Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

Steven Poole on the dan­gers of in­sist­ing games send a mes­sage

Videogames are now ma­ture enough that some peo­ple are very in­vested in polic­ing a cer­tain aes­thetic dogma, and woe be­tide any de­vel­oper who sticks his or her head above the para­pet and says some­thing that is off-mes­sage. That, at least, is one tempt­ing way to read an on­line ker­fuf­fle that kicked off dur­ing E3, when David Cage an­noyed the ‘sto­ry­telling’ crowd.

In­ter­viewed by Ko­taku about his new game, Detroit: Be­come Hu­man, the very French de­vel­oper of such no­to­ri­ously French clas­sics as Mauve Fore­cast and Mas­sive Driz­zle an­nounced: “I don’t want the game to have some­thing to say, be­cause I don’t see my­self de­liv­er­ing a mes­sage to peo­ple.” ‘OMG,’ said the in­ter­net. What a ter­ri­ble thing to say for some­one who claims to be a sto­ry­teller. What a doo­fus. David Cage is noth­ing but a fraud and a ter­ri­ble writer. He is ‘flee­ing from artis­tic re­spon­si­bil­ity’. He wants his work to ‘say noth­ing’. And so on, and so te­diously out­raged.

This was in­ter­est­ing, be­cause con­trary to what the self-ap­pointed ex­perts on sto­ry­telling ap­pear to think, many great writ­ers of lit­er­a­ture have also ex­plic­itly dis­avowed the idea that their work is in­tended to de­liver a mes­sage. The rea­son, when you think about it, is sim­ple. If you want to de­liver a mes­sage, why not just write down that mes­sage? Why go to all the trou­ble of writ­ing a mas­sive fic­tion, of cre­at­ing an ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­plex world full of con­tra­dic­tory char­ac­ters? What a silly waste of time that would be. Just pub­lish your mes­sage in the clas­si­fied ads in a news­pa­per. Or carve it into a wall.

And this goes just as much for a game about robots as it does for a play about the in­ter­sec­tion of grief and the in­tel­lect, or a novel about South Amer­i­can buc­ca­neer­ing. It’s not that Cage de­nied he was telling a story: he even went to the trou­ble of de­scrib­ing what his story was about. “The story I’m telling is re­ally about an­droids,” Cage said. “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.”

It be­comes al­most com­i­cally dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why Cage was sin­gled out for crit­i­cism when he went on to spec­ify ex­actly how he thought he could write a story about an­droids even though he didn’t want to send a mes­sage. “I’m def­i­nitely in­ter­ested in ask­ing ques­tions to the player,” Cage pointed out. “Ques­tions that are mean­ing­ful and that res­onate with him as a per­son and a ci­ti­zen. We live in a world that’s full of hopes as well as fears. Fears about the present and also the fu­ture. Where are we go­ing? What’s go­ing to hap­pen? I just want to ask these ques­tions and see how peo­ple re­act.”

This all seems per­fectly rea­son­able to me. The bril­liant TV adap­ta­tion of West­world, for ex­am­ple — which, by sheer co­in­ci­dence, was also about an­droids who want to be free — worked in ex­actly the same way: it asked such ques­tions, but didn’t seem to me to be send­ing any par­tic­u­lar ‘mes­sage’ to the view­ers. Sim­i­larly with the clas­sic Isaac Asi­mov short sto­ries about an­droids (or ‘positronic robots’) writ­ten from the 1940s to the 1970s: they ex­plore fas­ci­nat­ing eth­i­cal dilem­mas in sit­u­a­tions where the ap­par­ently ra­tio­nal Three Laws of Ro­bot­ics turn out to con­flict, but they don’t send a mes­sage in the form of easy an­swers. To in­sist that art send a mes­sage, in­deed, is to re­duce it to the level of post­card, or pro­pa­ganda.

Per­son­ally I am no es­pe­cial fan of David Cage’s QTE-fes­tooned games to date, and I do not ex­pect his new game to ri­val Asi­mov or West­world as a dra­matic ex­plo­ration of ques­tions about an­droids who want to be free. But that’s not re­ally the point. Cage is one of those ec­cen­tric vi­sion­ar­ies who adorn the medium even — or es­pe­cially — when we dis­agree with them. We need the weirdos, the dream­ers, or every­one would just be mak­ing Call Of Duty games. (Which would be nearly fine by me if they ever res­ur­rected the Spec Ops lo­cal co-op mode.)

As loyal read­ers may rec­ol­lect, I don’t even think that videogames are mainly, or even very com­pe­tently, a ‘sto­ry­telling’ medium in the first place, but it would be te­dious for me to re­hearse here my rea­sons for say­ing that. I in­sist nev­er­the­less that David Cage has the right to make sto­ries in what­ever way that he wants to make them. That way the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the medium may ad­vance. And one day I might ac­tu­ally like one of them.

To in­sist that art send a mes­sage is to re­duce it to the level of post­card, or pro­pa­ganda

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