I was a Goody Two-shoes who never received detention during grade school, and after playing Detention (返校), the newest title from Red Candle Games, I'm grateful I didn't. While most kids complained that detention was like being imprisoned within the school walls, insisting that they would never get out alive, Red Candle Games takes this idea literally. The developers very cleverly intertwine the scholastic meaning of detention – the punishment of being kept in school after-hours – with the other, more generic definition of detention: the captivity, confinement, or detainment of a political prisoner.
This merged depiction of detention is morbid, dark, depressing, and terrifying.
You won't make it out of school alive… or sane.
Detention takes place at a Taiwanese school after-hours, backdropped with the 38-year period of martial law from 1949 to 1987 (臺灣省戒嚴令, for those of you keeping score at home). This period of martial law was characterized by an immense fear of communism and political uprising, also known as "The White Terror." That White Terror, Detention epitomizes. The fear of communism is deftly represented by petrifying ghosts, and the game is so frightful that it will blanch your face white with terror.
Detention has some of the best horror elements in a game I've seen within the last year, hands-down.
It pairs atmospheric dread, lingering throughout, with a couple of my-heart-just-leaped-out-of-my-chest jump scares. You hear the laughter of children, which very quickly devolves from the most joyous sound to the most distressing noise you've ever heard. Candles flicker, and in the faint candlelight flashing apparitions will appear so abruptly that you wake your roommates up with jumps and screams. There were times where I would loiter in a room just because it was safe and ghost-free and I knew that if I opened the next door, a spine-chilling ghost would give me a heart attack. The ghosts of Detention are very clearly and heavily influenced by Asian folklore, and Red Candle Games does an excellent job of explaining the cultural aspect of each ghost. Although you don't come across many different types of spirits, each type must be dealt with in a different way, and throughout Detention you learn about different Taiwanese legends and superstitions which will help you step-up your ghost game. This intertwining of Taiwanese history and horror create an engrossing and unique storyline that you’d be hard-pressed to find in another title.
At a certain point, the story takes a huge turn and goes from horrific and macabre to somber and depressing. The horror elements are the best part of Detention, so it's disappointing they disappear two-thirds of the way into the adventure. This is when the true communist plot of Detention is revealed, and you begin to piece together what happened to the missing teachers and students at the school. During this discovery phase, the gameplay becomes drawn-out, morphing into more ‘visual novel’ and less ‘interactive adventure.’ Most of the time, I felt like I was just walking around waiting for a cut scene to pop up – I almost gave up playing, out of ennui. However, Detention would not be complete without this respite; during the first two-thirds of the game, I was so terrified of running into ghosts that I didn't pay attention to the story, the moral, of Detention. The superficial thrill of ghosts was replaced with a deeper storyline. However, Red Candle Games could have incorporated as much entertainment and intensity from the beginning of the game without sacrificing plot. Indeed, the many different parts of Detention – puzzles, horror, and story –seem to be disjointed to some degree. Detention did redeem itself however in the end (getting to the end is another matter, though – although it only took me three hours to complete, it felt much longer). For the finale, players are treated to different endings, based on their choices made in the last third of the game.
These choices ultimately reflect choices in life and how one chooses to live it, which makes the endings uniquely philosophical, relatable, and teachable.
Unfortunately, despite the ghastly ghouls, Detention still comes across as bland at times.Aesthetically, the characters are plain and so similarly designed as to be nearly indistinguishable. Mechanically, you only need two buttons to play: left-click and right-click. Logically, although Detention doesn't hold your hand, the puzzles are facile and predictable. In terms of localization, it appears that some of the English translations are a little off: minor grammar mistakes here and there, and a flat and uninspiring translation of the story, makes some parts difficult to understand. In terms of character development, the cast does not seem to portray real emotions in their conversations, despite some of the very emotional scenes and topics introduced throughout the story. Finally, examining the overall narrative, it seems as though the developers tried to develop an ominous tone throughout the script, but this backfired to some extent, sometimes making the plot hard to follow.
Despite the plainness and the slow ending, I loved playing Detention. It is very clear that Detention is special to Red Candle Games – they put their hearts and souls into its development. It is refreshing to see a title about a period and culture that is not popularized in the media or other video games. Although set in Taiwan and centered on a story which may seem physically and mentally distant to some, Detention tells a tale close to us all, and that's our perpetual struggle for freedom: freedom to believe, to love, to learn, and ultimately to live as we would. These are universal, and I am elated that something as innocuous as a PC game can still teach us lessons so profound. Ultimately, Red Candle Games exposed gamers to a historical reality of which many of us are ignorant, and it did so beautifully.