My escapism through video games has taken me many places throughout my life- one of the most recent being a futuristic version of the city Detroit.
I played the game a few weeks after it came out and had some strong things to say about it then and now, with more careful consideration, have decided to write a full piece about them.
I will be covering my thoughts in three sections-
1- The games treatment of women
2- The games treatment of minority groups (Disabled/ Ill characters, POC and LGBT characters)
3- The handling of abuse and addiction based storylines
The first part is the games treatment of women, more specifically how the women are portrayed and what messages are being sent by these portrayals.
There are 10 main female characters in Detroit Become Human (according to a gamingph article that I will link below) all of which fall into stereotypical and often harmful roles that we see across most media types.
I have separated these 10 characters into 4 main categories Carer, Servant, Tyrant and Damsel in Distress.
The most notable category here is the carer. This role is undertaken by the majority of our “Good” characters- Kara, Rose and Lucy all fit in this category. These characters are able to intuit the needs of those around them, and provide support in either a maternal or medical role to the other characters. It is important to mention that this category includes the only playable female character which means that we see significantly more screen time of a woman in a maternal caring role.
The next category is the servant. While this category only includes tertiary and almost background characters, this category still makes up almost a third of the women portrayed. Chloe, Traci and ST300 (Every female receptionist) take on a role of servitude. Chloe falls slightly outside this if you include her menu screen storyline, however, if you only include her story within gameplay she fits exactly in this category. Traci obviously falls into this category, as she was essentially a slave- the same goes for ST300.
Tyrant, I decided to call this category tyrant rather than leader for one main reason- both of these characters are portrayed as the enemy in the pro-android play throughs (Pro-android being the most common opinion amongst playable characters and players). These women are the president (who looked suspiciously like Hillary Clinton) and Amanda- both of which hold an anti-android stance and both are portrayed as powerful, independent women.
And finally, the damsel in distress. These characters include North and Alice. Alice is helpless and requires constant saving and protection- as she is a child this is understandable. North is in this category because the only plot service she provides is as a love interest- she is there to be an angry survivor whose problems are all solved when a man shows up.
These portrayals of women are either an obvious negative depiction or slightly more subtle in their misogyny. The obvious being that almost a third of the female cast are in a position of servitude- generally to men and the more subtle being the jabs at women in power. The contrast between the good characters being mothers and the bad characters being women in power was obvious to me after one play through. In this game a “good” woman is a carer, a servant or helpless- only there to be helpful to the men in their life or to fix the emotional damage they left behind. The “bad” women are the only one in charge of their decisions and have full control over, in this case, the largest android distribution company in Detriot and the Presidency of America. The message sent by these portrayals is that women are bad leaders, that women are only supposed to be caring for others and that if a woman is not serving a man, she is evil- and these are not the messages that I want to be seeing in any media, not just video games.
On top of these harmful portrayals that I have already mentioned, 6 of the 10 female characters are victims of abuse or violence, and only after this abuse are the characters able to take control of their situation- if they ever do.
The second point is the games treatment of minority or oppressed groups, including people with disabilities or mental illness, POC and LGBTQ+ people. I would like to note that I am both white and an atheist, so any points made about religion or racism should be taken with a grain of salt.
Within a chapter of the game there is a quest set in an android brothel, the main characters that you interact with are the owner, the memories of the androids and a lesbian android couple who are trying to escape. The lesbian couple are the only openly LGBTQ+ characters in the game and you are interacting with them as Connor, an android who is against any androids who have “broken free” and shown emotion. Most lesbians already face the issues of fetishization, dehumanisation and discrimination based on their sexuality. Viewing a lesbian couple in a situation where they are shown to be 1. Sex slaves, 2. Broken in the playable character’s eyes, and you get the option to kill them means that this is not a positive representation of lesbians as it contributes to the issues that most of them already face.
There are some stereotypes enforced about POC throughout the game. The playable character Marcus is thankfully well developed and I put that down to his actor being Jesse Williams who is an activist and very well suited to the role. Stereotypes are mostly seen in the secondary and tertiary characters however it does not make them less harmful. Luther, a character who accompanies Kara and Alice, is introduced as a bodyguard/slave to a white guy, and then continues as the strong and silent type. This stereotype enforces the idea that communicating your emotions is not a good thing and that black men should be or are intimidating. On top of all these stereotypes there is a blatant and superficial discussion of segregation and slavery that is present throughout the game, such as android being forced to stay on the back of the bus and the option to use the phrase “I have a dream” in your protests. These comparisons are done poorly and without consideration of their past and the very real issues that continue to plague or society today.
At the beginning of the game we are introduced to Carl Manfred, an elderly paraplegic man who Marcus takes care of. Carl, given his experience of life, is fairly pessimistic and easily exhausted by social obligations that come with his line of work. He often complains about his medical issues and age, describing himself as “”just an old man clinging to his brushes”. His portrayal, while likely accurate for someone of his age and life experience, implies that if you are disabled your life is not enjoyable.
Ralph, an android introduced to the player in the chapter fugitives, is depicted as having issues with speech, emotional regulation and rational thinking due to prior trauma. His portrayal as violent and unpredictable is an attempt at representation of a person with a trauma-based conditions, this attempt exaggerates the condition to make him seem like a threat and contributes to the infantilization and fearmongering that surrounds the topic of mental illness and the mentally ill.
Towards the end of the game, depending on your actions the characters are faced with a poorly masked and insensitive comparison to the holocaust. Detention centres set up to burn as many androids to death as possible can be seen on the outskirts of the city. The comparison and imagery are insensitive, distasteful and disgusting, it is ignorant of the past associated with the imagery and glorifies the hatred and death that was caused.
The third thing I would like to discuss is the games handling of addiction and abuse based story lines.
The game portrays domestic and sexual abuse as something that is easy to escape and something that can be thrown into a story simply to add emotion. This implies that the victims are somehow complicit and wanting to be abused which is insulting and untrue. These stories also either gloss over or completely ignore the long-term effects of the trauma such as paranoia and mental illnesses. To make matters worse all of the victims of domestic or sexual abuse are either women or sex slaves.
Many of the characters we see throughout the game, especially criminals, abusers and the homeless, are addicted to a drug that exists within the game called red ice. Hank, the work partner of playable character Connor, is an alcoholic. The red ice addicts are portrayed similarly to Ralph, violent and unpredictable, and thus have the same issues of fearmongering in regards to addiction as a mental illness. Hank’s alcoholism however is portrayed lightly, as something that is relatable and amusing rather than a serious addiction, this may be put down to the fact that alcohol is legal however it does not excuse the fact that the storyline was not handled appropriately given the serious nature of addiction and alcoholism.
In summary Detroit Become Human, despite its impressive technological elements and original gameplay style, is hindered by its poorly done storylines, handling of social and political issues and blatant ignorance in in regards to historical movements.