Detention Review

What happened when a few Taiwanese game enthusiasts questioned why there are no games representing their culture? They founded a small independent studio Red Candle Games and made such a game by themselves. Detention is a horror adventure drawing elements from Taiwanese and Eastern Asian mythologies and religion, and takes place in 1960's Taiwan under martial law. The sense of nationalism is so strong in the small island state caught in a bitter feud with mainland China that even a suspicion of someone being a pro-communist can warrant a death sentence.

It's against this mental mindset that two high school students find themselves locked up in a school building. Apparently there has been a typhoon alert but they slept through it. For starters the player assumes the role of an easy-going student Wei but as he a few minutes later meets up with a senior student Ray, the controls and the focus shifts to her for the rest of the game. It's all about Fang Ray Shin, her passion, determination and bitterness.

Little did I know what I'd eventually get when I started playing Detention. I expected some cool Asian horror as I'm big fan of the genre. At first Detention seemed to be a side-scrolling Silent Hill derivative and as such it eases the players in with familiar spooks of reality shifting, vengeful spirits and disturbing soundscape. Soon the game wandered off in a direction entirely its own and found its unique, raw voice. More than the netherworld terrors Ray faces, the true horror comes from a human tragedy. The supernatural frames based on Taiwanese folklore are just means to tell this symbolic and grim but poetic story of love, disappointment, betrayal and remorse.

Detention is heavily story driven but unlike the most of recent strong narrative experiences, there's a game to it. Presented as a completely mouse-driven point-and-click adventure, the game mechanics serve the narrative which unfolds by Ray solving mysteries and puzzles. As much as the game's story is largely told between the lines, the player also needs to understand the nuances of the old school adventure gameplay. Detention doesn't guide the player through the experience or spoon-feed solutions.

In addition to the more traditional puzzles, like solving a code for a lock and such, there are some clever riddles requiring Ray to traverse different time planes. A couple of puzzles delightfully feature old analogue devices such as a dial phone and a transistor radio which I can imagine being alien contraptions to the younger audiences. A warning for those who dislike music puzzles. There's one and not a hint in the game to solve it. No staves doodled on Ray's notebook or visual clues on a dirty piano keyboard. You have to play it by the ear.

The stripped-down aesthetics with washed-out colors and cardboard cutout animations remind me of the socialist realism in older Soviet animations. There's beauty in dismay, tenderness in sorrow, crudely but touchingly presented. Some very neat reality shifting effects help to create an eerie ambience. It's also a rare occasion when I can happily say I encountered zero bugs and glitches. There are some spelling mistakes but nothing too severe and overall the quality of writing is delicate and convincing.

I don't usually play my games through in a one sitting. I tend to take breaks and do other stuff, but here I couldn't, as if some unearthly force fastened me to the front of my computer. It took five hours to complete the game. It's a good length for the narrative, it didn't feel brief or dragging. If anything, I wanted to see the outcome where the story had led me by each unfolding layer. There are two endings but you don't need to replay the whole game to see them both. Just continue from the last save altar and answer the questions presented to Ray differently, being defiant or alternatively meek on all counts.

Detention isn't for everyone. It's not an easy snack to gobble up. It will haunt you for some time and creep into your dreams. I recommend the game for those who enjoy deep and troubled stories and want to experience them in some other manner than just keep walking and pressing X when prompted. I can't stress enough how mature the story and its dramaturgy is, considering these guys have never done any published games or storytelling before. Detention meets all the unwritten laws of Asian tragedies and I could easily picture it as a movie by the likes of Ang Lee, the world renowned Taiwanese director. That's the highest compliment I can imagine giving to this game.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.