Being an artist doesn’t mean less responsibility.
All images courtesy Sony
On Monday, a new trailer for Detroit: Become Human was shown at Sony's Paris Games Week presentation. It depicts one of the subplots in the game, in which the android Kara, a playable character, is inserted (as an enslaved robot maid) into the lives of an abusive single father and his young daughter. As the trailer progresses and the violence escalates, we are treated to a series of cuts showing us Kara's choices, in typical Quantic Dream style, as she tries to navigate her way out of this situation and potentially save a young child—with dire consequences for making the wrong choices.
There was an immediate flurry of reactions from writers, game devs, and journalists about the trailer. Soon after, this excerpt from this Eurogamer interview started making the rounds on Twitter:
Eurogamer: So why did you choose to use domestic abuse to illustrate these points?
David Cage: You don't choose to talk about domestic abuse. It's not like I was like 'oh, let's write a scene about domestic abuse'. It's not how it works. When you're a writer you talk about things that move you, that you feel really deep inside you that's something that moves you, and you hope it'll move people too. You know there are two ways you can do this - 'oh let's do something cool and let's have someone beaten by a man', that's one way of doing things, because people are going to write about it and it's going to sell my game. That's one way of doing it.
Choice—or the absence of choice—is as important to game narratives as editing is to film. Over the last three years, as I've ramped up from writing small personal projects, to releasing a game commercially, to working with larger teams, I've come to see choice as the spine of everything we do as game writers. Choice is a what separates the game writer from a novelist or a screenwriter; it's the particularity of our medium, the thing that is central to us and peripheral, or absent, to others.
What we, as game writers, have in common with the novelist and the screenwriter is the responsibility that goes with being the one behind creative choices in an artistic medium. Choosing what subjects I want to tackle, based on how that subject matter serves, or doesn't serve, a project. Choosing what I think is necessary, what I think is ethical, when handling difficult subject matter. Choosing how to present issues that relate to the real suffering of millions of people.
So, yes, you do choose to talk about domestic abuse. When Cage says otherwise in his Eurogamer review, he's a bit vague, but I take him to mean that he came to the domestic abuse plot in Detroit "naturally," as a consequence of exploring what he wanted to do with that game and its story. That is, he didn't set out from the start to tackle domestic violence. It just came up.
There's nothing wrong with that, but that is still a choice . You have to own that choice. You have to take responsibility for the pandora's box you're opening. Some boxes should be opened—some boxes need to be opened. But don't be cavalier about it.
At first, choosing to highlight this part of the game in a trailer seems exploitative, tone-deaf. That's bad enough. But between the trailer itself and this interview, this looks like a trailer for a tone-deaf game.
In the interview, Cage keeps using the word "move." He keeps talking about his desire that his games have an emotional impact. He keeps putting that forward as his standard, as his goal. But "it made me cry" isn't a valid test of quality, of seriousness. It never was. Just like games can aspire to so much more than being "fun," game narratives can aspire to so much more than being "moving."
If your explanation for what you're trying to do in your story is that you're going after what you find moving , that just reads as manipulative. The question is not that you are making your audience feel something, but that you are making your audience feel something for a reason. Emotional affect is a storytelling tool; saying that a dramatic story is moving is like saying that a song has notes in it, it's a hollow statement. Emotion without purpose, without direction, immediately risks feeling mawkish and hollow. This contrasts with Cage's earlier statements; in an earlier interview with Waypoint, about Detroit more generally, he had this to say:
With Detroit we realized that we wanted to create an experience that could be meaningful.
We still want the emotion, we still want people to feel fully emotionally immersed in the world, but at the same time we believe we have a story that could resonate with people at a different level.
I think Cage understands that simply making the audience feel something, anything, isn't enough. But he still can't articulate what, exactly, he is trying to do beyond that; and when pressed on a fraught depiction of domestic abuse, he retreats into this obsolescent question of emotion: "Why did I want to do this? For me it's a very strong and moving scene, and I was interested to put the player in the position of this woman." (Again, emphasis mine.)
Contrast this attitude to a 2012 interview between Giant Bomb's Alex Navarro and Vander Caballero, the developer behind Papo & Yo. That game handled domestic violence in a very different way, through metaphors, structures, and mechanics that tried to communicate the experience of an abuse victim; all of it drawn from personal experience. Navarro opens with a question about why Caballero wanted to tackle that issue in a game, and Caballero has an actual answer to that question. He knows why he's making the choices that he's making, and he's explaining those choices. He knows, too, what the player's choices in the game will reflect about what he's saying about domestic abuse, about his own experiences with that.
David Cage doesn't seem able, or willing, to explain his artistic choices here. More than that, the trailer gives me zero confidence that choice is treated well in the game itself. Game writer Meg Jayanth articulated this perfectly on Twitter:
Choice is the crucial storytelling tool of the medium. Structures of choice and consequence, and how they are presented to the player, can be used to communicate so much in a way that is so beautifully invisible, and we've barely begun to scratch the surface of what that can do. Choice has power, and power can be misused.
Up until the end, that trailer just seemed like a tone-deaf trailer that used violence in a tawdry way. But that ending, when it started framing the choice structure of that story, when the situation of an abuse victim was framed in terms of options to pick from a menu, was when the klaxons started going off in my head.
Every time you give the player a choice, you give them agency. But the flipside of agency is responsibility, complicity. When you put the player in the shoes of a domestic abuse victim and then represent their struggle as a series of gamebook-style choices, when you offer this anodyne, neutral vision of agency, you are suggesting that domestic abuse victims are complicit in their own abuse. You are representing their situation as a test they can pass or fail. You are suggesting that they could make better choices and avoid, or escape, their situation. There's no way to slice this where this isn't fucked up.
It amounts to a form of victim-blaming, where the systems of power that entrap and hold people in abusive relationships are reduced to a maze that victims are supposed to navigate and solve; in doing that, those systems of power are masked from view. The insidious notion suggested by this idea—that you could just make better choices and escape your abuse—is that the world is just; that abuse is something that comes to those who have driven themselves into it (or who were not skillful enough to escape it). That's a horrifying, unempathetic idea that few people would agree with if it were stated like that, but it can go unchallenged when implied, as it is here, by the structure of a work.
David Cage seemingly doesn't understand choice well enough to realize what he's implying with this trailer.
I don't think, for a second, that this is David Cage's intention. But that's the point: David Cage seemingly doesn't understand choice well enough to realize what he's implying with this trailer. To tackle domestic abuse in a game, you need to tackle it with mechanics, with structure, like Papo & Yo did. Cage seems to have written a script about domestic abuse and slotted it into the same structures that were built for his sci-fi thriller about androids.
How you structure your choices, how you present interaction mechanically to the player, is how you tell your story. It is the story. Imagine a film director depicting misogynistic, abusive violence in a scene shot like a fight scene from a Marvel movie . Cage acts like he's being interrogated for his subject matter, as if the critics are arguing that domestic abuse shouldn't be in a video game at all. I'm not making this argument. I'm interrogating what Cage is doing because I think his treatment of the subject matter looks awful.
At one point in that interview, Cage asks: "Would you ask this question to a film director, or to a writer?" It comes off as defensive, and it suggests a view of art where being an artist means being subject to less criticism; a view where film directors or novelists are not interrogated like he's being interrogated, because they're taken seriously. Cage seems desperate for games to be taken seriously. What he's experiencing in that interview is video games being taken seriously.
Being an artist is the opposite of a free pass. To be taken seriously means to be interrogated. To be taken seriously means that what we do as game developers and writers can and should be put under a microscope. You can't grow up without accepting responsibilities, and video games are long out of their infancy. Being given that responsibility, being subjected to that interrogation, is what allows us to move forward with the medium. You can't iterate, in your own game, without passing judgment on what you did earlier in the process. The medium as a whole can't iterate without that component of judgment.
Being an artist is the opposite of a free pass.
Maybe Cage has thought about this scene deeply enough. Maybe in its final release, Detroit will stick the landing. But it's hard to reserve judgment when what we've seen suggests it absolutely won't; when Sony chose to show us something that does the opposite of what would be a good treatment of the subject matter. And when, in response to being pressed on the issue, Cage responded in a defensive and tone-deaf way that doesn't inspire confidence either.
You will never treat domestic violence in a way that pleases everybody. But you have to be able to stand behind your choices and what they say, not just claim some notional immunity given to you by your status as an artist. We know you're an artist, David. You're one of many thousands who work in this industry. Prove you're a good one.