Before I’d set eyes on Detroit: Become Human, I was pretty much convinced that I was going to confront myself with the most giant turd that has ever been in the realm of social commentary, especially on the state of civil rights, and racism. Little did I know, people mostly did it out of spite for David Cage, and that soured the taste of people both leftward and rightward politically from looking critically at the things the game was saying, and trying to saying, as opposed to inferring statements it never tried to make in the first place.
Detroit: Become Human is a game that prides itself on the level of production design it required to achieve such a result within the confines of the limited medium that is video games. The problem often with high-budget narrative-focused video games is that they try to reconcile their unflinching urge to wow the player with visuals, with their ambitions to tell a compelling story that you could have just otherwise achieved by turning it into a Netflix show — but the game manages to do incredibly well with what it has, and basically turns itself into a hybrid, of a really gripping and thrilling gaming experience, and the sort of trashy dumb fun Netflix show you’d binge when you have nothing else to do, only with a steeper ask price. Detroit: Become Human, as messy, and as packed with shit as it is, has a lot of things to say, and a game of its magnitude and impact on pop culture, and the gaming community at large, deserves its due, so let’s get into it.
The first thing you’re met with once the game starts, is an introduction to mechanics, which are very simple, almost L.A. Noire-esque in a way, and Telltale-y in another. It feels like the game is trying to strike a balance between having a breadth of interactive environments with objects that can inform the player’s decisions, influence their path, and either facilitate, or make harder for them to reach the current objective. That’s something, if I’m allowed to go on a whim here, I love about video games — they have the ability to engage you in an experience where you reign over your decisions and can carve your own path, whilst at the same time making sure in more tightly-controlled situations, choices you make are properly contextualized and make sense within the rules of the universe, however convoluted and riddled with logic-errors they can feel like at times.
Characters make or break a game, and in this case, they’re not only well-written to where the immersion only breaks through rigorous observation of the hair physics models, they are voiced, and performed by a plethora of world-class leading talent in the gaming industry. Bryan Dechart, the most innocent looking Twitch streamer that could ever be, shines from start to finish, playing the role as he was tasked to with mesmerizing ability; Jesse Williams while stiff at times, manages to pull through with a character that while cliché at times, remains a highlight throughout the game to unforgiving degrees; and the cast is filled with talent you’d be able to recognize from popular TV shows, and other video game franchises to boot. What is it that they do on screen, they do well, and that’s the best praise you can give an actor. That they’re able to perform the job they’re tasked to do by the director in a manner that most reflects their willingness to make good on their unspoken promise to the players — their lack of perfection might steer it clear from hitting its mark. So that part at least, is very well done, and quite simply complete, as the motion-capture technology and the sound design regarding characters’ voice-work is impeccable and compliments it to the nth degree.
The stories though, are perhaps the main driving force for the narrative (ironic isn’t it) of this game, and boy does it deliver. From the moment I sat down to start watching Jacksepticeye’s playthrough, until it concluded — I was glued to my seat, just trying to figure out where the story was going to head next. That’s always a good compliment to pay a video game. You feel like too often, video games have moments of “cool-down”, where the pace doesn’t pick up, or where the gameplay becomes so incredibly tedious, that it forces you to put it down for a bit. With the absence of a true failure state in Detroit: Become Human, the whole story is built around being able to assume the burden of your consequences, and that’s something that video games in general shy away from. Whether it is through save-scumming, going through a checkpoint multiple times because the objective was too hard, or the enemies were too persistent — it felt as though the only single adversary left for the player to wrestle was their ability to make the choices they feel are the most consistent with their moral values.
In movies for example, the viewer is supposed to compartmentalize the fact that the events happening throughout the story are contextualized to play against each other as if they were real. So when someone, is killed, as framed by the movie director, if they seek to provoke empathy as a reaction, they’re meant to give levity to moments of death, make them count, and matter.
However minute, or considerate, it should have an emotional weight that bears consequences for the story. Video games, unfortunately, have too much of a “kill unnamed goons” syndrome to really succeed at delivering any necessary emotional weight and carry the ball home on the lot of long-term social issues. But in Detroit: Become Human, you calculate your decisions accordingly because you know you won’t be able to have second chances if you do stutter when you were supposed to make the right call. It is supposed to emulate how seriously the consequences of real-life decisions are to be taken, in video game format, without the usual loopholes, or gateways meant to distract from it. And while it’s a strength of the medium that you can kill people unbeknownst and not feel a single shred of compassion for them, Detroit: Become Human makes you care. It makes you bleed tears of sadness, or shed those of joy, when you see someone’s life crumble, or thrive right before your very eyes. And on that front, it manages to do something very few video games in the medium, and up until recently, were able to in an even mildly convincing manner.
It allows it thus to culminate into a discussion about the merits of production design in video game criticism, and let me shed my two cents on this for a second: I think it’d be foolish to deny that whoever participated in the making of this high-budget production didn’t work hard on it, because they did. The streets of Detroit are rife with life, organic and artificial. The way the character models are rendered to such immaculacy in a hardware that dates back to late 2013 puts into real question some of the suspect optimization we seem to be getting from pretty much every developer on the PC platform. The sound mixing is nothing short of marvelous, and this is an aspect we see VERY OFTEN cheaped out on if only for the sole reason people would rather drool at pretty reflections in moisture rather than listen to what the game is communicating in auditory form — Detroit however plays like an expensive toy. It’s so pleasing to listen to, and the original composition reeks of electronic elements, choirs, and a mixture of sounds we’ve come to associate from the likes of Blade Runner and other staples in the Cyberpunk genre.
That’s maybe where the game is let down a bit, and where the criticism is often taken to unnecessary depths of crass and outright mockery. While the game tries to pull from the civil rights movement, often to ham-fisted ends, that’s not what it’s drawing from the most, and this might’ve not been echoed as much by critics, but it’s become at this point a meme, in the Detroit: Become Human fan community, and that is: Markus, is an archetype for Jesus.
Markus, who has been the gift of Kamski — the first to create a Turing test passing robot — to Carl, a seasoned visual artist, is asked briefly by Carl, to draw something on the canvas. The game initially lets you pick from basically drawing something that exists within the vicinity, but Carl is unimpressed, bored, and wants you to improve upon which that already exists — that gives birth to a semi-hazardous choice based upon which Markus is supposed to infer a meaning, and translate that into a painting.
What Markus paints is something odd. It’s part, what he already knows about himself, and something other. It’s something he already knew, and another which could only be rendered by way of him subjugating himself to human limitations. As Dogan in “Mirror’s Edge Catalyst” said, “it’s the imperfections, that make something truly human”. That is ultimately the message of the game. It is about flawed individuals, making flawed choices, in a flawed society, in a context when every other person looks at the other as if they are the android to a human, a parasite to be ridden, a leech to society’s darkest ills —feeding from and into it all the same.
Markus, is a revolutionary, he’s a rebel, he solely exists there to be the Jesus to Romans, what his people are to modern society. One that has poised to deny androids’ rights to assembly, and freedom of speech, as if they didn’t have the ability, nor the will to be as intelligent, if not super sane, compared to the only form of intelligent life on the planet, whose spot has only be reserved for humans until the inception of CyberLife.
Markus’ actions do drive that point home; his quest to become the freer of his people is riddled with biblical imagery, and references to Jesus’ quest to self-preservation and rebellion against the status quo. Hell, by the time he reaches Jericho, which is supposed to be his future allies’ safe harbor, he jumps into the pool leading up to it, arms spread wide, wearing hobo clothes, in a water which, if it wasn’t for David Cage’s insistence on slow-motion prior to him reaching the pool, wouldn’t have been the most subtle indication that it’s only a stand-in for holy water. An admission of embracing one’s fatal role, in which that houses his welcome to the safe harbor. A water, whose sole purpose is to slow down his rapid descent, into the oppressed’s nest.
From a very wealthy upbringing, Markus grew up to be the most politically apt, and lead his revolution, in a manner that makes sense either violently, or peacefully, and that is only to Quantic Dream’s credit, of having made a malleable starting point for Markus, to have either approach make sense for his intellectual background. All of that is compounded with recurrent mentions of redemption, salvation, and the androids’ wild obsession with “rA9” (something the game never really paid off, but left somewhat open to interpretation), Markus’ actions in later parts of the game — while they proclaim to be analogous to civil rights movements in the 1960s — are meant to be modern interpretations of what would have a self-righteous person done, in the quest to reclaim their rights. Whether peaceful, violent, split between the two, there’s a modern context they have to adhere to, and it felt like it wasn’t piggybacking off of the civil rights movements as much as it was trying to mimic what would happen in a similar scenario following those events by more than half-a-century. A world where rectifying mistakes past is easier, because experiences prior, have allowed us to cope with the sudden manifestation of those issues without having it take many more years that it would have otherwise did — reinstating racism is much more difficult than maintaining it. The game gets rightfully called out on its lack of essence, in sweeping under the rug many of the sidelining issues it’s meaning to most highlight, but it would’ve been criticized for pulling the player’s intention in many different directions if it did — so in a no-win situation, the devs sucked the life out of the game’s racial discourse to communicate a more distilled message, and all things considering, whether your affiliations are left, right, or center — they do work.
Kara is interesting, in that she’s the living embodiment of someone who just wants to be left the hell alone. Or what I’d call more aptly, the political center. Liberals and conservatives who are passive about their involvement in issues and only wish to be left alone, and not having to interact with something that might detrimentally impact their livelihoods without a single care in the world. And that’s none of her own volition, to be perfectly fair to the character — it seems more to be David Cage’s relentless will to portray all sides of the political spectrum in a story that culminates into one path, a metaphorical meeting of all sides on a round table if you will. Where it is badly executed though, is that it starts with a sequence involving child abuse — though not nearly as graphic as I expected it to be — what the player realizes later on, is that the little girl is only able to experience emotion because she was allowed to. She’s not human, she’s an android meant to replace an abusive dad’s daughter after her mom and she both took off. There’s a moment later on in the game where the dad is “redeemed” and I really hate that framing because what has been an incredible scene to witness, running away from an abusive parent, and embarking on a journey leaving everything behind, just to give the dad a chance to hug his fake daughter seems… very David Cage-y, and if I dare say, very American-ite. We’re accustomed to the white dudes suddenly realizing they ain’t shit, and that people other than them actually matter, extending further into blatantly abused concept of redeeming fathers from their shitty behavior. While Kara serves as a McGuffin to solve that issue, and circle around Alice’s dad incapacity of hurting her anymore that he could hurt his coffee machine, is still an irredeemable piece of shit. And video games, like the most recent “Captain Spirit”, do very little to make that affront clear. Both duping the audience, and the characters within the story, to believe it was warranted, when it was simply not.
She does have a very emotionally fulfilling arc though, and while her missions aren’t the most stuffed with action sequences such as Connor’s are, they do shine on their own as a masterclass on how to make the player feel empathy for the characters by tying the suspense factor directly to how much you care about them. It doesn’t get anymore nerve-wracking than “this is my daughter and I will protect her at any cost” and it’s exactly what her section accomplishes.
What really gives this game much needed levity, is when it seems to have gone very unwieldy directions as is evident in Connor’s arc — played by the esteemed Bryan Dechart. His chemistry with Hank, is almost what sells this game to me the most (stick around for the after-credits scene if you happened to get one of the better endings), it is the most unlikely buddy-cop trash TV shit you could possibly imagine. Starting out from the very beginning with an encounter at a bar, after he’d been the very first android to be introduced to the police force. In almost always hilarious scenes, they get to play off of each other as if they were friends for decades. The whole thing from a story standpoint, and a pure performance metric just simply shines in more ways than I could readily lay out. Though one thing worth mentioning, is that it props up this bond between the two that you never want to break. And if your playthrough is as any bit as pacifist, and level-headed as Jacksepticeye’s was, you’ll truly realize just how detrimental their relationship is to the story. It is truly the most CBS thing a video game could have ever done — connect you with characters who are either absolute failures at life, or outright scumbags, but just because their performance shines through, it never fails to impress just how much Clancy Brown and Bryan Dechart have put in through.
That goes to Quantic Dream’s credit in the mo-cap tech they pioneered, but also the impeccable choice of casting they’ve landed. It’s a piece that could have totally thrown a wrench in, but fortunately, it was only oil to an already well-functioning machine.
Connor, as fatalistic, and hard-edge when making his decisions, plays by the rules, abides by them, and does so in a way that makes sense within the story. He’s after all, an android designed to work for the police force, so the legal code is etched all over his digital fingerprint. He’s supposed to be the living embodiment of US federal law, and Michigan State law, and yet, he manages to show nuances some of our fellow humans, in the year of Our Lord, 20gayteen, are incapable of showing to people who share the same blood. He seems to have been implemented to perfectly fit the supposed mold of far-right pundits, who pride themselves on following the law almost to a fault — but it seems as though, despite how fleshed out these characters are, and how the writing breathes life into them, both extremes on the sides of the political aisle are upset.
That’s ultimately what Detroit succeeds at. It marries the games’ somewhat shallow themes with incredible character work that couldn’t have worked out better to its benefit. It’s clear that without them, the fanart, the community, all the massive following the actors and producers have amassed following this game’s release, and it leading the charts on Twitch following its release — was mostly thanks to the human elements the player base was able to connect with. That’s an achievement, however much merit you think David Cage is to owe for that.
People have to realize that video game production is really hard, and a complicated process that almost never involves one person making all the creative decisions that would ultimately impact what comes up on the screen. David Cage didn’t ejaculate this game out of his dick on a whim — he had to put together a team of hundreds, and book mo-cap sessions for damn-near years for it to get it done. His capacity to have made something palpable, let alone successful and still to this day relevant to pop culture is outstanding, and not to be underplayed, and that often transgresses into political dimensions of art critique where it can’t compute for a progressive person, that someone of David Cage’s tenure could make something worth exploring, and digging into. Either praising, or critical. But the truth is, capturing stills from the game with a cheap joke tossed on the side for a thousand retweets isn’t valid criticism of the man’s talent. If you wish to see one of the most interesting pieces of criticism on this game, check out io9’s dissertation on how it inadequately tackles the legacy of racism in America.
The Casual Inhumanity of How Detroit: Become Human Uses Black Culture
To quote a time-honored African-American turn of phrase, video game developer David Cage owes black people a check. I…
It’s as serious an accusation as any, and denying it has any merit is borderline dangerous. Nonetheless, as problematic the propos of the game is, it still is saying something. Not many games can boast it.
But back to the political side for a bit. The left’s main gripe has been that the game makes a mockery of the civil rights movement, and that it treats the themes with insulting superficiality. Right-wingers however didn’t think it was racist enough. But what’s perhaps most interesting in that contrast, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Detroit: Become Human is.
Detroit: Become Human isn’t a tale of freedom, it isn’t a tale about the abolition of slavery on a new scale, it isn’t a tale about peaceful retaliation versus a violent one, it isn’t a tale on following the orders versus carving your own path, it isn’t a tale about free will, versus being puppeted, it isn’t here to fulfill a conservative or progressive fantasy — it’s the tale of a slowly evolving medium, that has historically treated sensitive topics with callous insensitivity that it has almost become a joke just how much a game can be more enjoyable when it tries to say nothing, and be fun, versus when it’s far less enjoyable, but is possessing of a soul, and a life outside the borders of the 1’s and 0’s. For us to have the Magnum Opus of a game that finally can do justice to race issues is a pipedream. Games, as I previously stated, are bogged down by their freedom of choice. And as long as that freedom of choice is awarded, and rewarded, it will lead to more and more games emphasizing the fun, repetitive, money-milking aspect of it. Detroit, is perhaps the last, in a slew of games that will ever bother to include a solo playable campaign over an easily extendable multiplayer cash cow, and it is to Sony’s credit that they still believe in the value of stories, for them to continue telling them — that streak will soon be over however, and what was petty criticism of a medium that’s nowhere near maturity, it will have turned out to be quite the insignificant qualm modern and future games will wrestle us with.
Detroit: Become Human is a game that does make good on its promise with what it has, and it does so with missteps along the way, but presents it all in an appealing package. It is like that expensive TV show you just keep watching because it looks so good, in spite of what you might think about what it actually says. Media that is so heavily reliant on its visual presentation is meant to charm on that front, and what follows after is mere seasoning. That’s what I feel Detroit: Become Human accomplished. It managed to spark a conversation that far extends beyond the propos of the game, well into the conscious of media-consuming individuals in the geek community. What stands to be witnessed, is almost never as interesting as what spills over.
For the same reasons I deem Batman V Superman an interesting piece of media to examine, I have to wonder whether enjoying something heavily flawed makes me a bad consumer of media. Or yet, racist according to some accounts. To me at least, it’s about ten hours of my life I very much enjoyed wasting, and that, is ultimately what matters. In an unexpected turn, and against all odds, David Cage managed to make a game I wasn’t bored out of my mind while watching, and that is an exploit in and of itself.