Detention

by Ronan Wills

Taiwan's history of martial law makes for an excellent portable horror game
Oooh! This is in the Axis of Awesome!
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Horror video games are in an odd spot right now. With my beloved Silent Hill buried beneath the ashes of Konami and the genre dormant in the big-budget space (although Capcom might be giving it a sharp poke back into wakefulness, if Resident Evil 7 and the upcoming Resident Evil 2 remake are anything to go by), gamers looking for a scary good time have increasingly turned to the indie scene to get their fix.

But even that’s starting to stagnate, with a plethora of shabby titles ripping off whatever the latest big trend is. The Amnesia: The Dark Descent clones weren’t too bad, but things got really dire once Five Night’s At Freddy’s came along.

There is, however, another trend that’s flown under the radar. In recent years, indie horror games from south-east Asia have started to crop up here and there. Developed with an international audience in mind but touting their local culture and mythology as a selling point, these games stand out both due to their point of origin and because they tend to take inspiration from older, more well-regarded horror classics, instead of chasing the latest flash in the pan. The trend seems to have begun with DreadOut, a Kickstarted game from Indonesia heavily inspired by the Fatal Frame/Project Zero franchise, and over the last few years more and more have popped up on Steam and other digital platforms.

Jonesing for something spooky to play and realizing that I hadn’t dipped my toe into this particular corner of the market yet, I browsed the Nintendo Switch online store and spotted Detention, a Taiwanese game from developer Red Candle. I remembered hearing good things about it when it was released on the PC early last year, but I didn’t know much about it past the basic plot setup and that it’s a 2D side-scrolling game.

Now I’m just kicking myself for not playing it sooner. Everyone who loves classic horror games and who harbours hope for the future of the genre needs to play this game immediately.

Detention takes place in the 1960s, during the period of Taiwanese history known as the White Terror. The country is under the rule of the nationalist Kuomintang, who use anti-Communist paranoia and tension with neighbouring China to brutally stamp out any hint of dissent among the populace. Our protagonist is Fang Ray Shin, a seventeen year old high school student on the cusp of graduation and adulthood.

Trapped in her school during an unseasonable typhoon, Ray finds herself in a nightmarish version of her familiar world, where ghostly creatures roam the halls and supernatural manifestations force her to confront the events of her recent past--events that she either doesn’t remember, or is trying desperately to forget.

If that setup sounds just a wee bit familiar, then you’ll understand why I sat up and gasped in delight more or less the moment I started playing Detention. It’s very clearly and obviously riffing on the older Silent Hill games, and unlike many horror games that have tried to do this over the years, it both successfully distills the essence of what made Silent Hill so memorable and also manages to retain its own identity.

Despite the 2D presentation, Detention’s gameplay is as familiar and comfortable as a favourite pair of slippers. You explore spooky, elaborate environments, searching for clues and items to help you solve puzzles that usually operate on some amount of dream logic. You’ll use items on environmental objects, you’ll hunt down keys, you’ll find statues that look as though they’re meant to be holding something but are currently not holding anything...it’s very familiar survival horror fare. The puzzles are uniformly clever and intriguing; as the game goes on they ramp up in difficulty nicely, eventually requiring the sort of lateral thinking that leads to satisfying “ah ha!” moments. Smart environmental design means that you’ll never fail to progress simply because you didn’t press A on the right piece of background; things you’re meant to interact with are clearly signposted as such.

Where Detention diverges from its inspiration is in enemy encounters. Realizing that combat was always the worst part of classic horror games, Red Candle decided to do away with it entirely in favour of light stealth mechanics. You’ll be looking to avoid Detention’s eerie monsters rather than kill them, although I don’t want to spoil the main mechanic by which you do that because it’s pretty original. Enemies aren’t very common--they show up just enough that you’re always worried about running into one, but the game doesn’t throw them at you just for the sake of creating artificial difficulty. Puzzles and plot are the main focus here, particularly in the game's second half.

Said plot is easily Detention’s greatest asset. From the very first scene, where a teacher is called away by the school’s political officer for unknown reasons, the game establishes a heavy atmosphere of dread. Its handling of Taiwan’s history really demonstrates the difference between people telling the stories of their own culture and an outsider doing it. A western developer would likely have gone much heavier on the White Terror angle, rather than taking the much more nuanced approach that Red Candle did.

The White Terror is both ever-present and distant. Like all people who live through history, Ray isn’t aware that her experiences will one day seem extraordinary to future generations, or that the society she lives in will come to be viewed as a transient period of darkness between relative stretches of light. This is just her life; she and her classmates and family and teachers have the same daily concerns as anyone else living at any other time, they just happen to exist in an environment where mundane actions and worries can get people killed. Feeling stifled by her surroundings and her home life and yearning to escape, but not knowing what that would look like in practice, Ray takes the kinds of reckless actions that young people the world over are prone to. The fact that her life is engulfed in tragedy as a result isn’t treated as remarkable or even unfair; it’s just the reality of the time and place she happens to live in.

If you’re familiar with Silent Hill-inspired games, you’ll know that they like to have Big Plot Twists of a certain nature. Very early on, I figured out what I thought was going to be Detention’s Big Plot Twist, but it turns out that the developers were one step ahead of me. Obviously anticipating this reaction from savvy horror fans, they de-twist the twist by basically giving the game away well before the climax. The suggestive symbolism littered throughout the personalized hell that Ray finds herself in lays out the basic fundamentals of what happened to her and the other characters and why she’s in the situation she’s in very clearly, and then a combination of cut-scenes and documents makes it explicit if you’re paying any attention at all. This turns out to be a smart move on Red Candle’s part, as trying to conceal the truth for a Big Plot Twist would likely have failed, and the exact specifics of why everything happened is more interesting than the mere fact that it did happen.

Ray herself is one of the best-written videogame characters I’ve seen in years. Initially encountered through someone else’s perspective, she comes off at first glance as the sort of timid, helpless heroine that horror likes to go in for. But as you peel back the layers of the plot, she turns out to be something very different altogether, both stronger and weaker than she appeared at first, and heart-breakingly relatable even as she’s caught up in circumstances that most of the people playing as her will (hopefully) never experience.

More than just well-written, Detention is subtle and intelligent. Visuals, music, plot and dialogue weave together in eye-opening and unexpected ways, forcing you to constantly re-examine things you saw earlier in new light. It really does reach the heights of meaningful, subtle symbolism that Silent Hill achieved at its best. At times, it might exceed it.

I’m enough of a Silent Hill mega fan that that’s high praise indeed. In case it didn’t come through clear enough, I loved every single second of Detention, from its mysterious, foreboding opening to it's heart-breaking conclusion. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the successor to the throne of the top tier of videogame horror that Konami relinquished when they started farming Silent Hill out to inexperienced studios, and my anticipation for Red Candles’ next game is physically painful.

All that aside, the game has a few irritating flaws. The English version is plagued with a number of typos and grammatical errors, including the occasional straight up missing word; judging by Red Candles’ English website, it seems like they don’t have any entirely fluent speakers on staff, and it shows. The problems aren’t enough to be a deal breaker by any means, but the mistakes are jarring given how well written the dialogue is, and it’s disappointing to see these errors uncorrected in a version of the game released well over a year after the initial PC release.

At one point, the game brings up a student/teacher relationship which (reading between the lines) appears to have become sexual. Taken at face value, the way the story leaves off this plot point could be read as alarmingly positive. Thinking about it a bit more deeply in context, the rose-tinted way the relationship is portrayed is being filtered entirely through the perspective of the student--who has understandable reasons for feeling that way and wildly mis-interprets other adult dynamics--rather than any detached authorial voice. The only third-party opinion we get on the situation comes from another adult who's generally portrayed as an empathetic type with her head screwed on straight; the fact that she basically calls the teacher involved a predator is, I feel, a pretty clear indicator of where the developers' own feelings lie (there are also some horror elements of the game that don't exactly paint the adult party in a positive light).

Still, I wanted to bring it up in case readers may be uncomfortable with the idea of playing a game that tackled this subject matter at all. Other than this plot point, the game stays entirely away from sexual violence and abuse, which I thought was an admirable bit of restraint given how dark some of the other topics handled are (this is, again, somewhere that I feel a western developer might have tripped up).

Also, the Switch version of the game chugs and drops the framerate during visually busy environments. I’m assuming this issue isn’t present in other versions of the game, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re considering where to play it.

Regardless of how you play it, I recommend you do play it. Detention is the best horror game I've played in years and easily one of the most nuanced, mature stories in the medium as a whole. I have no hesitation in making it my inaugural Axis of Awesome entry on Ferretbrain.
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at 15:20 on 2018-10-19
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