[Content warning: This piece features talk of domestic abuse, child abuse and graphic talk of incredibly gratuitous violence. Discretion is advised]
Before I get into this, I should lay my cards out on the table here.
Detroit: Become Human and The Last of Us: Part II are games I am strongly looking forward to and therefore games I have a somewhat vested interest in. I've long been looking forward to Detroit since well before its official reveal at Paris Games Week two years ago, back when it was first shown in 2012 at GDC as a PlayStation 3 tech demo when a game didn't exist at the time. I felt that if Quantic Dream did a game based on that, they'd be onto a winner.
The Last of Us: Part II, well if you know me by now and seen the amount of things I've written on The Last of Us on this blog and elsewhere and listen to me speak of it, you'll know how much interest I have in seeing how this game pans out since its official reveal at PSX last year, even if I've long felt a sequel wasn't really needed and that The Last of Us 1 and subsequently Left Behind were a perfect one and done deal for me. Not to mention the fact that as well as The Last of Us being My Favourite Game™, Uncharted 2 lies in the lower end of my top ten games ever and that in three of the past four years, including this one currently, Naughty Dog's games have all been in my top ten games for the year (TLOU 1 at, well, one; Left Behind at four; Uncharted 4 at three and The Lost Legacy currently within my top five for the year as of writing this).
Needless to say, I am excited for Detroit, despite Quantic Dream's last game Beyond: Two Souls being a very bad game narratively and enjoying Quantic's other games in Heavy Rain (it's actually in my top ten games of the last generation) and Fahrenheit inspite of David Cage's writing and the final third going to shit in the latter. Needless to say, I am excited for The Last of Us: Part II despite the fact that maybe a sequel wasn't really needed in my eyes (even if it actually made business sense considering how much money it made and how many units it sold) or how, rather brazenly frankly, Naughty Dog casually threw off allegations of sexual assault recently.
So lets cut to yesterday at Sony's massive European showcase event at Paris Games Week. Brand new trailers for both Detroit and The Last of Us: Part II, the latter the first sighting of the game since its reveal before Christmas last year at PlayStation Experience.
The Detroit trailer had our first real look at what Kara's story arc will be since the game's reveal over two years ago where she was front and centre of it after the Kara tech demo of 2012. In it, she is an android servant to a man named Todd and his daughter Alice. As the trailer progresses, after a brief setup, Todd becomes more unhinged and lashes out at both Kara and Alice in what is clearly domestic and child abuse respectively. Regardless of the fact that Kara is an android, it's the optics of it that still shows here: a man getting violent towards a woman.
The trailer shows many narrative branches this story beat could take, including escaping from Todd but leaving Alice behind, protecting Alice, taking Alice away from Todd and at the end of the trailer, showing Todd being shot by Alice as he's about to attack Kara.
At first viewing, I felt nothing but excitement seeing the trailer for it.
To close the show, Sony aired out a five minute cut-scene trailer for The Last of Us: Part II. In it, it showed a group of four main characters plus two henchmen for the antagonist of the trailer. At the start of the trailer, you see a female character dragged to where she seems like she's going to meet her death. She has her neck roped and seems like she's about to be hanged for whatever reason before the villain has a knife at her torso and seems about to cut at it when she, the villain, is alerted to another captured character being dragged by other cronies to their position.
When asked where another member of the group is, the second captured character spits in the villain's face. "Clip her wings," the villain says before the second captured character is held down and has left arm graphically broken for all to see and is about to have her right arm broken before the third member in the party volleys off several arrows at the henchmen and kills them before the main antagonist is murdered and eventually cuts to black when a group of clickers show up.
At first viewing, I felt nothing but excitement seeing the trailer for it.
It was after the fact and seeing the reaction to it on Twitter that it had dawned on me. Whilst most people was were rightly critical of the fact, I felt nothing. I was desensitised to these problematic things. Rather, I was just excited to see more from these games I'm excited to see more of and play. And that left me in a kind of spiral in a way.
It felt like double standards too considering, to quote what I said to two people last night on Facebook, if this was any other game, I would be slaughtering it. Instead, I felt like a bad person for having such a massive disconnect with what was shown and reading the room, so to speak, and as a result, feeling guilty for not feeling something else beyond nothing or excitement to what were rather shitty things to begin with with child/domestic abuse and gratuitous violence respectively.
I'm still going to be excited for the games I'm looking forward to playing. That can't nor won't change. I refuse to let that change. But in future, I will learn to temper my anticipation and excitement so I don't feel such a massive disconnect in future when I see such problematic content in games. The thing is it's okay for us to like entertainment which has problematic material.
A few years ago, I wrote how the Metal Gear series is my favourite franchise in games despite the fact that the series has problematic elements and how Kojima's writing of female characters, at least from MGS4 onwards, "is a massively serious problem." Of course, it's mostly moot now Kojima's left Konami and no longer involved with the Metal Gear series, though I will now go into how he handles female characters as an independent creator with a lot more critical eye than I did when I wrote that piece a few years ago, starting with Death Stranding.
We can all enjoy stuff which has problematic content. But on the flipside, we should be judgmental and critical of it. Nothing should be or is off limits to criticism. Whether it's the content or the creators who help make the content. At the very least, lets try and be aware of it, if nothing else, being there.
In the light of day, The Last of Us: Part II cut-scene trailer was brutal and uncomfortable. That, there is no question and was definitely aired out of context. I think that's what annoys me about it now in hindsight, even if the content in question was - again - brutal and uncomfortable. It makes sense in the actual world of The Last of Us considering how dark and grim it is and with more context to it, it shouldn't be as horrifying as it was yesterday, albeit I felt that may have even went a bit beyond what was expected from the series. But lets see how its used in the full game first within context at least.
But Detroit: Become Human's showing of domestic and child abuse towards Kara and Alice in the trailer was met with scepticism because David Cage is not exactly the best writer (again, I loved Heavy Rain and liked Fahrenheit inspite of Cage's writing, not because of it) and not exactly someone who's known to have a deft touch when it comes to most, if not all, serious human issues.
That skepticism has now amplified tenfold. From an interview, conducted at an event to celebrate Quantic Dream's 20th anniversary, by Martin Robinson published on Eurogamer earlier today on yesterday's trailer:
Domestic abuse and child abuse is quite extreme as these things go.
David Cage: Let me ask you this question. Would you ask this question to a film director, or to a writer? Would you?
David Cage: You would ask the same question?
Yes. I'd ask the same question. Why is it interesting to you? Why did you want to explore domestic abuse and child abuse?
David Cage: Why did I want to do this? For me it's a very strong and moving scene, and I was interested to put the player in the position of this woman. I chose her point of view. If I'd have chosen the point of view of the man it could have been a totally different story and with totally different emotions, but in this case I chose her point of view. There's a context in the story, there's a reason for that - where she comes from and where she's going to go. What's important to me, and what's important in Detroit is to say that a game is as legitimate as a film or a book or a play to explore any topic such as domestic abuse.
I'm not disputing that at all. The concern I have is that it's using something like domestic abuse and child abuse - which is a very real issue for unfortunately far too many people - and using it as window dressing rather than exploring the ramifications of those issues.
David Cage: There will always be people thinking that we've used this... But I don't think that's what we do. If you look really into the game and if you play it you'll understand that the game is not about domestic abuse. It's a part of Kara's story - she's not a victim and she has a beautiful story. Hopefully you will be moved by what happens.
This just adds even more to the skepticism even more than it did yesterday. If anything, the Eurogamer interview not only actually significantly lessened my excitement for the game, but more importantly, it actually shows that Cage is putting in these issues of child and domestic abuse just for the sake of it, just for shock value in an attempt to further heighten his attempt on trying to tell a human story with androids when there are stuff out there that has done it better than what Detroit may do. Just look at Humans, Almost Human and Westworld. Even in games, there's Binary Domain and just this year alone, Nier Automata.
With The Last of Us: Part II footage, Naughty Dog and Sony deserve criticism for showing the video with no context, but at least context will be added when the game comes out. At least, that is the hope. But with the Detroit: Become Human trailer, and then today with the Eurogamer David Cage interview, it shows that that while games need to tackle these subjects, they need to be dealt with in a delicate and careful way. Right now, Quantic Dream and David Cage are not sending the best and promising of signals and messages in regards to Detroit.
(For victims of domestic and child abuse, if in need of help, please use these outlets. In the UK, call the 24 hour national domestic abuse hotline on 0808 2000 247 (for numbers elsewhere in the UK such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales plus numbers for LGBTQ victims of abuse, you can find those here). In the US, you can reach the national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233. For elsewhere in the world, domesticshelters.org has a massive list of resources for you to contact)