“Children grow by stumbling and picking themselves up,” your wife says. The sun streaming through the window of your modest apartment. Thick stacks of books clutter the floor and stretch to your shoulders. The pendulum swings from the clock on your wall, hung neatly above the television set streaming peaceful images into the living room. For the next three hours, this is your apartment. This apartment is the core of Devotion, the bold and surreal new horror game from Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games.
This place is very important. Few games so firmly establish a sense of a lived-in space as Devotion does in this apartment and the halls that surround it. Devotion’s setting, Taiwan in the 1980s, was in a period of great political and civil change, but unlike Red Candle’s previous title, Detention, Devotion sidesteps the political for the personal. It is a measure of Red Candle’s tremendous success that you will grow to recognize each detail in this place and notice them as they change. But a home only stands with a solid foundation. Luckily, few games reach the level of sophistication shown in Devotion’s attention to detail, thematic depth, and character development.
The greatest horror games (and films) find the horror within daily life and bring it to the surface. Devotion hones in on a fear lurking in the background of domestic life: the fear of losing your loved ones. For Devotion’s lead Du Feng Yu, these loved ones are his daughter, Du Mei Shin, and his wife, Gong Li Fang. They provide the dramatic tension which drives the story for its three-hour runtime. It’s best to avoid revealing any details of Devotion’s plot, other than in the broadest possible sense because even the most simple explanation could spoil the surprises that make this game such a delight.
But I can give a broad outline: Feng Yu is a writer, past his prime by many years and failing in his attempts to draft new material. His wife, Li Fang, is a glamorous Taiwanese film star who retires from the limelight to support her family and help raise their daughter, Mei Shin. Mei Shin is a talented young singer who lights up the stage of a TV talent show while struggling with her schoolwork and social life.
It is in this seemingly normal and idyllic domestic setting that Devotion begins to twist and distort, as this perfect scene transforms into a blood-red alternate reality. A red umbrella floats, suspended in mid-air as a light flickers above. It falls and suddenly dissolves into a pool of blood. Feng Yu turns around, and a demonic doppelganger of his wife, draped in black hair, suddenly lurches towards him.
Devotion’s design mirrors its dreamlike and twisted narrative: apartment building hallways fold in on each other, room lead into other versions of the same room, hallways that characters have just entered through vanish from sight when they turn around and are replaced with something else. Devotion perfectly captures the paranoid anxiety and demented logic of a fever dream. But it is not an action game, and those seeking a mix of combat, survival and exploration akin to horror hits like Resident Evil 2 should look elsewhere: there is no combat here, and puzzles are sparse, object-based affairs with obvious solutions. Equally, players that dislike deliberate exploration and story-focused titles will likely dismiss Devotion as another “walking simulator.”
But they would be missing an experience that could only be delivered through this medium: Devotion is much more than an interactive film. The apartment that players will be spending the bulk of their time exploring– in many different incarnations across various time-periods– is thoughtfully designed, with keen attention to detail. Family photos decorate the walls, trophies adorn the shelves, and an ever-present television eerily warbles out the broken, distorted versions of Taiwanese pop tunes that feature heavily in Devotion’s excellent sound production. Music ranges from warm, shimmering guitars slathered in reverb to the eerie whirring ambience of singing glasses.
All of this adds to Devotion’s incredible atmosphere. While it may not be the most visually advanced title in 2019, it makes up for it with stellar art design. Lonely hallways shine with an icy fluorescence. Bedrooms bask in warmth and color. From impressionistic neon hues to the watercolor shades of a children’s book, Devotion offers as much beauty as terror. At crucial plot points when it would be easy to delve back into horror tropes, the game instead abandons them altogether and transforms for a time from a horror game into a touching meditation on family life, religion and spirituality.
This makes it all the more sinister when it eventually returns to horror. Devotion is at its worst in the moments when it relies on cheap jump-scares and horror tropes, and at its best when it prods the depths of protagonist Feng Yu’s psyche, as it does to devastating effect in its grisly climax and conclusion. We need games like Devotion to remind a jaded industry how wide the range of subject matter games can explore is, and what impact they can have when they perfect their approach to that subject matter. It is a strange, twisted, and at times moving exploration of the costs and limits of devotion– devotion to self, to belief, and to family.