There are very few horror games that grab my attention for too long. They are usually just jump-scare ladened time killers for whatever discount I bought them on a Steam sale for. However, Red Candle Game’s “Detention” blew me away with a video game that captured everything that makes horror truly disturbing.
The game is a story about crime, punishment, and forgiveness and the mixture of Taiwanese history and Taoism is beautifully executed. I wasn’t expecting much from a point-and-click title, but this game exceeded all my expectations away with a mixture of interesting gameplay mechanics, the narrative, and how it all ties back to society in Taiwan.
The Historical Setting
The story takes place in the White Terror period in Taiwanese history in the 1960s. This was a period of martial law and brutality. People went missing, were executed, and local Taiwanese were second-class citizens. It was part of a strategy by the KMT—the losers of the Chinese civil war—to effectively govern the island of Taiwan with an iron fist. They forced people to speak Mandarin and indoctrinated them with KMT beliefs. This wasn’t a democratic society, it was martial law with the purpose of control. It is a far cry from what Taiwanese society is today with its vibrant democracy and freedoms. The KMT might’ve come to Taiwan because they lost the civil war, but in many ways, Taiwan has been the ultimate winner in the cross-strait relations considering the level of openness, freedom, and democracy there is in Taiwan when compared to China.
Running to the demons, not away from them
The game gives the illusion that the main character, Ray, is running away from the demons and spirits. It comes off as a regular trope in horror games; a schoolgirl is running away from monsters.
However, the more the story progresses, the more we start to see that Ray hasn’t been running away from the demons, but rather she is running towards them. She has condemned herself because of her actions during the White Terror. Her jilted feelings of love led to her to make a rash decision that today would be considered unimportant, but in the White Terror era, it was an executable offense for the people she affected.
Ray sees herself as being unforgivable. It is ultimately up to the player to decide if she can be forgiven or not.
In many ways, this looks more like it is Ray’s choice as to whether she can forgive herself, not if she can be forgiven by everyone else. She is stuck in an endless loop of reliving her life. She is running to the monsters because she finds reality so utterly terrifying that the demons are more comforting for her because she wants to be punished.
Summary of the Plot
SPOILERS! SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH
Ray’s crime was snitching on her teachers and classmates. They had a secret club for reading illegal books during the White Terror era. Banned books mostly included any type of literary works that would cause unrest.
A weird fact about the book banning was that authors whose name started with the letter “M” were banned. This was because their names in Mandarin were quite close to Karl Marx’s surname. Max Webber and Mark Twain were two such authors that had their works banned during the White Terror due to this.
The reason why Ray reported them was due to her unrequited love for her teacher, Chang. Due to her home life being dysfunctional and the effect this had on her grades, she was counseled by Chang. Shortly after, they began a relationship. Chang broke off the relationship once the counseling ended and Ray, in her anger, informed on her teacher and classmates having a secret book club for the dissemination and reading of censored materials. Chang ends up being executed and her classmates got 15 years in prison.
Her guilt drives her to suicide and this is why she is in hell, or diyu (地獄).
Accountability and Forgiveness
I have a different interpretation of Detention to many others. When I played Detention, I saw the story about Ray not wanting to be forgiven. Others suggest that she doesn’t want to admit her guilt, but her act of suicide shows that she couldn’t live with her guilt and the fact she relives her memories in perpetuity shows that she wants to punish herself.
She has nobody left to be accountable to. Her classmates are older now, the White Terror long over, and she has been punished. Yet, she continues to dwell in a place of monsters and demons. Why?
Because the only person left to forgive her is herself and she can’t do it.
Ray was a victim too in many ways. Her home life was littered by infidelity and betrayal. When she found solace with her teacher, Chang, he rejected her and all she left was anger and revenge. She lashed out and couldn’t live with the guilt. Yet, even after being punished in diyu, she still continues to want to run towards demons, rather than run back reality. Why? Because her nightmare is more tolerable than her reality. That’s what is truly terrifying about this game.
What Detention tugs at most is how Taiwanese society was brutalized. People turned against each other for little more than petty squabbles, or out of genuine fear. It’s hard to summarize just how damaging a time this was for so many people.
Taiwan Today is Ray
In the happy ending of Detention, Ray appears in front of her old classmate. He finished his 15 years in prison a long time ago and is now wandering around his old school; where ray committed suicide. When he sits in the classroom, he is greeted by the ghost of Ray. She’s finally forgiven herself and comes to terms with her guilt.
He is looking back at Ray, not in anger, or with disdain, but with closure. It’s important for those who caused so much brutality and horror to be brought to justice, but Ray was not only a perpetrator, she was also a victim.
Accountability in Taiwanese Society
Detention brought to my mind an interesting concept called “transitional justice”.
This is defined by the UN as:
“[T]he full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation.”
The ICJT defines it as:
“Transitional justice refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response.”
Some countries have created committees to bring perpetrators to justice. Others have created organizations to not let victims be forgotten or underrepresented, and museums educate the public on crimes that would otherwise be forgotten.
One example in Taiwan is the AMA Museum (阿嬤家- 和平與女性人權館). This museum educates the public on how the Japanese government during WW2 forced countless women across Asia to be sex slaves for their army; a horrific chapter in history that has yet to be recognized by the Japanese government.
This is a way for many of these women to find solace and justice in a sense. Their pain and suffering is not being forgotten and even though the Japanese government continues to ignore the issue, these women at least have a voice to tell the Taiwanese public and the international community that they exist and want justice.
Detention and Accountability in Taiwanese Society
Detention deals with accountability in a different, albeit, more interactive way. Through the medium of a video game, players take the role of the main character, Ray, as she forages through a hellish existence to discover why she has been condemned. On the surface, it just looks like a horror game with a good story, but for me, it really went into the suffering that was enacted during the White Terror, and the consequential suffering thereafter.
This is a period piece game that has brought the issue of the extremes that people went to during the White Terror, and Ray’s nightmarish existence is representative of what happens when brutality and injustice aren’t dealt with in a society.
Thankfully, the scars of the past in Taiwan have started to see the day of light. Some of these scars can be visibly seen on the psyche, but other scars cannot be seen as they are internalized within society.
Although there are those in Taiwanese society that see transitional justice as a witch hunt against mainlanders and the KMT, this is not the case. It is selfish of these people to dispute that giving closure and transparency to victims is an attack on them. There needs to be a level of openness to discuss these issues and if the KMT comes off as being accountable, then that is their duty to the people of Taiwan, not only their punishment.
Detention wasn’t just a video game for me, it was an in-depth look into Taiwan, and it provided me with an insight I would have never gotten anywhere else.