Feeling It Out: Agency and Affect Theory with Detroit: Become Human

Detroit: Become Human is a 2018 video game developed by Quantic Dream, published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, and directed by David Cage. It’s set in futuristic Detroit, where androids are common for people to own so they can spend more time on things they want to pursue. The game follows the story of three androids (Markus, Kara, and Connor) which are controlled by the player. Throughout the different sections, the choices the player makes will change the outcomes of their lives and the fate of androids within the United States. Through the time the player spends with characters and the choices they make for them, a sort of bond and feeling is created for these fictional beings; so what happens when the player’s feelings for a character overwhelms their logical goals for the one they’re currently playing as?

At one point in the game, Kara runs away from her owner’s home with his daughter Alice since he was abusing her. If the player chooses for Alice and Kara to seek shelter in the abandoned house for the night, Connor (a detective android working on android related cases with the police) will have the chance to find them there in the morning. Due to her actions, Kara will be labeled as a ‘deviant’, this is a term used within the game to describe androids who have deviated from their normal programming. Connor is searching for deviants and seeks to learn more about deviancy in order to end it, so when the playable character suddenly shifts from Kara to Connor, most would expect that our goals as the player would then change to reflect who we are playing as; however, this is not always the case.

Detroit offers the player a surprising amount of agency when it comes to their choices, and while some of those choices are offered as an obvious binary (shoot the person/do not shoot the person), others are not shown as choices during the gameplay at all, rather a path the player finds through action, or shown as a locked branch on the overarching flow chart. In order for players to be able to find these decisions there must be something to compel them into looking for alternative choices and affect theory seems to be able to push us in the right direction.
Affect theory, also called affective poststructuralism, is a theory that examines emotions and the force that surrounds them. We can reduce our emotions into a few words, but the pulse we as humans feel is much more palpable than that. According to The Affect Theory Reader, this phenomenon is “at once intimate and impersonal, affect accumulates across both relatedness and interruptions in relatedness, becoming a palimpsest of force-encounters traversing the ebbs and swells of intensities that pass between ‘bodies’ (bodies defined not by an outer skin-envelope or other surface boundary” (Seigworth & Gregg). Emotions can be strong and impulsive, often times irrational when put into a position with heightened emotions, and this theory examines that phenomenon as a whole; especially when looking at how that raw emotion can be transferable between the fictional world of Detroit and the living being navigating the game.

In the case of Connor and Kara, they are set up in a scenario that seems fairly logical to both the characters and the player. We as the player know that Kara and Alice are hiding somewhere in the house to avoid being caught, and we’re also aware that Kara is now a deviant. Connor is looking to apprehend all deviants, specifically Kara at this point, to cut down on incidents and to understand deviancy as a whole. Since the player is controlling Connor, it would be logical to act on his needs and wants as the current playable character, but knowing every character’s wants as someone in an omnipotent position causes conflict within the player. Typically, a player will experience an appraisal account, which treats “emotion as the result of a person’s assessments of how events or circumstances impact his or her achievement of important goals” (Hogan). In this scenario, the logical outcome for playing as this character is to find and apprehend Kara, where she will be dismantled back at CyberLife, the manufacturing company; this, however, also means that Kara will die and Alice will go back to being abused by her father. We as the player experience that threat of violence against Alice and Kara in the previous chapter and the bond between the two, especially if the player has made choices to keep promising Alice that Kara will be with her and continue to protect her. In this moment, the logical choice is no longer so, and the prioritized goal becomes to save Kara, which means deliberately failing this section as Connor. It can be as simple as standing in one spot for five minutes until his partner yells at him to leave, or by finding their hiding place and simply choosing not to chase after them. Either way, we as the player supersede what we’re supposed to do with our own goals due to our reaction from emotional appeals made by Kara’s storyline. If successful in keeping Alice and Kara safe, the player finds relief in “a strongly preferred event with low likelihood” and therefore would be pushed to avoid dangerous situations involving Alice again (Hogan).

Detroit’s storyline dealing with deviants is also an emotional appeal to the player, urging them to question the very nature of deviancy in the case of androids within this world. As explained in the game, deviants are seen to be androids that have been infected with a virus that causes the android to “be overwhelmed with irrational instructions” and is typically sparked by a highly stressful, or traumatic event (Detroit: Become Human). In the beginning of the game, Connor is adamant that androids do not feel emotion, deviants just believe that they do because of the irrationality of the instructions being given, but if that’s the case, does the player only simulate emotions as well? Emotions by their very nature are not always rational, or logical; they’re not just something humans feel, it’s a force that is within them as well, one that is sometimes hard to control and contextualize. Not only this, but feelings and emotions are felt and then interpreted by our conscious mind. There is no rhyme or reason as to why someone instinctually feels a certain way, the meaning is made later. Taking this into consideration, the move against deviancy within the game is an effectual empathetic appeal to the player for the plight of androids. By comparing that statement to our own feelings, it can allow the player to relate and think on their own understanding of what it means to be human, and further establishing the need for the in-game androids to have the status of intelligent lifeform, along with equal rights within the city. It’s a concept that the player works on throughout the game and is a tool that developers cleverly use to affectually reach out to their audience.

Not all emotional appeals in Detroit hit their mark, and the one that falls flat happens to be a conversation that is already rather charged in today’s political climate. With constant visuals of androids having to ride in separate compartments in the back of the bus and signs outside stores stating “No Androids Allowed”, it’s not difficult to see that Quantic Dream was trying to parallel the impending android conflict with African-Americans and the Civil Rights Movement. At one point an African-American character named Rose even directly compares the two within the dialogue, citing that as the reason she feels she must help androids escape into Canada where there are no android laws; the way she leads them into freedom is an allusion to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Quantic Dream doesn’t let the player think about this on their own, or bring up any questions of how similar human function is in comparison to the persecuted party. Instead, we are bluntly told how to feel and how to envision this parallel. That creates an understanding of meaning very well, but it does not allow for an empathetic connection to the situation and in its place comes off as forced and stale.

By looking at how affect works with the complexity of emotions and empathetic appeals in games, we can better understand the flow of the medium and how the interactivity of gamification can directly move its audience. While Detroit: Become Human makes great strides in getting its players to unknowingly think critically about how the medium affects us and how that can affect our decisions within the game, it only hits its mark when engaging in theoretical questions rather than direct and obvious parallels.



Detroit: Become Human. PlayStation 4, Quantic Dream, Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2018.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Affect Studies and Literary Criticism.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, August 2016, http://www.literature.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-105
Seigworth, Gregory J. Gregg, Melissa. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, Duke University Press, 2010. Kindle Edition.

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