To Become Deviant: Defining Deviancy within “Detroit: Become Human”

Originally published in Melete Zine. The full zine is available here for free.

Warning: This essay contains spoilers for the end game Detroit: Become Human

Defining deviancy can be tricky. Traditionally, a deviant is defined as a person who is contradicting the “accepted norm.” More often than not, it has a negative connotation unless it is being used to describe someone “deviating” from an expected path and even then, depending on the context, it can still be seen as negative. In Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human, deviancy is defined first as a fatal error in a machine’s program and later as an awakening of consciousness. When the player is first introduced to deviancy, it is during a tense hostage situation where an android named Daniel is threatening to jump off of the side of a building with a little girl.

Daniel is initially painted as the villain: a cruel creation that killed two people already and is willing to add a child to his ledger if he doesn’t get what he wants. As the scene progresses though, and the player investigates the crime scene through the eyes of the detective android Connor, a prototype model with advanced processing and adapting capabilities, they learn that Daniel didn’t simply snap because of faulty coding. He overheard that he was going to be replaced and attacked out of self-preservation. Depending on the player’s choices, the hostage situation can turn out either positively or negatively with the girl’s fate being in the hands of Connor’s negotiated compassion. If he’s cruel to Daniel or speaks to him like a machine, Daniel will jump. If Connor treats the situation as if he were dealing with a human, Daniel will react positively and release the girl. Regardless, Daniel will ultimately be killed in the process.

It’s a harsh first example of blatant deviancy that attempts to lure the player in, painting deviants as irrational monsters rising up against their creators—your standard “machines will take over” horror scenario. It is, however, not the only example of deviancy within the opening scene of the game. At the very beginning of the first chapter, when Connor steps off of the elevator, the player has the option to save a fish that in the process of suffocating on the floor. There’s no objective for it; nothing indicating that the player should do it other than the option itself. The player has every reason not to interact given the intensity of the surrounding scene (shouting, guns firing, etc.). If the player picks up the fish and puts it back into the tank, a notice saying “Software Instability” will pop up in the right upper corner of the screen. Later on in the game, it’s revealed that one of the “odd” behaviors that some deviants have is their desire to care for living creatures as seen (in excess) with the android Rupert and his flock of pigeons in chapter fifteen, The Nest. This interaction comes in stark contrast to what the player experiences with Daniel. Connor’s ability to choose to save the fish is the first hint that he was designed to deviate. If that’s the case though, what exactly does it mean to become a deviant? Is it a choice that all androids have, or is it something they have to catch like a virus or be prompted into? The problem is, the game never answers this question explicitly. Connor and CyberLife’s ultimate goal isn’t to discover why deviancy is happening, but to stop it—or rather, their goal isn’t to find out why out to understand it, but rather to quell it before it goes out of control. Elijah Kamski, the creator of the androids and CyberLife (and the only genuinely neutral party within the game), suggests that deviancy acts like a dormant virus that is awakened through emotional shock or trauma. If this were the case though, why didn’t more androids deviate sooner? The junkyard that Markus unwilling explores is proof of how often androids are destroyed or tossed aside in favor of a newer model. If emotional shock and self-preservation (as with the case with Daniel and many other androids that Connor confronts in the game during his investigate) are the triggers, why didn’t those androids in the junkyard fight back to protect themselves as well?

Connor, Markus, and Kara all deviate in slightly different ways from the majority of the other androids in the game. Of the trio, Markus’s path to deviancy is the most traditional. He becomes a deviant in order to protect himself and his owner. What’s unique about him though was that it wasn’t the first time he was attacked (depending on the player’s choices—there is a chance he can be attacked during a previous scene by protestors). This is the first time he resists though against an attack. Markus’s owner, Carl Manfred, treated Markus like his own son so he had little reason to deviate even after being accosted on the streets for being an android. It wasn’t until Leo, Carl’s son, broke in and upset Carl that Markus had the option to deviate and fight back. It wasn’t his own emotional distress, but that of someone he cared about that triggered his deviancy.

Similarly, Kara is able to break her code because Alice (not herself) is in trouble. Connor doesn’t have the option to deviate even during moments of extreme physical and/or emotional distress. Events and acts of free will that would typically constitute deviation for him are instead labeled as simple “Software Instability” pings. This potentially suggests that there needs to be a quota of “deviant acts” that allow for an android to finally become deviant, except if that were the case, why didn’t any of the other androids have “Software Instability” pings? Markus and Kara both simply break down their walls when choose to defend the people they care about. NPC androids (especially those Connor interviews) became deviant to protect themselves. Connor, however, doesn’t. He doesn’t become deviant when he saves his partner Hank from falling off of the roof. He doesn’t become deviant when he’s dying after having one of his essential parts ripped from his chest. Even when he starts to act out of self-preservation, begging Hank to help him sneak into the evidence room so he can solve the case before he’s shut down, he doesn’t deviate. He has to be led into deviancy by another despite his deviant tendencies (depending on which version of Connor the player is choosing although it should be noted that even machine Connor acts in ways that should go against his programming to achieve his objectives).

Ultimately, unlike the others, Connor’s choice to become deviant does to a degree stem from a desire to preserve himself. He seeks out Jericho and Markus (or North depending on the player’s choices with Markus’s storyline) because he thinks that if he completes his mission he won’t be deactivated, regardless of the other choices that he made during the game. With most of the other androids that Markus comes across, he is able to “awaken” them with a touch or even a remote link. He doesn’t appear to have this option with Connor. When confronted at gunpoint, Markus doesn’t wake Connor up—he talks to him; tries to reason with him, deescalate the situation, and point out what Connor already knows. He doesn’t force Connor to do anything like the others. There are numerous instances where Markus simply grabs other androids, wakes them, and asks for them to do things for him. In contrast, Markus speaks to Connor on equal terms, asking him,

“Have you ever wondered who you really are? Whether you’re just a machine executing a program…or a living being capable of reason. I think the time has come for you to ask yourself that question.”[1]

Listening to Markus creates more Software Instabilities although ultimately, regardless of how much “Software Instability” there is, Connor gets to choose whether he wants to stay a machine or become deviant.

Deviancy always seems to be a choice, at least for the protagonists. Kara can choose to do nothing, resulting in Alice’s death. Markus, likewise, can choose to do nothing, which will cause Carl to die. Other androids don’t appear to have this choice. They’re forced to awaken during marches or when Markus asks for their assistance. Once they awaken, they actively follow him without question at first (it seems like they do gain some sense of free will once they’ve been awakened for a while based on the Jericho perception meter). Markus and Connor appear to be the only ones with this ability too, which suggests that it may be due to their advanced model type (both of them are part of the RK series). Given this assumption, it’s possible that the reason that Markus had to reason with Connor rather than instantly turning him was because he physically couldn’t force Connor to become deviant. It’s also possible that the reason he couldn’t was because Connor was already a form of deviant due to his latent programming.

What’s interesting about both cases though is that of all of the androids, Connor also seems to be the only one who can potentially remain deviant and aware, but lose control of his actions due to outside interference via his handler Amanda, an AI program within his system. It’s possible to reset deviants as we see with Zlatko’s experiments, but with Zlatko’s reset androids, they seem to lose almost all sense of free will as well as most self-awareness, and are essentially factory reset, until they have a trigger again like with Luther (and Kara if she was reset). As Luthar explains to Kara, “I didn’t want to hurt you… He programmed me to obey him… When I saw the little one risk her life to save you, it was like opening my eyes for the first time… Finally, I could see…”[2] Kara, meanwhile, if she’s reset, is able to find memories of Alice and their journey to help her recover her deviancy, sense of self, and identity. Connor has to struggle against his own internal demons to recover and maintain control over himself when Amanda takes control of him at the end of the game. Unlike with Kara or Luther, it’s not finding memories of a loved one or seeing androids caring for each other that breaks Amanda’s hold. It’s a backdoor made by Kamski that he has to struggle towards. Amanda serves not only as a handler and watcher for CyberLife, but also as Connor’s inner conscious. When he does something well or completes a mission, Amanda is pleased with him. He’s following his programming. When he does something that is “deviant” or “wrong,” Amanda becomes mad or disappointed despite his becoming a deviant allegedly being CyberLife’s ultimate goal with him. So what purpose does the backdoor serve in the grand scheme of things? Why was that the trigger for him to gain full control? None of the others have an inner world or backdoor, which again suggests something unique about Connor’s programming and story as a whole.

Ultimately, deviancy is a depiction of choice, at least for the protagonists, and a call to action for the players. Each character’s storyline shows the consequences of inaction and cruelty. If Kara is inactive (except in a few select instances), Alice and/or Luther will die. If she’s cruel and abandons Alice after it’s revealed she’s an android, Alice will die. Kara’s story asks the player whether they’ll continue to love someone they’ve built up a close relationship with even if that person (or android) is different than they initially thought. If Markus is inactive or cruel, Jericho and the resistance will potentially fail, and he will be exiled (which can ultimately lead to Connor’s death as well depending on Connor’s storyline). Markus’s story shows the player that they need to be the change they want to see in the world. If they see others who are suffering, it’s their job to speak up. Connor’s inaction and cruelty are less about self-inaction, but rather about blindly following the orders of others. Connor’s story suggests that the player needs to look at the situation as a whole and to come to their own conclusions, even if it means going against someone they previously respected. The game attempts to rewrite what it means to be deviant. It suggests that being deviant means to think as an individual and to come to your own conclusions, even if it means going against the grain.

References

Detroit: Become Human. Quantic Dream, 2018.


[1] Chapter 30.2, Crossroads – Connor (https://detroitbecometext.github.io/chapters/30.2)

[2] Chapter 17, Zlatko (https://detroitbecometext.github.io/chapters/17)

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