Shoot first, ask questions later
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