David Cage

David Cage: How video games turn players into storytellers

Have you ever watched a film or read a novel, wishing that you could change the narrative to save your favorite character? Game designer David Cage allows you do just that in his video games, where players make decisions that shape an ever-changing plot. In a talk and live demo, Cage presents a scene from his new project, letting the audience control a character's decisions. "Interactive storytelling can be what cinema was in the 20th century: an art that deeply changes its time," Cage says.


The way we tell stories has naturally changed since Aristotle defined the rules of tragedy about 2,500 years ago. According to him, the role of storytelling is to mimic life and make us feel emotions. And that's exactly what storytelling as we know it has done very well since then. But there is a dimension of life that storytelling could never really reproduce. It is the notion of choices.

Choices are a very important part of our lives. We as individuals are defined by the choices we make. Some of our decisions can have very significant consequences and totally change the courses of our lives. But in a play, a novel or a film, the writer makes all the decisions in advance for the characters, and as the audience, we can only watch, passively, the consequences of his decisions.

As a storyteller, I've always been fascinated with the idea of recreating this notion of choices in fiction. My dream was to put the audience in the shoes of the main protagonists, let them make their own decisions, and by doing so, let them tell their own stories. Finding a way to achieve this is what I did in the past 20 years of my life.

Today, I would like to introduce you to this new way of telling stories, a way that has interactivity at its heart. Rather than exposing the theory behind it, which could have been kind of abstract and probably a little bit boring, I thought it would be a great opportunity to do a little experiment. I would like you, the people here at TED, to tell your own story.

So I came with an interactive scene that we are going to play together. I've asked Vicky -- hello, Vicky -- to control the main character for us. And your role -- you, the audience -- will be to make the choices. So Vicky and I don't know what's going to happen, because it will all be based on your decisions.

This scene comes from our next game, called "Detroit: Become Human," and we are in the near future, where technology made possible the creation of androids that look exactly like human beings. We are in the shoes of this character called Connor, who is an android, and he can do very fancy things with coins, as you can see. He has this blue triangle on this chest, as all androids do, and now Vicky is in control of this character. She can walk around, she can go anywhere, she can look around, she can interact with her environment, and now she can tell her own stories by making choices.

So here we have our first choice. There is a fish on the ground. What should we do? Should we save it or should we leave it? Remember, we are under time pressure, so we'd better be fast. What should we do?

Audience: Save it!

David Cage: Save it? Save the fish?

(Video) (Fish plops)

DC: There we go. OK, we have an android who likes animals. OK, let's move on. Remember, we have a hostage situation.

(Video) Woman: Please, please, you've got to save my little girl! Wait -- you're sending an android?

Officer: All right, ma'am, you need to go.

W: You can't do that! Why aren't you sending a real person?

DC: OK, she's not really happy. Her daughter's been taken hostage by an android, and of course, she's in a state of shock. Now we can continue to explore this apartment. We see all the SWAT forces in place. But we need to find this Captain Allen first. That's the first thing we need to do. So, again, we can go anywhere. Vicky's still in control of the character. Let's see -- oh, I think this is Captain Allen. He's on the phone.

(Video) Connor: Captain Allen, my name is Connor. I'm the android sent by CyberLife.

Captain Allen: Let's fire at everything that moves. It already shot down two of my men. We could easily get it, but they're on the edge of the balcony -- it if falls, she falls.

DC: OK, now we need to decide what we want to ask the captain. What should be our choice? Deviant's name? Deviant's behavior? Emotional shock?

(Video) C: Has it experienced an emotional shock recently?

Capt A: I haven't got a clue. Does it matter?

C: I need information to determine the best approach.

DC: OK, a second choice. Maybe we can learn something. What should we choose?

Audience: Behavior.

DC: OK, deviant behavior, Vicky.

(Video) C: Do you know if it's been behaving strangely before this?

Capt A: Listen ... saving that kid is all that matters.

DC: OK, we are not going to learn anything from this guy. We need to do something. Let's try to go back in the lobby. Oh, wait -- there's a room over there on your right, Vicky, I think. Maybe there's something we can learn here. Oh, there's a tablet. Let's have a look.

(Video) Girl: This is Daniel, the coolest android in the world. Say "Hi," Daniel.

Daniel: Hello!

G: You're my bestie, we'll always be together!

DC: That was just one way of playing the scenes, but there are many other ways of playing it. Depending on the choices you make, we could have seen many different actions, many different consequences, many different outcomes.

So that gives you an idea of what my work is about as an interactive writer. Where a linear writer needs to deal with time and space, as an interactive writer, I need to deal with time, space and possibilities. I have to manage massive tree structures, where each branch is a new variation of the story. I need to think about all the possibilities in a given scene and try to imagine everything that can happen. I need to deal with thousands and thousands of variables, conditions and possibilities. As a consequence, where a film script is about 100 pages, an interactive script like this is between four and five thousand pages.

So that gives you an idea of what this work is about. But I think, in the end, the experience is very unique, because it is the result of the collaboration between a writer creating this narrative landscape and the player making his own decisions, telling his own story and becoming the cowriter but also the coactor and the codirector of the story.

Interactive storytelling is a revolution in the way we tell stories. With the emergence of new platforms like interactive television, virtual reality and video games, it can become a new form of entertainment and maybe even a new form of art.

I am convinced that in the coming years, we will see more and more moving and meaningful interactive experiences, created by a new generation of talents. This is a medium waiting for its Orson Welles or its Stanley Kubrick, and I have no doubt that they will soon emerge and be recognized as such. I believe that interactive storytelling can be what cinema was in the 20th century: an art that deeply changes its time.

Thank you.

(Applause)