique game.
Part of Detroit’s appeal is its open-ended narrative. Players choose their own story, where multiple paths culminate in multiple different endings – not unlike childhood ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books. But for me, as a music journalist, one of the game’s biggest triumphs is its music. Specifically composed for the game (with a composer assigned to each of Detroit’s three characters) the music adds to the ambience, which is as desolate as it is emotionally delicate. Kara’s story, in particular, is especially touching. While serving her master, Todd (a single, drug addict dad), she develops a caring and saviour-like relationship with his daughter Alice. It’s a sad scenario, but played out over a backdrop of slowly moving cellos (watch a trailer below), the scene is devastating.
Philip Sheppard is the man responsible for the music in Kara’s story. Though you may not be aware of his name, he is the definition of a modern, working classical musician. He has a crazy amount of soundtrack work under his belt (around 70 film and television works, including pieces from the London 2010 Olympic closing ceremony; 50-ish pieces of solo work, whether as a session musician with the likes of These New Puritans, or releasing his own albums; and has been nominated for a bunch of awards). Detroit: Become Human, however, is his first gaming soundtrack.
“I got a call from David Cage, the game’s director, who said: ‘we’ve got this game and we’ve cut the trailer to your music…’” He speaks down the phone to me from a clouded-over morning in LA’s Marina Del Rey area. Now he laughs: “I was like, ‘how on earth do you know me?’ I’m not a known composer which, believe me, I’m quite happy with.”
That’s a humble identification of self though, because as it turns out, David Cage had heard of Sheppard’s work with Bowie, on the British icon’s album Heathen, on which Sheppard played the cello – his standard instrument. Or rather, he multi-tracked forty-four different cellos for the Bowie track “Everyone Says ‘Hi’”, which seems laughable until you realise how many instruments go into making a grand piece of music. Either way, Sheppard was sold on Detroit’s three-character story. He liked that it was “something different”, and also the fact he was allowed to work on the project for a year, as opposed to some TV soundtracks (which he tells me are often completed in as little as ten days).
To start writing for Kara’s character, Sheppard first put himself in her mindset. He read some of the script, looked at the conceptual art, then sent himself off to a cabin in Montana where he decided “I need to not leave this place until I’ve got this damn thing finished”. At first he thought he would write the sound of Kara’s story from an “electronic point of view”, to “build what the inside of her head feels like.” In the end however, he was influenced by her story: “She is a machine but she suddenly becomes a parent, and I’m a parent of four kids, and so I thought, ‘I can tap into that’. Then suddenly it all became about protecting your daughter, which was suddenly a very strong place to write from, and it all got very emotional very quickly.”
Sheppard isn’t lying, either. Kara’s story is fleshed out with deep human emotion, helped along with the the dark yet also light orchestral pieces that Sheppard wrote while out in the cabin in Montana. The other character’s stories are musically narrated by Iranian film music composer Nima Fakhrara for Connor, and American film music composer John Paesano for Markus, but still, for me, it’s Kara’s soundtrack – and in particular her theme (in which the motif is inspired by the two syllables in her name) – that stands out. Yes, part of that is because I don’t regularly play video games (other releases such as God Of War also employ a classical soundtrack), but the whole thing feels cinematic in a way that’s unlike anything I’ve seen or felt before while standing in front of a TV, gaming controller in hand. Maybe that has to do with the family element. More likely though, it’s because of the idea of AI, consciousness, and humanity.
Strangely enough, Sheppard was friends with the late Marvin Minsky, who was basically “the godfather of AI”. After Minsky passed away, Sheppard was given access to his archives and recordings. In the end, he wrote a piece of music inspired by Minsky, which has made its way into the game as an Easter egg. Sheppard loves this idea, too, and the fact that – upon unlocking the music – there might be a 14-year-old going ‘who’s Marvin Minsky?’ “That’s my job as a musician… not to do stuff about me, but to wrap things up in goosebumps and carry them on to other people,” he says. “And credit to David who totally allowed me to do that. It shows that this is certainly not a commercial project. You can see that that’s someone who has an artistic soul.”
And essentially that’s what Detroit: Become Human is – a piece of art. It’s also brilliantly traumatic, prescient, eye-opening and adventurous. 2038 is, after all, only twenty years from now. Perhaps we’ll have melted into the concrete by then, served early death sentences through global warming. Maybe an asteroid will crash into the earth, killing us off like the dinosaurs. Or, as things seem to be going, we’ll be speaking with androids that are a little more intelligent than Amazon Alexa, who is primarily a source of annoyance at parties.
If that’s the case, and we’ll soon be living with walking-and-talking Artificial Intelligence: fuck our lives. But still, if our lives must be fucked, then please can we have Philip Sheppard’s beautiful compositions playing in the background – all the cellos moving in wonder together as the final sequence of our life plays out in slow motion like a scene from a science fiction film. That’s a dark image, sure. If we’re going to go out that way though, then that’s the way I want to go.
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