Can a Taiwanese horror game move past its unintended politics?
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By Shannon Liao
When Taiwanese horror game "Devotion" first published in 2019, the conversation revolved around Chinese president Xi Jinping and a meme comparing him to Winnie-the-Pooh. The Disney character had no role in the game, but still a poster invoking the Chinese president and Pooh's name led to "Devotion's" removal from multiple digital storefronts and generated a online furor that trapped its makers at Red Candle Games in the middle of decades-long political tensions between Taiwan and mainland China.
Three days after its release, a player spotted and reported a poster in the game of a cursed talisman that read "Xi Jinping Winnie-the-Pooh moron." It was a reference to a common meme mocking Xi by suggesting his resemblance to the cartoon. The developers said the art had been added as a placeholder by a team member working on the game who then forgot to replace it before the game's release. Red Candle's developers said they took down the image within an hour of the report, but the damage had been done.
When the poster came to the attention of Chinese players, they left thousands of scathing reviews for the game on the PC games store Steam. Red Candle would remove it from Steam in February of 2019, saying it needed to do a thorough quality assurance check to delete all "irrelevant content" from the game. CD Projekt Red's digital store, GOG, announced in December of 2020 it would carry the game on its platform, only to walk back its statement hours later, citing negative messages from gamers.
The game was nowhere to be found. Until now.
Fast forward to 2021, and "Devotion" has returned. On March 15, Red Candle began distributing the game on the developer's own website, with the controversial image removed. But can the game move on from the reputation it gained in 2019 for being politically subversive to Chinese gamers?
"The words on the poster do not represent the studio's stance," said Doy Chiang, co-founder of Red Candle Games and game producer for "Devotion." "For players who have actually played 'Devotion' and finished the game would understand that the game's theme is about parental love, Taiwanese family in the '80s, and perhaps religious cults. Possessing political views about China, by any means, has never been the studio's intention."
Chinese internet users have been spreading memes comparing Xi to Winnie-the-Pooh for years. But the reference in "Devotion" still rubbed Chinese gamers the wrong way. They wrote in Steam reviews that the talisman felt antagonizing because it felt like Red Candle Games had hidden political views inside a game seemingly about something else, and had tricked Chinese users into playing it. Several users said if Red Candle Games hated mainland China and supported Taiwanese independence, then it shouldn't have hidden its views in the game to force others to see. They added that they had received full refunds for the game and uninstalled it. Red Candle tried to communicate with Chinese gamers via its microblogging Weibo account, only to soon have its account removed.
Geopolitical tensions between mainland China and Taiwan have brewed since the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. The Chinese government says that Taiwan is a province of China, but the Taiwanese government maintains its sovereignty. The United States is purposefully ambiguous in its relationship with Taiwan, engaging in trade and diplomacy without officially recognizing the island as its own country.
"We understand that some players have been looking forward to the re-release of 'Devotion.' And we feel sorry that the studio failed to deliver that in the past two years," said Vincent Yang, co-founder of Red Candle Games.
Why did the game take two years to return? After the game was taken down in early 2019, the studio made the decision to hold off on quickly rereleasing the game. After the decision to distribute the game on GOG fell through in 2020, they ultimately decided on the self-publishing route, which took months to prepare, Yang said.
Rather than addressing the political situation between Taiwan and China, developers say "Devotion" draws inspiration from games like "What Remains of Edith Finch," "Layers of Fear" and "P.T." with a mixture of horror elements and mysterious puzzles. "Devotion" is set in the 1980s, and includes many nods to Taiwanese culture, religion and music from that era. Red Candle Games noted that Taiwan rarely gets showcased in games, and especially not in psychological, atmospheric horror games. The team spent "countless hours in redesigning our project," to live up to the inspiration drawn from those iconic titles, said Yang.
"Devotion" is a haunting first-person horror game that plunges players into the story with no tutorial. One moment, the main character is hearing his wife preparing dinner and asking for their daughter, and the next the player is alone and must figure out what happened to the deceased family.
The family's belongings are strewn across the apartment, and the game depicts a happy couple moving into the home, raising a daughter who is talented at singing, then facing what happens when she grows sicker and sicker. Through art, music and dialogue, "Devotion" references Taiwanese folk culture, religious elements from Taoism and Buddhism and more. It gets very creative at times, showing gameplay through jumping around inside a children's book and even a hellscape of what looks like the underworld.
"The 1980s Taiwan was a time of economic boom," Chiang said. "The media often depicted the successful stories of the hardworking, talented, persevering people. But in reality, we saw people strangled by the stress."
The loving couple who star in "Devotion" are at first extremely successful, with the dad being a script writer and the mom being a famous actress. But their careers dwindle and soon they pin their hopes on their elementary school age daughter, Mei Shin, a budding singer who has successfully performed on televised singing competitions. At first, Mei Shin is happy to oblige, but that sense of pride morphs into disappointment, illness and later, nerve-wracking pressure when her singing fails her.
"In a traditional Taiwanese household, the bonds between members are usually very strong. Some parents may consider their offspring as the extension of their existence, viewing children as part of the family's possessions rather than independent individuals," said Chiang. "As for parents who have unfinished dreams, they might put their own expectations on their descendants. From the present perspective, such behaviors are quite unfair to children."
As Mei Shin grows sicker, a doctor tells her family that the issue is purely psychological. But in the 1980s, mental health issues were highly stigmatized in Taiwan. Instead of allowing the daughter to see a therapist, the family later turns to religion to solve their problems. Soon they become entangled in a cult.
"In the past, patients of mental illness were often stigmatized and associated with negative stereotypes. The general public was afraid of these patients," Yang said. "That's also the reason we wanted to include mental health as a part of our game narration. Though it might be a tiny effort, we hope that with our game, we could somewhat help raise the awareness of mental health in our society."
The psychological burden doesn't just stem from Mei Shin's parents, but also herself and her strong sense of duty. Yang noted that none of the family members are able to fully express their emotions and instead each try to sacrifice themselves to show their love.
While the game slowly builds to a climax, it's also got a good amount of jump scares along the way. For instance, in one part of the game, life-size dolls are used to represent the family. The wife doll is preparing things in the kitchen, at first, but as the player walks away, and then looks back, the wife doll is suddenly beside the player, looking directly at them.
"When players are finally in sync with the rhythm of the game, we would then implement a sudden change in the atmosphere to catch players off their guard," said Chiang, who added that the jump scares keep players from getting too comfortable.
After the success of cult favorite horror game "Detention" and the mixed reviews of "Devotion," Red Candle is working on a new, yet-to-be-named game that has been under development for over a year. The developers say it will be an action-packed two-dimensional platformer.
While Chinese gamers in 2019 criticized "Devotion" for what they interpreted to be a covert message in support of Taiwanese independence from mainland China, that theme is nowhere to be found in the game today. Instead "Devotion" feels like a celebration of Taiwanese culture and an examination of societal shortcomings. It does tackle tough subjects like mental health and abusive parenting, but leaves out any thoughts on Taiwan's fraught relationship with China.
But in some ways, the damage has been done. Since the game's rerelease on the developer's website, sales have been insignificant compared to "Devotion's" previous launch on Steam, likely due to the limited exposure the indie game studio receives. The game is also not allowed in mainland China, due to having to comply with local regulations, according to Red Candle. Local Chinese gaming regulations frown upon gory or particularly violent games and require that all text within a game must be in simplified Chinese (Devotion features traditional Chinese with an option of English captions).
"For Red Candle Games, our goal is to have our works playable for worldwide players," Yang said. "We will continue developing our future titles. Hopefully one day we can achieve this goal."
The Washington Post