by Mark Laherty
Detroit: Become Human is an adventure game written and directed by one David Cage, known for similar games like Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain. The story, which twists this way and that depending on your dialogue choices and actions, follows three different android protagonists on their different journeys through a world that discriminates against robots.
Little-known fact: David Cage also wrote the soundtrack for the 1995 Sega Mega Drive game Cheese Cat-astrophe Starring Speedy Gonzales. In this piece, I will argue that Cage’s racial politics never got much more sophisticated than a cartoon mouse wearing a sombrero.
Cage has alternated between saying that Detroit is an allegory for racism and that Detroit is not an allegory for racism. “The story I’m telling is really about androids,” Cage told Kotaku at last year’s E3. “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.”
This recalls a similar but better point made by J. R. R. Tolkien. When people write about allegory in fantasy or sci-fi, a common starting point is a quote from Tolkien’s introduction to a reprint of The Fellowship of the Ring. In response to readings of the text which viewed it as an allegory for the Second World War, Tolkien wrote: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”
Tolkien’s attitude was much the same as Cage’s: it was fine with him if anyone in the audience wanted to make connections, but that was not his intention. Tolkien’s statement is convincing because, upon reading the text, you can see that he’s telling the truth. You can see that he is borrowing from history and military strategy without trying to make an argument. It’s more for the sake of practicality; writing a war story is no mean feat. He also backs up his claim by describing how he would have written the plot if it were intended as an allegory. Sauron’s tower would have been occupied rather than destroyed.
From there, we can get into arguments about the death of the author. You could make an argument about the disconnect between Tolkien’s intentions and what’s on the page. If you can mount a strong argument for The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for this or that, then surely Tolkien can’t just tell you that you’re wrong, can he? After all, the book is very much out in the world now. So, what’s the difference between that and Detroit? Surely we, as an audience, can just play the game and disregard what Cage says?
Usually, I would follow that kind of rationale. But, I want to focus on Cage’s interviews because there are a few statements that he’s made which illustrate the larger problems with the game. There are a couple of problems with Cage’s assertion that Detroit isn’t an allegory. The first is that Detroit is a more obvious allegory than Lord of the Rings ever was. It is an allegory so heavy- handed and un-subtle as to insult the seriousness of the real-world history and the intelligence of the player. There are many examples but suffice to say that there is an early scene where your player character must board an android-specific area on the back of the bus.
The second problem is that even David Cage doesn’t believe David Cage on this one. As stated at the top, Cage is inconsistent. “People will see it as, ‘Oh this is about androids and the revolution,’ and honestly I don’t think this is the story I wrote,” Cage told The Verge. “I think it’s really a game about us. Humans. It’s about what it means to be human. It’s about identity. It’s about civil rights.”
When you first open the game, you are greeted by a gently flirtatious, conventionally attractive female android named Chloe who calibrates the game settings for you. Before you start gameplay proper, she makes a parting remark: “Remember this is not just a story. This is our future.”
For a story that was more ambiguous in its intent, I’d talk about what coding is, how it works, and why it doesn’t require authorial intent. But, that’s not necessary at all here. Even working from the text alone, the stony-faced political intent is inarguable. It tells you up front that it is political and it is taking itself very, very seriously.
Here’s another problem with the game: the characterisation is bad. Usually, this wouldn’t be interesting or relevant to the thesis of an essay. But, as we’ve established, Detroit is making itself a story about Discrimination Or Something. So, bad characterisation and dialogue become a much bigger problem than it would usually be. You can’t depict a system of oppression if nobody in your story is acting or behaving in a believable way.
The main aspect of bad characterisation that we’re looking at here is the game’s inability to convincingly write casual ‘racism.’ The humans are either good guys who don’t discriminate against androids or bad guys who don’t.
For example, the playable character Markus is initially a service droid to a rich artist who uses a wheelchair. This contrasts with Kara’s story, where she starts as a service droid for a deadbeat dad living in poverty. The rich dude is a nice guy, meaning that he expresses not even the slightest passing meanness to Markus despite literally owning him. The deadbeat dad, on the other hand, spends about half his screen-time shouting about how much he hates androids. In a story about robots and humans and robots becoming human that is called ‘Become Human’, there are no human characters.
Think of a better movie, Zootopia, which has a much smarter allegory for real-world discrimination. Central to its success is depicting Judy Hopps, the likeable protagonist who herself was unfairly discriminated against, also displaying unconscious bias. The whole movie turns on its heel about halfway through because of Judy’s fantasy racism. Plus, the things that she says aren’t overtly bigoted. It appears more in tone-deaf remarks like her calling a fox “a real articulate fella.”
Another problem with the characterisation in Detroit (and everything else about this nonsense) is that there’s a total absence of curiosity in how power structures work. Let’s be clear on this point: this lack of understanding is one of the main problems with the game and is certainly a bigger problem than being merely tone-deaf. I made a disparaging reference above to the scene where Markus gets on the android section of the bus. That was definitely exasperating. But if you know this game and lean towards liking it, that won’t convince you. After all, even if it drops the ball in places, the underlying ideas are still interesting, right? It’s still creepy as a vision of the future, still an intelligent story, right? Wrong. Extremely wrong.
Consider the rich disabled dude who owns Markus. He may seem nice, but surely his life is easier if he has a lot of money and lives in a big house. How did he make that money? Was he born into it? Has he faced discrimination over his disability? Does the comfort of people like him rely on the poverty of people like the deadbeat dad? If you’re setting out to write a story about discrimination, then these are the kind of questions you should be looking out for. Detroit skims right over them like a rock skipping across a lake a hundred times to land on the opposite shore almost entirely dry.
This ignorance of power structures also manifests in the baffling decision to remove human-on-human racism from Detroit’s near future. The underlying idea is obvious: since humans have robots to hate, they won’t hate each other. Terry Pratchett once joked that black and white get along a lot better when they can both hate green.
The problem with this is that it’s set a mere twenty years in the future. Could all the sexism, racism, and other systems of oppression all be torn down in 20 years flat? The real problem here is obvious. The game thinks that bigotry is a simple matter of some mean people not liking black folks or whatever rather than it being a complex system made up of things like modern slavery and the legacy of the Jim Crow laws.
The set-up that Detroit depicts whereby human-on-human racism doesn’t exist would have worked much better in Bright, a modern fantasy movie which uses a similar racism allegory. Bright was widely panned by critics for reasons similar to Detroit: it shows no curiosity for the causes of oppression or how it works. It’s an alternate timeline where events diverge 2,000 years before present day but the only differences to the status quo are superficial additions. Lindsay Ellis described it as fridge magnet worldbuilding whereby the writers just slapped fantasy elements on top of the real world.
In an ideal world, Bright director David Ayer could have gone for coffee with David Cage as a sort of David meet-up and they could just swap rulebooks. Fridge magnet world-building is never an ideal result but it would at least make sense in Detroit, which literally introduces itself by saying “this is our future.” It would make sense for the designing principle to be ‘the real-world status quo but we got better at making robots.’
On the flipside, a world where the fantasy underclass is discriminated against while the humans are weirdly colour-blind would make at least a little more sense in the world of Bright, where a war between ‘the nine races’ is apparently the big important cultural thing that happened 2,000 years ago rather than, like, Jesus. That timeline should wildly diverge from the real world. It says a lot about Detroit that its depiction of oppression is so bad that it would make the most sense to place it in a wildly different alternate timeline where the last two millennia were completely different.
The most important point that Ellis makes about Bright is also broadly applicable to Detroit. She says that Bright reduces entire systems of oppression to reactions against historical events. A policeman in the movie remarks that “we still give Mexicans shit for the Alamo.” But, this is incorrect. The United States doesn’t have a racist system of oppression against Mexicans because of the Alamo; you hardly ever hear any mention of the Alamo. [Ed: does no-one remember it?!]
That’s not how this works. No oppression can be completely explained away as a response to a bad thing that a group did. People do not logic themselves into these positions. Often, they’re not even conscious of their own prejudices. This isn’t to say that news stories have no impact on these systems or that ISIS had no impact on Islamophobia. It means that something like Islamophobia can’t be purely explained as a reaction to ISIS or other terrorism.
Detroit depicts its sci-fi robot racism in the same way. Many of the nastiest characters are given lengthy moments where they explain that their bigotry is a response to losing their job to an android or something like that. For example, the rich dude’s son shouts abuse at Markus. But, then we see that the son never felt like his dad loved him and he’s jealous of Markus. The bigotry is reduced to an understandable, even logical position. It makes fantasy racism seem kind of reasonable. This is a result of an impulse, based on the idea of fair balance, to show both sides to every argument even when the opposing side is ‘racism is good.’ This is perhaps the game’s greatest flaw, an error which is much more egregious than more obviously goofy moments like the android section on the bus. The entire thematic underpinning is lazy to the point that it feeds into dangerous ideas.
I say “perhaps” the greatest flaw because there was one decision, a decision made after the game was released, that betrays a problem that is maybe even more serious. It’s a story you might have heard already.
Recall Chloe, the android who runs the main menu in the game. Depending on your choices, you can decide to set her free. This was one of the few good story ideas in the game. It neatly encapsulated what the game was and gave a glimpse into the potential it had to be something better. It’s also neat how it wasn’t even in the game, so to speak. It was metatextual.
Some fans, having chosen to set Chloe free, expressed disappointment on Twitter that Chloe was gone. The game’s development team responded by releasing a patch. Now, once you release Chloe, you can buy a second Chloe.
So, the creators gave up on the entire point they were trying to make about racism as soon as it made some people uncomfortable. This is typical. This, then, might be the game’s greatest flaw. As an afterthought, the creators decided to make crystal clear that they never really cared about the anti-oppression message.
Mark Laherty writes about media and politics on his WordPress blog. You can also support him on Patreon.