Detroit: Become Human is a game that does some things right. It offers more choices, meaningful ones, than any other Quantic Dream game. It has a diverse cast. It definitely looks beautiful. Sometimes, it occasionally controls well. There are times I even liked it, as you could see in my review. But the things it does not handle well are issues like gender, politics, and sex. I do not believe it is as bad as past Quantic Dreams titles, but it is definitely a tone deaf title that goes overboard on appropriation, clichés, emotional manipulation, and stereotypes, often when it could have been just as effective without resorting to such means.
Buckle up, because there are spoilers ahead. (As a warning, I talk about violent situations that involve racial tensions and sex.)
Let’s start with race, the most tone-deaf element of Detroit: Become Human. It is constantly alluding to experiences from history regarding the civil rights movement and slavery, and not always in good ways. Kara’s whole journey turns into a take on the underground railroad. She goes from horrible experience to horrible experience, trying to hide her identity as an android and make it north to freedom. It could be taken as demeaning, at worst. At best, it is taking an important message and exploiting it for a cheap emotional tug. Especially since the second to last “stop” on their trek is an African American woman’s home, and that woman outright says she is doing this because some other people did this for her “people” years ago.
Markus’ story also exploits history and lays it on thick in the same way. It is clearly meant to be a parallel. We get it. I could understand androids being segregated in the back of the bus like inanimate cargo, as a reference to segregation. If maybe it had been limited to just using “Hold On (Just a Little While Longer),” a gospel song, as a theme during Jericho’s final stand-off with the military, then maybe it would have been okay. If Markus had only had the option to allude to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” once and reference it during one of his speeches, it would have raised eyebrows, but been tolerable. But then such references kept popping up and being used like buzzwords. I started to feel like it was relying on this so often, it went being an occasional nod to history to cheapening things. “Press X to reference one of the most unjust and perilous points in American history to have Markus get a pat on the back!” Rather than an attempt to show history is repeating, I found it to be overbearing and heavy-handed, weakening the story and experience. Cultural appropriation is advancing an agenda, in a way that showed more disrespect than honor to the actual historical events.
Moving on to gender, Kara’s storyline gets the short end in Detroit: Become Human. In early marketing materials, she was introduced as a strong character. We saw her saving a child from an abusive father! In my scenario, she even stole Alice’s father’s gun and used it to kill him in self defense. But even though she is often placed into situations where she uses the gun as a threat to protect Alice, it is always briefly as a mama bear and, in my playthrough, had no weight to it. The second Luther joins her party, Kara becomes just the “mom” and he turns into the defender. When Kara tells Alice a story she made up, all of Luther’s possible roles involve terms like “knight” and “guardian,” while she ends up sticking to her programming. It does her a disservice that her role is not explored on their escape to Canada. Connor and Markus get to grow as people, while she remains stuck in a stereotype.
This extends to North, the lone notable female member of Markus’ resistance. Since Detroit: Become Human is a game that makes sure the audience definitely knows the androids are being enslaved, reminding people at every possible opportunity that slavery is bad, we run into androids designed entirely for pleasure. Connor even investigates an android sex club where a murder occurred as part of his storyline. Naturally, Quantic Dream made North a model that was designed to be a perfect “companion.” Considering the murder Connor investigated at the club involved a patron destroying one of the two female androids he had ordered as part of his scenario, we can only imagine what North had to endure. It is unfortunate that this was the backstory for what ends up being one of Detroit: Become Human’s strongest female characters.
Since I brought up Club Eden, let’s go ahead and talk about how Detroit: Become Human handles sex. While there are some disturbing situations alluded to, regarding what happened in Connor’s investigation, and I feel like North’s backstory is an unfortunate narrative choice, I actually was impressed with how the game handled some sexual situations. In my playthrough, I had the opportunity to allow the android who had killed her abuser at the club, in the name of self defense, to go free. (The game did not show the actual assault of the two female androids.) She and her girlfriend just wanted to live in peace together. Their love for each other felt genuine, and I appreciated having that option. It showed Connor was becoming empathetic and could better understand the horrors of what happened around him.
There is also a situation involving Markus and North, which occurs when they are about to attack a CyberLife store. In my route, police were coming to investigate what was happening. I had Markus pull North into a bus waiter and pretend to be a couple, to see how the game would handle it. Markus kissed North without her consent. Instead of her magically being okay with it, she was furious. Rightfully so, since he did it out of nowhere and did not respect her boundaries. I felt like this was a good teaching moment and showed some sense of understanding. (I also felt terrible that there was no option for Markus to later own up to his mistake and genuinely apologize in my route.) Beyond that, there were no gratuitous shower scenes in Detroit: Become Human. Well, aside from Connor chucking a clothed Hank into one to sober him up. I felt like this showed Quantic Dream had at least learned something from past games.
Detroit: Become Human was an opportunity for Quantic Dream to do better. In some ways, it did. There are no senseless shower scenes for the sake of showing off nearly naked women. But there are many ways where it passes on opportunities to show growth and proves it is completely tone-deaf. It is constantly stealing ideas and concepts from the civil rights era, using phrases with importance and meaning like buzzwords to advance a plot. It is constantly pointing out how the androids are basically slaves. I feel like it does a disservice to some women in its plot by making Kara default to a mom and making the backstory for the only other, major female character that of a former “companion.” For a game that can have good moments, it gets a lot of things wrong.