Detroit: Become Human Attempts Schrödinger’s Personhood

Detroit: Become Human Attempts Schrödinger’s Personhood
Image: Detroit: Become Human
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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.

Image: Detroit: Become Human

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.

Image: Detroit: Become Human

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.

Image: Detroit: Become Human

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.”

Image: Detroit: Become Human

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.

Image: Detroit: Become Human

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.

Image: Detroit: Become Human

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.


  • Ha ha, I love how David Cage manages to rile up so many journalists by trolling them.

    Cage is 100% on the money: the game and its story is what you make of them. If you see historical parallels, that’s great, but if you don’t, that’s fine too. The adaptability of the narrative has gone meta. It’s not so much Schroedinger’s personhood, but Schroedinger’s Cage!

    • I think the point of the article was that having things in your game that have such strong resonance with people due to their closeness to historical events and denying or not acknowledging that makes it a dismissive move on your part.

      • Pretty much. Cage has been super forward about wanting to ask questions of the player, leveraging various events, tensions in human history (like racism, but adapted to androids this time) and so forth for emotional impact. That’s totally fine! Games should take perspective and inspiration from the world around them – but do more with the setup, that’s all. Don’t ask a question of the player and then dodge the answer in-game with the most cliched response possible.

        I still had fun with the game (more so than the US), but that’s where I’ve fallen on it. Still think most people will enjoy it, though. But I don’t think time will be kind to Detroit’s story, and there’s just cause for that.

        • I suppose that’s one of the dangers of making a narrative political in nature. The Zeitgeist evolves but the narrative is set in stone after release.

        • I find it odd how Kotaku is the only obvious online source constantly poking at this game. I played and finished it the other night and thought it was an absolute ball. Probably one of the few games I’d actually replay. Felt like an old school choose-your-own adventure book from the 90s told in a beautiful dystopian setting. I’m probably in the minority, but I actually paused my God of War (The last of us – Nordic edition) to immerse myself in this. I’m not super biased as I cgaf about Cage’s other games and thought Heavy Rain was ‘meh’ at best. I do love me some neon dystopia though and I thought this had some fantastic use of the world.

          • I genuinely enjoyed Detroit as well and the game had me thinking for days. I actually paused my play through of The Witcher 3 to play it. I’ve never played any of Cage’s other games and I was only vaguely aware of them before playing Detroit, so I wouldn’t say that I’m biased either.

            I still thought Amanda’s article was great (I liked Heather’s earlier one as well), and they both make some very interesting and valid points. I find that poking and critiquing a game doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of it at all. It’s the opposite for me – if a story-driven game that tackles such meaty subjects as slavery, the nature of humanity, oppression, didn’t inspire lots of thinkpieces, it probably wouldn’t be worth playing.

      • Very interesting point. What obligation does David Cage have, though, to those people in particular over, say, everyone who buys his game? These people might see it as dismissive, but the generic consumer might see it as balanced. As we’ve seen, there is no ‘right answer’ to avoid offending everyone.

      • When I create my art, I don’t give a f*** what people think. You like it? Great. You don’t? Move on. I don’t need to justify anything and neither should he.

        • Sometimes you have to care what people think! And when you make a piece of art or create media that is intended to be consumed and there’s another profession of people who are professional critics of that format then it’s expected that they will weigh in on it? I think your argument is that the average person who plays the game shouldn’t share their opinion on it, but I think that’s against the grain of human nature and the nature of shared experiences (or shared individual experiences, like video games).

  • 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.

    Totally the games fault. 1/10

    All this criticism of David Cage is just disheartening. I haven’t played Detroit, but the guy is serving up something different. It may not be for everyone, nothing is, but if I were him and read the article above I’d probably be thinking “why the fuck do I even bother? I’ll just make a shooter and be done with it”.

    Also, the author’s references to “human rights” and “painfully real human struggles” suggest that his narrative achieved exactly what he intended no?

    • Serving up something different doesn’t make it above criticism, especially when Cage is consistently shown to be deserving of such criticism.

      If Cage deliberately and consciously draws parallels to real world tragedies, issues and events – and you absolutely can’t say he isn’t doing that – he should be criticised if he uses them in the way he has. If Cage wants to tell a story and people criticise the gameplay I would agree that’s a little unfair, but if they criticise that story that Cage is so interested in that is fair game.

      Cage thinks of himself pretty highly to hear him speak on the topic, and that his writing is so consistently poor, exploitative or just lazy while remaining popular makes his work a more appealing target than other narrative focused games for such criticism. Ultimately if any artist would defend their work with a “you might be right, but you might be wrong” argument in response to less than favourable reactions to their work they are a coward. They refuse to acknowledge the obvious aesthetic influences, the historical parallels and the questionable choices they made while still trying to retain ownership over, and credit for, those elements people liked. If Cage made the choices he did and people think he had a responsibility to do more than pay lip service to the themes he should face that, either in support or opposition, owning his own decisions. Anything else is either admitting incompetence or cowardice, and Cage is regularly described with both labels. That’s largely his fault.

      • I think that one of Art’s highest achievements is to provoke discussion. Cage should not be obliged to provide a ‘canonical’ interpretation of his work. Whilst some artists choose to make a statement through their work, Cage has deliberately chose ambivalence. One might argue that this is even more effective than making a clear-cut statement of intent.

    • I actually don’t get the complaint about Connor abusing human….er, android…rights because that’s kinda the whole point of the scene? Connor isn’t a deviant. He’s an android programmed to achieve one thing, and that is hunting and capturing deviants. So of course he’d do anything to achieve it, even if that means resorting to torture. He doesn’t have an option NOT to torture them. He sees himself as a machine with only one purpose. So it’s not like the game is going to give you the option of letting them go. I suppose it could be argued that (if you play Connor as a good guy) he has already let deviants go in the past, but there’s a difference between letting the Traci’s go when nobody else (besides Hank) is there to see, and letting a deviant go in front of an entire group of policeman who are depending on him.

  • I don’t understand how Cage could make such strong, obvious statements in the game and then back away from them in interviews. I’m glad I didn’t read any of his statements before playing Detroit, because it would have annoyed me.

  • I haven’t played it but why on Earth would humans make convincing AI just to treat them like Jews in WW2 without any awareness of the Nazi comparison?

    Without the full picture, it seems easy to see why people dismiss Cage as a hack.

    Especially with this bit: “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.”

    Yeah nah

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