The most effective horror can seep its way into the mundanity of our everyday lives, ruminating beneath the surface before wrapping its malevolent tendrils around our sense of comfort and familiarity. Years after it was removed from sale, the bite-sized slice of P.T. we were privy to still manages to evoke those trembling feelings of unease more potently than almost any other horror game since–making each trip around that unremarkable L-shaped corridor an intimidating test of nerves. Devotion, a new psychological horror game from Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games, evokes P.T.’s terrifying spirit to paint an inventive, thought-provoking, and insidious portrait of family life within the claustrophobic confines of a small Taiwanese apartment.
Set throughout the 1980s, Devotion focuses on a strained family of three: struggling screenwriter Du Feng Yu, retired singer and movie star Li Fang, and their sickly young daughter Mei Shin, who aspires to be like her mother. The game predominantly takes place within the five rooms of their modest apartment, with a narrative that takes you on a distressing tour through the years and various configurations of this intimate space. The attention to detail in each facet of the apartment is striking, as every nook and cranny is thoughtfully assembled to replicate an authentic, lived-in home. There are old newspapers being used as makeshift tablecloths, pencils and discarded scripts messily strewn across desks, a corridor that’s extravagantly decorated with the haphazard art of Meh Shin and her litany of crayons, and a calendar hung above the CRT TV that notates significant dates in the family’s lives. Each detail, no matter how meaningful or insignificant, establishes and effectively reinforces Devotion’s disconcerting sense of familiarity. This nuanced sense of place ensures that whenever your eyes are averted elsewhere and the apartment begins to shift and transcend its limitations–sometimes dramatically, other times subtly–it’s all the more unnerving when you turn around and come face-to-face with a surreal distortion.
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All of these details, from the apartment’s transforming arrangement of rooms, its varying lighting, the tempestuous weather rattling away at the windows outside, and the way the building mutates around you, are all in service of Red Candle’s profound storytelling. The central tale is intimately focused on the family of three, but Devotion manages to weave a tangled web that deftly examines the impact that mental illness, societal pressure and expectations, and religious fanaticism can have on a beleaguered family. For as much as Devotion is about its characters and the fantastic way their development coalesces with that of the ever-changing apartment–with the increasingly dishevelled rooms acting as a poignant metaphor for the family–it’s also about a specific time and place; delving into the role of women in 1980’s Taiwan, feminine beauty standards, the infancy of mental health research and the stigmas attached to it, and the sometimes dangerous faith desperate people will place in religion. Explorations of Taoism and Buddhism might not completely resonate with a Western audience, but the story is told in such a way that it’s relatively easy to read through the lines and understand the awful, heartbreaking extremes people are willing to go to for those they love.
Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games, evokes P.T.’s terrifying spirit to paint an inventive, thought-provoking, and insidious portrait of family life
Impassioned voice acting brings Devotion’s limited number of cutscenes to life, but most of the story is told through the myriad items you gather, read, and manipulate as you traverse through different variations of the family home during 1980, 1985, and 1986. Puzzle solving is relatively straightforward, with any items you find inevitably being used to solve a particular conundrum. All of your interactions are geared towards unravelling the mystery of exactly what happened within the unassuming walls of this family home. A note you found earlier might inform a scene later on, while coming to understand the family’s relationship with one another will gradually evolve the context and meaning of certain trinkets aside from the revelations discovered in its most gut-punching moments. Devotion might be mechanically simple–knowing to put a camera on a tripod isn’t going to wrack your brain, for example–but its strengths come from simply immersing you in a place with an engaging story you’ll want to see through to its conclusion. There are a couple of jump scares, but they feel earned within the oppressive atmosphere achieved through ominous music, sounds, and unsettling imagery, with striking motifs tracing everything back to the family’s shattered lives.
Unlike a lot of contemporary horror games, Devotion also resists the temptation to dabble in frustrating trial-and-error stealth sections or monotonous conflicts with monsters in an attempt to heighten any perceived sense of excitement. There is one regrettable chase scene late in the game, which is undeniably Devotion’s lowest point, but it’s also brief and easy enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. At three hours in length it’s feasible to reach the end credits in one sitting, and that might be the ideal way to experience it. The pacing is almost immaculate aside from a plodding stroll towards the game’s final act, but even this is easy to push to the back of your mind once you’ve reached its stunning conclusion.
Devotion doesn’t quite match the anxiety-inducing frights that permeate each cautious step forward in games like P.T. and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but its domestic terror burrows deep inside your psyche long after the final credits have rolled. The sorrowful story it tells meshes malice with tenderness, metaphor with stark truths, and achieves it all with the nuanced kind of environmental storytelling other games can only strive for. There are moments when it jumps out of the genre completely, surprising you with a sudden tonal shift, and others where the oftentimes clichéd presence of a children’s doll is used to signal a character’s poignant detachment. Everything Devotion does is in service of this story and its character development; you learn about these people’s lives, empathize with their plight, and come to understand their actions, even if you don’t agree with them. Home is where the heart is, and Devotion is a shining example of what the horror genre is capable of.
[Editor’s note: At the time of publishing Devotion is not available to purchase on Steam. The game was pulled by Red Candle Games, which stated this was due to “technical issues that cause unexpected crashes and among other reasons.” The game was also caught up in a controversy surrounding art in the game which looked to be based on a meme of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Addressing this, Red Candle Games said “our team would also review our game material once again making sure no other unintended materials was inserted.” The game is expected to be made available again in the future.]