Detroit: Become Human the best role-playing game ever? Hardly.
Detroit: Become Human is undoubtedly a pretty game. Yet, games should really offer so much more than that. Detroit presented itself as a new game to shake up the RPG world. Role-playing games are a world for the player to do what they will. They’re free to make certain choices (within in the narrative) and this often is designed to make the audience question itself. Detroit is leading and provocative – in all of the worst ways.
The story is familiar enough to sci-fi fans; it focuses upon the eternal question of, in a futuristic world, whether AI should be considered alive. Fears around androids rising up and killing humanity is certainly not a new concept. It’s one that has been explored in science fiction many times before but Detroit does not offer a new exploration of this concept – it simply steals history. Androids have essentially been given the history of the civil rights movement and the game feels like it’s trying to be an allegory for America right now when it comes to racism. Yet, it does so in the most insipid, bland way imaginable.
Somehow because the androids are sometimes made people of colour (even though androids can change their appearance easily) somebody thought it was okay for the word “slave” to be mentioned every two seconds in relation to the androids position in society. Androids are even forced into separate spaces and made to stand at the back of the bus. This isn’t a new story. This is co-opting history for an RPG that doesn’t even tell its own story properly.
Role-playing games are supposed to allow people to explore morality, but the game is actually fairly binary. If you want everyone to survive and a path to progress then you must take the pacifist approach. If you try to lead the revolution then people around Markus will die and the blame is solely focused upon his choices. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and the implication is that if people don’t fight for rights in a way that is popular, peaceful and emulates the watered down version of Martin Luther King then oppressed people don’t deserve respect and can expect a backlash.
The trope-filled representation doesn’t just end there though. There are very few women which feature in the game as most of the androids appear to be men, and the two that do get the biggest role in the game are resigned to fairly stereotypical roles. North is a former sex worker who escaped that life which was forced upon her after escaping an abusive client; because apparently men only know how to tell the stories of women if they are focused upon either sexual violence or motherhood. And guess what? The other woman in the game, Kara? Her role is defined by her motherhood to Alice. Alice and Kara might be endearing enough characters to keep you with the game, but the forced narrative becomes even more difficult to swallow when Luther is introduced. He could be a great character but after about two conversations with Kara and by tucking Alice into bed all of a sudden, a character they barely know is considered family.
“Men only know how to tell the stories of women if they are focused upon either sexual violence or motherhood”
Alice too gets a rough deal – and so do the audience. Detroit ended up with a huge amount of criticism before the game was even launched as it does include a scene where a child is abused. Alice has to endure a tirade of abuse from her father, and runs to hide and this is where the game hits its lowest point as an RPG. Kara must then decide whether to intervene or whether to let the abuse continue. If it does continue, then there will be a death. This puts all of the emphasis on the actions of spectators and victims of abuse, rather than the abuser. Additionally, because of the trophy system, the only way the get 100% on the game is to complete every action (or choice at in-action) and that means that players are, in at least one play-through, actively encouraged to do nothing as child abuse goes on.
This is not what an RPG is supposed to be and the creators don’t even seem able to comprehend that. It’s as though the developers got so lost in the idea of giving people choices which packed potency they forgot about the responsibility to the wider story. Yes, choosing not to intervene with child abuse is difficult but why on earth is Detroit trying to give us that choice at all? What is the point of it?
That’s not to say that uncomfortable scenes should not be included within games. If games want to be as highly considered as TV shows and films then they have to deal with difficult issues, but this was so badly done that it’s inexcusable. The scene could have been done so much better. Kara could have been told to stay outside and do chores, rather than stand awkwardly while they have dinner. She could have been threatened if she came into the house. Then we could have heard the crash of the table. The choice then might have actually mattered. Kara could intervene at the fear of child abuse, or she could have brushed off the loud noise as an accident and not intervened out of fear of angering the abuser. That is a much more realistic and responsible way to portray abuse, and gives an understandable opt-out for those who don’t intervene, rather than simply choosing not to in the hope of achieving the full completion of the game.
Even the gameplay itself offers little new to those who are experienced with this genre of games. The flowchart might be pretty, but every single RPG ever is worked from that same sort of system but the audience just don’t see it. That’s usually a good thing too – when we get the flowchart pop up we can see how many choices we didn’t make, and when certain paths closed off to us, which kills the mystery and fun of exploration. The value of the game decreases immensely because of this; it’s soon very clear what decisions need to be made and so a second or third walkthrough feels completely mechanical and just about grabbing those trophies.
Detroit wants us to know what a great RPG it is, without understanding truly what makes these games so great. There are high-stakes choices to make in the game, people can end up dying in the game but it doesn’t really matter when it’s so hard to care about the story. It’s a pretty exploration of a near-futuristic world, but games need more than graphics. It isn’t a terrible game; about half way through the game could have saved itself as it kept giving some incredible scenes to balance out the bad, and the androids themselves are interesting characters. It’s also quirky to get a chance to be the President of the US and answer tough questions from journalists. The cinematography is utterly superb, particularly when Markus leads his marches, but this isn’t a role-playing game that ever really makes us question just why we should make certain choices beyond trying to score trophies. This hasn’t advanced gaming at all but it may drag the industry back. The worry is that developers will pay attention to Detroit still and learn all of the wrong lessons.
If you enjoyed reading this article, we’d appreciate your support, which you can offer by buying Stand Up a coffee here.