It’s fair to say that Detroit as a city of the United States (and the great state of Michigan) has not found itself in the greatest condition over the past decades. While it is slowing back on the rise, an automotive-centric economy alongside financial turmoil and high crime rates put the city in a bad place, to the extent that the city government filed for bankruptcy in July of 2013.
Such events have plagued the reputation of Detroit across the nation as a result. And personally I find it highly unfortunate as a former resident of Michigan who lived about an hour from the city and have visited it multiple times. There is so much to love about the culture within the city, from Motown to the Detroit Red Wings, that often go unnoticed amidst the rest of its detractors and earnestly deserves greater levels of positive attention from citizens looking inward.
So when Detroit: Become Human was officially revealed to the public at E3 2015, there was a level of intrinsic excitement that lay dormant for the years between its announcement and release.
It showcased the city of Detroit set two decades in the future, in which android technology came to the forefront. While there were explicit showcases of the android-human conflict that the game would showcase through the narrating android Kara, I was enamored by the landscape of Detroit, a city in the midst of a slow, prosperous recovery towards prominence.
It was a hopeful beginning, one that I vested confidence in prior to the game’s release. Throughout the wait, I avoided watching new updates and trailers so that I could take in the full experience of Detroit: Become Human for all of its intrigue and surprise, only aware of the fact that it featured three android characters in what would largely be a choice-based adventure game in which the stories of these characters were largely intertwined. And even prior to its release, I took note of the largely positive reception the game had garnered from a vast majority of critics and gamers alike prior to purchase, although I never delved into any one critique for specifics to judge the experience for myself.
But just over a week ago, I made the decision to purchase the game about a month after its initial release in May of 2018 to finally experience Detroit: Become Human for myself. Three years of waiting would come to its conclusion as I sunk virtually all of my time that upcoming weekend towards the game so that it would finally provide me the experience I so desired.
Or so I thought…
Detroit: Become Human feels alarmingly like a simulator that was programmed to generate hundreds of possible storylines with the assets available to its system. For other fellow video game players, think a smaller scale, story-based No Man’s Sky. For those unfamiliar with the game, think of those plot generators that you can find online with a Google search.
And these comparisons are warranted by me for the absolute worst reasons possible. Detroit: Become Human surely has the quantity of choices expected from a game of its scope, but it is void of the quality at nearly every point of its narrative, and even manages to be ignorant in its handling of its important messages, specifically in regards to the city of Detroit itself and the characters by which it focuses on (and the scenarios they find themselves in).
Why The Game Lacks “Detroit”
Before I proceed, I need to clarify one thing in case the title confused anyone. Firstly, Detroit is indeed the main setting of the game. Secondly, the visual presentation of a Detroit imagined in 2038 is gorgeous. My appreciation goes out to the development team in this department that were able to create such a rendition of the beautiful city.
With that said, that same appreciation does NOT go towards the people responsible for the game’s overarching story. Although in this case, “people” could easily refer to David Cage himself, who appears to have the greatest influence on the game’s direction based on multiple interviews.
My harsh sentiment derives itself from the idea that in the context of the entire game, the setting of Detroit is inconsequential to the events of the story aside from one benefit its geography provides to someone trying to escape the city (can you guess what that is?) Normally this would be a minor complaint in another game, but it doesn’t help that the game is literally called Detroit: Become Human.
As a consumer, my expectation was that Detroit would play a prominent role in the story. Sure, it is the place where the first androids were manufactured and distributed, but this is canonically a decade prior to the events of the game. Hell, the CEO of the company (Cyberlife) who created androids, specifically chose Detroit since property costs were affordable. By then, androids can be found across the United States and national regulation has already been enforced. Besides these details, Detroit acts more like a backdrop than anything else, and that in itself is a major disappointment.
Playing through the game only heightened my dissatisfaction, largely due to the presence of magazines that can be discovered and read through to learn extra details about the in-game universe. Some stories in the magazine are impacted by your choices, but there are a few that will be seen regardless. To see what type of stories managed to contribute to my anger, a few of these excerpts should be telling:
Here4u, the latest all-android boyband to be marketed by Detroit record label Digital Harmony, is hotly tipped to scoop Best New Artist at the Celebrate Music Awards.
A public letter, jointly signed by a dwindling number of human-only record labels, urged Digital Harmony to withdraw the band from consideration at such award ceremonies, citing the ‘erosion of artistic merit in music’.
But with less than 5% of the music market now produced by human musicians, the call of traditionalists seems to be falling on deaf ears.
A spokesperson for the band said: “Here4u is all about bringing joy and happiness to their fans. The music is all that matters to them”
The result of our survey is in, and it’s official – 68% of men prefer sex with an android to a real woman!
And with 52% of men saying they’ve tried the experience at least once, that’s a lot of android love to go around!
There were a few reasons given for this preference, but we think we know the real reason – androids don’t want to talk about their feelings afterwards!
The story was sponsored by Eden Club: “discretion is our middle name”.’
To see stories like this featured in the magazines alongside unfulfilled attempts to describe the potential for the future rather than intriguing pieces about the locale of Detroit and its history between 2018 and 2038 is baffling. Across the entire game, the most interesting tidbit from the magazines and media outlets delved into the higher unemployment rate, which one could naturally assume given the range of tasks that androids can perform. And frankly, I don’t think most of us are curious or interested about the prospects of having a relationship with an android.
Besides that, Detroit: Become Human fails to utilize or promote any of its geographic landmarks in a meaningful way, even if the plot may have called for something along those lines. I can recall only one instance where a specific building within the city of Detroit played an important role since it provided the means to broadcast a message to the city: the Stratford Tower.
Except that the Stratford Tower is not an actual building in Detroit. It was constructed sometime within the game’s universe for broadcasting purposes.
This in itself is not a problem for me. It’s only natural that within the span of twenty years, technological innovations and a pressing need for better infrastructure would prompt the construction of new buildings. Rather, the fact that the game doesn’t bring attention to some of Detroit’s significant landmarks in favor of original ones when it barely features the city of Detroit in the first place is insulting to the city’s legacy.
And I could rant for another hour about other seemingly trivial details, like how all the sports teams seem to be unified under a generic blue “D” logo rather than maintain the names of their prior teams (i..e Detroit Lions, Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers). Either way, it detracts from the setting as a whole and dampens the significance of Detroit within a game literally named after it. The game chooses to live within the present while shunning its past, and ultimately pays the price for it
So the appeal of Detroit as the main setting for the game was seemingly nonexistent. And unfortunately, the rest of the game lacks it as well.
Why The Game Lacks “Humanity”
As implied within the game’s title, Detroit: Become Human is a story that attempts to tackle the question of the parameters necessary to define the humanity of androids of artificial intelligence. The conflict specifically arises within the game when certain androids become “deviant” and begin to act outside of their intended programming and develop a free will.
In order to explore, the game developers decided to focus on the lives of three androids: Connor, Kara, and Markus. Each android comes from a unique background and eventually encounter circumstances that may or may not contribute to software instabilities that are capable of triggering deviancy within these characters.
On its own merit, the inclusion of three distinct perspectives allows the player to see as many aspects of the universe as possible, finding the androids in scenarios that raise moral dilemma and test judgement. It’s just a shame that the universe by which these androids navigate is at best cartoonish and at worst incompetent.
Yet it can be all traced back to two major issues. First, Detroit: Become Human does not seem to grasp the understanding of what makes humanity human in the first place, and in its attempt to make sense of it forgoes simple logic in the story structure and characterization.
As a quick example, there is a chapter in the game that involves Connor interrogating a bloodied android that went deviant and murdered his owner.
In my specific playthrough, I successfully extracted the information the authorities required and attempted to leave the room, in which two police officers attempted to escort the android to a jail cell. That android, fearful of the repercussions, would rather not be touched during his escort. If you decide to intervene in the situation, which resorts to nothing more than a small push and some dialogue, one of the police officers pulls a gun on Connor. Literally right after, another police officer by the name of Hank warns the police officer to back off and pulls a gun to his head.
Is it just me, or would normal human beings not resolve the situation regarding the transportation of a defendant through the threat of death?
Whether this was a creative decision to escalate the tension of the scene is quite obvious, but the logical reasoning behind it in the first place is completely lacking. Plain and simple, police officers would not go to such lengths as to put an acquaintance’s life at stake over an inherently non-violent situation. Such situations detract from whatever grounds of realism the game attempts to establish at the beginning, and occasionally has me questioning whether the people in question are malfunctioning androids themselves.
In addition, it resorts, whether intentionally or not, to clichés and prototypes that anyone aware of basic history would not dare implement into a game without great sensitivity of its significance. To demonstrate a few shocking examples, I will showcase a few images and briefly highlight their significance.
The inclusion of such imagery was shocking in my initial viewing because it came off as so ham-fisted. Two thoughts raced through my mind:
- Given the visual similarities of androids to humans, how can a future generation in the United States have the audacity to repeat the mistakes of their past in such a cruel way, with so little disregard for the advancements in artificial intelligence?
- Did the writers intentionally place these references in, or are they just tone-deaf?
Regarding the second question, I was nearly positive that the answer had to be the former option. Given the general recency of the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust and period of segregation in the United States in the 20th century, I couldn’t help but assume such; these events are nearly common historical knowledge across the world.
But that’s apparently not the case. In an interview with game director and Quantic Dream CEO David Cage, he had the following to say about the themes and messages within Detroit: Become Human:
“The story I’m telling is really about androids. They’re discovering emotions and wanting to be free. If people want to see parallels with this or that, that’s fine with me. But my story’s about androids who want to be free.”
………So the inclusion of these historical events wasn’t intentional?
If I am to truly take David Cage at his word, there’s nothing left for me to feel but disbelief and shame. Nothing more, nothing less. Although I guess disbelief might be a bit of an exaggeration, since I should have seen this sentiment coming. As I am now led to believe at the very least, David Cage seems to either have a lack of knowledge about historical events or complete disregard for the atrocious imagery and memories that the existence of such parallels can arise in people. So for him to be the lead writer of a game about what it means to “become human” is ironic.
Well, I guess this is the guy who wrote a plotline where a group of androids singing results in their victory for equal rights. Because it’s that simple, right?
As I thought of a means of wrap everything up, I initially had an ending written up that reiterated the main points conveyed. However, a quick glance at the box art once again for Detroit: Become Human proved to be too compelling a representation of the game from my perspective that I had to discuss it:
And yes, the box art looks like trash 🙂
Looking at the front cover, it is hard not to notice the uncomfortable close-up of an android, specifically Markus, who takes up the majority of the space. The unbearable level of detail on his face consumes the viewer’s attention, especially the mechanical designations that confirm him to be an android. When I finally break away from the piercing view, I barely notice the city of Detroit heavily blurred in the background. It’s clear that the androids are the focus of the story and the city serves as a backdrop. Not even the game’s title, Detroit: Become Human, can contradict my perception: actions speak louder than words.
Just words. There’s nothing about this game that is uniquely “Detroit”. There’s nothing about this game that is uniquely “human”. This game screams disappointment in its terrible execution of everything its narrative sets out to do. While the rest of the team at Quantic Dream created a game that can only be described as beautiful, David Cage and his fellow writers created a story that can only be described as hollow.