We love indie games, and that’s why we’re here: This column is a celebration of all those projects made by teams or even one single person that, on their own, went and did whatever they wanted. We tell you on a monthly format our newest discoveries regarding any games outside the AAA landscape, shading light into the indie games we love, gush about them, and maybe even help you find a new favorite game!
By Samm Jinks.
Devastation. Isolation. And guilt. Guilt is at the heart of so many stories of terror, and many interactive narratives that work within the genre skewer that heart towards a dark conclusion. Masters of horror frequently entomb characters with a great weight upon their shoulders within their twisted tales, which only serves to intensify the madness they encounter. And this is so present within the very bones of horror games as well.
Eponymous works such as Soma, Oxenfree, and Until Dawn all carry within them that sense of internalized culpability, and oftentimes will even push the player to act on moments within the story that bury guilt deep within them. Roads not taken. Characters unable to be saved. Horror brought into being by their own choices, either through consequences well understood or deeply ephemeral. There is plenty to be found in these titles with replays, but the guilt at its core always remains.
But the difficulty of maintaining a guilty conscience where a real, human player must experience a twisted reality through the eyes of their compromised narrator can so often leave a work feeling flat, toothless, and lacking in any real bite. I’ve personally played too many horror titles that do just that, unable to marry their concept with their protagonists, leaving no weight to the things that go bump in the night.
But perhaps this is why the experience of Detention left me so utterly devastated.
An unassuming initial concept, a quietly gnawing sense of dread, and a conclusion that is all the more overwhelming for just how hard it is to accept. While perhaps not as infamous as Red Candle Games’ most well-known work, Detention stands head and shoulders above many point-and-click horror adventures through macabre attention to detail and genuinely unnerving subject matter. This, along with a protagonist that has guilt written down on their every pore, leads to an incredible horror game that I don’t imagine I’ll experience again anytime soon.
Set in the 1960s in Taiwan, martial law is everywhere. In the lives of its citizens, it is a constant point of threat, but for the children attending Greenwood High School, the sheer enormity of the propaganda and pressure brought with it is omnipresent.
Within this backdrop, the protagonist Fang Ray-xin (or just Ray) awakens in an auditorium by a sympathetic classmate. The two of them attempt to escape an incoming typhoon in the distance, leaving them isolated and without recourse as a frothing river of blood encircles the campus. This supernatural event builds further and further as mythological monsters and bizarre ritualistic enigmas confound the player, and the mystery of how everything in Ray’s life led to this moment slowly unravels as she finds herself utterly alone.
On its face, this is already an interesting concept for a narrative experience, but the subtlety of the story being told is what brings it all home, and this is where guilt once again takes center stage. Just as a good author makes every word count, there is nothing in Detention that doesn’t carry some significance to it. This is especially apparent in the mythological creatures and deities showcased throughout the game, each of whom can be appeased or avoided with specific actions like food offerings, holding your breath, or even returning items of mystical significance to their rightful owners.
In addition, the dichotomy of many puzzles the player must solve show a nuanced perspective on culture and religion within the world itself. While these creatures are spiritual in origin, it is through understanding their nature that they are so frequently overcome. Even the save points are small shrines the protagonist offers short prayers to, emphasizing the mixture of reverence and fear that can come from such entities.
Yet, even when the monsters are known and rituals solved, the unnerving nature of the game’s world never allows the player to fully settle in. And this is all due to how personal the experience becomes with careful, calculating intensity.
Monstrous beings that chase after the player are scary in a very visceral sense, but it’s when Detention seems to loosen and reduce the focus on that viscera where it truly comes to life.
Throughout the experience, among the grime and blood, Ray’s life is laid bare with small snippets that tell us far more about who she is and who she decided to be than I imagine many players will be able to anticipate.
If guilt is so important to so many horror stories, then how does the narrative maintain itself? How does anticipation build itself into tension and eventually release? When guilt is the backbone of your work, of your character’s personal journey, how do you tell your story without just giving the whole cause away from the start?
It’s a concept I’ve considered for awhile now, but I think Detention serves as one of the most succinct explanations I’ve seen. And it all comes down to what is framed as important to the character in question. Guilt, shame, remorse, these are all emotions built around a personal betrayal. An action taken that, even if it made sense in the moment, is so clearly against who the character wishes themselves to be, there is no coming back from it.
And that guilt can be wielded as a weapon, a tool, a threat. The placement of this game’s time and backdrop are no coincidence. And the events portrayed in it, outside of the horrors shown on screen, are horrible to behold all on their own. A socio-political nightmare that, at least for Ray, there seems to have been no way to escape.
My only final thoughts on this masterpiece of narrative design are that I wish I had played it sooner. Specifically, before I had enjoyed what is now one of my favorite titles in recent memory, Devotion, which is a superb experience all on its own and, while it covers many similar motifs, is entirely unique in terms of presentation and subject. So my word to you reading is this: if you haven’t played Detention or Devotion yet, be sure to play the former first. Not only to experience the works in release order but because, in my opinion, you can clearly see a personal evolution within the studio of Red Candle Games.
No matter what, though, please be sure to play this title. It is a wonderful work, and if you’re anything like me, you will be astounded by just how much there is to experience here.