Kara, played by Valorie Curry, is a female android owned by a human in this scene. She is choosing to disobey and protect Alice, seen behind Kara, against her father, Todd. Photo via PlayStation Blog.
Game developer David Cage aims to push the video game medium
Last week Sony showcased a plethora of videogame trailers in celebration of their PlayStation 4 console at the Paris Games Week conference. However, while games such as Marvel’s Spider-Man gave us glimpses of web-slinging action and colorful fun, one game decided to lean into more raw, violent emotion to market their product.
For some commentators in the industry a trailer such as this was to be expected, yet some have reservations as to what we should choose to embrace as video games ease their way more into mainstream media.
Quantic Dream, a studio that has been around for 20 years, has always been one of the forerunners in pushing the limits of how we view video game narratives. Their game Heavy Rain was described by Tim Clark of the Official PlayStation Magazine as “one of the freshest, most exciting, and even important games on [PlayStation 3]…” Classified as an interactive action-adventure drama, the story focused on the mystery of a serial killer. It has an aggregate score of 87/100 on Metacritic and was one of the first titles to lean heavily on multiple outcomes and story-arc endings based on player choices.
Their follow-up to Heavy Rain was Beyond: Two Souls and, while receiving less praise from critics, it continued to refine the interactive storytelling formula and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival as the second video game ever to be featured at the festival.
David De Gruttola, known in the industry as David Cage and the Founder and CEO of Quantic Dream, wrote and directed these hits out of Quantic Dream and is currently working on his newest title, Detroit: Become Human. The game’s narrative focuses on artificial intelligence (AI) as they develop sentience. One of the prominent characters is named Kara, who is on a search for their role in the company of humans.
At Paris Games Week we had another chance to view Kara’s story on stage as she served as a maid to what appears to be a single father and his daughter. As the chapter progresses, we witness portrayals of domestic violence and child abuse that then are used to highlight different possible outcomes and opportunities for player interaction. The blend of basic controller input and gameplay combined with serious, heavy tones of domestic abuse left a sour taste in people’s mouths.
Martin Robinson, author for Eurogamer’s features and reviews, interviewed Cage to discuss issues of responsible exploration in this medium as well as what exactly is fair game in video gaming. This interview was conducted one day after the premier of the trailer. At the time, Cage had not had the opportunity to view feedback on the trailer – yet regardless of feedback Cage advises that people “should see the scene, play the game and see it in context to really understand it.”
Cage goes on to explain that a scene like this “has to have a purpose, have a meaning, and create something that is hopefully meaningful for people.” Robinson said in response, “Domestic abuse and child abuse is quite extreme as these things go.”
Cage said, “Let me ask you this. Would you ask this question to a film director, or ot a writer? Would you?” Robinson answered with a yes, to which Cage said, “You would ask the same question?”
This led to Robinson explaining his questioning. “The concern I have is that it’s using something like domestic abuse and child abuse,” Robinson said, “Which is a very real issue for unfortunately far too many people – and using it as window dressing rather than exploring the ramifications of these issues.”
“There will always be people thinking that we’ve used this,” Cage said, “But I don’t think that’s what we do.” However, this didn’t alleviate Robinson’s concerns.
“I was in the demo just then,” Robinson said, “and there’s motion control in this – you’re shaking the controller to prevent the abuse, which didn’t seem appropriate to me in a scene as powerful as that.”
“For 20 years we play with control in a quite different way to people in the industry because we work on what we call the sense of mimicry,” Cage said, “It’s about making you feel with your computer what your character feels onscreen. It can lead to some strange things – like feeling awkward because you’re trying to press many buttons at the same time. But if your character feels awkward on screen in the same way, it creates a link.”
When asked on what is off-limits as a writer, Cage said, “When you feel okay with the content and the meaning when you know you have nothing to be ashamed of because it’s fair and it tells the right story and because it’s moving – there are no limits.”
“I’ve been saying the same thing for 20 years, an art form, and an art form should be free to express different things, including strong and dark emotions as long as it’s done in a fair, honest, and sincere way.”
Many others across the internet have echoed Robinson’s hesitations with Cage’s writing. Austin Walker, Editor-in-Chief of Waypoint and formerly an employee of Giant Bomb, said in a tweet, “I don’t think there’s a person I trust less to do an abusive dad story than David Cage.”
Andy Kelly, a writer for PC Gamer and a contributor to Edge, Vice, The Guardian, and Kotaku, also said in a tweet, “David Cage is an inspiration. Writing stories that bad and still getting work.”
David Cage is an inspiration. Writing stories that bad and still getting work.
— Andy “Online” Kelly (@ultrabrilliant) October 30, 2017
It is clear that for many in the industry the question isn’t whether or not video games should tackle tougher issues. Most would say that is not only acceptable, but to be encouraged. Games as a platform have progressed beyond Dig Dug and Mario Kart and can now display characters that have a surreal amount of detail and depth.
In addition to that, unlike almost every other medium, video games can take those immersive graphics, environments, and characters and allow you, as a player, to interact with them. Thus, why not use such an art form to allow us to experience new perspectives, situations, and challenges?
However, as Robinson reiterates throughout his interview with Cage – we need to be careful with this. If we push video games as an art for the sake of simply pushing them, we risk turning what could be a respectable form of art into something to be dismissed by the masses.
That’s not to say Cage isn’t handling the situation with the utmost care and research – yet when a trailer showcasing such heavy themes is presented without context at a tradeshow meant to build hype and anticipation it can come across as cheap and irresponsible. It’s not necessarily wrong to have these issues in Detroit: Become Human, but they should be experienced in the proper progression – not on a stage with little to no preparation for what you’re about to witness.
Furthermore, when Cage responds to feedback and questioning on his work with deflecting it makes it appear even moreso that he may not have the caution that should be demanded of a scene like this.
Jim Sterling, a popular entertainer in the video game industry with 175,000 followers on Twitter and 580,878 subscribers on YouTube, perhaps said it best when he explained in a tweet, “Darker, deeper, more disturbing, more traumatically relatable themes can be explored in games. I wouldn’t trust David Cage with them.”
Darker, deeper, more disturbing, more traumatically relatable themes can be explored in games.
I wouldn’t trust David Cage with them.
— Jim Sterling (@JimSterling) November 1, 2017
In other words, it’s not the message it’s the messenger. Highly emotional and sensitive topics can help us grow as people and games can be used as a platform for that – yet you must be able to trust the source. Hopefully Detroit: Become Human has pacing and subtext that work together to make Kara’s story really resonate with us as players. The game’s release is slated for early 2018. We’ll see then.