A critical look at David Cage’s writing and why it is intensely awful
Up front: I have never been as consistently unimpressed with a single creator than with David Cage. He fancies himself an auteur, presenting very detailed worlds but never diving into their depths. There’s a lot to do, but not a lot to find. Every game has a section where you can mess around for about half an hour doing menial and inconsequential stuff, but after that, you are forced into railroaded sections leading to stale, clunky conclusions strung together from careless loose ends. Moreover, there always seem to be scenes veering dangerously close to domestic abuse or sexual predation, philosophical truisms that feel like a seven-year-old’s epiphany, and the dei ex machina that always come in the form of a nonwhite, stereotypical spiritualism or the extremely racist ‘magical negro’ trope.
Putting aside his inability to write, his games are technologically impressive. They look absolutely fantastic and are mechanically broad, which lets him cover up the dearth of real substance with a pretty veneer. The actual gameplay is simple, but, on the surface, is plenty engaging and offers a lot to do. Through context-sensitive button prompts and quick-time events (QTEs), the player can explore the ultra-mundanity of various domestic settings— picking up a newspaper, swiping left on the touchpad to mimic the movement of turning the page — or act out a series of fast-paced tests to make it through a sudden escalation or action scene. But that’s the thing: it’s saturated with content, but what does this actually contribute?
In Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, for instance, the main character’s mental state is quantified with a meter on-screen. Should it reach 0, the player-character virtually always commits suicide. The Depression Gauge goes up and down depending on miniscule actions, such as making coffee or going to bed. Cage makes the ambitious effort to instantiate the player-character directly into the mechanics, which takes on a ridiculous (and misguided) level of detail early on in his work. He believes that the more buttons the players can press, the more immersive his games get. He mistakes quantity for profundity.
The man is not so much experimental in his design philosophy as much as he sees video games as a purely technical medium, rather than a narrative one. To him, a game is a system of inputs and outcomes — a bundle of mechanics. A narrative ought to be subservient to pressing a button. A prompt or a choice should be the drastic factor in influencing the flow of a story (see below). It exaggerates the efficacy of interactivity as the main vehicle to present crucial nuance, evocative themes, or otherwise interesting plotlines.
Detroit: Become Human —awful on a philosophical level
Cage has repeatedly stated that this is a story about ‘androids’ fighting for ‘their rights’. Androids that achieve independence from their human masters are called ‘deviants’. In the game, they have to break through a metaphorical wall in their programming in order to escape what they recognise as an injust situation. Markus gets assaulted and believes it’s not fair that he can’t fight back. Kara is placed with a man who is violent with her and his daughter before she defies her code and runs away with the child. Androids are constantly shown as victims, therefore we should sympathise with them.
“It’s about making you feel with your computer what your character feels onscreen.” — David Cage on shaking your controller to prevent child abuse
In one of the first scenes as main character Kara, you have to perform a series of QTE’s in order to stop her master, Todd, from beating up his daughter. There is a rapid, complex series of button prompts you have to perform to prevent Todd from hurting you or the child. You, the player, are who decides what happens in the story, so everything is hyperindividualised through QTE’s.
Failing these QTEs can lead to Todd hitting the child, which is shown on-screen, or even Kara getting killed. When you lead players into a situation of domestic abuse or sexual intimidation, that is a subject which requires time, consideration, and care. David Cage, instead, has you perform these awkward physical actions with your controller. It is not an engrossing interplay of player agency and emotional writing; it is the gamification of abuse. Also, in order to 100% complete the game, a player will have to purposefully fail these QTE’s.
The idea that sapient automation kept as property is an adequate analogue for slavery has been a luxurious staple of white sci-fi authors since Asimov. And like them, Cage thinks he’s treading revolutionary new grounds. But it is nothing but a vapid premise, swapping out the systems of power that subjugate and marginalise real people for ‘nonpeople’ and their fictitious battles. Using ‘robots’ as a stand-in for ‘people you normally can’t empathise with’ is pretty bad already, but he manages to screw even that up.
Rather than act as a metaphor, the game introduces a clear dichotomy between ‘humans’ and ‘androids’. The humans in this narrative have no (worthwhile) structural problems to speak of, apparently having banded together and only existing to commit violence against androids. The central message seems to be “humans are all the same, and they’re all bad for beating on robots. Robots are the real humans, for being victims.”
Androids, then, don’t represent anything. They exist as a loose concept of what an oppressed group is. Everything that Cage writes about androids is what he thinks oppressed people are, but without having to do justice to any real history or reality. When you have a ‘robots are people’ story, you essentially have an array of affectless bodies. Because we know they’re not human or organic, basic morality or ethics do not apply to them. This serves Cage’s dull-witted narrative style: it gives him the excuse to do whatever he wants to them. It constructs a template victim that exists in an ahistorical vacuum. There are three glaring problems with this.
The first one has to do with the invention of a fiction-only, historically allegorical group of oppressed people. The only reason androids become self-aware is through physical or ‘emotional’ trauma, which suggests that the awareness of difference is the sole result of violence, as opposed to structural violence being a reaction to a difference that already exists. Because they’re robots, androids can’t possess a culture or a social being of their own. So the only way that marks them as different and oppressed is the violence that is inflicted on them. Their oppression becomes the only qualifier of their humanity. It humanises robots through being victimised, equating marginalisation to suffering. In Detroit, only cruelty is that which lends credence to and defines what is an autonomous identity. This is, of course, patronising and reductive, regarding the oppressed as lacking community, culture, history, agency, or any sense of self outside of being oppressor/oppressed.
The second problem is that having a templatised victim assumes a generalised oppressor. Suddenly, ‘all of humanity’ becomes a faceless, yet pervasive antagonist. It dehumanises people through their violence. Everyone becomes complicit in and culpable of perpetuating these violent hierarchies. It is intentional that in the game, many people of colour are shown participating in violence against androids. Cage seems to say “look at these hypocrites, doing what has been done to them.” It acknowledges that racism, classism, etc., exist — we get snippets of massive economic collapse and widespread poverty. But it simultaneously concludes that these are relics of the past that don’t matter. The new and only real problem left is ‘robotism’. This is as intellectually tortured as it is historically revolting.
Detroit: Become Human — awful on a racist level
A third, more insidious problem is how Detroit: Become Human racialises its androids. Above, one of the options we get is “One planet, two races”. That’s pretty straightforward. The beat is familiar: they deserve humanity because they are oppressed, never really asking “what is humanity?” or “how are they human?” Instead of taking pointers from Yoko Taro’s Nier: Automata, Cage takes to coding androids and their struggle as a historically black one.
In Markus’s story, there is a constant echoing of recognisable images from the civil rights movement, Jim Crow, and even antebellum slavery. Androids in the back of the bus, people calling Markus ‘tin can’ like it’s a racial slur, a mob beating him up for ‘walking while robotic’, law enforcement siding with the humans despite being abusive and intolerant. Android oppression is wholly fictitious, but because this idea still has to be communicated, Cage draws from historical examples. He utilises the linguistic rhetoric of oppression, which we recognise, then decontextualises and depoliticises it entirely. It means literally nothing for a robot to say “equal rights”, but it draws parallels. It means nothing, but Cage is that much of a shitty auteur.
When the androids take to the streets, one dialogue option is take the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and painfully alter them. One of the symbols of the android resistance you can choose is, actually, the Black Power fist. The relationship between an android and their owner is clearly framed as one of bondage.
This takes its most transparent iteration in the Mansion sequence with Kara. A white man pretends to offer succor and safety and a passage to the ‘android-safe’ Canada. After a while and enduring an invasive, first-person procedure, it’s revealed that he takes “runaway deviants” and resells them to new owners. Indeed, the idea of the slave hunter is presented here, but for sentient robots. If that wasn’t terrible enough, the man is assisted by a lumbering android with a clear resemblance to Michael Clarke Duncan’s role in The Green Mile. He is obedient, quiet, and he is called ‘Luther’ — as in, Martin Luther King, Jr. Fucking hell.
At the end of the sequence, Luther turns on his master in the end and helps Kara and the child escape. He had a change of heart after seeing the child attempt to rescue Kara, suddenly realising his chains and then choosing (ugh) to break them. Androids are supposed to be all the same race with pigmentation never acting as a differential, but Cage can’t conceal his own writing here. He clearly employs the ‘white woman teaching black man about how to be free’ trope, a nasty leftover from the darker pages of American suffragette history: the white woman’s burden.
Cage codes the androids as black, trying to argue that their plight is the same as that of boundpeople. He doesn’t make androids black — no, he does something worse: he compares robots to black people. He may deny them, but the parallels are undeniable to us and everyone else. There is a direct comparison being made between American slavery, and his fictitious robot game. Again, comparing non-people to people who were treated as property isn’t a great analogy. In fact, it’s dumb and racist as shit.
The parallelisation becomes an aestheticisation, with no allegory to follow through on. The perspective of “imagine what robots would endure” is embarrassing and pointless without an active metaphor. Cage has constructed a fully realised world of legal discrimination and labour exploitation that doesn’t signify anything outside of the game itself. But he vehemently denies any real-world parallels or analogues, despite using them to prop the game up.
Even though Cage doesn’t want to invoke any historical or racial allegories, the way he communicates androids as being an oppressed subject places them in a real world analogue. Because, well, if you reference a real historical event, it contextualises the message. So the whole game winds up being a shuffle about how lifeless things are the new black people of America.
It is co-opting moments of oppression and resistance, supplanting the actors with robots, and distilling them into an aesthetic function that Cage can apply as a narrative façade, a trick that makes you believe this game has something to say. Nope! Cage just looked at the most inhumane and violent system known to modern history and how people of colour fought tooth and nail to just survive under it, and thought “zis is good marketing for mon robot game.”
Detroit: Become Human — Awful
In conclusion: in order to make his boring clichés work, Cage invented a proxy race of people. Humanity is complex and its problems can’t just be ignored, substituted, or button-prompted away. But instead of trying to put any cognitive effort into any of that, he chooses the easy way out where humanity is the villain and robots are the heroes. This is clever; it finally lets be correct about his premise, on his own terms. That is to say, his games exist to make him feel smart. But in so doing, he falls into his usual pattern of cultural appropriation, antiblackness, and women-in-refrigerator tropes. His masturbatory inclinations come at the cost at literary coherence and seem to require an array of decontextualised sexist and racist violences to work.
In essence, Cage is a coward. He hides his mediocrity behind nice graphics and intricate systems, and points to his relative success as proof of his auteurdom. The ‘moving stories’ he writes end up chaotic and often inconclusive, crudely rigged with QTE trapdoors. His stories are all about drawing the most out of the David Cage Immersion system; they are not about sending out any meaningful message. Any hint of a theme we get is dull window dressing. What he likes to do is pretend he is ‘moving the player’ when they have to jerk off their controller to end racism.
Without these hackneyed prompts, we would be a lot more inclined to recognise Cage for the two-bit writer he is. Just imagine him as a filmmaker. We’d be done with him after the first trailer.
I’d never do a racist game, or a misogynist game.
— David Cage