David Cage was halfway through the script for Detroit: Become Human when tragedy struck Paris, France, the home of developer Quantic Dream. In November 2015, terrorists attacked the city in a series of suicide bombings and mass shootings, culminating with a raid on the Bataclan theater.
In the weeks following the tragedy, Cage found himself as a creator — and specifically a creator of video games — at an unsettling crossroads. Blockbuster action games have long portrayed violence in a gratuitous and emotionless fashion; killing becomes a mechanic, and death, a signal of success. Cage says he has long strived to avoid gratuitous violence, but that the tragedy made him more aware — and in some ways, fearful — of what his own work might say.
In Detroit, players are free to choose violent paths, but Cage wanted those decisions to carry weight, instead of providing sheer entertainment.
Detroit: Become Human follows three androids: Kara, Connor, and the newly introduced Markus. Each character has what creator Cage describes as distinct stories that run parallel to each other over the course of four days in the not-so-distant future. “Of course there are potentially crossovers at some point, and what you do with one character may impact the others,” he says. Kara is a fugitive seeking freedom. Connor hunts “deviant” androids, those who have gone rogue. Markus has the makings of a revolution leader: a yearning to be free, a will to lead, and more importantly, the means to grant fellow androids freedom of will.
As androids, players must choose to revolt through peaceful or violent protest, and then they must grapple with the cost of their decisions — specifically how each choice might lead to the deaths of androids, humans, and even the main characters.
Following the November 2015 attacks, the application of violence in the game — as a revolutionary tool — felt especially loaded. Cage felt unsure how to respectfully address the topics of Detroit’s story and its characters. “Can we tell this story in this world? Because the world we live in is so sad,” Cage says. “You need to be very careful with what you're talking about.”
Ultimately, Cage felt an obligation to use the game to convey a message. “We're working on a game that is connected with our world, and maybe that's a strength,” he says. “We should use it as a strength and not be scared of it. And I think it's important to work on a game and not be afraid of saying something about our world and just accepting it and embracing it.”
From the material shown so far, it’s easy to view Detroit simply as the story of a standard sci-fi robot revolution: androids fighting back against their human creators. But Cage says the story flips the script: “I was much more interested in this idea that what if [androids] were the good guys, and maybe we are the bad guys. Maybe we are the declining race. Maybe we become more and more selfish and dependent on technology and maybe we don't pay attention to each other anymore. And this is why we're declining, where androids are a brand-new race. They're new, they're virgins somehow to this world. They just want to be free.”
“Maybe we are the declining race.”
“People will see it as, ‘Oh this is about androids and the revolution,’ and honestly I don't think this is the story I wrote,” Cage says. “I think it's really a game about us. Humans. It's about what it means to be human. It's about identity. It's about civil rights.”
Detroit’s E3 2017 demo, for example, featured missions in which Markus tries to liberate a store full of androids. The mission can end in a handful of ways: Markus can fail or even abandon his mission. He can choose to respond peacefully by simply tagging locations with the logo of the android revolution. Or he can choose violence.
In the case of my E3 demo, our presenter selected a path of destruction. Markus and his band of newly freed androids smashed windows, destroyed landmarks, and set the area ablaze, leaving behind a digital banner bearing their symbol. But as the frenzy crested, Markus stopped to observe the damage he’d done.
Cage points to this moment, and Markus’ reaction to all of it, specifically. “He is fascinated by it, but at the same time, scared of what it's triggered,” he says. Part of Markus’ journey will be about confronting the idea of what is necessary to be free. Like the branching story itself, there’s no right path and no easy answer.
“There is no big message to humanity in this game,” Cage says. “It's just interesting questions that may resonate with your own personal values and just confront you with the consequences [of your] actions.”