In the cracked, yellow high school assembly hall, a fresh corpse hangs upside down above the stage. Below him are dozens of lit red candles, and to either side are banners of government propaganda. You drag a box cutter across his throat and use a bowl to catch the blood. You will offer the blood to thirsty gods, and ask them for protection.
Detention is a point-and-click 2D horror side-scroller set in 1960s Taiwan, when the country was under martial law. The art is stark and often beautiful, and the story is steeped in supernatural folklore. You play as a kid in a Taiwanese high school, where students are encouraged by the principal, instructor Bai, to rat out any of their peers who “may be pro-Communist or show signs of treachery.” It’s night, you’re trapped in your school, and there are spirits with long, swollen tongues wondering the halls. You must collect clues and solve puzzles to try to figure out what the hell is going on.
Martial Law in Taiwan lasted from 1949 to 1987. Over a hundred thousand Taiwanese people were imprisoned and more than three thousand were executed for their opposition to the Kuomintang. The KMT fled to Taiwan after they were defeated in the Chinese Civil War, and they began their violent campaign to exterminate communist thinking almost immediately.
The main characters are a boy, Wei, who’s a junior, and a girl, Ray, who’s a senior. They must wait until they graduate to escape the terrifying nationalist ex-military man who runs their school. All around them, people are disappearing. Teachers, friends, and family have been taken by the Kuomintang. They’re afraid that they could be next.
There are many film dramas and documentaries about real-world atrocities, but imagine with me now: what if someone made a horror movie about a real-world atrocity? What if a movie about the real deaths of thousands of people was filled with jump scares and shock gore? The idea feels offensive. But Detention does manage, with unambiguous success, to be a real horror game about real-world horror. How does this game get away with it?
For one, games have an advantage here that movies lack: you are experiencing the story by controlling the actions of characters who are living it. The kids you’re playing as are scared. You are scared too. You’re participating in the fear, not observing it, so it doesn’t feel like voyeurism.
Additionally, lacing the entire story with the terrifying Taiwanese mythology of death and the afterlife provides a safer context for the body horror. When you see a bloody body in a jail cell with a bag over its head, it’s right next to a huge stone doorway carved with the images of HeiBei WuChang, the ancient imperial officials who became messengers for the Underworld. Both gods wear tall hats. One says “一見生財,” which means “become lucky upon encountering me,” and the other says “天下太平,” which means “peace to the world.”
The most horror-movie parts of the game occur in this blended context of cultural mythology and history. The shocks and gore are often surreal. Fear, disgust and guilt are all reactions that connect you with the characters you’re playing. Detention never reaches for the perverse thrill of movies like Hostel or Saw 3. When the game does address purely historical horror, it is somber and respectful to the real human loss that occurred under Taiwan’s Martial Law.
One of the best things about Detention is the way in which it repeatedly subverts your expectations. Just when you think you’re playing one sort of game, it will flip on you. You’ll get used to your character’s stiff animation cycles only to have their limbs suddenly twist and splay. The game’s color palette will change from muted to electric on a dime. You’ll go through a door and suddenly be in a place that’s completely unexpected.
The Taoist folklore is fresh and wonderful. The small Taiwanese team that made the game used their local culture and mythology to potent effect. The scratchy old music that plays on records and cassettes is evocative, beautiful, and strange. In one scene Ray uses wooden moon-shaped divination blocks, called jiaobei, to ask a deity about her fate. His statue towers far above her, and the blocks fall flat upon the floor: the crying answer. The lingering dead, huge and twitching, long tongues hanging past their chins, are the stuff of a stranger’s nightmares.
Detention also peddles in literal poetry. It’s translated, but it reads exactly like something written by a talented 17-year-old. There’s love poetry, there’s angst poetry, and it’s earnest, a little embarrassing, and occasionally surprisingly eloquent. Pitch perfect. “The white deer / walked into my grasp / … / I want to keep this moment / in my palms for eternity.”
The weakest part of the game is its puzzle design. The puzzles are infrequent and seem almost half-hearted. They’re either bizarrely easy (Can you find my necklace? Sure. I’ll check in this door right here. Oh, there it is, but I can’t grab it. I’ll use this umbrella right here. That worked, here’s your necklace), or they’re frustrating and difficult (I guess I will walk past the hold-your-breath monsters in this grey hallway for the fifth time because I have no idea what to do). The puzzles only work when they have more than a flimsy connection to the themes that the game is exploring. Good puzzles need trajectory. They need to move the player forward in the story, not make them wander around in the increasingly stale present.
For instance, there are some puzzles about shadows and mirrors that work, because the game is often about the ways that the main characters see themselves. In Detention, the past is a broken mirror. It’s unclear, until the end, what is real and what is imagined. The whole thing drips with trauma and guilt. The plot spins out of control, but it pulls back together in the end in a way that is truly horrific. After the game is over, the broken pieces all stand up to scrutiny. The strange, inexplicable things are awful and portentous. This is very difficult to pull off. The game is filled with mysteries, but after finishing it and reading up a bit on cultural context, I do not see any plot holes.
Detention is a flawed but excellent game. It’s a nightmare, but it feels like an important one. It blends grotesque folklore with grotesque history in a way that I have never seen before. The story is deft, poignant, and brimming with well earned, nauseous dread. If you can stomach it, you should play it.