“Detroit: Become Human” Mines Familiar Social Justice Stories for Empathy and Fails Miserably

So how bout that E3, huh? Ellie is still kissing girls in the apocalypse in The Last of Us 2. You can be a lesbian in Assassin’s Creed now. Lara Croft seems more murdery than usual, which in my opinion is a good thing. Skyrim will finally get a sequel, if probably not until the next round of consoles. And Norman Reedus for some reason goes on a hiking adventure with backpacks full of babies, I think? Nobody knows what that game is about, and everybody is going to buy it anyway, and who am I if not everybody? I don’t need to know what something is to want it, as long as it is pretty.

What I’m trying to say is that this month I played Detroit: Become Human, which happens to be a nonsense game I knew very little about besides that it is beautiful and features a lot of Jesse Williams’ face, which is also beautiful. I’ll tell you what, this game doesn’t seem to know what it’s about any better than I do. It is a mess. And I am probably going to play it again.

Very Beautiful.

The game takes place in the fantastical setting of Detroit, Michigan, United States of America, where there is no racism, xenophobia, sexism etc. because apparently humanity agreed unanimously to transfer all of their bad feelings to androids. And therein lies the first enormous problem of the game, is that it’s hard to feel super empathetic towards androids when apparently their invention somehow cured all of the bad things we do to fellow human beings? But obviously we are meant to be on the androids’ side, and of course I am because I am not a monster and also I feel what stories tell me to feel even when I know better.

There are three protagonists. Markus, who is played by Jesse Williams, starts out learning to paint but winds up leading what is literally Black Lives Matter, but for androids. Connor is a police android whose entire storyline is “Can cops learn to be human?” And then there is Kara, a maid/nanny android who’s story begins in “Robots took our jobs!” and domestic violence and I don’t actually know where it goes from there because believe it or not I got her killed in pretty much her first scene and was stuck playing as only the (mostly) invincible dude characters for the whole rest of the game. My fault, obviously, but why can the one woman character die at the beginning while the men can’t truly die until the very end of the game? That’s not just a thing that happened, that’s a thing was designed.

How very Post-Racial.

Robot/Artificial Intelligence stories are always a playground for “What if?” situations and questions about humanity and empathy. But by setting this in a very familiar place and surrounding the action with the same breed of awful people that exist right now, there’s no fantasy. It feels like the “Magic Is Drugs” plotline from Buffy season six. It’s so on the nose it misses whatever the point ever was. Why is the maid who is yelled at for stealing peoples’ jobs white? Why are many of the cops who shoot at the Android Lives Matter protesters black? Why is the only policeman who we expect to consider the consequences of his actions not a human at all? This game goes so far out of its way to not tell the stories it is blatantly mining for empathy that it becomes completely meaningless at best and pretty fucking insulting also at best. Add to that a lot of “Well, that escalated quickly” moments, and what you get is a plot that is really best ignored altogether. Not really a great look for a game that is 90% plot.

Another annoyance is the controls. For the most part, Detroit plays like a point and click walking sim adventure a la Life Is Strange or L.A. Noire. But it makes you use every button on the control plus motion controls in ways that sometimes feel clever but more often feel like “Oh, we haven’t made them press that button in a while.” It’s always a tightrope walk in this kind of game, to force enough button pressing to make people feel like they are playing a game without them noticing that you are just making them press buttons to make them feel like they are playing a game. I noticed it here. There were a whole bunch of slow actions that required three entire buttons held down for multiple seconds to complete them but you couldn’t actually fail, so what is the point? And the pointlessness of the controls most of the time made the actual rare quicktime sequences super jarring (and also hard to follow because the icons moved around the screen and everything was hectic but I acknowledge this might just be symptomatic of me being bad at stuff).

Swipe Down to “Look”!

But anyway. It really is very pretty! The lighting is great. The face capture is excellent. The game is so beautiful that when it is occasionally not that beautiful it’s kind of hilarious. Examples of this include: Clancy Brown’s hair, Clancy Brown’s dog, and the scene in which Jesse Williams’ head for some reason got very pointy for a minute. I think, for instance, that this game features the best pores I have ever seen in a video game. Also, the teeth are much better than usual, except when mouth shadows get a little weird and it looks like Minka Kelly has been chewing on a pen between takes. The dog cracks me right up though. Obviously I fucking loved it and it was my favorite character in the game, but I have no idea where it came from or who decided to put it in this world and most importantly even though it was a monstrosity why was I not allowed to pet it?

You really have to see this dog in motion to truly understand its majesty.

Besides the visual beauty of the game, my favorite thing was how thoroughly it let me fuck everything up? I screwed up so bad! I already told you I killed one of the main characters at the very beginning of the game. Well, I killed everybody. If a character could die, they are dead in my universe. There was a point where I realized “Wowee, this is not going very well,” and I started leaning into chaos. But mostly it was my fault. Some of it was I just wanted to see what would happen if I did what seemed like an unexpected thing (RIP Kara), sometimes I just screwed up quicktime events. But in the end, I managed to wipe pretty much every android in America out of existence by being very bad at video games. And that’s actually pretty impressive?

So yeah, I think I’ll play it again, only because I fucked it up so bad the first time I wound up missing out on huge chunks of the story. (But the end credits will still show you scenes from pathways you didn’t unlock so you can get spoiled by beating the game for the parts of the game you didn’t get to play, which seems to actively discourage replaying it but clearly not enough to stop me.)

I would have appreciated this warning before I bought the game, Minka Kelly.

Detroit: Become Human is a Ps4 exclusive, and it costs a whopping $60 because it is pretty and features actors whose names and faces you will recognize. For $60 I think they could have done a better job drawing the dog, but what do I know. I liked playing it, and also it was very bad, so your mileage may vary. If you have already played it, please let me know if you accidentally murdered the entire android race like I did or if you salvaged a better world for humans and androids and inexplicably poorly animated dogs.

No way this is an XL soda.

Sarah lives in the Boston area and plays a lot of video games. Her interests are cats, bragging, and foods that can be eaten lying down. She has too many sneakers and not enough pants.

sarah has written 30 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. There is a lesbian couple that appears briefly in the game though I’m not sure if they are missable depending on how you play Connor. I won’t spoil how that particular side story ends but they give you a few options.

  2. I really loved this game, but I also had playthroughs where everyone survived. I don’t even know how it would feel if 1/3+ of the game was missing due to killing characters early (Kara and Alice had some of the best scenes, imo.) There were some really moving and really hard moments/decisions for me (though content warnings can’t be stressed enough. Depending on how you play, there are vicious murders, domestic violence, even playing through a concentration camp.)

    I think the power of the game lies in how your decisions really, truly can change everything. I can’t imagine it would hang together well, though, if many characters die early. They can’t have possibly programmed everything to flow well and for the emotional moments to build properly with huge chunks missing (I saw a letsplay where a main character and a few side characters had been killed and there were literally entire chapters that could be played in 3 minutes because all the options involving the dead characters were gone.)

    • The thing is, they should have written the game to flow well given any outcome. The idea of choice mattering/multiple outcomes/endings is only meaningful if all of those pathways are written well. It’s feel like a cop out to me to say “they couldnt have accounted for this” when they specifically did account for it by making it a possible outcome.

      Having said that, I agree there were some powerful moments and good scenes. I just didnt feel like the larger Big Issue plots held up enough to be saved by those small moments.

  3. Kara died for me, but at the very end of the game. Honestly, she is the most passive character because David Cage has no idea how to write women.

    Connor’s story was unfortunately the only one I had any real investment in because it was written well. I pushed him towards deviancy by having him make the clearly moral choices. The only time I’ve ever tried to keep cops alive in a game.

    I found Markus’ path to be by far the most frustrating, largely do to the ongoing choices of peaceful protest vs. violent uprising. For the most part my choices were violent action without casualties, and yet my approval rating continuously plummeted. In the very end, I chose to raid the *sigh* Android Extermination Camps rather than peacefully protest, largely because I was trying to half-ass the rescue of my poorly-written allegorical people, and my ideology-embodying comrades dropped off one by one in the ensuing (very confusing) quick time events. And that was sad, I suppose.

    In the end, the story is bad, most of the characters are annoying, and the visuals are fucking gorgeous.

    Give me a whole game about the lesbian sex worker android couple please.

    • Yeah the Markus story was absurd. I killed multiple people (not on purpose exactly) but then could still opt for a non-violent platform, and nobody ever called him out. Also why were they so quick to follow his lead on anything/why were the characters in that plot who became VERY opinionated the minute Markus got there so content to sit around moping up until that point? That whole storyline felt contrived to me.

  4. How, if at all, does the final game compare to what I first saw of the project, before it evolved into “Become Human”? Here’s the harrowing initial short that introduced Kara, back in 2012, when it was all just a studio technology proof of concept running on a PS3:

    • Well, the graphics now look exponentially better. Besides that, “deviancy” in androids is the driving force behind the various stories in the game. But it’s hard to compare a short film with a longform game.

  5. I think you missed point of the game a little bit.😇 There is always racism, sexism etc. it is just mostly towards androids. I think it is similar to when a whole country bands together against an outside threat.
    Thid game really made me ask “Who am I? Am I just doing what I am raised to do without question or am I my own person?”
    And a little spoiler; Connor can die pretty much every scene he is in, and Markus can die starting with the Freedom March.
    Kara is an amazing character that made me feel things. Her care for Alice, how protective she gets… It is all very powerful if you keep in mind these are supposed to be machines devoid of emotions.
    I played the game 2 times then played the specific episodes to see the possible branches. Supposedly this game can have a thousand different endings which is mind-blowing.
    The only thing I didn’t like about this game is, spoiler, if you play Connor right at the Eden club you end up fighting lesbian androids in love, and their destiny is in your hands.
    One amazing thing about this game’s fandom is that a lot of people ship ConnorxHank and I am here for it.

  6. If you didn’t get the storyline of the game and somehow botched playing the game to the point of having one of the 3 main protagonists die early on, that’s on you. Not the game, not the storyline, not the developers, YOU. Also, a majority of new larger game studio releases are $60. Have you been living under a rock?

    • I did “get” the storyline, i just did not think it was successful. And I didn’t “botch” the game. I made a choice, provided by the developers, that led to an outcome the developers chose to include. If your game doesn’t work without one of the characters, either don’t allow that character to be killed early on, or re-write the game elsewhere to balance out what is missing.

      And the price of a game is a thing a lot of people like to know when they are reading a review of that game, Dan.

  7. I played the demo and Connor died in the first scene, I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that the game was designed so that the men couldn’t die.

    • Connor can “die” multiple times, but then they just send in a new Connor. He’s there til the end. Markus can die at a few points starting around 3/4 of the way through the game. But only Kara can die at the very beginning.

  8. Connor can die in almost every scene. And yeah, he’s replaced, but it does have negative effects on his relationship with Hank, his ability to get good endings, and even his interactions with some minor characters. One could even argue that it’s not the real Connor coming back, and that he’s the most disposable of them all.

    Markus being semi-invincible makes sense since he’s basically android Jesus. Storywise, people keep protecting him and taking bullets for him, and they die instead. Gamewise, it would probably be pretty difficult to make the story coherent with him having to be replaced with some other android Jesus early on, who might not have gotten the time to be developed before being promoted to main character.

    Kara being able to permadie so early does suck, especially as it usually means Alice’s death too, but I think that’s a symptom of her story not being as tightly woven into the core plot as the others. She has no one to take bullets for her and no one to rebuild her, so it’s up to you, the player, to keep her safe instead, so she can keep Alice safe.

    What probably irks me the most is that she’s the only female main character. I agree that it sucks that she’s the one to get cut off early, but it does make sense from a story standpoint. I guess it would have been cool if Markus or Connor (or heck, both of ’em) had been girls as well, so it wouldn’t feel weird. That’s probably a symptom of the game being made by a dude who used to always have a woman running around in her underwear in all his games and made a nude model of Ellen Page without her permission. He’s taking baby steps toward progress…?

    • he did not need her permission. that body was not hers, but taken from another model who gave consent to have her body scanned. ellen was offered a job to have her face and motion captured for the game. the body was needed nor naked and semi-naked scenes. I don’t understand what people expect, artists can do whatever the hell they want with their creations unless they infringe on their contracts.

  9. The most important thing for you to know for your next playthrough – you absolutely CAN and SHOULD pet Sumo! After giving Hank his clothes in the chapter “Russian Roulette” go and find Sumo in the living room and have Connor pet him.

  10. I’m almost a month late here, but maybe that’s good because I want to talk spoilers.

    First though I have to add that the soundtrack is FANTASTIC. Kara’s theme is particularly emotionally beautiful.

    I’ve played through twice and am contemplating once more, but will probably take a break first!

    My first play through Kara and Alice died at the end at the bus depot because Todd was there and ratted them out. Markus died at the end during the revolution. Connor became an asshole and pushed Hank off a roof. Luther was shot by the cop at Rose’s.

    My second go around was better: all three mains happily survived making it to freedom. Luther, however, was still dead from getting shot at Jericho. And that’s mainly why I want to play again. I want Luther to live!

    There’s one gnawing thing that hasn’t been answered for me: why doesn’t Alice have an LED? When Kara encounters her look-alike Android at Jericho that little girl does have an LED. I don’t get it. That should be explained.

    I loved the game. The visuals are indeed stunning. I also watched the making of the video game which is included on the disc, and it was pretty wild seeing the characters in their wet suits with dots all over them acting on a primitive set.

    Fabulous game.

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