David Cage has been a polarizing figure in the games industry for years. When Indigo Prophecy released back in 2005, it felt like a major step for interactive storytelling in games. At the end of the day it was a supernatural techno-thriller, but it was also filled with the sorts of small, quiet moments that felt incredibly mature (to 20 year old Austin, anyway). Sure, it was filled with plot holes and bad dialog, but it also felt like a promise about the future of gaming.
But Quantic Dream's following releases (Heavy Rain in 2010 and Beyond: Two Souls in 2013) didn't quite live up to that promise. I enjoyed both to a degree, but the increased fidelity only served to underline their problems. It was one thing when Indigo Prophecy's blocky characters let loose with clunky monologues, but it was something else entirely when those words were coming from virtual Ellen Page. (And that's to say nothing of the more tone-deaf elements of those games)
Now Cage and Quantic Dream have another game on the horizon. The near-future adventure Detroit: Become Human, which imagines a world of android cops, slaves, and revolutionaries. At E3, we had the chance to watch a behind-closed-doors presentation that walked through scene where android abolitionist Markus (played by Jesse Williams) breaks dozens of other androids out of store-front captivity and then led a protest filled "riot" in the empty city streets. After the demo, Waypoint sat down with David Cage to chat a little bit about what we'd seen.
Waypoint: The most striking thing about today's Detroit: Become Human demo is in one of the ways it differed from last year's. The E3 2016 demo showed us something we'd seen before in some senses from Quantic Dream, which was a sort of detective story, a mystery. It was mostly about how you solve a problem through the collection of clues, with a little action at the end of it.
But here we have something that is on its face deeply political. Not even subtextual, it's right there: Hey, these androids are an oppressed people who are trying to free themselves. What was the inspiration to move into that space instead of just doing another murder mystery or something purely supernatural or something like that.
David Cage: [Laughing] Okay! Ah, you know, you never start a project thinking "I want to do this, or I want to do that." It's really the story you want to tell that takes you somewhere, and sometimes you realize where it took you and you go 'Oh wow! Wait a second…' This is a little bit of what happened with Detroit, I think.
Now, I feel that with Indigo Prophecy and even more with Heavy Rain we wanted to see how we could deal with emotions in an interactive experience. And Heavy Rain did it correctly to a certain extent, I think. 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. And maybe talk about some things about our society and the world we live in. The fears, the hopes we all have—but at a different level.
For me, the question is: Can we, with Detroit, create an experience that would be meaningful.
So, to do that here, you have three characters: One is a detective—Connor—but today we saw Markus, who is played by Jesse Williams. How early was Jesse involved with the project? Did you recently reach out to him?
No, it was very, very early on actually! Probably like two, three years ago even. So it was not—before you ask—his speech at the BET awards that triggered that.
[Laughs] I mean hey, it was a good speech! And even though it came after his involvement, the way it lines up with Detroit is interesting, right?
Of course. We knew Jesse from his work as an actor, but we also knew he was an activist. We felt he had the charisma that a leader like Markus would need, which is what really triggered the collaboration.
Like you said, Jesse Williams is an activist. He does work with Black Lives Matter and has supported a number of charities. And he isn't alone: For a number of reasons, political and social protest and activism is having a real resurgence in the US right now, with a lot of debate around what those should look like.
And in the bit of Detroit that we saw today, it kind of comes down to this choice of: Should this character protest violently or peacefully? Can you talk to me a bit about how you decided what counted as "peaceful" or "violent." It wasn't always clear to me before a choice was made whether it would be a "pacifistic" or "violent" action—property damage seemed to appear as both, for instance.
Well, the first thing you need to know is that this is just one scene in Markus' arc. So, there are things that happened before—this isn't coming from nowhere. This isn't his first scene, he has a long story before he gets to this point. And the story continues much further. This is probably in the middle of his arc. There are conditions to start the scene, and there are many things that you can do differently, which will have different consequences.
But it was an interesting question that we wanted to ask the player in this scene: What do you think is right to do when you fight for your rights? And I didn't want to provide an answer, and this is something that is so important to me. I didn't want to deliver a message to mankind with this game. I just want to ask questions.
But after taking the violent action, Markus says "People are going to be afraid of us after this." Is this going to be a story where one answer is good in the end, the other bad?
That's your decision as a player. There are many things that can happen. It's not a binary thing.
Don't see it as a black or white, where "if I do this it will be good, if I do this it will be bad." It's much more complex than that. I didn't want something binary because I think that life is a little more complex than that. And sometimes you do a bad thing and it turns into a good thing, and sometimes you do a good thing and it turns into a bad thing.
So we try to keep that complexity. What is going to be the impact on the media? How are humans going to react? How are your people going to react to this? It's complex.
For so many games, though, player choices are clearly divided between good and bad. Do you ever hear responses from players or testers in response to these more complex questions who say "hey, that's no fair, I did the good thing, I should've gotten the good result!"
Well, you want to be fair with people. You just want to ask them: "Which would you do if you were Markus? What would be your decision? What do you think would be fair?" And it's not an obvious answer, like "Oh! The right thing is this, and the wrong thing is that!" The context is "What would I do if this was happening to me."
Which has really been my gimmick since I first started making these games. I want to ask you these questions, let you answer, and let you deal with the consequences.
So the set up for the world of Detroit: Become Human is that, basically, androids are developed and, because they're very cheap sources of labor, they've taken away lots of jobs from humans. The primary divide we've seen in these presentations has been the human-android divide, but I'm curious about want to know what happened to the divisions that already existed in society.
In our world, we have division across racial lines, class lines, around gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity… But here, we only see this one moment of tension between androids and humans. And this is happening in Detroit, a city that had serious clashes around race and class historically.
I think about these things and just have so many questions: Do those things fade into the background in Detroit ? Does a black android have a different life than a white android, or are they thought of differently by society? And what about just humans? Are there poor humans at this point in time that live different, harder lives that middle class folks? Or is all of that just not the focus of Detroit 's story?
It is. There is really a social background to the game. That was really a point of focus in the writing, and in how we want to present the world.
This is not just a fantasy. The work we're trying to do is to imagine, for real, the world 20 years from now. What will it mean to have androids who will be a journalist instead of you. Because you know what, they don't sleep, they're never sick, they don't complain, you don't need to pay them, and they never fail. They never do anything wrong.
So, what will happen to you 20 years from now is you'll probably have to find a new job, because an android will be doing it instead.