Detroit: Become Human feels like “enough” in many ways. But despite the impressively branching narrative and beautiful motion capture, the game rings hollow. A lack of diverse creators involved in the project seems to keep the game’s narrative from moving beyond tropes and “Resistance 101.”
When I played Detroit: Become Human, I played it blind, in the sense of the game’s narrative as well as to some controversies around the actions of its creators. Playing this game was an interesting experience because it was… enough in many ways. Engaging enough I’ve played through it twice to see how much choice truly made an impact. Visually pretty enough I couldn’t stop staring at the lovely rain effects and motion capture. Acted well-enough— particularly by Bryan Dechart and Valorie Curry— that I cared about what happened to the characters. I even finished it in just two sessions, logging about 14 hours my first playthrough! But even without knowledge of the studio’s history to color my opinions, a nagging dissatisfaction stuck with me.
Set in a future Detroit, the story follows three androids: Kara (Valorie Curry) who escapes an abusive owner, taking his young daughter, Alice, with her; Connor (Bryan Dechart), who is programmed to work with the police to find deviant—or sentient—androids and shut them down; and Markus (Jesse Williams), an android who begins as a caretaker of an old artist, but gains sentience and becomes the leader of the “deviant” movement. You switch between these three playable characters, grappling with dialogue choices and quick-time events that push you through the narrative and into topics such as the nature of humanity, civil and human rights, and resistance.
Despite claims from studio director David Cage that the game is trying to “universally” represent the struggle of oppressed people, Detroit draws from and points to experiences from the 1960s’ US Civil Rights Movement. This in and of itself is not bad: games are products of our experiences. Drawing from history to ground a narrative, and allow audiences to explore their thoughts on an issue, can be effective. But Detroit: Become Human turns into the game equivalent of grabbing a burger and fries at a drive-through by using cheap tropes and surface-level narrative and politics: it’s enough in some ways, but misses the chance to provide true substance and depth to the story it seems to want to tell.
In Kara’s first chapters, for example, the player not only witnesses an abusive home environment but must quickly select actions to take when Alice is attacked by her father. Forcing the player to choose actions in the heat of the moment can quickly facilitate the development of emotional investment, but in reducing Kara and Alice’s escape from Todd into quick and simple dialogue options, the complexity of real people removing themselves from abusive environments is lost in the heat of the moment. Even when creating a story with the best of intentions—or perhaps even more so—it’s important to recognize blind spots. Areas of weakness. Lack of experience. This is why representation at all levels of the game creation experience—not just in the game itself—matters.
When asked about his work, Cage states,
“You want to talk about homophobia? We work with Ellen Page, who fights for LGBT rights. You want to talk about racism? We work with Jesse Williams, who fights for civil rights in the United States. Judge my work.”
Citing your cast and the labor they’ve done isn’t good enough. Nowhere does Cage detail additional resources, groups, or leaders utilized to inform his narrative choices. If Quantic Dream had drawn from a wider pool of experts—interviewing domestic abuse survivors or talking with participants of social movements, for example — they could have ground the context of their story in the complexities of lived experience. They could have encouraged players to address in-game situations with deeper consideration and nuance. Instead, Quantic went for low-hanging fruit, with scenes highlighting how androids must stand at the back of the bus.
Markus’ story underscores this lack throughout the game. It stood out as one with potential: his face is on the North American cover for the game after all. Yet his story falls flat due to inconsistent characterization, a cut and dry “chosen one” story, and cheesy one-liners about freedom. You choose a more violent or pacifist route while playing Markus: Malcolm X or MLK? Both options skim over the reasoning of why one would take one route over the other. Selecting the peaceful revolutionary route, in particular, oversimplifies the complexities of change. Peaceful actions (in-game) have immediate success in changing the sentiment of the general population. Markus does not struggle in his role, and—as long as you press the right buttons—can potentially lead androids to freedom with barely a scratch or turmoil.
Gamifying a revolution is a difficult endeavor. Why not ask for the voices of those in social movements fighting for progress today like Black Lives Matter rather than sit on tropes and 101-level content? If they were consulted, why not cite them as an influence? Construct the foundations of a futuristic android revolution in the Motor City by basing them on the history and struggles of actual Detroit… struggles marginalized people of the US— and around the world—still combat today.
Game developers and studios have the opportunity to foster perspective sharing and empathy growth because games are experiential. Good games can provide nuanced glimpses into what life is like for others, like any other form of media. By hiring a diverse range of voices to write, and even a wider range of experiences to QA and provide feedback, studios can begin to take their narratives to the next level. Otherwise, players may leave the title having experienced a caricature, insulting the very people it’s trying to represent.
Indie developers, generally with smaller teams and more freedom in their process, seem to push these ideas forward best. Take Solace State, a game where developer Tanya Kan interviewed political figures and revolutions in Hong Kong and the US to inform her narrative. Or Revolution 1979: Black Friday, a title by iNK studios that immerses the player in the struggles of the Iranian Revolution by incorporating first-hand testimonies of witnesses and freedom fighters as well as primary source documents. Finally, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) was developed through the involvement and participation of elders and members from Inupiaq communities of Alaska, utilizing photographs, video footage, interviews, and the Inupiaq language to contextualize the gameplay experience. Support studios taking the time to put in this work. It encourages better narratives as well as pushes larger studios into taking action.
Even amidst moments of enjoying the game, Detroit: Become Human left me wanting more. This title had so much potential: potential to examine class and power structures through the advent of androids. Of exploring social change and what it takes to get there. While the game was a feat visually and mechanically…it still felt hollow. It makes me wonder: what if Quantic Dream HAD put in that work? Hired from a wide range of experiences to ensure the narrative matched the impressive visuals and number of story branches? Perhaps Detroit: Become Human could have shifted from a title of lost potential and troublesome tropes to an impactful gaming experience. One that challenged its audience to move beyond pop culture understandings of oppression and resistance.