The problem with Detroit: Become Human’s handling of domestic abuse
Detroit: Become Human found itself at the centre of controversy last year after a trailer for the game was criticised by children’s campaigners for trivialising domestic violence.
In the trailer, one of Detroit’s three playable characters – an android called Kara – is put in a situation where she must decide whether or not to intervene as an abusive father attacks his daughter. As with previous titles from French studio Quantic Dream, such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, the scene can play out in multiple ways, depending on what choices and actions are made. One section of the clip showed the daughter lying unconscious; another showed her shooting her own father.
Conservative MP Damian Collins, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said at the time that it is “completely wrong for domestic violence to be part of a video game”. Writing in The Observer, Simon Parkin instead questioned whether grafting a sense of player agency on the scene implied there is a “correct” choice to resolve the problem, resulting in a “deeply troubling misrepresentation of the reality” of domestic violence.
At a preview event for the game, I sat down with Detroit’s lead writer, Adam Williams, to address these points. I’d previously played around three hours of the game’s opening, including the scene at the heart of the controversial trailer. As a game that attempts to weave a relatable, near-future vision of society with a plethora of player choices, Detroit is an ambitious piece of work. In my time with the game, I was impressed by the layered storytelling that builds across three playable characters in the first act. That scene with a father beating his child sticks out, however, and encapsulates many of the problems that lean against what Quantic Dream wants to achieve.
A world that feels real
When I asked Williams how he responded to concerns about depicting domestic violence in a video game, he emphasised that the scene occurs towards the beginning of a much larger narrative arc for Kara and the daughter, Alice:
“What we wanted for that story was [to show] the idea that simply escaping the dark situation is really only the beginning of Kara and Alice’s problems. That’s linked to the broader question of deviancy [the game’s term for rogue androids], in that becoming deviant; ascending to free will, is only the beginning of your journey in terms of who you’re going to be.
“The idea there was an easy solution to the scene, was probably an unfortunate side effect of the fact people didn’t see what came next, and what the rest of the story was about. It gave the impression that Alice and Kara’s problems were over having escaped the house.”
(Kara and Todd. Credit: Quantic Dream/Sony)
Having played only the opening act of the game, I wasn’t able to see how Kara and Alice’s story developed to its conclusion. In its first chapters, the game follows Kara as she is picked up from a repair shop by a single father called Todd. Driven to a deprived area in Detroit’s suburbs, she is swiftly barked at to clean the home, nervously watched over by Alice. As domestic tasks are completed, a rapport with Alice can be developed, and the father’s drug abuse is gradually revealed.
These opening scenes are clearly intended to be a contrast to those of Detroit’s two other protagonists: Connor and Markus. The former is a souped-up police investigation android on the hunt for ‘deviant’ machines (think Ryan Gosling’s K in Blade Runner 2049), while the latter is – like Kara – a servant android, but one owned by a kindly, wealthy, elderly painter. Swapping between characters in each chapter, Quantic Dream wants to show its sci-fi future across the class divide, both human and android. Kara’s situation is meant to be a reflection of the darker outcomes of that socio-economic gulf. It is revealed, for example, that Todd lost his job because of automation.
“Our view was that if you shy away from the darker elements of life, you end up with a world that doesn’t feel real.”
“We wanted a world for Detroit that would resonate with the world players know,” said Williams. “We wanted a world that felt real, and our view was that if you shy away from the darker elements of life, you end up with a world that doesn’t feel real. You end up with a world that feels airbrushed. The rule we had for it was that we always had to handle it sensitively and maturely, and that it always had to serve the story.”
From what I played, Todd’s attack does indeed serve the story. It is an important turning point in Kara and Alice’s relationship, and a culmination of the implicit violence in the opening scenes. Whether or not it is handled in a way best fitting an interactive medium, however, is another question.
In my playthrough, I befriended Alice enough for her to give me a key to a box, which held pictures she’d drawn of Kara with her arm ripped off – evidently attacked by Todd. After a dinner scene turned sour, I ignored Todd’s order to keep still as he followed his daughter to her room. There, I found him hitting her with a belt, successfully fought him off and escaped with Alice out of the front door. These fight scenes were conducted via a series of quick time events (QTE), with the player needing to shake their controller to dodge Todd’s blows or struggle with door locks.
After the scene was finished, I was presented with a flowchart that showed my particular course through a multiplicity of branching paths. This happens at the end of every scene in Detroit: Become Human, revealing how many options there are in each moment, and encouraging the player to draw causal relationships between their actions. Previous Quantic Dream titles have shown a flowchart at the end of the game, but Detroit does this for each section of its story.
(A flowchart for one of Detroit’s early chapters. Credit: Quantic Dream/Sony)
“The first thing I’d say about the flowcharts is that anytime anyone designs an interactive story, they have a chart like that anyway,” said Williams. “Because you’re trying to manage the cases and help the coders see how to progress from one scene to another.”
While the fight scene in my playthrough was a tonally incongruous moment of controller shaking – all the more clunky for attempting to inject a sense of physical interaction into a scene where a father had, only moments before, been beating his daughter – it is the flowchart that is arguably more problematic.
The flowchart doesn’t show the outcomes of different decisions, but it does show how many different decisions there are at different points. Other games that hinge heavily on decision-making often only hint at alternate paths, or rely on the implicit presumption that there are multiple options. Quantic Dream, conversely, has taken a particularly transparent approach around the structure of its game. No doubt this is intended to help players see the reasons for each chapter’s conclusion, but in the context of scenes such as the one described, it leaves an odd taste in the mouth; emphasising Detroit’s ‘game-ness’ by drawing attention to its fixed paths.
It frames a moment of domestic violence as a clearly defined system of controllable events
There is a tension here, between the studio’s aim of depicting a complex scene of real-world violence in an interactive medium – something I believe it has every right to try to do – and the way Detroit underlines the artifice of this scene by offering a post-show breakdown. As Williams says, pretty much all game stories have some form of flowchart system, but by pulling back the curtain Quantic Dream encourages the reading of its storytelling as a logical machine. While there isn’t necessarily a “correct” outcome, it still frames a moment of domestic violence as a clearly defined system of controllable events. There is something that sits uncomfortably within this, something cold.
Furthermore, the flowchart foregrounds the player’s agency, giving it precedence over that of the beaten girl, who has no free will other than that choreographed by the writers’ and player’s choices. The player can replay the scene over and over again to try to unlock different outcomes, yet each time Alice will be attacked by her father.
The perspective of the disempowered
All this is unfortunate given that, elsewhere, the game is very much attentive to how it communicates a sense of disempowerment.
“The reason we wanted three androids for the playable characters is because we wanted to show this society from underneath,” explains Williams. “Often in games you’re invited to inhabit the role of somebody powerful. The design intention is that you’ll become a master of your environment and win. We wanted a game that showed you the perspective of the disempowered.
“From a creative point it’s interesting and fresh, but also if you’re exploring these themes of segregation and a divided society, why not show the society from underneath where that division and imbalance is most striking?”
There are sections in Detroit’s opening that handle this sense of disempowerment excellently. As a obedient machine, areas you can go in the first chapters are tightly directed, deftly using the game’s own funneling to express how restricted life is for the android underclass. In an early section as Markus, for example, you are tasked with collecting paint from a shop. Left in the centre of Detroit, there are plenty of streets to walk down. If you try to move away from an objective, however, a red wall flashes up explaining this isn’t the way you’ve been commanded to go. Later, as things become more rebellious, these virtual walls collapse and I’m told that the scope of where you can explore is drastically opened.
(Connor. Credit: Quantic Dream/Sony)
The lead up to the climactic scene with Todd is also well done, as Kara is tasked with cleaning dishes and hanging up washing. The mundanity of these actions is an effective counterpoint to objectives in Connor’s storyline, which involve more ‘video gamey’ actions such as scanning crime scenes for clues. While a game such as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided attempts to show a society split by human augmentation solely through the eyes of an empowered supercop, Detroit’s characters are knowingly spread across the strata of its futuristic society. Whether the aspect of gender in these scenes is something the game interrogates remains to be seen.
Detroit evidently wants to tell a nuanced story, and one that doesn’t shy from darker aspects of our society. In response to the controversy around the game’s trailer, Quantic Dream’s studio head David Cage told Eurogamer that video games are “an art form, and an art form should be free to express different things, including strong and dark emotions as long as it’s done in a fair, honest and sincere way”. He is right, and yet that freedom doesn’t guarantee success. Player choice can bring new layers to a story, but it also brings with it a whole new layer of questions about power and agency; a layer that won’t necessarily be asked of a film director or a novelist.
Interactivity needs to be interrogated
It may seem unfair to hone in on one of the game’s many chapters, but that scene with Todd, Alice and Kara typifies tensions that ripple elsewhere in the game. Interactivity needs to be interrogated, and with its flowcharts and controller shaking, there are elements of Detroit that threaten to undermine what it is trying to achieve.