The problem with saying anything political in a video game is that people who disagree with that message may not buy your game. Since you want a lot of people to buy your game, it’s important to avoid politics and never, ever state you’re trying to say anything with your piece of art. The problem with this approach is you tie yourself in knots trying to convince other people that you’re saying nothing with your game.
That’s a strange position to take, and Detroit: Become Human’s David Cage had a particularly challenging E3 trying to convince everyone that Detroit had interesting things to say ... while assuring everyone that it said nothing at all.
“You have to be respectful because this is a game,” Cage told Polygon. “We put a lot of passion and we’re honest and sincere. But it’s nothing compared to real issues and real people in the real world. We try to be aware of that and we want to be respectful of real things.”
It’s important to leave the tired tropes of video games behind, Cage used to argue.
"There should be more people trying this," he said in an interview in 2011. "Don't write about being a rookie soldier in WWII, because you don't have a clue what that's like. Talk about yourself, your life, your emotions, the people around you, what you like, what you hate — this is how the industry will make a huge step forwards. I'm fed up with space marines."
Detroit is a game about ... and I have to check my notes here ... androids? That’s deeper than space marines, right? But the story is definitely about androids, and that’s it.
“The story I’m telling is really about androids,” Cage told Kotaku at this year’s E3. “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.”
This isn’t Cage saying anything; he’s just posting questions.
“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?” he asked Waypoint. “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.”
He actually wanted to say something, though, according to an interview with another outlet.
“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 told The Verge. “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.”
Or he’s just asking questions.
“There is no big message to humanity in this game,” Cage also said to the Verge. “It's just interesting questions that may resonate with your own personal values and just confront you with the consequences [of your] actions.”
There is no such thing as neutrality
Does Cage really does believe he’s just asking questions? If so, why is he also so clearly needing to communicate that his game is saying something without somehow also sending a message? Or is this just extreme media training that’s keeping him from saying what his game is actually about in order to reach the largest possible audience?
The idea that you can rise above the piece of art you’re creating and “just ask questions” is hard to take seriously. You’re setting up a world, and the way you create that world says something. The questions you choose to ask say something, and the answers you provide the player definitely say something. Your word choices say something and the way you design the characters says.
You can’t claim you’re just asking questions, when you’re also limiting the possible answers. You can’t say you’re just trying to see what the player does while also being responsible for how the game’s world reacts to those decisions. The game has a point of view, even though Cage — who used to argue strongly for adult stories — is trying so hard to distance himself from what that point of view might be.
The result of all these E3 interviews is the perception that this is a game so scared of saying anything that it says nothing. That David Cage was too skittish to inject any meaning that would help the game rise above the choose your own adventure books we read as kids. It’s frustrating to see games try to borrow unearned weight and meaning from pop culture and social movements while the people who create those games are seen furiously stating over and over that there is no message behind any of it. What if a writer actually had the courage of their convictions and was willing to say what a game was actually about?
We’re just asking questions.