At PlayStation's Paris Games Week press conference, a trailer for Detroit: Become Human was shown. A male character named Todd lashes out after he loses his job to an android workforce and his wife leaves him. His rage manifests in a harrowing scene where he attacks his young daughter and, depending on the decisions players make, Kara, his female android helper.
That it ignited controversy is no surprise; its depiction of domestic violence and child abuse was stark and unsettling, but it has ignited questions as to whether these are issues that video games should tackle and the purpose a scene like that serves in Detroit's narrative. Following the press conference, GameSpot spoke to David Cage, director and writer of Detroit, and asked him about his intentions for the scene, why he believes games should be able to tackle issues such as domestic violence, and what he hopes to achieve through exploring them.
GameSpot: Why did you pick that scene to show at Paris Games Week? What did you want to convey with it?
David Cage: What's a little bit special about Detroit is that it's not the story of one character but the story of three characters and we wanted to present three scenes showing the different colors, different tones of these three characters because we wanted them to be very different and very distinctive. We introduced Connor and the hostage scene at E3 and Marcus, who is leading this revolution. And this week at Paris Games Week we wanted to show Kara, who was the first character we introduced--if you remember there was a short video in 2012 that introduced the character. That was initially just a tech demo but became Detroit. It's also a teaser we showed two years ago here in Paris to introduce the game for the first time. And we just wanted to remind players that Kara is really part of this experience, that she has not disappeared.
It's always a difficult choice for us about what we're going to show or not show, because there's always the fear of showing too much of the game and revealing too much, so we try to find a scene that doesn't spoil anything and is kind of self-contained so people can understand the premise and we don't need to make any big explanations about where we stand in the story. And of course we wanted to show the theme of Kara, which is really about empathy and about emotion of course.
We've seen the androids rising up and figuring out their rights aspect of the game, but how does this moment, where two female characters are being attacked, fit into the broader narrative?
Of course I can't explain everything because otherwise I will have to spoil the entire story for you. All I can say is these three stories seem to start from very different starting points, but actually they are all connected and interlaced. So it's three real stories, they have a beginning, a middle, and end, and they are connected--what you do with one character can have an impact on what happens to the two other characters. But they all have one thing in common: we always control androids, and we need to be on their side and see what choices they are going to make. So three different themes, three different characters, three different colors, three different soundtracks--this is really the goal.
Around E3 you did a few interviews and made some conflicting comments regarding what you want the purpose of the game to be. You had an interview where you said you don't want it to carry a message but instead ask questions, but you also said you wanted it to be more than just a story about androids. Could you clarify your intentions? Given the gravity of the situation you've presented here, namely a young girl being attacked, trying to reconcile that with you saying you don't want this to have a message can be difficult. How can you not have a message when you're dealing with something like domestic violence or child abuse?
That's an interesting and complex question. A game is very different to a film or a book in the sense that it's not just a creator creating his own thing and putting it in front of you and that's it, and you can only react to it, not change it. Right?
When you watch a film, the film is made. A game is unique in that sense that it is a collaboration between the creator and the player. I create context for choices and I ask questions, but I don't control what the player is going to do and how they will behave and what answers they're going to give. So it is something we create together. My role is certainly not to deliver a message to mankind--I am not that arrogant--I would just say that I'm interested in some questions and I think some questions are connected to us as people, as individuals, and some questions are connected to our world.
Now, I think it's up to the player to make these connections or not make them. It's everybody's role--again, it's a collaboration. [You s]ee in the game things that you want to see. There are things I've tried to put in there, for sure, but I certainly didn't try to tell you what you should think or what is right or what is wrong. It's more asking you, "What is your take on this?"
The themes and genre you're exploring--androids rising up and wanting more--is well-tread territory, so a lot of the questions that pertain to those themes have probably been asked. What is it about Detroit that distinguishes it from all that? What are the unique questions you're going to be asking that the others don't? Because if you're just asking the same questions, surely we've reached the point where just asking these questions is not enough, and maybe delivering a message is more valuable, especially when dealing with something like domestic violence?
I didn't say the game doesn't have anything to say--it does have something to say. I'm just saying that this is something that we are going to say together.
So you want it to be a collaborative process?
It is. And people will see or not see what they want in this game, but listen: it's a game about people who are clearly segregated and fight for their rights. Do you see a connection there? I'm asking the question.
I see a connection.
Great--maybe someone else won't. My role as a creator is not to tell you what you should think, right? This is something that is unique in our medium: I can ask you a question and you can answer it and you can find the meaning that you want. But it's something we did together--that's what I appreciate in this medium. I think Detroit is going to ask another question that is going to be very interesting: is a video game legitimate to talk about anything, or not? Should it be a medium about evading and having fun? That's an interesting question. And I'm genuinely asking the question, I'm not answering it. I'm just saying this game is going to ask this question.
So was this scene a testbed for that? Because looking at the reaction from people after last night's showcase, even though Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus has just launched, containing a domestic violence scene, the interaction in this Detroit scene seemed to shock and disturb people more.
There is always a question for me about what is gratuitous. What is the meaning? I hope that what we do has a context and has a meaning, and that the game says something that is legitimate and respectable. That's my take on it and that is what we try to do. Everyone will judge by themselves, but we don't create these kinds of scenes just for fun, to see how cool it is. There is a meaning; it has purpose. And for me that is the difference between what is acceptable in the matter of violence in a game or in any medium and what is not acceptable because it's just enjoying and glorifying violence. This is not what we do. It's always difficult to judge from one scene and 15 minute demos, but believe me the meaning of the game and the values and the moral values are things that are very important for us.
I try to put meaning in my games. Yes, I use violence, but it's not for the sake of violence--there is a meaning to this story.
It seems some people struggle to make the leap and allow games to do this. If this was a film with a scene like this, it would be acceptable. But even though we want games tackle serious issues, it's difficult for people to see this happen. Why do you think this is?
That's, for me, a very important question. That's the heart of the future of this industry. Can we talk about anything or not? Are we a medium like all the others? Are we like literature and film or are we something totally isolated and different where we can talk about certain things but not about real-world issues? What does it say about our industry? Are we toys?
So from your perspective, in order to advance storytelling in games and explore more legitimate themes, these are the kinds of subject matter you feel you need to grapple with?
I always considered that games and interactivity were a respectable medium and a form of expression--as much as film or literature or theater or any other art form. And you can't say this and make games that don't reflect that. I try to put meaning in my games. Yes, I use violence, but it's not for the sake of violence--there is a meaning to this story. This android goes through the orders--I mean, she has orders: a human master tells her, "Don't move!" And she needs to go through this to free herself and really become who she is. And she does that through empathy and by love. And she wants to save this little girl. All this has a meaning, and this is only the beginning of a very long story that will take you to very different places. All this is important to us; we hope it's going to be meaningful to people. Yes, it's a difficult scene; yes, it's oppressing; yes, it's about domestic violence--but are games illegitimate to talk about these things? It's an interesting question.
It's a difficult thing to show, both as a writer and for the audience to participate in, but it's something you need to work through if you want to tackle meaningful issues.
It takes time. It's going to take time. When we started working on emotion in games with Fahrenheit and then on Heavy Rain, people thought we were crazy, "Who needs emotion in games?" That was the situation and the questions we had to answer. Today, who questions that? Having emotions in games is great; it makes them better. I think there's a next frontier with meaning: Can we talk about real-world issues in games or is it just not appropriate? I think it's difficult because games … there's something about them that's really light, "Oh it's a game, so you want to play. And playing with serious matters is not respectable." And we try to say, "No, we play, but we also interact," and interacting with serious issues means asking you questions personally, and it becomes very interesting because it talks to you as an individual. It asks, "What would you do? What would you feel?"
We test the game a lot and many of the scenes that we haven't revealed, and it's fantastic to see how people feel, embarked on the story and feeling empathy for these characters, they can be moved by what happens. That's my goal as a creator. I'm not looking to shock you or disgust you, I'm not looking for scandal. I'm just saying I'm a creator and I have a strong story to tell. That's just the beginning, but it's a beautiful story.
Also with games, when you show a scene, very quickly people will say, "Oh, it's going to be this scene 20 times. So I'm going to be a woman in different houses and I'm going to have to evade and that's the game. No, no, no. Each scene is different. That's just one within the story and, like in a film, there will be many different moments telling you a broader story.
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Now more than ever, given the issues you're depicting, your writing is going to face an intense amount of scrutiny. What's your process to make sure that each of these scenes are conveying their intentions properly? Are you working with other writers or is this your own, singular vision?
When you try and write these kind of things it needs to come from somewhere deep inside. It's not like, "Oh I have this idea that would be cool." No, you don't write like this. You're moved by something; sometimes you know what triggers that consciously, but most of the time you don't. You just write. I have this process, and it's strange, where sometimes I'll write a scene and work on it for days or week, and it takes me some time to understand what I was really writing about. Of course, I know what the story [is] about, but what [is] the arc of Kara really about? Sometimes people will say, "Oh you wrote this because you thought of that," and I'd say, "No." So there's something unconscious in you that helps you to write because then you couldn't write. Then of course there's people that help around me giving opinion and feedback.
I don't want to censor myself; I don't consider that there's anything I should never talk about because, again, I respect my medium and think it should be able to talk about anything. I'm just careful about making sure that what I say is something I'm fully comfortable with. I couldn't tell a story that go[es] against my beliefs to defend racism or misogyny. I couldn't do that. That's not my values. It's particularly difficult because when you give options to the player and only give them the right choices that are ok with me, then there's no choice. It becomes a film and we're not creating something together. So I need to create a spectrum, a space of choices that have fair boundaries large enough for players to find their own paths, but also respect certain rules that I give to myself; I don't want to tell a story I would be ashamed of, in terms of moral values. That's your responsibility as a writer. Would you want the player to be racist or not racist? No, that's not the kind of choice I would offer.
It's tricky because, like you say, for example, you can't tell a story about misogynists because you're not a misogynist. But when you're dealing with issues like misogyny and asking people to make decisions around it, on some level you need to create a scenario and provide an option that, despite your intentions, could be interpreted as enabling misogyny by some. That must be very difficult.
It's true. It's a challenge, particularly for people who don't play the game but watch it and quickly say, "Oh this is this, this is racist or this is misogynist." Wait a second, play the game, look at things in context. It's very easy to take one image from a game and accuse people of being this or not being that. Play the game and understand the meaning before judging. Honestly, I'm very proud of Detroit and the moral values that are in there. Yes, it talks about difficult things, and yes, this scene is about domestic violence, but I don't think there's anything to be ashamed of. [Overall] it's a beautiful story with a fantastic actress [playing] a beautiful role. We're really proud of what we're achieving with the game and I hope people will enjoy the experience and be moved.
You're confident that your treatment of the subject matter in that scene and the story as a whole will carry meaning in the end?
You mentioned earlier that you use your own experience as inspiration for what you write. What was the spark that created Detroit and what was it that moved you to create that scene within that context?
I'll be honest with you, I don't know. Because when you write, you know people used to say there's a right brain and left brain? Which we know isn't true, but to use the image, sometimes it's your right brain that writes, so you need to tick these boxes and write this character and this theme and blah, blah blah. That's never very good.
What's good, I think when I write, is that it comes from a deeper place. I can't explain why, and I'm always surprised when people give me explanations about my work because I think, "Oh, maybe you're right, but I don't know, I was just moved by this situation." Sometimes, it's ridiculous but it happens to me that I cry. It's emotional. It's therapy I guess because sometimes when you write you don't know what you're talking about consciously but there's something deeper. That's where most of the writing comes from.
I guess it would be a lot worse if you didn't feel an emotional connection.
Yeah, true. But it depends on what you write about. You don't need to cry about everything you write, but sometimes you feel deeply moved for reasons you can't explain, and you just project yourself into the scene and put yourself in the shoes of these characters. What's special about Detroit is that I chose to be on the side of people that are suffering. I chose the side of the androids and not the humans, there's a reason for that and I felt that it was the right point of view. It was a very interesting point of view. And maybe this game is not so much about AI or androids, maybe it's about us. I wrote this scene from the point of view of Kara, and this for me makes the scene different. If I played Todd [the male attacker], it would be a totally different scene with a different meaning, but here you're Kara, fighting for empathy and for love.