Horror, just like comedy, is very subjective: what might seem terrifying to some could be boring to others, and vice versa. Personally, I've always been drawn to the horror genre and all of its permutations. There’s just something about the darkness that makes me sit up and pay attention, whether it be slashers, torture porn, supernatural or – my favourite – psychological horror.
That's why I was intrigued by Detention, a dark, brooding paranormal horror game, which happens to be the first major release from Taiwan-based studio Red Candle. Another draw was its unique setting in 1960s Taiwan, during an ominous period dubbed the “White Terror” in which the country was under martial law and on a constant state of alert for any signs of communism. This lasted from 1949 to 1987, and although a heavily disturbing time in the nation’s real history, it makes for a completely engaging backdrop for an adventure game. Its effect is not merely superficial either; it manages to inform the plot and get under your skin in a way only great character-driven psychological horror stories can. Coupled with an elegant point-and-click interface, some nifty puzzles, and otherworldly aspects drawn from Taoism and Buddhism, Detention offers up a thrilling experience that I was powerless to resist.
The game begins simply enough. At a secluded school in the mountains, a student named Wei finds himself alone in his classroom. Upon discovering that the staff and students left due to an incoming typhoon warning, Wei sets out to escape the school as well. He soon meets a girl a few years his senior named Fang, and after learning that all of the exits are barred and the bridge has collapsed, they decide to take shelter in the school to hopefully ride out the storm.
I don't want to spoil the rest of the plot, but what follows is a captivating and deeply haunting supernatural tale. It's a mixture of ghost story, dark family drama and character study. Instead of focusing primarily on the country’s troubled political climate, Red Candle elegantly uses it here to impact the protagonists’ actions. We are treated to multiple flashbacks which help flesh out Wei and Fang’s backstories and offer a glimpse at what life was like at school under such a strict regime. For example, books that "encouraged free thought" were banned and being caught reading one was punishable by death. Families were also encouraged to report any suspicious characters as potential spies, leading to a deep sense of paranoia and distrust. It's unnerving to see the way these characters have been shaped by the monstrous system oppressing them, and how they react to their surroundings and interact with each other. This way, it becomes deeply personal and is much more effective.
The story plays out in an eerie, dreamlike fashion that makes you question what is real and what is illusion, and there's an uneasiness that permeates the entire experience. The horror aspect is implemented very well. There are moments when Wei and Fang encounter “The Lingered,” spirits that now haunt the school grounds and are masterfully designed, evoking images from other Asian horrors like The Ring and The Grudge. Each encounter is memorably creepy.
Refreshingly, the game doesn't rely on jump scares, instead focusing on the heavy atmosphere caused by the ongoing political situation. The dark subject matter shows that even the best of intentions can lead to horrific outcomes, complete with a helping of light gore in certain sections. Imagine if David Lynch decided to direct a Silent Hill adventure game set in Taiwan, and you might get an idea of how the narrative is presented.
Hands down the most masterful aspect of Detention is its ingenious use of sound. Echoing footsteps, a lone person's heartbeat, a phone ringing, and indecipherable whispering play off key moments of silence to create a sense of dread over what might be around the corner in the next room. The soundtrack is also uniformly excellent, as composer Weifan Chang weaves an eclectic mix of electronic, rock, and harsh industrial-like pieces merged with traditional Asian instruments. Each score serves its respective scene beautifully and captures the perfect tone and feeling, almost becoming a character in the story without overpowering the gameplay.
There are no voice-overs for the characters, just subtitles which can be played in English or Chinese. I found that this only added to the atmosphere, because reading the well-written script helped immerse me more into the world, letting me focus more on the small details in each room instead of listening and judging how each character sounded.
Although Detention is heavily story-driven, it doesn't forget to be a game. Alternately playing as either Wei or Fang as they explore separately for the most part, both characters are completely controlled by the mouse: almost all the actions are mapped to the left button save for right-clicks to hold your breath, which is used to great effect in dealing with The Lingered. To use an item you’ve collected in the environment, all you have to do is move the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen to bring up the inventory, then click and hold the item and drag it wherever you want to use it. It's a simple, elegant system that helps you progress through the game without any mechanical obstructions.Continued on the next page...