Detention is a one-of-a-kind horror game, based on a real-life time period of Taiwan’s history. How did this indie game perform so well?
|Developer||Red Candle Games|
|Publisher||Red Candle Games|
|Genre||Survival horror, point-and-click|
|Purchase (PC/Mac/Linux)||Purchase from Steam.|
Detention is a strangely misleading title. While the game is based on a school setting, it has nothing to do with that punishment you get when you misbehave in school. Instead, it falls closer to the more literal definition: the act of detaining. But man, if I were to get detention back then and the events of this game ended up being my punishment, I would probably wish I had never attended school at all.
Still, Detention is a bit of an anomaly in the indie game scene. Since its release, it became a major topic of conversation among Steam gamers. It’s a Taiwanese horror game based on real history called the White Terror period, which is set in 1960s Taiwan. The White Terror resulted from the 2.28 Incident, an anti-government uprising that turned into a massacre of thousands of Taiwanese citizens by the Chinese government. Since then, Taiwan fell into a 40-year period of martial law, where Taiwanese citizens were imprisoned and executed under the rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party. Anyone seen as a communism sympathizer or a rebel against the government would be suppressed. In a sense, the White Terror was quite similar to the Red Scare and the Second Red Scare in the United States, both events related to extreme anti-communist attitudes.
Now let’s turn that premise into a horror game filled with Chinese and Taiwanese folklore. Needless to say, this already has great potential. I often say that Asian cultures do horror the best, coming up with some truly unique and creepy monsters. With those kinds of expectations, I was pretty excited for my first playthrough.
Trapped at Greenwood High School
Detention is a point-and-click survival horror sidescroller (much like Clock Tower) where you guide a Taiwanese student through an abandoned school during a typhoon. There are two playable characters: Wei Chung Ting and Fang Ray Shin. The gameplay is pretty much what you expect: exploring the school, collecting items and solving puzzles. And of course, avoiding monsters and other hazards.
At first, the eerie school seems ordinary. But things are not what they seem.
Wei and Ray decide to work together and survive the typhoon using the school’s own supplies. The two become well acquainted and we learn a bit about their school lives. Needless to say, it’s some interesting stuff. The conversations feel genuine, as if two real people are talking to one another.
But due to some unforeseen circumstances, Ray ends up on her own and she finds herself in a more nightmarish version of Greenwood High School.
By far Detention’s strongest point is its semi-realistic art style. Not only do the illustrations look pretty close to portraying real-life humans, the mix of grim colors, soft lighting and parallax scrolling make for one of the most immersive horror games I’ve ever played.
Grainy textures, sepia tone photos, blurry images, children’s book illustrations and Chinese/Taiwanese artifacts and architecture. It all feels so uncomfortably authentic. I haven’t seen another game that looks close to like this, which is great. This game can easily be iconic for just its art style alone.
Oh no, are those what I think they are?
Oh lordie, this game.
But the graphics aren’t creepy for just creepy’s sake either. Some of this imagery is allegorical and helps explain the greater story at hand. Detention is a great example of psychological horror that tells its story mostly on the visuals alone than relying on long dialogue sequences and cutscenes to do the job.
And speaking of the story, it’s… really fascinating. The commentary on the White Terror period gives insight on the prohibitive environment that these students were raised in. Psychotic instructors, propaganda, espionage, censorship, rebellion, capital punishment and fear of death. A government rule based on fear and control. That in itself is a scary thing, and the horror imagery is there to amplify that. The fearful and unknowing children have little hope of resisting. And those who do resist are to face certain death.
Youth is hardly ever given a choice, pushed through the grind until their innocence fades away.
Lingering Demons and Murky Hallways
The survival horror aspect of Detention is more or less unique. While you never have to confront monsters head-on, you would have to move past them several times in the playthrough. But it’s not as simple as running past them, but you would have to follow hints given to you from children’s storybooks to proceed. Now that is very clever.
For example, dealing with the regular Lingered ghouls often require you to hold your breath while moving past them. Or sometimes, you have to offer them food and move past them while they’re distracted. And those tall villagers with the lanterns and hanging tongues? You have to turn your back on them and hold your breath.
And by god, these creatures are beyond creepy. Their grotesque appearances and the sounds they make. And that intense atmospheric audio that plays in the background. Detention managed to be scary without cheap jump scares. It just needed some gritty environments, terrifying monster chases and audio comparable to a Silent Hill game.
My only real criticism of the game is that the latter half is lacking in monsters, making the game shift more into puzzle-solving over survival. As a result, there isn’t much of a climax to the story. It’s hard to say what is the most shocking aspect of the playthrough, since there isn’t much downtime for you to just relax and breathe. So the few hours of the game feel even longer, but in a redundant fashion where you feel exactly the same no matter which part of the game you’re at.
Ray’s surreal journey is one of sin and guilt. To truly end the nightmare she is trapped in, she must reflect on her troubled life and reaffirm what truly happened at Greenwood High School. The aptly named White Terror, the fear of communism, would ruin the lives of many people and lead to tragedy.
Detention is a truly phenomenal horror game that grants perspective of a truly terrifying time in Taiwan’s history. Its intelligent visual storytelling and historical presence, combined with some unique monster encounters and puzzles, are commendable. As U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt once put it…
The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Fear can cause people to make uncharacteristically bad choices. To simplify Detention’s themes, this is what the game is all about. And what the White Terror period is all about. Fear is like a contagious disease that can spread to other people, causing them to behave differently and make selfish choices.
- Straightforward puzzle-solving and exploration, with some proper disorientation in a surreal setting.
- A unique semi-realistic art style.
- A deep story that relies on imagery and subtext to get the full context.
- The monsters are creative in design and approach.
- Intense sound design.
- The latter half of the game is lacking in monster encounters, putting the focus more on puzzles.
- Only a few hours long.