Halloween Horror Highlight – Detention
Next up in our month-long Halloween Horror fest, I’m taking a look at Detention from Red Candle Games, one of the most genuinely engaging horror titles of this or any year.
Subverting expectations is what really makes Detention so terrifying an experience. A typical adventure game task is quickly diverted upon the sudden mysterious death of what the player would assume is the main protagonist. But the amnesiac woman figure is in fact the heroine of this gruesome tale, and it quickly escalates into more than just a haunted ground ghost story.
Societal pressure, the fabrics of conformity are what lie at the heart of Detention’s most genuine thrills. Spirits which roam the halls (straight from classic folklore which might be used to frighten children of the dark) are the least of the game’s existential worries, as the surrounding environment has so much more to speak of for itself.
It’s a classic adventure-horror hybrid, but free of conventionalities like a tutorial or item management. The one instance of an introductory lesson is hastily transformed into a nightmarish narrative twist, relieving experienced individuals of any regurgitated trivialities. Detention immediately deserves to be mentioned amongst the likes of both Resident Evil and Silent Hill 2, two series far different from each other in ideology, but their differing design philosophies seamlessly almost blended into a cohesive structure in this recent title.
Taking influence from the old (read: the known) to craft something entirely new: this is Detention’s greatest achievement for it also utilizes this concept to adamantly urge its own arguments regarding the death of traditions. Make way for a progressive new reality, pushing past the concepts of the determined fates of a society’s people, even going so far as to urge the inconsequentiality of wandering apparitions. After all, just hold your breath and act like they aren’t there. One suddenly becomes immune to their very essence.
But the devil is in the game’s details, everything from collectible manuscripts describing the apparitions’ weaknesses and states of being; to odd knick-knacks and pendants that hold a special place in cataloguing the past; to ritualistic modems where progress may be saved.
The two-dimensional arrangement offers both claustrophobic oppression as well as an emphasis on evocative visuals. One of the most haunting images is conjured through psychological implication. A one-two punch, of sorts; an isolated desk sits in an empty classroom; upon exiting and wandering down the hall, the assumed rest of the classroom’s desks lay demolished and piled to hinder the player’s progress forward. If students are literally equated to their educated status within this universe, dehumanized and objectified as the very desks they are forced into for all of their developing Life; then the pile suggests something far more sinister than any literal pile of broken children can conjure.
This design philosophy recalls that of Silent Hill 2; James Sunderland’s descent into the hellscape of his own mind is likewise rife with visualistic insinuation. But whereas that journey is more of a personal affair, in Detention the personal becomes universal, wordlessly commenting on gender inequality and the stress of conformity within Chinese culture.
Rather than aspire to be an historical document, Detention instead transcribes the mere feeling of existing during the unsettling era of White Terror in 1960s Taiwan; a period of governmental suppression spawned by a heightened timely sense of paranoia. Developer Red Candle Games utilize this setting as a means of extracting tension from claustrophobia incited both from level construction and historical significance.
And gosh is it terrifying. I’ve worked through to the halfway point at the time of this writing and not a moment passes where the sheer oppression of its grim, melancholic setting fails to elicit utter psychological dread. There’s such a focus on insignificance within the halls of this existential nightmare, that what Red Candle Games really seem to be commenting on is the very notion that as traditions die out, so too do legends, and thus the consequentiality of individual Life is made obsolete.
Spirits will wander aimlessly, seeking connection where only pain and death follow. Like a shadow to the pavement, or a graded mark on a paper. A Life bound to determined fate is not a Life worth living.
It can be a harrowing experience; but the narrative never forces its negative outlook on mere existence. Instead, the game revels in the uncanny, and the psychological effects resultant of the unexpected and the unknown. The protagonist(s) fail to incorporate much personality besides situational motivation; but this allows them to serve as ideal catalysts for the main arguments regarding the dehumanization of persons and the lasting personal effects. People forever longing for more.
As it stands, Detention is a ritualistic venture plumbing the dark depths of existence. The task at hand quickly turns into a yearning for individuality, a search for the proper meaning of being. When denied the right to be human, as a means of promoting the future of an entire civilization, then people become numbers, not living things. Statistics on a whiteboard for despots to liberally wave their hand over.
This remains the scariest aspect of this bona fide horror gem: the fear of being denied one’s self worth. It’s a game very much worth playing for horror fanatics. So I shall keep this brief and conclude simply with a glowing recommendation. Too often narrative-focused horror titles fail to elicit genuine dread, held back by linearity and a lack of stakes. Detention’s stakes lie within the real-life influences supporting its enigmatic message. The game manages to transcribe genuine fears of an entire nation of people into an interactive experience, complete with its own philosophy, folklore, and nightmarish vision. Which is something to be celebrated, and feared.