How Detroit: Become Human is ruined by the uncanny valley

The uncanny valley is an aesthetic and psychological term referring to how we interact with things that appear human-like, but not exactly human. The term derives from a graph detailing our reactions to humanlike objects. The more human something becomes, the more positive we react to it, until it gets close enough to human that it’s nonhuman aspects are perceived as flaws. Essentially, a nonhuman object that looks human is endearing, whereas a human with non-human characteristics is off-putting.

Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human has a troubled relationship with the uncanny valley. On one hand, the core narrative is essentially about the social side-effects of the uncanny valley. When something is human-like but not human enough, people tend to classify it as fundamentally lesser. In the world of Detroid: Become Human, androids are treated like objects to be used and abused by human beings even though, for all intents and purposes, they seem to exhibit the same sort of sentience and sapience that human beings do.

Almost human

Detroit: Become Human is based off a tech demo that Quantic Dream made back in the PS3 days. The goal was to show how lifelike they could make their polygonal characters. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite have the effect they expected.

Gamers became infatuated with the plot of this short movie, rather than the tech. They wanted to learn more about Kara, the Android who can think and feel.

They did not, however, think that these characters looked especially human. When the very same tech was used in Quantic Dream’s next game, Beyond: Two Souls, fans complained that Ellen Page looked creepy and inhuman due to limitations in motion capture and rendering technology.

Fast forward to 2018. It doesn’t appear as if those limitations have been addressed. Yes, the characters in Detroit: Become Human look better than the characters in Beyond: Two Souls did, however they still have that creepy, inhuman feeling to their motions and behaviors. We aren’t out of the uncanny valley yet.

Luckily, Quantic Dream used this to their advantage. The primary cast of Detroit: Become Human is, in fact, not human. In the early stages of the game, the actors were obviously directed to act stiff and robotic. This combined with the game’s graphical limitations plunged the player into the uncanny valley… on purpose. It made them feel the same unease that other humans in the game world felt toward androids.

Quantic Dream was careful to always anchor their Android characters in some form of nonhumanity. The LED light that they all had on their temples, for example, allowed the audience to immediately classify them as nonhuman on sight. Jesse Williams’ character, Markus, is originally introduced to us as a broken mess that has to repair himself, like a techno organic zombie. This stuck us firmly in the uncanny valley, and made us aware that Markus was very much not a human being.

Graphical limitations

However, issues arose when these androids had to appear more human, yet Quantic Dream was still stuck with the same graphical limitations. They attempted to hide these limitations by focusing on more grandiose movements rather than subtle movements. Action sequences, for example, reduce the amount of time the camera spends on characters’ faces. Puzzle sequences also tend to restrict you to a behind the back view, further distancing you from the inhuman characteristics of these models. Meanwhile, Connor, a character who is supposed to come off as vaguely inhuman, gets a lot of face time.

In a way, this was a smart way to mask limitations, but it wasn’t enough. The game’s climax is all about feeling emotion, and having the populace at large realize that androids are essentially human too. Unfortunately, Quantic Dream’s technology does a poor job of conveying these revelations of humanity.

Player dissonance

While the populace of Detroit might eventually come to recognize androids as human, the player still doesn’t.

What could have happened if Quantic Dream leaned in to their limitations? The story of Detroit: Become Human is, appropriately enough, about something inhuman becoming human. However, there is an equally interesting story in androids accepting their android nature, which they do in part, but never enough to really feel like a distinctly different being.

In the early game, it is clear that androids think differently than humans. This, combined with the uncanny valley effect, made them believable characters. David Cage could have just as easily framed the Android uprising as an acceptance that they will never think or behave as humans do, yet still end up stressing their worth as living beings. Perhaps they experience love different from we do? Perhaps they experience the fear of death different from we do? Does that make them any less worthwhile as living sapient life?

If Quantic Dream pursued this story then their graphical limitations would have continued serving the game as strengths. As it is now, the skinless faces of these androids somehow comes across as more human than their actual human representation.