Patriotism demands of us sustained sacrifice” – Detention.
One of the most interesting directions games have taken recently is creating games under historical context. I’m not just making the games take place in a historical setting. I’m talking about games that use that historical setting to convey an artistic message. Games like Valient Hearts stand out amongst these, letting the game’s setting in time drive its mechanics and themes throughout, and at the end creating something relatable. However, in a year full of masterpieces such as Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Cuphead, NieR Automata, and Persona 5, one game, in my opinion, stood out above them all. One that, surprisingly, isn’t a part of the discussion. Sure, 2017 was a year where every game had the potential to be game of the year. Games beloved by many such as Night in the Woods, Resident Evil 7 and Yakuza 0, and even unheard of games like The Letter, Angels of Death, Danganronpa V3 and even Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice all deserved to take this title. Never before has a single choice of favorite game in a year been so hard, then I remembered a game that left the most significant impact on me in a long time. One that so few people have even heard about. I knew it deserved the spot. That game is Detention.
Detention was released very early in the year on January 12th. It was the first release of an indie developer known as Red Candle Games. For a first shot into the void of survival horror video games and to be released so early into the year, it’d be hard to believe this game would stand out among the rest. The horror genre is littered with Slender knock offs, cash grabs and we even had a promising and overall successful release from Capcom coming up 12 days away! However I’ve been curious on this game since watching the demo on YouTube, so on January 16th my best friend and I decided to give it a shot only to find out that this was no ordinary survival horror game.
As mentioned in the intro, games have taken a turn to historical settings as of late, Detention itself is no different. This games takes place in the 1960s during the Taiwanese White Terror period, a time in history where Taiwan was put into martial law for 38 years. The historical context is presented during the game with the school being littered with instructions to report all communist activity to your superiors at once. Afterward, they would suffer a terrible fate known as justice.
This game not only explores the realities of that event in a very creative way, but it also introduces you into Taiwanese culture as a whole. The game was said by its creators to be a love letter to its country in a way, and an accurate representation of their home. Even if the game was just that, it succeeded tremendously. For this game is to mean artistic masterpiece, with some of the most beautiful writing I have ever witnessed (along with an impossibly polished English translation,) a chilling but sometimes dreadfully calming atmosphere and even some of the best stills in a game I have seen since Journey. I can imagine a few people chuckling there. This game is a point-and-click game similar in style as The Cat Lady. How can it be as beautiful as Journey?
For what this game has started with, I say it does more than break boundaries. It took something like The Cat Lady’s bleak atmosphere and gameplay style and made it into a game not only driven by the story but by music, visuals, and dialogue itself. All of which are spectacular.
However, this is not why I am saddened seeing no one is talking about this game, or at least why I considered it better than all other games I’ve played this year. This game made bold steps and risks to do something new and innovative. It’s mixed with the attempts at using history to instill an artistic message, and making a truly terrifying horror game.
You start the game playing as Wei Chung Ting, who awoke after falling asleep when a militarized Instructor Bai comes to interrogate his teacher, Miss Yin. He’s greeted with just an empty classroom and a typhoon alert. He then runs into an also passed out Fang Ray Shin in the auditorium, and the two quickly discover they’re trapped by a river of blood taking out the bridge home. Wei calms down Ray by saying it is likely chemical waste from a nearby factory and they take shelter in the school. Wei goes to look for help for the world to dramatically shift instantly…
Ray then wakes to find out she’s now the playable character since Wei is hanging upside down dead behind her. Throughout the rest of the game, the world takes what some would call a Silent Hill inspiration and grows more and more terrifying as it goes on. Although I see the comparison, I think Detention and Silent Hill stand on their own in different ways. Yes, both have puzzles, creatures, and deep symbolism. However, Detention takes a different approach. While Silent Hill is a personal horror within the character, with each shift in the world becoming slowly more and more hellish, Detention does continue to get scarier, but unlike silent hill, it’s world’s go from hellish to real.
Detention goes from a survival horror situation, with jumpscares, creepy monsters you need to hold your breath to avoid and puzzles for the first half of the game, making it a unique but not precisely unique enough to be praised as much as I am now. My only complaint is this game’s beginning, and that’s complaint is purely because it just borrows from familiar formulas. Don’t get me wrong; this part of the game still makes for a good horror game. It is scary and engaging, but compared to the game’s second half, it’s dull and ordinary. The game’s second half is debatably more terrifying but on a much more, dare I say existential way. The horrors are taken from the fantasy and directly into reality. To the point that it ends with such a horrific realization at the end, that you begin to understand why the hellish world of Silent Hill is “comfy.” Much like another fantastic game, Mortis Ghost’s OFF, Detention’s horror doesn’t rely on survival or traditional horror scares… but it instead relies on the psychological terrors of an oppressive amount of guilt. This game carries this feeling to the end, to the point that you feel it in the air you breathe. At this point, knowing with 100% certainty that I recommend this game to the moon and back if you haven’t played it yet I suggest you cease reading here. I’ll be going into significant end-game spoilers from here on out.
LET THERE BE SPOILERS!
An abusive, unsafe household, a cheating father who may or may not be homosexual, a budding relationship deemed socially and culturally unacceptable, a country shrouded in martial law, the never-ending torment of living through your mistakes, lives destroyed and corpses lying in your path because of your actions. These are the types of reality Detention tackles with psychological horror, our reality. Not just the truth we knew in the 1960s in Taiwan, but even today. This game has not only become a game I have personally discussed in my philosophy class but a game I regularly come back to replay when contemplating ending it all or after facing a near-death situation. The quote beginning this paper rings so true and is basically the entire meaning for this whole game that it’s become a quote I regularly use to explain my emotions when it came to indoctrination, the near impossibility of originality and having to make a decision that ended with a classmate of mine’s imprisonment for his heinous crimes. This game won Game of the Year for me merely because of how personal it was and how meaningful it is to our society. The impact of this game’s message lead it to be the only game I replayed this year eight times. Ray’s hellish world was a result of her death because it was an escape far better than life, a fate worse than death.
The quote “Patriotism demands of us sustained sacrifice” in the setting of Taiwan was the basis of this whole game, and I would like to think Red Candle Games had way more in mind than making a cultural love letter to their country. It’s impossible to discuss this without spoiling the entire game, but imagine this…
Martial law has been declared in your country. You are ordered to report any communist behavior to your superiors immediately, and without doing so makes you associated with them. Your school is heavily militarized and follows the strict laws of the country, encasing a reality where citizens and scholars alike blindly accepting what authority says without thinking critically. Believing that all students should learn to think freely, and have the right to contemplate controversial topics, a few teachers make a book club, secretly allowing banned books on the reading list. One day, you stumble upon the list, and because it was what you were taught to do, you show it to the school. The police are sent in to enforce the deviation from their societal agenda brutally. One teacher flees the country, leaving behind her family and all she loved forever. Her dying wish is to see her homeland, a request now impossible to grant. Another is put to death on the spot. The students are executed as well unless, of course, they plea guilty. The plea instead allows them to forfeit all they invested in their futures and any hope for a childhood, education, family, and success and serve a 15-year sentence. You’re praised as a hero of your country, a true patriot. Seeing the consequences of your actions, you take your life, only to be left in the afterlife, aware of this, standing in front of an altar in your hellish world saying…
“I, Fang Ray Shin invoke your guidance…”
Detention has two endings, the bad and true ending. The bad showing what would happen no matter what, Ray’s inevitable suicide. The good ending reveals Wei, now free after his 15-year sentence for the book club, age slowing him down, returning to the school and reflecting on everything, including the girl he used to know who did him in.
Detention hits home on so many levels. It discusses something far too depressing, tragic, and that could and probably did happen. For an indie developer’s first release ever to leave such an impact on the industry, and make such a bold move and risk it all to tell such a fantastic story, I deem this game nothing but a masterpiece. I consider it a crime that we haven’t discussed it more, and that it isn’t considered up there with the greats of 2017 to be people’s game of the year, because it deserves rigorous discussion and these topics deserve to be introspectively dissected. As a game, aside from some off dialogue at the beginning and a second half so perfect that it made an already decent beginning to a psychological horror game seem like a disservice, it deserves to be played and remembered. This development team was so tightly knit, that every corner of the match breathed a single emotion and tone, one unexplainable beyond experience. And that experience not only is based on real life but has become a reality I know and traverse. I am insanely impressed in what Red Candle Games has done in their bold first entry into the gaming world, and this game has not only surpassed many like P.T and The Cat Lady to become my second favorite horror game of all time, but even own a proud place on my top 10 favorite games of all time.
There is no such thing as perfection, and there will always be room to improve. But god damn it, Detention makes it hard even to think it can get any better.
“Take my head so that I may join my brothers and sisters in death… sigh… why? Aren’t people born to live freely? To think openly, to speak their minds without restriction or fear… Freedom of belief, love, and self-realization. Being with you was a happiness of the simplest and purest kind. I couldn’t help but think… When we could be hand in hand, living an untroubled life… But in the end, this is only a fool’s dream. I too am vain like the daffodils, fixated on my grandiosity. The world is not ready for the likes of us.”