David Cage’s latest game, Detroit: Become Human, was shown off for the first time in over a year at E3 2017. Sony’s E3 2017 press conference gave us another look at Detroit’s futuristic world in which Androids serve humanity, only to rise up and resist upon gaining sentience. Detroit’s story touches on suppression, terrorism, slavery, and exploitation–serious, real-world issues that are rarely discussed in the bright lights of the video game world.
At E3, we got the chance to speak to Cage about these issues, and how they affected his thoughts while writing and developing Detroit. We also spoke about storytelling in games, about he wants the player to be the co-star, co-writer, and co-director, and about creating content most people will never see. Take a look at our full chat below.
GameSpot: How do your decisions in Detroit affect its story on a grander scale, rather than just on a moment-to-moment basis? Are your choices mere illusions or can you actually change the whole direction of the story? How much power do you have to shape the story into separate arcs?
David Cage: So that was a very important thing for us when we started working on this, was to say, "We don’t want to do smoke and mirrors with this, we want to go the hard way." Let’s create assets that maybe 10% of people will see. And let’s embrace this idea that usually you reject because we’re not going to create scenes for the 10% of people who make that choice. But we said, "We should," because that’s the heart, the DNA of the experience that we wanted to create. So the tree structure is very complex: in each scene, in each arc, we added another layer of complexity which is that the arc of one character–we have three playable characters–can have an impact on the arcs of the other characters. So you can imagine the complexity of the tree structure.
There are entire branches you may never see. There are some scenes that you may see or miss or you may see differently. There are some characters that you may see only once or become your friend and accompany you until the end. And of course the three characters can die, which won’t lead to a ‘game over’ situation, the game will carry on with the remaining characters. I won’t tell you that you can tell any story and that there are a zillion stories that you can tell, there is a narrative space that we create, that the player can really travel a lot within this narrative space and tell their own version of the story. And for us the goal is that two players comparing their story playing Detroit will realize how different they are. They may talk about things that the other doesn’t even know what they’re talking about.
If I wanted to see everything in Detroit, how many times would I need to play it through?
That’s gonna take you a while. Honestly, it’s impossible for us to say how many versions of the story there are because it really depends what you take into account and the tree structures are so complex that I don’t really have an answer. But it’s not this kind of game where you get three different endings and that’s it–there are many paths, many ways of playing the story, of traveling through this tree structure, leading to many different endings, but the goal for us was to give the feeling to the player that they are in control of their destiny, that they are telling their own story. The co-writer, the co-director, the co-actor. I created the space, but they decide what they want to do in it.
Detroit is a very special game for us, it’s probably everything I learnt in 20 years doing this job into one game. So I hope it’s going to be the essence of what I learned, and I hope it’s going to be a good thing. The reaction here at E3 has been pretty insane, seeing how excited the fans are, so all the people who love my work will find what they love: emotion in games, the strong narrative and the branching narrative and all this stuff, it’s all there, just on a bigger scale. More spectacular, more branching, more everything.
It’s all there, just on a bigger scale. More spectacular, more branching, more everything.
[For] people who didn’t like my games so much in the past, I think it’s an interesting experience. We try to do things a little bit differently in Detroit. We have bigger areas. We have much more exploration. We probably found a better compromise between what players are used to and what we want to do. Let me give you a concrete example [of that].
We always try to have a sense of cinematography with our cameras. Not during cutscenes, but during gameplay sequences. Having the feeling that it’s filmed by a director, even when you’re in control of the character. It’s great for people who like that, but for gamers, sometimes [they’re] like, "Oh, I want to move my camera and I can’t," so we’ve developed this system where if you don’t touch the right stick, the camera is managed and you have a sense of cinematography, but at any point, once you just move the right stick and you control the camera and you can look around. It’s these kinds of–not compromises, because I don’t like this word–but these kinds of choices that we made in the design to make sure more people will want to play and enjoy the experience, because I think it’s action-adventure, it’s nothing else than that. It’s also really funny to see how many QTEs there are these days in action games and if you look at the demo we presented, there are none. It’s a trend. I think the industry makes a step in our direction. Maybe we make a step in the direction of the industry.
There’s a lot of turmoil in the world right now, for example with the recent attacks in London and, before that, Paris. Has that changed your thoughts and your attitude about this game, given the scene you’ve shown off at E3 is, essentially, an attack?
Yeah, absolutely. The events in Paris happened while I was writing the script and it happened very close to the studio. We are very close to the Bataclan, very close to the supermarket that was attacked, and my kids, they were at school, very near the supermarket where this thing took place and they were locked in school, so I was at home, watching TV about what was going on, calling my kids, no answer, and you can imagine what goes through your mind when that happens.
I have one guy in my team who was in the Bataclan when it happened, so I was writing scenes and I’m very clear and very honest and very sincere and … I was totally comfortable with the story I wanted to tell, because I think it’s a very positive story in telling something very important and meaningful, but at the same time, I didn’t want any ambiguity in my story.
There are a couple of scenes that I cut, because I felt [they] could be misinterpreted and could be understood in a way that wouldn’t be right. I cut them away and it made me think about the story I was telling and how I was telling it and, at first, I was really scared, because I thought, "Wait a second, we’re dealing with very sensitive issues here. This is so important and so serious for real people in the real world, how can we create a game that would even resonate with this kind of thing?"
Do we always have to talk about zombies and aliens and stuff, or can we talk also about the real things?
Your first reaction is to step back and way, "Whoah, what am I doing?" But then, the second reaction is to say, "Wait a second, that’s important. That’s meaningful." It’s definitely sensitive and sensible. I’m going to need to be careful, but at the same time it’s very interesting to be able to talk about such important things in the game. As long as you feel respectful and careful about what you’re saying and how you say it, why wouldn’t games be qualified to talk about real-world issues? Do we always have to talk about zombies and aliens and stuff, or can we talk also about the real things?
My take was this is a creative opportunity to see if a game can talk about these things or not, so don’t see [the scene shown off on-stage] as, "Oh, this is the [entire] game." Each scene is different and the meaning is absolutely not binary. Don’t take away from this scene that it’s going to be, "[Do] you want to be violent or pacifist?" because that’s not what the game is about. The game is much more complex than that and you show all the complexity and the repercussions of your choices, on opinion, on media, on your people, and being violent is not the wrong thing or the right thing. It’s not about being right or wrong, it’s really questioning what would you do if you had to fight for your rights and it’s one of many questions in the game.
Do you think more games should tackle those sorts of issues in real-world politics?
I don’t know. What I feel is that games are a respectable medium and that there is nothing they shouldn’t talk about. It’s a fantastic medium, because you put the player in the shoes of the character and you confront them in a very unique way, that is totally different from feelings, or TV series, or theater or literature, because you are in control. What I do with Detroit is ask the player questions. I don’t give the answers. I don’t say, "This is right, this is wrong, you should think this, you should think that." No. I just ask the question and I let the player answer by themselves and face the consequences of their choices in the story. This is what makes Detroit very unique and exciting to me.
What date are you targeting for release?
We’ve not announced a date, but it’s going to be next year.