On May 23rd, Quantic Dream studios will release a new game by “auteur” director David Cage, Detroit: Become Human; a narrative-driven, action-adventure game about three particular androids in a futuristic Detroit waking up to “feel they deserve a better life”. It appears to be a very un-subtle allegory for the struggles of marginalised people, and Cage himself says he used androids as a stand-in so as not to point the finger at any particular groups. I don’t personally have an issue with that, as I actually think using androids as a stand-in could potentially show how marginalised groups are de-humanised in a more literal and explicit way. What I do have a problem with though; is David Cage attempting to deal with these themes. When Quantic Dream hit headlines earlier this year due to accusations of it being a “toxic workplace”, full of sexism, homophobia, and unprofessional behaviour, Cage responded by telling people to “judge him by his work.” The first problem with that is that David Cage does not make good games. David Cage does not craft good stories. No one man is ever responsible for an entire game of course, but neither he, nor Quantic Dream has ever made a creative decision I can respect and I’ve never seen them approach a serious issue or story with an ounce of gravitas or intelligence.
Let’s begin by examining the previous big David Cage game: Beyond: Two Souls, starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Two highly respected professionals; and much was made of their work doing motion capture for the game. Indeed, David is extremely proud of having gotten to work with Page. She’s a bit less proud of her work with him though. During the toxic workplace accusations; Cage defended himself against accusations of homophobia and racism by pointing to his work with Page and Jesse Williams; civil rights activists. The “I have a gay/black friend” is tacky at the best of times and is extremely easily countered – how much civil rights activism does Cage himself actually do? None, as far as my research has shown me (a slightly worrying sign for Detroit, Cage himself has no experience in this arena). The Ellen Page comment borders on offensive however, due to an infamous scandal that resulted from her work on Beyond: Two Souls. Page has a no-nudity clause in her Hollywood contract, but this did not stop Quantic Dream from creating a nude model of her for an entirely necessary shower scene (oh so necessary, it was absolutely VITAL). After the model was leaked online, it was reported that Page considered legal action against Sony. So, judging Cage by his work with Ellen Page? Ms Page wasn’t exactly thrilled with your work David, not your best choice.
But was the game itself any good? Absolutely not. Beyond is a mess for a few key reasons. Its gameplay is both incredibly simplistic and yet needlessly vague at the same time – it relies heavily on quick time events – timed button or directional inputs, but many times opts not to tell you what input you need to do, causing inexplicable failure. Either that or they just don’t respond. Not that it matters though; there’s no consequence for failure; whichever scenario you’re in will find a way to move ahead no matter how badly you do; all going towards the same, inexorable ending. It HAS to do that though, because David Cage, for some foolish reason, decided to present Beyond in a non-linear structure. The story is told through a series of disconnected flashbacks that makes following the narrative an absolute nightmare, and the individual beats themselves are nonsensical at best. One mission sees Jodie (Ellen Page’s character) assassinate someone she’s told is a despotic warlord… Only to find out from a news bulletin afterwards that he was a peaceful, democratically elected president. This plot could’ve been avoided was Jodie a) remotely aware of the world around her or b) looked at the *NAMELESS MIDDLE EASTERN* country’s Wikipedia article at some point. A smarter, more interesting writer, might’ve used this to make a point about American interventionism and imperialism. Not Cage; it’s just a dramatic reveal that adds nothing, because there is no coherent plot or theme in Beyond. Jodie doesn’t grow, because she can’t grow, because it could contradict later scenes you’ve already seen (not that that stops that happening). Cage’s storytelling is about as subtle as a brick to the face and every bit as painful. To quote a review from ArsTechnica:
“Through it all, there’s a sense of explicit emotional manipulation. There are constant moments where the music swells, characters’ faces get scrunched up, and the game practically throws up a big metaphorical sign saying “Feel something, dammit!” Only you feel nothing, because the plot and writing are way too overwrought and earnestly direct, and because the game never really succeeds at making Jodie a relatable and believable character with interesting motivations or reactions.”
There’s also a scene or two where Jodie is almost sexually assaulted. I’ll come back to that later; but in order to follow up on Cage’s other defence, bringing up Jesse Williams, I wanted to make mention of Cage’s treatment of other races in Beyond; specifically Native American people. During one chapter, simply titled “Navajo”, Jodie is, of course, the perfect white saviour for a small Navajo family – borderline noble savages with the faintest hint of modernity, and any reference to their culture is completely ignored. We get to see tepees burning – which the Navajo never lived in – and the two sons (neither of whom has even a trace of a very distinctive Navajo accent, deep in the heart of Arizona) take Jodie to “a place no white man has ever been before”. Give me strength. The chapter is full of lazy stereotypes, awful writing, and to say it casts aspersions on Cage’s “I am definitely not a racist” claim is understating it.
It’s hardly the first time Cage has been a touch insensitive towards ethnic minorities though. In Heavy Rain, the last game Cage made before Beyond, late on in the game, one of the four protagonists fights with a black criminal named Mad Jack. Mad Jack looks like this:
Yes, he is the only prominent black character in the game. A big, scary black man with giant lips. He was mo-capped by an actor, but I can find no images of said actor for comparison to see if there was any exaggeration of his features. Even without that though, the character is a gross example of a “black criminal” stereotype from his attitude to his dialect and dialogue, and I can only assume someone physically leapt on David Cage to stop him inserting the word “honky” or “cracker” into every sentence.
But why should I have expected anything else from the director of the most awkward and ridiculous sex scene in video game history. It’s an infamous scene that exists for seemingly no reason, adds nothing to the story and proves that David Cage has no idea how humans form functioning relationships. Ethan, the game’s protagonist, is in the middle of a desperate search to save his son Shaun, and, depending on the player’s choices, may have killed a drug dealer as part of the kidnapper’s twisted game and demands, in addition to having potentially cut off a finger, crawled through a maze of broken glass and electric pylons, and driven down a highway the wrong way at full speed for five miles. The idea that he should be up for a game of hide the sausage with Madison, one of the game’s other controllable characters, and that she considers it appropriate to make an advance on him is absolutely mind-boggling.
Oh, but don’t worry if you, like a reasonable person, think that’s a bad idea (you’re not getting the best ending for thinking that already), you’re still presented with plenty of lovely sexual scenarios for Madison to get into. None of them consensual! We’re introduced to her padding around her apartment in her underwear, when it’s invaded by three men who attempt to assault and kill her. It’s a nightmare that establishes that… Madison has bad dreams sometimes and she’s an insomniac. Ooh, how about the time she’s made to strip down to her underwear again at gunpoint by someone she’s trying to get information out of. Or the hideous focus on her body when a mad doctor decides he wants to mutilate her, and then gropes her bottom; clearly titillated by her attempts to fight back. It’s pretty appalling that this is the only way that Cage thinks to generate conflict and drama for Madison, the game’s sole female lead, and shows that he really didn’t learn anything for Beyond: Two Souls. Jodie may have had more agency than Madison, but I’ve already outlined that game’s many problems.
Heavy Rain tried to be a serious mystery story about a serious kidnapping by a serial killer; a showing of love as a motivating force; a test of how far Ethan would go to save one son after failing another, filled with tension as you tried to piece everything together. But, and this is the final nail in the “David Cage can’t write a halfway sensible story to save his life” coffin, the game has to lie to you to ensure you can’t possibly see the twist coming. The truth behind the Origami Killer is that he’s Scott Shelby; one of the four characters you’ve been controlling the whole time. During a segment you’re supposedly in control, Shelby kills a potential witness to his crimes off-screen and, as you read his thoughts, expresses surprise and fear about being mistaken for the killer. Meanwhile, throughout the story, Scott is thinking about how he needs Person X’s help to catch the killer and how Person Y is his only lead on the case. It turns out he’s been gathering evidence so he can destroy it. It’s the cheapest trick I’ve ever seen and makes a joke of the player. Scott Shelby’s own thoughts lie to you to preserve the twist. It makes absolutely no sense. Heavy Rain may have had better structure and gameplay than Beyond, but a) that’s an incredibly low bar, and b) the game is still atrociously written, borderline offensive in its treatment of women and minorities, and a terrible story to begin with.
And finally, going back to Detroit, where people may have been wondering: has David Cage evolved over the years? Will this game be better written and structured? To answer that; I would like to point to late last year when a trailer and demo was shown off at Paris Games Week. The scene, featuring domestic violence and child abuse was criticised as cartoonish, for shock value and generated discussion about whether Cage was fit to handle such serious issues. Sources told Le Monde that they warned David about the misogynistic nature of the scene and how glib it came across. To its credit; I do think the trailer gets the point of how the story can easily branch in a scene quite well, though it bears all the classic Cage hallmarks of dramatic music begging you to feel something and god-awful, melodramatic acting. But it’s clear the scene was chosen for its shock value above anything else.
Cage, in the earlier interview I linked, grumbled about how people were quick to judge on this, and how there was a context to the scene; though I would counter that this was the slice of gameplay they chose to show off for the trailer and should’ve curated it better in that event. He defended his choice to make Detroit deal with these serious issues by saying that videogames should be able to be more than fun; they should be able to be provocative and political and deal with uncomfortable subject matter. I completely agree; I consider games to be a legitimate form of art like any other medium.
Except that’s not what David is doing with Detroit.
“The story I’m telling is really about androids. They’re discovering emotions and wanting to be free. If people want to see parallels with this or that, that’s fine with me. But my story’s about androids who want to be free,” he said in an interview with Kotaku last year. Why yes, that DOES contradict what he said more recently about how the androids are a stand-in for marginalised groups! I’ve saved this reveal for the end, lying to you the whole time about Cage’s intentions with Detroit for dramatic tension. Snide jokes at Heavy Rain aside, games change all the time in development; but to have completely shifted the story into an allegory over the course of a year seems highly unlikely. That would require new scenes, editing and re-recording of dialogue and motion capture and major shifts in story beats. So I strongly question the sincerity of Cage’s work with Jesse Williams, and the sincerity of his commitment to serious themes and political allegory. If he really didn’t see any potential allusions to marginalised communities last year, when he set a game in Detroit, Michigan, site of the 1967 civil rights protest, I have to conclude David Cage doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.
So there you are, David. I have examined your work. I judge you by it. You’re a charlatan and a hack. Can’t wait for Detroit to be awful so I can laugh at it! Because the alternative is crying.
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