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Detroit: Become Human tackles civil rights without a grasp of history

Quantic Dream’s latest turns heavy topics into quick-time events

Quantic Dream/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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Detroit: Become Human exemplifies the delicate, albeit not backhanded, praise of, “They mean well.”

Perhaps director and lead writer David Cage, whose work at his studio Quantic Dream is best defined as “foreign-made, interactive interpretations of maudlin Hollywood drama,” focused on themes as heady as prejudice, discrimination, social inequality and domestic abuse in the hopes of calling attention to these serious issues. And, yes, to do so is certainly well-meaning. But Detroit: Become Human fails to either challenge or reflect upon the ramifications of abuse or the history of the civil rights movement, around which its three storylines cohere. Instead, we’re given surface-level storytelling with serious, historically complex topics thrown in as set dressing.

I wonder if Detroit’s creators seek to elevate a message of social justice, or if they hope the message will lend importance to the game, giving it a weight and seriousness Cage has sought throughout his career. The answer is probably a bit of both.

Connor in Detroit: Become Human Quantic Dream/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Like previous Quantic Dream games, Detroit follows the independent journeys of multiple characters, this time three androids in the year 2038: Markus, a caretaker whose peaceable relationship with his elderly charge is upended by the outside world; Kara, a household maid who bears witness to her master’s rage against his young daughter, Alice; and Connor, an android programmed to work with human police forces to solve android-related crimes.

Switching between their paths, we’re faced with life-or-death choices that have at times limited, at times severe ramifications. Should Kara step in when Alice’s father is slapping and punching at her? Should Connor spare or sacrifice a “deviant” android in the name of his mission? And is Markus meant to be a pacifistic or violent leader of an android revolution?

These decisions are, naturally, and at times comically, made through time-limited button presses. Powerful imagery like civil unrest and peaceful demonstrations are reduced to quick-time events with copious button presses. Those events and button presses end up becoming a gimmick, and an often uneasy one: The snap decisions aim to change your mind or your position without any of the required introspection. And yet, like other Quantic Dream games, there’s still satisfaction in hitting the button just in time.

The three androids embody separate facets of Detroit’s overarching themes. Prejudice against androids, which humans see as machines taking all their jobs, is the throughline of Connor’s story. Domestic abuse is relegated to Kara’s path — a frustrating assignment, considering she’s the only female character and both she and Alice are treated as de-facto victims. Markus, however, carries the bulk load of this game’s moralizing; his choices at times drift into the realm of a Very Special Episode in a ’80s sitcom.

With Markus, Detroit: Become Human shows its hand as an ignorant, if well-meaning, ally, not an informed and conscious one. Markus comes across as an impressionable avatar, not a leader of an impending android revolution. His connection to the movement’s aim of liberation is tenuous; his rapid climb in its ranks, disingenuous. The storytelling freedom deprives the story of clear direction and Markus of an internal consistency. One minute, he’s the doting caretaker of a supportive, elderly human. The next, he’s vowing to take his revenge against all human beings.

This sort of inconsistency — what is this game truly trying to say? — extends to the game’s world, a place that superficially imitates the surface of American anxiety, distrust and fear, without fully grasping its history, context and pain. Androids march in protest of how humans treat them, and several options of chants appear: “Equal rights for androids!” “One world, two races!” And the worst of the lot: “We have a dream.” Another scene sends characters of myriad races marching down a street toward predominantly white, armed military men and treats it like a minigame; rallying cries become dialogue options, and staying alive is boiled down to correct quiz answers.

Markus and North in Detroit: Become Human Quantic Dream/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The main character’s blackness in the story is never addressed, like it doesn’t matter. It should: African-Americans have a long history of experiencing exactly the kinds of discrimination that’s so important to Detroit. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an inspiration for the androids’ demonstration. And this game is Detroit, Michigan, of all places — a city where race and class figure into so much of its politics. It has a history, but you will be hard-pressed to find it.

It’s as if the creators are using the bondage of artificial intelligence to conceal subtext about institutional racism, while somehow missing that in the game they created, that subtext is, quite often, just the text. No one dares comment on how his race factors into a story that is explicitly about race. There’s no discussion of how impactful it is for a person of color to lead a monumental movement toward equality; instead, the humans tell us point-blank that “androids are not humans,” and that’s that.

Previous David Cage games have stayed away from topics that, while tragic, had political import and relevance. That made the imposition of very granular gameplay felt less frustrating. Solving a kidnapping and murder through split-second button presses and polarized choices feels comparably pulpy. But reducing the androids’ fight for humanity — or struggles with discrimination, or escaping brutal abuse — into grabbing nearly every button on your DualShock controller is a cheap, ignorant way to skirt the real impact of these subjects.

Only in the most grounded path, the detective Connor’s, does the fun play pair with a plot that has much-needed heart. It helps that Connor’s relationship to the enslaved androids is minimal. At most, he’s aggressively judged by the humans he works with and who refuse to trust him. This comes to a moving impasse, should you want to explore it. And if Connor’s story were the only one we had to engage in, it would certainly eliminate much of the poor dramatization plaguing Kara’s and Markus’. Connor’s story works because it subtly contends with the tensions of otherness.

With the rest of Detroit, what we have instead is a story equally overstuffed and underdeveloped. Quantic Dream has mastered making a very playable, even enjoyable interactive experience. But there’s always this performative feeling behind it — always this reminder that, for as much as someone wants to help out a cause, there’s a difference between saying it and doing it.

Want even more Detroit: Become Human? Listen to this week’s episode of The Polygon Show (jump to 30-minute mark). The Polygon Show is available via Art19, Apple Podcasts, and everywhere else podcasts are sold.

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