Wednesday, July 10, 2019

DETROIT BECOME HUMAN: On Basic Humanity and Self-Image (1 of 3)

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Not long ago, I finished one playthrough of Detroit: Become Human and then watched a few more people be better at it. I didn't particularly enjoy 2/3 of my outcome because I suck at quicktime events and I made some ridiculous choices early on, but overall I liked the experience. My regular readers know how into branched storytelling I am, so something like this — with something like 40-odd endings — intrigued me.

It honestly took me a while to get down to collecting my thoughts about it for the purposes of blogging. This is partly because there's frankly a lot to cover, and only some of it strikes me as within my wheelhouse. It's also partly because I'm well aware it's a divisive title. I've yet to meet someone who's lukewarm about it. Either they really enjoyed it, or they disliked it with every fiber of their being.

To that end, if you did not enjoy Detroit: Become Human, I'm afraid you might not get much enjoyment out of my next three pieces. I'm not writing these to convince people who didn't like it that they ought to, or that they need to. People are people, and they get to have their opinions without me telling them (beyond typical silliness among friends) that they're Just Wrong.

Hell, that's a good place to start.

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Connor (you know, the android sent by Cyberlife) is easily my favorite character in the game, and that's saying something in a game where there's a character with my name (spelled right) who'd probably shank a dude to protect a kid. Besides just being straight up delightful (and played by Bryan Dechart, but I repeat myself), he's got one of the most convoluted journeys in the game, with the most divergent possibilities. Out of all three protagonists, he's the only one who can choose not to consider himself a human. And that's kinda freaky.

Detroit: Become Human is not at all subtle about their metaphor, with androids stacked quietly in the backs of buses from the very first scenes. Their roles slide into this same metaphor: Kara the housekeeper, Markus who gets an education from his owner before going out into the wider world, and Connor whose only tiny scraps of respect come from the fact that he's there to bring down his own people. Connor in particular navigates through his scenes because, well, he doesn't respond to the insults. He's just there to do a job. The case is the thing, and of course he doesn't want to be treated like a human. He's not a human.

Meanwhile, he hunts down Kara, Markus, and others who think differently. It's up to you, the player, whether his work rubs off on him as he sees the truly human behaviors of Detroit's Deviants. If you're a real cold-hearted son of a bitch (or you've played before and are being a completist), you can carry Connor through all the way without him confronting his feelings of humanity. More than likely, though, you'll find him going the way of Markus and Kara when given the choice.

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The game asks us repeatedly to make choices, many of which will affect both the genetic humans and androids around us. Each storyline couches this question differently. I boiled it down like this recently:

Markus: Are these people as important as my cause?
Kara: Are these people as important as my loved ones?
Connor: Are these people?

And Connor's is where it all begins. In the world of D:BH, we're talking about civil rights for people different from ourselves; but as on-the-nose (occasionally awkwardly so, admittedly) as that metaphor is, just as important is the constant question of whether people in general deserve our respect. Because we make those choices every day, independent of (albeit sometimes guided by) the world around us. We make them about others, and we make them about ourselves.

Getting what we want — from things as mundane as the next job or the last PS4 on Black Friday to things as all-encompassing as equality — will usually come with some sort of baggage. On a good day, it's not much baggage: if we get the job, someone we've never met won't, but that's how it works. But in other cases, you have to ask who gets the backlash when the backlash comes. Are you willing to do what you're about to do regardless of what will happen to your opponents? What about the random people in the crossfire?

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Humans have empathy, and empathy's a bitch. And it's those more empathic decisions that make up a lot of how D:BH will go. As Kara, will you steal a family's bus tickets to get you and Alice to safety? They're not running for their lives, but context clues show that there are valid reasons why they need them. Is your need greater than theirs? As Markus, will your protest be peaceful or violent? Humans don't seem to mind kicking the shit out of androids so a few busted windows and overturned cars would still leave you in the black ethically, but is that what the protest is about?

As people with empathy, the idea of hurting other humans causes guilt. It's natural. There are ways to interface with that and things to take away from it. There's also the other, quicker option: deciding that these people aren't human. In this day and age it may not be quite as literal a move as in this fictional Detroit, but it is a tactic: convince yourself that the person in question is basically as good as inhuman, and suddenly you're a lot freer in your choices.

In Connor's story, android creator and Jared-Leto-faced-ass-looking-MFer Elijah Kamski doesn't even mince words. He puts that question out in front of Connor before anything can continue.

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Now, obviously Kamski isn't doing this for Connor's betterment. I'm not saying that. This whole thing is an interesting experiment to him. If he has any desire to see an android develop empathy for their own kind, it's so he can tell himself he's created a population of humans and feel all Godlike. It serves the purpose though: the Kamski Test (i.e. "will you shoot Chloe you absolute monster") answers two questions in one (possibly literal) shot. First, does Connor consider androids human? Secondly, if Connor doesn't consider androids human, what does that mean for him?

As much as we decide for ourselves in difficult situations whether someone is worthy of humane consideration, we do it for ourselves on a daily basis. We encounter people who ask us to put aside our thoughts, our ethics, and our self-worth for them. Maybe it's allegedly for the "greater good." Maybe it's because they've placed themselves above us in such a way that they can cast themselves as just knowing better. Maybe it's because, for a very long time, we've been made to believe that that's just how it is: that we're secondary to the needs of others.

Realizing that we're not — and that we can still work toward a greater good while still seeing ourselves as worthwhile and worthy of human respect — can be harder than it sounds, especially when we've been in an environment where we're fed the exact opposite line day after day. It can seem not right, or unfair, or like we're making a huge mistake. Not breaking out of it, though, leads to even bigger problems.

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Connor becoming a Deviant (or, more accurately, admitting that he is a sentient being worthy of respect) is multilayered. It isn't just about him, even though it's super about him. That one choice alters his entire worldview. By embracing his humanity, he is simultaneously embracing the humanity of every android. Admitting he is worthwhile and human cannot happen unless he's ready to admit that everyone else like him is also worthwhile and human.

Markus's and Kara's stories begin with epiphanies: they don't want to be treated this way. They want to be more. They are more. It's very individual, even though the implications become broad (especially for Markus). But Connor works from the outside in. His epiphany is all-encompassing from the moment it happens. I'm valid, and so are all of them.

And what if he doesn't? Because that's absolutely an option. You can stick to your guns, decide humans are humans and androids are androids, and throw yourself all the way into that cause. And, well, when you set standards for others, you're setting them for yourself. When you strip away the humanity of others, your own isn't all that far behind.

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Connor's story makes one other thing abundantly clear: being a human is terrifying sometimes. Things aren't always easy and logical. Reason and emotion are often at odds, and we have to be the one to make the ruling. No one is responsible for our actions save for ourselves, and if we get it wrong we have no one to blame but ourselves and our own judgment. Having feelings is really annoying sometimes. But that weird combination of freedom and empathy is strangely worth it.

Next time, Kara — the android with the best name in the game — and the family mentality.

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