Detroit: Become Human Writer David Cage on the Power of Narrative, Agency, and Gaming

Quantic Dream founder David Cage sees a unique opportunity in Detroit: Become Human to make players ponder deep, thought-provoking issues regarding life and society. To get a better idea of Cage's goals, Shacknews sat down to chat with the Detroit writer.

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Quantin Dream is taking the idea of intelligent AI to a new level with the upcoming Detroit: Become Human. At first glance, this narrative-based games dives into the fantasy sci-fi realm, where machines rise up against their masters and become a class unto themselves.

But after going hands-on with it, it's not quite that. In fact, director David Cage purposely wasn't aiming for fantasy, but more for the plausible. On top of that, he's hopeful that Detroit will encourage players to think about elements of the human experience and some of society's biggest ills.

After trying the game out for ourselves, Shacknews had a few questions to pose to the Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls scribe about what players can expect from Detroit, the social issues he hopes to touch on, and the writer's approach to such a branching narrative.

Shacknews: This is clearly an original story, but I'm sensing inspirations from other elements of fiction, like Asimov's works. What particular works have helped inspire Detroit's narrative?

David Cage, Quantic Dream Studio Founder: So I'm a big sci-fi fan. I love Ray Bradbury, Gibson, K. Dick, all those people are masters. But at the same time, I try to take some distance from them and when I started working on the story, even on my team, some people said, "Is it going to be like I, Robot? Is it going to be like Asimov with those types of references?"

And I thought, no, it's going to be different, because I don't know if I want to talk about AI and androids. I want to talk about human beings. I want to talk about us. And yes, I'm using androids, but actually, it's more about us, about our world, our societies, our relationships. I hope there won't be too many obvious references.

Shacknews: What's humanity's perception of androids in this story? I've seen it go both ways, with androids being presented as this great blessing of modern convenience and as this sub-human scourge.

Cage: I felt it would be like this, because I think if you're rich enough in this future, you will benefit from technology. You will have an android working for you, so you would love technology. But if you're on the other end of the social spectrum, you will maybe have lost your job because an android replaced you and you won't have enough money to buy one to help you in your house, so you will suffer from technology.

And that's one of the things that struck me when working on this, is that technology maybe won't be for everyone and it'll be perceived as both a curse and a blessing.

Shacknews: You've made it clear that this won't be like a case of Skynet rising up and trying to overthrow humanity. It's a story where androids becoming self-aware is a programming flaw, with those cases strictly in the minority. What made you decide on that story element?

Cage: I didn't want to tell the story of Terminator or I, Robot. I felt life and self-consciousness was probably an accident. That's how I felt. I was also curious about this question of whether self-consciousness and emotion is just a matter of power calculation because we have a very complex brain that can make so many calculations, thus this is why we develop self-awareness. But if that's the case, then machines will develop it, too, because they will be more intelligent than we are and they will have a more powerful brain than us very soon.

So will they develop consciousness also because they will have the power to do so? Or is consciousness something else that doesn't depend just on connections in your brain and is more spiritual. And that's a very interesting question and I feel this is a question that androids will answer for us. If they develop self-consciousness, it'll just mean we are just sophisticated machines. If they don't, it'll mean we're something more than that.

Shacknews: I want to segue into one of the more philosophical queries that the story presents. There's a scene where Markus is asked to paint and that presents an idea of "Can machines grasp the concept of art?" And I want to ask if there are other complex questions that you hope players will walk away with after playing this game?

Cage: We want this experience to be thought-provoking and we want to make the player think about AI, technology, and technology's impact on our lives, but also on the future of our society, our dependence on technology, and how we become more selfish. All these questions are there and there are questions about oppression, segregation, and all of these things.

But regarding the moment that you are referring to with the painting? I was very impressed by a visit I had in a Sony lab, working on an algorithm, creating music. People always think that machines can only make very machine-esque type of music and actually, this lab did an experiment where they analyzed how a piano jazz player was playing. What's his style? What's his improvisation style? And they put it into an algorithm and the algorithm began to play the same way.

So they had a disc track where the track starts and plays piano. Then there's a moment where it's not him playing piano anymore, it's the algorithm playing like him. And when you listen, you can't tell the difference. This is right now! It's not sci-fi, it's available right now! And that was my reference with painting and I think that we will see algorithm painting very soon. I think that music will just come after and the more it progresses, the more it can do beautiful things. And I think emotion, in art, is something that can be analyzed and reproduced. That's my personal theory.

Shacknews: You're looking to touch on a host of social issues. I've seen hints of economic inequality, classism, racism. What questions about life and society as a whole do you hope players will think about after playing Detroit?

Cage: Detroit is the story of people who wake up one day and think they deserve a better life.

That's the case of androids. They realize they are treated like objects. They want something different. They think they deserve freedom. They think they deserve rights. This is something that can be applied to different types of people in our society today. And my goal was not to give lessons or send a message, but it was more to increase questions to the player and confront them with this and see what they think. Again, it's a thought-provoking experience and we're very curious to see what types of debates it will trigger among players.

Shacknews: I can't shake some of what I've seen with those scenes with Todd and Alice. There are times when it does feel uncomfortable to watch. Was this something you felt necessary to convey the gravity of the story and is there any fear that the heavier subject matter might be off-putting to certain players?

Cage: We felt it was important to have this scene that is about an android risking its life to save a little human girl. And this is what Kara is doing in this scene, because they share their dream of freedom. They both want to be free for different reasons and they would need to learn to love each other, to like each other, trust each other, to discover who they are, and build this relationship together.

So you needed a threat. You needed something that's heavy and dark that they can escape from. But at the same time, we tried to be very cautious about how we do this. We understand that this is a very sensitive scene, we talk about it every day within the team to really make sure we're doing the right thing. We're trying to be very respectful about this topic in particular. But it asks the question of what a game is. And if your description of a game is and if you're description of a game is "a game is fun," then this type of scene is totally inappropriate, because you can't have fun with such dark themes. But if you feel that interacting means being in the shoes of someone and experiencing what they go through, then it's a totally different take, because suddenly, you're in the shoes of the victims. You understand the threat. You live it. You'd better understand it. So it's not about glamorizing violence. We never do that at any point in the game. At no point do we think violence is cool or violence is the answer to your problems. We always feel that glamorizing violence is wrong. We never use violence when it's gratuitous. We use violence because violence is a part of life, it's a part of a story that we tell, and it's a way to build our characters and make you feel those emotions and feel the bond between Kara and Alice.

I know there will be some discussions around this and some people will say "They don't do it right and they should do this or do that." I am a writer. I have a lot of respect for my medium and I believe it's led me to talk about any topic. I'm not taking this lightly. I'm not naive. I'm not a young kid having fun with important things. But I defend my freedom as a writer to talk about these kinds of topics, because I believe it's important and we try to do it with this interactive medium. Did I do it right? Did I do it wrong? People will play these scenes and tell me.

Shacknews: Lastly, I'm glad you touched on your vocation as a writer, because I want to ask about the process, specifically. What was your approach to putting together this kind of narrative and how do you manage to keep track of all the branching possibilities?

Cage: Work, work, work.

What is challenging when you create this is that it's a left brain/right brain process. You need to be creative, because you talk about emotions and characters, like any storyteller. That's your creative part. But at the same time, your right brain needs to be organized and keep track of the branches and the consequences and the variables. And so I have a tree structure that I build as I write and it's switching between my left brain and my right brain all the time. Each time I create a new branch with a story and put it in the tree structure, but then I need to go back to my left brain and go "What happens? What is the consequence of what you just created?" Then I need to provide a creative answer that creates more branches, so I need to go back to the tree structure. And it goes back and forth.

I've managed to create about more than 60,000 variables and conditions in the game. The game listens to what you do and tracks what you do all the time and we want to give consequences to all of your actions. There are things that you've done in this first hour of gameplay that will have very significant impact later in the story. There are entire scenes that you may see or miss, there are characters that you may see for a couple of minutes or may be with you until the end. Your relationships with the other characters are tracked and that's very important. It may have consequences later in the story. So we track all of these things and try to give you a satisfying narrative experience based entirely on your choices and your decisions.

Shacknews: And it's one of those stories that you can only tell in gaming and not in any other medium, right?

Cage: Absolutely! Putting you in the shoes of someone is something that only this medium can do and that's so unique and so powerful! So now my gut feeling is that we need to do something with this. We need to say something meaningful. Because we have this medium, we have this power. Let's use it to be thought-provoking and put you in the shoes of someone else and give you an idea of what it's like.


Detroit: Become Human is set to release on Friday, May 25 on PlayStation 4. Those looking to get a taste of what the game will look like can try out Connor's Hostage scene in the Detroit: Become Human demo that's out today.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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