“Detroit is forcing me to do things I don’t want to so I’ve paused it in protest and am just sitting here,” I messaged the group chat on Sunday.
I’d resolved to finish the game that weekend, but I’d reached an impasse. It wasn’t caused by the type of question you’d expect from a game – save this or that character, choose between high or low risk and reward. It was because I was being forced into a morally reprehensible act which undermined the central conflict of the game.
In chapter 24 of Detroit: Become Human, Public Enemy, I was tasked with determining which of three identical androids was a deviant. Deviants are androids who have broken away from their original programming, are able to exercise free will, and who claim to be alive.
Unfortunately, I had missed the clues that would have helped me identify the deviant. I asked questions, pressured, guilted and even threatened the androids, but I couldn’t catch them out.
Eventually I exhausted all my options in the dialogue tree, until I was left with one.
Press X to Violate Human Rights.
With no warning, and no opportunity to back out, I had been locked into this course of action. I couldn’t ask any more questions, but I wasn’t allowed to walk away.
To progress in the game, I had to torture one of these men.
In an interview with Gamespot, writer and director David Cage stated that in Detroit: Become Human, “you can’t unlock any trophy with actions that are not [morally] right. That’s something that we were really careful about. There’s no gain in doing mean things or wrong things.”
Indeed, you don’t gain a trophy for torturing the android in Public Enemy. However, during other points in the game, trophies can be earned for the unprovoked killing of other defenceless androids.
Murder is generally accepted as mean, wrong and immoral. So, in light of these trophies, the only way that Cage’s assertion can be true is if killing androids is not murder. And the only way it could not be murder is if the androids in Detroit: Become Human are not people.
The question of android personhood is the primary source of conflict throughout the game. Are they living beings, or just sophisticated machines? Each character struggles with this question in a different way, and for some of them their stance will shift depending upon the player’s decisions.
Detroit attempts to create Schrödinger’s personhood – the androids are both people and not people, until the player makes a choice.
However, Cage’s assertion in conjunction with the existence of these trophies thwarts the game’s attempt at impartiality, placing Detroit firmly in one philosophical camp. It is not immoral to kill androids, therefore androids are not people.
This might not be an issue in a different game. However, the imagery and rhetoric used throughout Detroit: Become Human constantly and inextricably ties the treatment of the androids to the actual dehumanisation of real people.
In Detroit’s third chapter, entitled Shades of Color, android Marcus boards a bus. Entering via a designated android entrance, he stands in a small compartment at the back, separate from the humans. Prior to 1956, black bus passengers in Alabama were required to board via the back door, sit in the back half of the vehicle, and give up their seats to white passengers if the front half was full.
In chapter six, Connor, also an android, stands outside Jimmy’s Bar. He needs to find someone inside, but hesitates to enter. A sign on the door declares, “No androids.” During segregation in America, many stores and restaurants bore signs indicating that people of colour were not welcome, or designating different facilities for them.
In chapter 26, Marcus can stand in front of a shop window, deciding what pro-android slogan to tag it with. One option: “We have a dream.” On 23 August 1963, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr famously stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and gave a speech calling for an end to racial segregation and discrimination. This speech is now known by its refrain of “I have a dream”.
In chapter 32, Kara can be taken in a truck to a recycling centre, where she is ordered to remove all her clothing and deposit it into tubs. She is then marched into a pen with other androids, who are corralled into a container in which they are killed. During World War 2, Jewish people were taken to camps in trucks, where they were instructed to undress then sent to gas chambers in which they were killed.
“Some say these [android] camps awaken painful memories from human history,” a reporter may put to Detroit‘s President Warren. “How do you respond to that?”
“That’s absurd,” Warren asserts. “There’s absolutely no connection.”
Throughout the game, androids wear clothes marked with a triangle on their breast and band around their arm, clearly marking them as androids. Under the Nazis, Jewish people were made to wear identifying badges on their breasts and armbands. In concentration camps, prisoners wore inverted triangle badges to identify why they had been detained.
And in one of the extra shorts, an android built to appear as a black man stands in a dark room, singing a slow, mournful slave song, “Hold On Just A Little While Longer”. This song, which originated from black slaves in America, can also be sung by the androids in the climax of the game.
Despite all of this, Cage claims he didn’t draw heavily from real world history, and has famously said that he did not want to send any message in Detroit: Become Human.
“If people want to see parallels with this or that, that’s fine with me,” Cage said in an earlier interview with Kotaku. “But my story’s about androids who want to be free.”
Video: Detroit: Become Human – Luther
I still enjoyed Detroit. I found the characters endearing, the setting interesting, and the story as engaging as any good YA novel. I was invested in guiding Connor, Kara and Markus to freedom and happiness. And the graphics, of course, were beautifully detailed.
However, the game is marred by its shallow swipes at history.
“I wanted to create a very emotional experience, and I want the player to feel something in Detroit – that’s my goal as a creator,” Cage told Play UK (via Wccftech). Indeed, there are moments where Detroit clearly reaches for moving set pieces, particularly during the protest scenes.
But these scenes echoed hollowly, even teetering into farce, shallowly mimicking emotions they didn’t earn. Press O for Equal Rights.
Detroit attempts to extract and package the deep emotion born from real acts of injustice, while refusing to acknowledge those acts or their influence, much less put in the hard work of dealing with them. Instead, the game clumsily tries to sidestep the issue altogether, portraying the future America of Detroit as a post-racial society.
Detroit seeks to evoke emotion without meaning, using the symbology and language of oppressed people’s histories to do so. In doing this, it treats them as though they are simply more tools in its arsenal, a tray of paints it can take off a shelf to splash some colour onto its landscape.
When dealing with weighty subject matter such as slavery, segregation, persecution and human rights, conveying a message is impossible to avoid. By using the palette of painfully real human struggles for recognition and survival, Detroit: Become Human ties the history of disenfranchised people to the androids’ plight, regardless of Cage’s intention. Failure to consider what message is being sent is, at the very least, tone deaf and dismissive.
As a reflection of real issues, Detroit: Become Human is shallow and clumsy. As a shortcut to emotional resonance, it is a cheap, thoughtless trick.