Ray is all alone in a classroom. It’s dark and it’s raining outside. Outside, a lingering spirit stalks her. She only escaped because she held her breath. The lingered cannot get you if you don’t breathe, they say. She wants to get out of the school, but doesn’t know how. There’s nobody around, only deadly spirits. The path outside the school is blocked by a ferocious crimson river. How is she going to escape?
The paragraph above describes an early scene in Detention, a point and click horror adventure about being trapped in a dark and haunted high school at night. This short, but memorable, game was made by Red Candle Studio, a Taiwanese game development company. With a 2D sidescroller view, Detention creates a harrowing and depressive game with stunning and highly symbolical visuals.
The story is set in the 60s in Taiwan during the White Terror, a period of martial law that lasted from 1949 to 1987. Around 140,000 persons were captured by the government during this period and about 3 to 4 thousand executed. The White Terror was a big communist witch hunt, so everybody was suspicious of everybody and fear of betrayal lingered in the Taiwanese society. You don’t need to know the history of Taiwan to understand the game, as the themes of military oppression and forbidden knowledge are pretty universal, but knowing its context, the game is a lot more powerful in its social critique.
The game begins in a class, where a professor called Yin is called by a soldier to talk about “some books”. One student, Wei, fall asleep during the class and wakes up alone in the classroom. The blackboard says a typhoon is coming and Wei decides that he has to go back home. In the way to his house, he finds a mysterious girl, Ray, all alone in the school’s gym. The girl barely remembers who she is and has no idea how she got there. The two of them can’t go home because a blood-like crimson river has destroyed the bridge to the town. Soon, the player takes control of Ray, the real protagonist of the story, and begins a journey to do much more than to escape the school, now haunted by spirits and monsters inspired by Taiwanese and chinese folklore.
It’s hard to talk about Detention’s story without spoiling it, because most of the story is about Ray trying to run away from the school and to remember why she’s there. It is sufficient to say that it is a very tragic, very sad story, albeit with some glimpses of hope. It’s also an interesting examination of the oppression of living in a dictatorship without freedom to think. Ray was part of a “book club” in which professors from the school gave the students communism books in secrecy and most of her backstory is about this club and her issues with her family.
The story is best when it’s at its most symbolic moments. Various elements represent characteristics of the story and the lore is heavily integrated with the Taiwanese folklore. As I don’t want to spoil the game, I’ll talk more about symbolism after the main part of the review and about a criticism I have about the narrative, too.
In the visual department, Detention is stunning. The aesthetics of the game are absolutely gorgeous. The school grounds are moody and haunting. The game really succeeds in creating an aura of oppressiveness, while creating an ambient that looks realistic and terrifying. It really evokes the aura of an oriental ghost movie set in the 60s. That haunting mood lasts up until the third act, when the game starts to take on a more surreal and less scary tone.
More than only look cool or create an aura, the visual elements of the game are useful in storytelling, as much of what is seen in the game is not what it seems at first and a lot of it has symbolical meaning. The only visual problem is that the animations of the characters are somewhat janky. The characters don’t move very fluidly, but that doesn’t hurt too much the game visually, as it is mostly a very still game.
The gameplay is fairly simple and functional. It has a classic 2D side scroller point and click adventure format. There’s no combat, you’ll mostly run away from monsters. The puzzles of the game are generally pretty intuitive and easy. They are pretty logic game-wise, but sometimes I asked myself why the hell would Ray be doing that. There is an specific puzzle with a bowl of blood that sounds pretty obvious to me as a player, but I could hardly imagine Ray doing something like that on her own. The only hard puzzle of the game is the piano puzzle. I’d say it’s almost impossible to solve it alone being someone that, like me, doesn’t understand a thing about pianos or music.
While the first two thirds of the game follow a pretty classical formula, the last third delves more into the surreal realm and change the classic point and click exploration for a more puzzle-lite story-focused approach. There are not many puzzles and a lot of walking around in straight lines. The rhythm slows down a bit and some scenes are way too long in midst of big story reveals, but it is not too annoying.
While the game has no combat, it has a few enemies for you to run away from. All of them are based in the local folklore. The lingered, the first enemy to appear, is a tall lady with a long tongue and it is, in folklore, a spirit that cannot reincarnate. Other enemies, the lantern spectors, are known in folklore to take spirits to Hell. Those elements make for a very interesting game that really made more me curious about Taiwanese folklore.
Detention is a very well done horror adventure. While it is very short (you can beat it in about 3 hours), it has really nice folklore elements and a narrative that uses symbolism very well and very concisely.
I’M NOT KIDDING
STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED THE GAME
So… spoiler time. All of Detention happens in a nightmare-like kind of post-life. Ray is dead. She had a romance with a teacher called Chang that was of the communist teachers. Due to some misunderstandings, their relationship went sour and, angry and feeling abandoned, she turned him over to the authorities, which made him and her friends from the book club be arrested. After that, she suffered bullying for being a snitch and killed herself jumping off a building.
The game is not so much about her running away from the school as it is about her running away from her guilt, which grounds her in this world as a spirit. The whole journey is about the self acceptance that she died and that her dreams were buried by the society she lived in. She always wanted to escape, but never could. In the end, she died sad and alone, betraying the friends she had.
It’s really nice how the game uses Taiwanese culture and symbolism to, since the beginning of the game, tell this story to the player. The crimson river, for example, exists because Ray is a lost spirit and, in Taiwanese folklore, spirits can’t cross rivers if they have unsolved issues. The lingered, the first enemies of the game, look like Ray because she, too, is a lingered, a spirit that can’t go on. Some other details, like the piano being already soaked in blood, as the school table in which Ray perform the ritual with Wei’s blood, are hints that Ray is stuck in a cycle, repeating the same actions over and over, trying to overcome her guilt and move on.
It really is a depressing story. That takes me to my biggest narrative problem with the game: why the hell do you start the game playing as Wei? If everything is Ray’s dream, then why doesn’t the game begin with her? Only so it could set up a dark plot twist in which Wei dies and the player feel all alone? I really like the story, but that’s a big narrative flaw. Despite that, Detention is a very interesting story that deserves to be played.