'Detroit' Siphons and Squanders a History of Marginalized Struggle
The only meanings in 'Detroit: Become Human' are the ones it steals.
All images courtesy Sony
Content warning for depictions of racialized and sexualized violence.
Detroit, famously known as the Motor City, was once the main producer of cars in the U.S. Its cavernous factories employed hundreds of thousands of workers from the early 20th century to just past its midpoint. Many of these men and women joined together to form powerful unions, which helped secure higher wages, safer working conditions and pushed the rest of the country in similarly progressive directions. To combat this labor movement, alongside plant decentralization and downsizing, auto manufacturers began to implement automation on a massive scale.
To enthusiasts and industry insiders, automation was purely a boon. In a 1955 article called “Progress with Ideas,” Floyd G. Lawrence predicted that the future would involve industrialists learning “how to get the most of machines rather than how to get the most of people.” He saw technology providing the path toward safer, more leisurely lives, ignoring who was responsible for that technology, and what their own ends might be. A plant manager for Ford made it plain to UAW President Walter Reuther, telling him: “You are going to have trouble collecting dues from all of these machines.”
These machines achieved their masters’ goals with brutal efficiency. A mere decade after rising to significant prominence on the assembly floor, unions were significantly disempowered by small, decentralized, highly automated factories built in distant, isolated suburbs. Detroit hollowed out, and then it hardened, and in 2013, declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.
At first glance, Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human, a game set in a near-future Detroit, following three storylines framed by a burgeoning revolution of newly conscious androids, seems interested in addressing the implications of setting its game in a city that has gone through so much technological and labor-related upheaval. In Kara’s (Valerie Curry) first scene, driving home with her cartoonishly malevolent owner, Todd, we get glimpses of what the margins of prosperity might look like in a near-future Detroit: they pass the exposed wooden skeletons of burnt row houses; a freeway under construction looms over their blighted neighborhood.
Elsewhere, another protagonist, Markus (Jesse Williams), walks through a town square packed with humans who are protesting androids for the same reason auto workers did eighty years prior: economic anxiety. Many of the magazines you find lying around feature articles about rampant drug use and extreme levels of unemployment as an inevitable result of the adoption an android workforce.
But these promising glimpses quickly flicker out, and the game wades instead into an uninspired story about the tension between a group of androids who desire freedom and the reticence of their human masters to provide it. Instead of attempting to explore the history of how robotics and automation are wielded as weapons against labor, how they are a symptom, rather than a root cause of out-of-control profit motives and worker disempowerment, we instead must suffer through paper-thin allusions to America’s civil rights struggle: robots on the back of the bus, belligerent masters yelling at chastised servants, and unceasing references to slavery. Instead of a real discussion about power hierarchies, we’re served milquetoast Martin Luther King Jr. quotes and Instagram-ready parables about equality and freedom.
Despite deviating barely an inch from the broad archetypical models they’re sourced from, Detroit’s characters manage to do an admirable amount of narrative heavy lifting—with little help from the game’s wider storyline or themes. The pair that clearly stand out are Conner (Bryan Dechart) and Hank (Clancy Brown), whose heartwarming buddy cop plotline is always a pleasure to return to. Conner, an android from CyberLife, the corporation which makes all of Detroit’s androids, is sent to assist Hank, a hard-boiled detective in tracking down rogue androids and figuring out what is causing them to reject their normally subservient programming.
As the game progresses, Hank starts to come around to androids and Conner is forced to decide where to place his allegiance. Their story works not necessarily because of any connection to androids, but because it has all the makings of good drama: a new guy who wants to please his partner, but who also has personal motives that stand in the way of their friendship (see: any romantic comedy of the late nineties; see also: The Fast and The Furious). The way Detroit structures Conner’s motivations at cross-purposes with the rest of the cast (he’s a cop, everyone else is basically a criminal) also manages to create some fascinating dilemmas that challenge and enrich the interactive fiction formula.
The inclusion of interactive elements can benefit all sorts of stories, from solid ones like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, to not very good ones like Detroit. As often as I shake my head at awkward dialogue or clumsy subtext in Detroit, I find myself white-knuckle gripping the controller in panic as I attempt to keep my character from tumbling off a rooftop or to defend myself from a previously hidden assailant. Considering how many games I have picked up but never finished, thanks to characters and stories which fail to meaningfully connect (looking at you, A Way Out), Detroit’s ability to keep me invested to the end is an impressive achievement—one that’s unfortunately squandered by its tone-deaf political commentary and the studio responsible for it, Quantic Dream, whose own unresolved ethical controversies remain a disturbing backdrop to a game as sanguine about equality and freedom of expression as Detroit.
For a game so indebted to America’s civil rights movement, Detroit’s archetypes do tend to fall into deep pits of insulting cliché. There’s Rose (Dana Gourrier), a mammy stereotype who is defined by her endless well of empathy, and her externalized, sexless, maternal behavior toward Kara and Alice (Audrey Boustani). There’s also Luther (Evan Parke), Kara’s sidekick from the mid game on, who feels like a response to Heavy Rain’s violently primal, “Mad Jack,” extended so far in the other direction he embodies a different, yet equally familiar trope: the docile, magical negro, who steps out of the role of serving a human master only to immediately switch to serving Kara and Alice. Kara, whose plot revolves around rescuing and caring for her adoptive daughter Alice, is pigeonholed into cloying maternal behavior, the only respectable direction, apparently, in which an android woman may transgress her bounds.
But it’s Markus, played by Jesse Williams, who gives us a wider picture of the various missteps Detroit takes when it comes to talking about political struggle.
Torn from his master, Carl (Lance Henriksen) by a jealous son, Markus winds up as the leader and spokesperson for a group of escaped “deviant” androids known as Jericho, and works to help them achieve rights and recognition. His arc is the plot’s central pillar and it quickly becomes clear that his most important decisions amount to a choice between the reductive, pop-cultural renditions of MLK and Malcolm X, between Moses-like peaceful protest and unrestrained action movie violence.
In Detroit the decisions you make affect how other characters react to you. All of your named allies have explicit friendship meters that rise or fall depending on whether your actions match their unique moral criteria. In addition to personal relationships however, Detroit also measures how well your actions are received by the human population.
The thing is, tying your behavior to a vague metric based on pleasing or antagonizing some monolithic third party is not only a drastic over-simplification of the complexities of leading a movement, it also implicitly assumes that victory through nonviolent resistance is both foolproof and easily accomplished. Peaceful protests in Detroit are universally popular with humans, who never question your motivations, or ask if there might be a “more convenient season.”
In our own lives, we’re constantly reminded of the limits of nonviolence, the ways that enforcing bodies can (and do) circumvent (or ignore) civil resistance. How many people are still talking – in terms not dictated by the Israeli military’s official accounts – about the over 60 nonviolent Palestinians killed at a border fence protest in May? How often has Black Lives Matter been vilified by all corners of this country’s political establishment, despite being open about their nonviolent principles? How does Colin Kaepernick, whose protest during the anthem was both thoughtful and respectful, still not have the job he is unquestionably qualified for?
Even if one were to embrace Detroit’s unironic cribbing from real movements with zero added context, the game mostly sidesteps the punishing and often unfair nature of nonviolent protest. No real sacrifices are ever required, provided you nail all your button prompts. In several encounters, Markus marches toward lines of riot police. Hundreds of bullets fly past him, bringing down his nameless compatriots, but always leaving him spared (or superficially wounded). As each bullet brings down another anonymous android, the public’s perception of your cause ticks up in turn. These moments feel like hollow gamification of bloody and violent political struggle at best, and a lukewarm, apolitics that hints at the lack of commitment to real progressive ideals by the game’s director and lead writer, David Cage, at worst.
Cage, and his studio, Quantic Dream have shown up in the news quite often of late. Reports by three French media outlets, Le Monde, Mediaparte and Canard PC, describe a studio where, offensive images are passed around as a form of jocular inter-office comedy. According to Canard PC’s account of a case about the images, brought to court by an ex-employee, “Sexism and homophobia constitute one of the ‘comic’ springs of choice of the series. Others are bad play on words on surnames, poop, sodomy, overweight, a little bit of Nazis and a lot of nudity.”
Cage and Guillaume de Fondaumière, co-CEO’s of Quantic Dream, claim that they never saw the most offensive of these images—which is difficult to believe, considering many of them “were indeed displayed in the office open space, and according to [witnesses], a large amount was available on the local network via a link shared in a mailing list.” In a studio where 83% of its 180 employees are male, and “where there is reportedly a picture of a penis with farting testes on the wall,” according to Eurogamer’s translation of the Le Monde report, Quantic Dream’s ability to provide an inclusive atmosphere for women and marginalized people seems unlikely.
The articles bring up additional issues pertaining to Quantic Dream’s workplace, a company best encapsulated by Canard PC’s description of “open spaces where visitors are greeted by the word EMOTION in capital letters, but where employees can be told bluntly that their work is ‘shit.’” A former employee describes a studio where Cage behaves with impunity: “He feels he has the right to say whatever he wants, it's his place.” Both Cage and de Fondaumiere deny the reports and, according to an interview with Kotaku, are pursuing lawsuits against the outlets which conducted them.
This unprecedented level of defensive litigiousness highlights a stark discrepancy between the story Cage wrote for Detroit and the actual ideals he seems to support and ascribe to. Cage and de Fondaumiere’s response to these allegations was not one of self-critical reflection, as even the game’s 101 level politics would demand. Instead, they balked at the claim that there was any wrongdoing at all. Equality may be fine for your fictional robots, but apparently, when it’s your own company, your own workers, legitimate complaints are written off as “rantings,” as Cage told Le Monde per Eurogamer’s translation. Incorporating prejudice, violence and even holocaust imagery into your story while tacitly allowing actual Nazi symbols to sit on your company’s hard drives are apparently two things that can coexist at Quantic Dream. And that’s, naturally, incredibly troubling.
The extreme shallowness of Cage’s imagination is on display in every Quantic Dream game I’ve played.
While separating the work from the intent of its author is a vital rule of thumb when critiquing a game, the casting of Jesse Williams in Detroit remains worthy of some skepticism. Outside of the game he is used as a shield in Cage’s defense against allegations of racism. Responding to Le Monde’s allegations, Cage replied with “You want to talk about racism? I work with Jesse Williams, who fights for civil rights in the USA... Judge me by my work.”
Within the game Williams drops African-American vernacular into his speeches, and brings up issues he has spoken about in real life. Yet he also literally removes his skin to reveal a neutral gray face as he gives a televised speech asking for rights for androids. In the world of Detroit, explicit racial prejudice is relegated to the past or kept off-screen. In one scene, Rose relates her identity as a black woman directly to Kara’s as an android: “My people were often made to feel their lives were worthless,” telling us quite a bit by her use of the past tense. (It is perhaps even more telling that Quantic Dream never spends the time imagining for the player how America addressed its racism.).
The extreme shallowness of Cage’s imagination is on display in every Quantic Dream game I’ve played. In Heavy Rain, disturbing threats of rape and violence hang over the head of its protagonist, Madison Paige, who is forced to stumble from one compromised encounter to the next. Beyond Two Souls, despite having some touching moments of characterization for Ellen Page’s Jodie, also makes threats of sexual violence central pillars of her character development. While it’s true that most of the time Quantic Dreams’ games are good for a campy romp, the insulting depictions, the callous use of women's bodies as emotional collateral, and the simplification of complex issues, all add up.
Little by little, the edifice of offensively tone-deaf ignorance Cage has built his career on grows taller, and at some point we have to ask ourselves whether the stupid fun of his games are worth everything else that’s in them. It was his shocking resort to legal action that served to lance the rotten boil that has been present in Quantic Dream all along.
With all the evidence provided, it’s safe to say we all saw a game like Detroit coming from a mile off. How it dealt with its setting was sadly unsurprising as well. How could Quantic Dream, with all its reliance on tropes and shorthand do justice to a city and a region whose downfall America has itself never tried to honestly grapple with? How could the leadership of a studio who dismisses serious allegations of significant labor issues properly address the inextricable relationship between technology and labor?
Even if it did do a better job at telling the story it means to tell, the hidden costs that went into Detroit would hardly be worth it: workers in court suing over harassment, a company reportedly organized into an undisguised creative oligarchy, an entire regional block of game outlets who are too wary of legal action to mention any of this in their own release coverage of the game. All this to execute a tired concept, done far better service in recent years.
Nier Automata also tells us a story about Androids waking up to their own humanity, but goes further by examining both the illusive highs and the monstrous lows resulting from fetishizing and attempting to emulate that humanity. Subserial Network uses the aesthetics and structure of late 90’s web ring culture to explore what the singularity might look like to an audience that already has one foot in it. Universal Paperclips shows us that, as long as AI and technological advancement serve the ends of capital accumulation, dystopia is the likeliest outcome.
There are so many example of creators tackling new and challenging aspects of what robots and artificial intelligence mean for humanity, so many marginal and unheard voices struggling to carve a space out of a market crowded with stale ones, that all of the extra attached pain and humiliation that fueled the creation of Detroit feels that much more needless, and so that much more cruel.
As with too many other game studios which mismanage and overwork their employees just to give us incremental, middling experiences year after year, it’s time we started asking what one has to do with the other. If Detroit can teach us anything, even if Cage cannot, it’s that we’re all in this together, and helping our fellow workers can help make this industry a better place.