You might not have noticed, but over the past week, the internet has been losing its collective damn mind over E3, a video game conference showcasing all of next year’s flagship games, which just wrapped up several days of pomp and circumstance. Every E3 has had some controversy, but this year, rather than another sexual harassment scandal, it offered one of the most original video game debuts in years: “Detroit: Become Human.”
You play as three android characters amid a revolution where androids are attaining sentience. But all eyes immediately turned to the most politically charged character: Marcus, a light-skinned black android (modeled after and performed by actor and activist Jesse Williams) who goes around liberating his brethren from the display cases of Detroit’s “Cyberlife” stores and granting them sentience with a single touch.
As Marcus, you choose how to lead the revolution—in turn, shaping how the characters and the world around you respond. The spider web of your actions determines how peaceful or forceful the revolution will be. Will you be the android MLK, the robot Malcolm X, or the artificially intelligent prophet-terrorist? Politically speaking, it’s fraught territory for a game directed by David Cage, a white Frenchman.
However, Cage’s reference point was less Black Lives Matter and more Ray Kurzweil’s book on machine intelligence, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Rather than evoking a political struggle through a new medium, Cage stated that his focus in developing “Detroit” was getting people to ask questions about what happens when the artificial children we think less of become smarter than we are and want freedom.
But one doesn’t choose Detroit—one of the blackest cities in America—as the birthplace of a civil rights movement led by a character literally waking up his fellow androids to their plight in a vacuum. There are myriad ways that this could go wrong—starting with the fact that during their demo at E3, the game developers, right after hinting at the moral complexity of the game, showed a revolution kicking off with mindless parroting and a red/blue, bad/good progress bar.
In the scene, having freed a small coalition, Marcus proudly proclaims, “I have come to tell you that you can be your own masters.”
What response does he get? Robotic responses like, “We’re with you” and “I’ll follow you,” which are chanted with about as much sentience as the replay button on a dictaphone. Later in that scene, Marcus’ sidekick, North, tempts him to take the more violent path by rioting, rather than taking the peaceful approach by tagging the area with protest graffiti, using the argument that “violence is the only language humans understand.”
On the one hand, at least the game showcases individual personalities among the androids. On the other, though, it offers a dangerous portrayal of rebellions like those associated with Black Lives Matter: that they aren’t the floodgates of emotion, tension and mob action bursting forth, but the simple, binary choice of one person to be violent. This interpretation is only reinforced by a bar that pops up showing how your actions shift the game-play style toward either violence or peace.
Yay, another incarnation of the binary good-or-bad meter trod out in “make your own choices” games like “Mass Effect,” completely spoiling any perception you had that you’d be making gray, realistic choices.
Cage has said that the scene is only so binary because it’s the first impression the world gets of the revolution before it evolves throughout the rest of the game. He’s commented that Marcus’ followers won’t always parrot him, but that both he and the player will have to answer to them depending on how one chooses to resist what is, functionally, institutionalized enslavement in morally complex ways.
I hope he’s right, because the internet has already reacted. Many are uncomfortable with parallels drawn to Black Lives Matter—and the last game that tried to evoke BLM too bluntly, “Deus Ex,” pissed off a lot of people with in-game graffiti proclaiming “Augs Lives Matter.” Others think that Williams, both an activist himself and light-skinned, was an aggressively safe model for Marcus. There’s also room for people to get offended by the civil rights movement being reflected with AI characters—though that would be an interpretation couched in the assumption that a different form of life is less valuable.
If the choices feel gray and organic and Marcus is written as supporting the player’s actions with the logic, poise and eloquence that a Malcolm X- or Martin Luther King-like figure should evoke, then “Detroit: Become Human” could be a revolutionary (pun intended) concept. Inherent in the setting is the potential for something truly unique.
Why do black people get annoyed when someone says he or she “doesn’t see color”? It’s because inherent in that claim is the idea that someone has deemed that black people subscribe sufficiently to his or her cultural standards to be seen as nondescript—equal.
In “Detroit: Become Human,” the protagonist is not tasked with proving that a group seen as subhuman is really just as human as its oppressors. Androids aren’t human. They are different—unrelatable, to some extent, to those not born one. Pinch yourself if this is sounding familiar.
A “woke” black protagonist is tasked with proving that life wholly other, inherently unrelatable and as profoundly inhuman as the white nationalists in my Twitter feed perceive black people to be is separate but every bit as equal in its value—regardless of how inhuman anyone perceives it to be. You, as the player, have to prove that a group shouldn’t be valued by how closely it fits someone’s description of human, but by the content of its character.