tw: mentions the holocaust, slavery, racism, police brutality/non-graphic. Spoilers for Detroit: Become Human.
Sometimes I don’t know if David Cage is being purposefully dense, or if he truly doesn’t understand the ramifications of his shock value creative decisions. Back in 2018, I turned on my PlayStation, browsed the digital marketplace and found a demo called Detroit Become Human. It was a sci-fi game that featured Androids, and most importantly for me, starred Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams as Markus.
I’m not going to lie. I also thought that the game starred Jennifer Lawrence, but it was actually The Tick’s Valorie Curry (Kara). Rounding out the main cast of characters and breakout star of the game is Bryan Dechart (Connor), who you may recognize from Jane By Design.
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From the moment we see the opening scene in the elevator, I was taken aback by how breathtaking the graphics were. I hadn’t been impressed with the level of detail in a game since Until Dawn. The demo was effective, a sci-fi investigative game with decent mechanics, solid voice acting (CLANCY BROWN!), and breathtaking graphics all rolled into one. I was hooked! So much so that I’ve played the full game a whopping three times.
It’s taken a while to take the rose colored glasses off, though, and wonder how racist is Detroit: Become Human and its creator David Cage? With the recent release of the game on Steam and clueless people saying this game saw the BLM movement coming, this seems like the perfect time to re-evaluate Quantic’s latest title.
1. MARKUS GETS SHOT BY THE POLICE IN HIS FIRST ACT
Markus (Jesse Williams) is an android who is cherry picked to be the revolutionary leader of the Android Resistance. There seems to be no special reason for this except for the fact that his three companions (Josh, Simon, and North) deem him to be “The One” and play devil’s advocate with his decision making.
With Markus, you have a choice about which direction he will go, but being too much of a pacifist sets off a chain of tragic consequences between Markus, Kara, and the entire resistance. He is first introduced as a caretaker and friend of an world renowned artist, Carl, who is confined to a wheelchair. You spend most of the time speaking with Carl, and getting him ready for the day. This brief time at least allows the player to really invest in the relationship between human and android.
It’s clear that Carl sees Markus as more than a machine, and wants Markus to realize it too. The peaceful setting gets shattered with the arrival of Carl’s junkie son Leo, who is emblazoned with the daddy issues trope. His jealousy of the relationship between Carl and Markus comes to a head, causing him to physically attack Markus as Carl pleads with him to stop.
An android’s true nature is to be submissive thus Markus stands there and takes it until his consciousness awakens and allows him to break the walls of his programming. The game gives you a couple of options after this, but both lead to Carl being temporarily or fatally injured. The police arrive, and Leo points at a non-threatening Markus, blaming him for the act. Then the police just point blank shoot him without a word. Markus ends up surviving this encounter, of course, and it becomes part of his motivation for seeking freedom for slav—I mean Androids.
2. YET ANOTHER BLACK STEREOTYPE FROM THE MIND OF DAVID CAGE
Aside from blatant racism, it is well known that a lot of foreigners get their education about Black people from American television and films. This is a problem within the entertainment industry, which reflects what happens when you only associate yourself with and befriend one demographic. Cage will tell you all about how he can’t be racist because he hired Jesse Williams, and how he can’t be homophobic because he’s worked with Ellen Paige. I cannot reiterate how racist and homophobic that rhetoric that is in itself.
Upon my first playthrough of DBH, I wanted to explore what else Quantic Dream had released. I had heard about Heavy Rain way back in the PS3 heyday, but I was a dedicated Xbox player and QD had exclusive deals with Sony. Fast forwarded to 2018, and I finally fired up the game. Yikes! Talk about dated graphics. The opening scene is pretty tedious, and “press X for Jason” is god awful. I wish the awfulness had stopped there.
Let’s skip the bonkers attempt at a sexual assault scene with Madison’s nightmare, her sex scene with Ethan that the player must engage in via QTE, her striptease to get information out of a suspect, and her being drugged during another scene so that another creep can assault her. Let’s just skip all of that and get to Mad Jack.
He’s a tall, muscular, dark-skinned ex-con from Philadelphia who says ‘CR**KA’, and speaks as if he’s straight out of a Blaxploitation film. He’s also voiced by David Gasman, a white voice actor. That, along with Madison’s storyline, really left a bad taste in my mouth and helped Heavy Rain go down as one of the worst games I’ve ever played.
Then I read about the only Black character in Cage’s Indigo Prophecy, who loves Motown, plays basketball in a jersey in the snow – and is, again, a caricature. Finally, we have Detroit: Become Human’s Luther, another dark-skinned man of stature who is a hulking threatening figure beside the white female character, fully capitalizing on the Big Scary Black Man Trope.
3. DETROIT BECOME HUMAN’S NAUSEATING RACIAL ALLEGORIES
I’m all for metaphors and allegories in media. If done right, they can be clever (see Buffy The Vampire Slayer). But when done in such a careless manner, they come off as heavy-handed and downright disrespectful. Although there were times where I cringed during certain scenes – like when Rose, a black character who runs an underground railroad for Androids, tells Kara that her people were once illegal – I soldiered on. It wasn’t the first heavy-handed reference to the civil rights movement or slavery, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Markus is constantly tasked with on the nose speeches that are reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr; there’s even a scene where you can leave digital graffiti around town that entails slogans like; “We can’t breathe but we are alive”, “We have a dream”, and symbols such as a black power fist. During the film’s climax, the player can choose to sing a gospel song, “Hold On Just A While Longer” to sway the public to see them as human. It’s the so called “peaceful” route, and is deemed to be the end-all be-all of actual change, despite history contradicting that notion.
Those examples are just scratching the surface when it comes to Cage cherry picking from black history for his android game. Although I never ran into this scenario, I was horrified to see that as a player you might have to go through a concentration camp scene with Kara, Luther, and Alice (a child android), complete with stripping down naked and standing in line as you wait to be exterminated.
The worst thing about this is that the player can choose to have Kara leave Luther and Alice behind and escape. For trophy hunters, this is unavoidable. You’ve spent hours of gameplay bonding with Alice (and Luther depending on your choices), she’s the reason Kara’s storyline has made it this far, and your option is to leave her to be destroyed? What is the entire point of this playable branch in the story?
Although it’s not saying much, Cage has stepped up the diversity of his casting and there are 4 maybe 5 black actors that make up the main and supporting cast. Fortunately, with the implementation of Mo-Cap, they are all performed by black actors as well. However, while most directors are concerned about who is in front of the camera they tend to lack the same kind of cognizant of who is in the background. At the time of this game’s development Detroit’s Black population was at over 80%. With the theory that the non-hispanic white demographic will become the new minority by 2043, suffice to say that DBH which takes place in the year 2038 is lacking in the melanin department.
4. DAVID CAGE SAYS DETROIT BECOME HUMAN ISN’T BASED ON PAST HISTORY
I probably could have overlooked all of the deeper issues within Detroit Become Human had I not discovered some disturbing quotes from David Cage just this year. Many veteran PlayStation players will go, “Duh! We’ve always known he was a trash person“, but there are many fans that will defend him if only because this game was responsible for fandom communities such as Dechart Games/Connor Army.
That’s fair. Sometimes we have to find an escape or a self-made family within fandom, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the more problematic aspects of the game for the sake of the minor positives. The major issues I have with David Cage and his associates at Quantic Dream is the blatant disregard of black history:
“The story I’m telling is really about androids,” Cage told Kotaku at 2017’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.”
“We didn’t have a specific issue in mind, whether its racism or sexism or whatever it is. We wanted to explore the universal theme of a divided society and let the player bring their own specific context to the story, which is going to help them write their own story to the choices they make.” – Lead Writer Adam Williams
Cage’s explanation is wishy-washy, as if he didn’t want to take a political stance one way or the other. But Williams’ just comes off as appropriation, especially with his throwaway line of “whatever it is”. Racism, sexism, and domestic abuse aren’t global issues to just wave away, or to use for exploitation in a video game.
To refer to androids as slaves, to use symbols, marches, and speeches ripped directly from the American Civil Rights Movement and say that there wasn’t a specific issue in mind when the game was developed stinks of ignorance and misappropriation. Although handled with the subtlety of a wrecking ball, it all could have been overlooked had credit been given where it was due.
Detroit Become Human is a game that has only touches upon past history at a surface level. Cage uses the trials and tribulations of Black people, Jewish people, even Japanese people for shock value. I heard through the grapevine that Cage is an aspiring film director and uses his games to live out that cinematic dream. I implore him to not only get “woke”, but to maybe look at Terminator 2 or I, Robot for inspiration: two films that have told the story of man vs. machine in a more nuanced and complex way.
5. QUANTIC DREAM’S DEAFENING SILENCE IN THE REAWAKENING OF BLACK LIVES MATTER
Quantic Dream recently celebrated its 23rd year of existence, and 2 year anniversary since Detroit Become Human was released. The success of the game would free the company from dependency and allow them to self-publish their games. They then entered into a PC exclusive contract with Epic Games for a time before sending their catalog over to Steam.
Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls, and Detroit Become Human made their Steam debut on June 19, 2020, otherwise known as Juneteeth: the day the last of the slaves were freed from slavery. Now, whether this is as much of a coincidence as Donald Trump’s originally scheduled date for his Tulsa Rally or not, it’s once again a display of ignorance. Since George Floyd’s murder, there’s been a call to action for companies to stand in alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement, but we needed more than words.
It was a call to become more anti-racist instead of just “not racist”. To denounce white supremacy and acknowledge shortcomings across all industries. To acknowledge systematic racism and damaging portrayals of racial stereotypes within films, television shows, and video games. Although many video game companies and gaming tech companies made statements, action plans, and donations, Quantic Dream was not among them.
In fact, Quantic Dream has made no mention of the Black Lives Matter movement despite the fact that Paris held one of the largest demonstrations. BLM isn’t a political statement, it’s a demand of basic human rights, and a call to abolish or defund police departments. As the days of protests continued and with June 19th approaching quickly, co-founder and co-CEO of Quantic Dream, Guillaume de Fondaumière, decided to tweet this on his personal twitter:
He was rightfully skewered in the comments for not only executing a tacky move of promoting his video game during these times of real life and death, but for using the term “All Lives Matter”, which is rhetoric often used to demean the “Black Lives Matter” movement. This was his second tweet by the way, the first one suffered a typo. For his third and final tweet, he changed “All Lives Matter” to “Black Lives Matter” and removed any mention of Detroit Become Human.
I thought it wasn’t about politics or civil rights, though? Isn’t that what Cage and Williams said? That was a cheap and insincere attempt at solidarity there. What Quantic Dream should have done was apologize for certain aspects of the game and for taking elements from Black and Jewish history but not crediting it for their inspiration. Then they should have donated any profits made in June from the Steam release to a Black Lives Matter organization.
But that didn’t happen, and sadly but understandably, some of the actors of the controversial game are helping to get it back in the spotlight by streaming it on Twitch. The new community play plug in is making waves as well. All of this would be great fun if not for the shudder-inducing history of not only Detroit Become Human, but Quantic Dream as a whole.
Have you guys played Detroit Become Human? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.
Some of my favorite sources that led me to see the light: Polygon, Goombastomp, Paste Magazine