There’s a specific moment in the second chapter of Detroit: Become Human, one that most people are probably aware of, that sums up David Cage’s approach to storytelling.
Markus, an android who looks like a light-skinned black man, has just picked up some paint for his wealthy, elderly “owner” Carl and is on his way back to Carl’s mansion. He walks to the bus stop, past protesters holding signs that decry automated android labor. They insult and beat up Markus, shoving him to the ground and tossing anti-android slurs his way. He gets up and walks to the bus stop, waiting a couple seconds before the fancy future bus shows up. Markus then steps up to the bus and into an android-only compartment located at the back of the bus.
This is Cage’s style. He makes subtext into text and avoids subtlety at all costs. However, despite Cage’s graceless writing and stiff directing, Detroit is Quantic Dream’s best game yet. The visually stunning presentation and impressive branching choices remain engaging, even if the game is just the latest example of Cage’s ambitions as an artist outrunning his talents as a writer and director. Which begs the question: Is David Cage holding Quantic Dream back?
Cage has always focused on making serious games with serious stories. Despite his many flaws, it’s hard to argue against his ambition. It’s his biggest strength and his most damning flaw. With each game, he and his team have tackled an impressive array of genres, from crime thrillers to supernatural coming of age stories to hard sci-fi. He has attempted to tackle topics most games wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, such as child abuse and racism.
However, the key word there is attempt. Cage’s ambition is always commendable but never successful. He lacks the storytelling chops to pull off whatever lost in translation Hollywood story he’s trying to tell, making for scripts and scenes that range from cringeworthy to incredibly problematic. Stiff, unrealistic dialogue is one thing, but Cage’s lack of tact when tackling serious issues means he unintentionally recreates stereotypes and problematic images of characters of color and women.
This isn’t exactly news to critics of his work. Quantic Dream games have traditionally been of the “love it or hate it” variety precisely because of Cage’s tendency to leapfrog over real emotional depth and straight into melodrama. He’s always striving for something just out of reach.
Those Cage-isms are still a part of Detroit. The only female protagonist is given an abuse plotline and Markus’ arc thoughtlessly mines the American civil rights movement for emotional potency. However, Detroit’s technical beauty and expansive, choice-driven design sometimes make it easy to forget how hollow it is inside. Detroit’s success as a game proves that Quantic Dream as a team has eclipsed Cage’s talents as an artist.
Of course, Cage isn’t going to leave Quantic Dream anytime soon. He’s one of the founders of the studio, the director and writer behind all of its games, and one of the most famous faces in the industry. He’s integral to Quantic Dream’s identity and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
However, Detroit could be a chance for Cage to reflect on his role at Quantic Dream. The game still reviewed quite well, but this time around, the anti-Cage sentiment came hard and fast from critics and gamers alike. Part of that certainly has to do with the allegations of workplace harassment that were lodged against Quantic Dream, Cage, and executive producer Guillaume de Fondaumière and in January. Those accusations certainly complicate Detroit’s narrative of a robotic labor force overthrowing their human masters.
Cage’s place in the industry has also changed over the course of his career. The industry has evolved since Cage and Quantic Dream first came on the scene with their aspirations to deliver cinematic experiences. Other developers have consistently delivered better-written stories and more engrossing narrative experiences.
With Detroit, Cage and Quantic Dream might have accidentally stumbled upon a solution to their particular predicament. Unlike in previous Quantic Dream games, each of Detroit’s three storylines was helmed by a different director of photography. This makes sense for a game that draws more inspiration from television storytelling than any other Quantic Dream title. Each section needs to feel distinct yet part of the same story, kind of like individual episodes in a season of television. It’s not always noticeable —largely because Cage’s directorial style and writing are so overbearing — but when it works, it definitely works.
This TV-style division of labor is actually a potentially ingenious blueprint for Quantic Dream moving forward. Each section of a Quantic Dream game could be given to a different writer-director pairing, like in television. It would take away a lot of Cage’s creative control over the arc of the story, but his strengths could be leveraged elsewhere.
Every TV show needs a showrunner and Cage could very well take over that high-level role. He’s always been good at imagining the big picture, even if he’s unable to capture those ambitious ideas on the page or the screen. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s one that would help Quantic Dream elevate its storytelling past the ham-fisted metaphors and stilted dialogue of its founder.