When the trailer for Detroit: Become Human, the next game by Quantic Dream, the studio that made Heavy Rain, was shown at Sony’s E3 conference in 2016, a low rumble of groans rippled out from my friends as we collectively had the same realization: “Oh lord, this game is an allegory for racism.” The game industry has never really had a subtle or sensitive approach to racism; Bioshock Infinite and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided come to mind. Our fears were realized during E3 2017 when, in an interview with Kotaku, Quantic Dream’s David Cage said, “The story I’m telling is really about androids,” adding “I don’t want the game to have something to say, because I don’t see myself delivering a message to people.”
These are the words I’d expect out of a first year film student who doesn’t quite grasp symbolism yet, not an experienced writer with multiple projects and various awards under his belt. It reminds me of that old quote: “Choosing to do nothing is a choice.” The audacity of Cage saying that his work doesn’t try to have a message, considering the melodramatic imagery strewn about in all of his games, is baffling. It’s like if I were to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner and say “I don’t want this food to feed people because I don’t see myself feeding people.”
Cage’s words ring bizarrely false given the footage of his own trailer. It opens with a black male android singing the negro spiritual “Hold On Just A Little While Longer.” Several characters identify as slaves. At one point, a half black man refers to the white androids as “masters,” while a female white android blithely refers to the other androids as being “sold like merchandise.” The game itself takes place in a city that is 82.7% black. Yet somehow, Cage doesn’t think his writing has anything to say.
It’s possible that Cage simply wishes to write a story that amounts to some feel-good, After School Special sentiment of “don’t treat people poorly just because they’re different from you.” But I don’t trust David Cage to make that point. After four games that have failed to live up to the hype surrounding their “groundbreaking” narrative, I don’t trust him to not make it in the most ham-fisted way possible.
David Cage doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to writing characters who aren’t white. In 2005’s Indigo Prophecy, one of the playable characters is a black detective who loves basketball, collects Motown records, and walks like Rudy from Fat Albert, a set of painfully reductive attributes that make him stand out as a white man’s idea of what a black man is like. Meanwhile, a Japanese character, voiced by a white man, uses a ludicrous and stereotypical Chinese accent. After a certain point in the game, the voice actor switches to an equally hackneyed Brooklyn accent. which seems to be played for laughs. If Cage’s goal was comedy, the joke seems to be, “Hey this guy talks funny.”
Cage’s later work suffered similar problems. In Heavy Rain, the only black character is an ex-criminal named “Mad Jack” that tries to murder one of the main characters. In Beyond: Two Souls, the only black character ends up mind controlled by a white woman. At this point, it’s a pattern, one that plays out with other identities.
In Beyond: Two Souls, a whole segment of the game features a Native American family that’s being haunted by ancient spirits. Jodie, the white female protagonist, must use her yet-to-be explained powers to save the family from an entity that has been around for generations, embodying the white savior trope in its purest form.
David Cage doesn’t seem to understand women either. All the female characters he writes are white women with unnecessarily shitty lives and at least one equally-unnecessary shower scene. Carla in Indigo Prophecy, Jodie in Beyond: Two Souls, Madison in Heavy Rain: David Cage can’t resist writing an opportunity to show them naked. Madison’s shower scene is even more upsetting than the others, as it precedes an underwear-clad dream sequence that heavily hints at the possibility of sexual assault.
Meanwhile, in Beyond: Two Souls, Jodie lives in a paranormal research facility, and she has psychic powers that allow her to sometimes control the ghost of her dead twin brother. Everything in her life is awful, from her abusive adopted stepdad, to the party scene where she’s an outcast among her peers, to her job in the CIA, which at one point has her run a solo mission to kill an African warlord with the help of a child soldier. To top it off, there’s a scene where a she is almost forced to give a blowjob to a homeless man. While the scene is not graphic or critical to the story, its inclusion is still eyebrow-raising.
David Cage, a white man, only understands how white men think. Every main character he’s written, going back to Omikron: The Nomad Soul, is an everyday white guy whose life falls apart in the worst set of circumstances. Aside from Beyond: Two Souls, this happens in every Quantic Dreams game. For example, Indigo Prophecy, the newly-single Lucas Kane has an average life working a banking job and living in an impossibly large apartment in New York City, when he suddenly gets possessed by an ancient ritualistic cult and murders a guy in the bathroom. But also his parents were scientists on a military base where he was born. But also his parents were working on something called the Chroma Artifact that gives him superpowers. But also he’s being hunted by the cops, various clans and government agencies. BUT ALSO he dies and is resurrected. Because David Cage really really needs you to know that Lucas’s life is hard. Except for when he’s a frozen zombie in the apocalypse and still gets to have sex with the female main character for some reason. Then it’s not.
In Heavy Rain, it was the same thing. The protagonist is a rich architect who loses one child, falls into a coma trying to prevent said child’s death, is left by his wife, has constant blackouts caused by agoraphobia, and thinks he might be murdering children during his blackout periods. During all of this, he has sex with Madison, and, if they both survive the game, even ends up marrying her. And why? Because they’re both alive and available? Do they have anything in common outside of that?
You would think Cage would try to get away from these immature portrayals of women with Beyond: Two Souls, seeing as it has a female protagonist. When Jodie’s psychic powers attract the attention of the CIA and she is introduced to her recruiter Ryan Clayton, she initially hates him. Jump to two years later, and she’s dating him, for reasons the game never makes clear. The audience is made to fill in the details themselves, because Cage’s games rarely give an explanation for his romances, outside of the character’s convenient proximity. The only reason these romances ever happen is because the script calls for them.
So for this man, this white man who lives in France, to make a game about an American city with a history of racial turmoil, to write a lead character that is a half-black man who uses historic language of the oppressed, to say that this game that he has written has no message, no real-life relevance, begs the question: why use this setting? Why use these people? What would be the point?
We go through this every time a Quantic Dream game is announced. A flashy trailer with a dramatic musical score, beautifully rendered characters and vaguely powerful dialogue is shown off, and then it’s the same game every time: a hacky story filled with plotholes, stereotypical characters, and bad tropes overflowing like a broken toilet. With every release Quantic Dream is heralded as pushing the boundaries of what videogames can achieve in storytelling, but if this is what we’re aspiring to, I feel like it’s safe to give up on narrative in games altogether.
Terence Wiggins is the co-host of the podcast Whatever We Call It, the creator of the videogame online zine We <3 Video Games, the cookie wizard behind The Black Nerd’s Baked Goods, and the Internet’s best friend. He’s on Twitter @TheBlackNerd.