A Sum of Parts: Other Others
Brendan Keogh explores Binary Domain’s question of what it means to be human.
Wait, they’re human.
How the hell can you tell?
How the hell can’t you?
Binary Domain is one of those deceptively smart games that I initially ignored as just-another-shooter. When I finally played it recently, however, I was surprised to find a plethora of subtle and nuanced things happening alongside the absurd action and archetypal characters. Binary Domain wants to tell you about class struggles, about climate change, about Japanese nationalism and insularism, about posthumanism, and most of all, about discrimination and othering. Binary Domain wants to tell you how hatred functions. It wants to show you how entire segments of humanity are able to be singled out for one attribute that makes them different from everyone else—one attribute that allows them to be classified as non-human—and discriminated against.
Which is surprising, perhaps, considering how the game starts. When playable character Dan and his sidekick Bo first wash up on the shores of old, flooded Tokyo, they are just another couple of over-exaggerated caricatures. Dan is a grizzly white guy who sound like a poor man’s Nolan North impersonation. Meanwhile, Bo is practically a walking epitome of blackface. He bumbles around the place making calls that make Gears of War’s Cole Train seem almost transgressive.
Dan and Bo are part of a multicultural, UN-sanctioned ‘Rust Crew’—a team of military-like personnel devoted to hunting down and destroying robots made to pass as human beings. As they meet up with more of the team, these caricatures extend to other nationalities: the British man is uppity and frets about everything. The Chinese woman is quiet and obedient. The French robot is extravagant and moves with a certain flourish. In a strange way, the incredibly typical stereotypes of each character almost becomes charming as the game progresses. As the team try to adapt to each other’s cultural sensitivities (and making fun of them at the same time), the caricatures that started off as seeming almost racist evolves to feel more like a (slightly hamfisted) celebration of the variations that are humankind. As Faye says early in the game: “Race and nationality don’t matter as long as we are part of a rust crew.”
The robots that this varied group of characters are hunting down are called ‘hollow children’. These robots don’t only pass as human, they think they are human. They live their entire lives believing that they are human beings. They live like any of us live—they just happen to be made of metal where we are made of bone.
As the game starts, this is all presented very black-and-white: humans good; machines bad. But it doesn’t take long for the game to start playing with this in really interesting ways.
After a fight with a giant spider-robot-thing, the rust crew enter a Yakuza stronghold where people are living beneath the radar of the Japanese authorities. While there, three Japanese gangsters drag in another Japanese man. The man was found in the rubble of the robot we just destroyed, and part of this face’s flesh was missing, revealing the metallic skull underneath. The man is a machine, and he doesn’t realise it.
The man is in pain, screaming in agony and fearful for his life. “I’m not a robot!” he screams over and over in Japanese while we are looking at his eyeball sitting there in its metal socket. A gangster kneels down in front of the man so the man can see himself in the gangster’s sunglasses. “No,” he mutters at his own reflection. “There must be some mistake!”
What’s really unnerving about this scene isn’t that this man is a machine; it’s that none of the witnesses present are willing to accept that despite being a machine, he might also be a man. Somehow, the fact this man has (presumably) never before hurt anyone, or the fact that he has lived his entire life until now as a human, doesn’t matter. These people now know he is a machine simply because his looks have changed, and that is enough to destroy any empathy they may have felt for him
They aren’t just terrified of him. They are disgusted by his very existence. He isn’t necessarily a danger, but he is a stain on the purity of the human race. So they torture him. They treat him like an object. They do all kinds of horrible things to him because they no longer care for him.
Eventually, the man is able to get hold of a gun and shoots the gangster that tortured him dead. And now people are screaming and running. It has become a self-fulfilling prophesy: we can’t allow robots to pass as humans because they are too dangerous. And here, a robot wasn’t allowed to pass as a human, and now he is dangerous.
This happens regularly throughout history: a class of human is seen as less than human—as not human, as other—and are forced into increasingly terrible situations until they have no choice but to act out of desperation just to survive, just to react. Indigenous Australians, for example, have been persecuted by white Australia for centuries now, many of them living in poverty or addicted to various substances. Many Australians are happy to think of their Indigenous brethren as inherently flawed, refusing to acknowledge that, historically, we were the ones that forced them into this hopeless situation in the first place. It happened to Jewish people during World War II. It continues to happen to people with non-straight sexualities who are told their relationships are less valid than heterosexual relationships. It happens to women who rightfully get furious at mansplainers and are then sidelined for being hysterical. Minorities get subjugated, and when they fight back against that subjugation, the majority feels reaffirmed in subjugating them in the first place.
At some time or another throughout history, the contributions and humanity of certain groups of non-rich, non-straight, non-white, non-males has been brought into question and has allowed those people to be discriminated against. In the future world of Binary Domain, robots are relied upon as a labor force to rebuild cities obliterated by climate change. Without robots, the world simply can’t function. But these robots can never be accepted as true people. Like the African slaves that helped build the United States, they are a slave force of second-class systems—necessary for society to function, but seen as less than human. They are not allowed to fit in.
After the robot/man murders his oppressor, it is playable character Dan who saves the day, shooting the man repetitively in the chest—incapacitating him, but not yet killing him.
The man laments, “I don’t want to die.” But Dan assures him, “You won’t. Only humans can die.”
And here we have it. Even the playable character himself—the one we expect to be the progressive ‘good guy’—has no empathy for these othered robot people. He doesn’t care for this man. He isn’t human. He can’t die. So who cares?
This othering of robotic people in Binary Domain is most telling in the term ‘scraphead’ used by characters throughout the game. It is spat at robots. It is a derogative. It could easily be replaced with any still-too-common racial or homophobic slur and sound completely right. It is used to say “You are less human than me, and I can do whatever I want to you.”
Most telling is how my characters say this word. As the game progresses, it became increasingly clear to me that the rust crew are, essentially, a UN-sanctioned Gestapo, marching onto foreign soil with the sole intention of keeping the human race pure. We aren’t trying to protect anyone. We are simply worried about ‘purity’. We are Nazis. We are homophobes. We are the Klu Klux Klan.
In its treatment of the hollow children, Binary Domain shows us just how hatred and discrimination have perpetuated throughout history. Certain people are always ‘othered’ for being different. It doesn’t matter what those people themselves identify as—if the dominant class want to subjugate them, then so be it. Whites do it to non-whites. Straights do it to non-straights. Males do it to non-males. Nerds do it to non-nerds. And, in Binary Domain, flesh-and-bone does it to flesh-and-metal. In fact, hatred and discrimination are precisely what a domain of binaries perpetuates. Binaries force us into an ‘either/or’ dichotomy when, really, ‘human’ should always be considered an and.
In the end of this cut scene, with the man who has been made to see himself as less-than-man, it is the man himself who puts the handgun under his mouth and kills himself. Better to die a man than to live as a slave.
But no one cares. The man’s robot corpse is loaded into the back of a cart and wheeled away. Dan doesn’t care. The yakuza don’t care. Even the camera doesn’t care, showing the man’s mangled skull front-and-centre in the way no videogame would even show a virtual ‘real’ man’s mangled head. No one cares—not even the game itself—that this person who considered themselves a human wasn’t allowed to just live their life. Nationality and skin colour no longer matter to the cultures of Binary Domain’s future (beyond Japan’s literal and ideological walls, at least), but as it always does, hatred and discrimination still manifest. What humankind can be is overshadowed by conservative, stubborn ideas of what humankind must already be.