The moment where I knew Devotion had me was when I walked through a red door to an apartment, only to find that I was in the same apartment the game plops you into at the start. Only this time, it was different. I walked around the apartment, retrieving packed away bowls and other household items. In placing them where they belonged—like say, a drying rack—the rooms transformed into lived in spaces again. Sounds emanated from the walls. I was restoring the apartment to life, or at least a time period's version of it. Little did I know, each trip through this apartment would be unique.
In Devotion, you play as Feng Yu, a screenwriter and father navigating different chapters of his life. He has a wife, Li Fang, who used to be a famous idol and actress before she quit to start a family, and a lovely daughter named Mei Shin, who also has great aspirations. Something isn't quite right though, as you quickly begin to discover.
Similar to Gone Home, it has you navigating your family's apartment, uncovering what went wrong and learning about the family's history. But how it unravels is much different, having more in common with P.T., the playable teaser for the now-defunct Silent Hills project from Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro. P.T. may have vanished from PSN, but its legacy lives on in loads ofr remakes and spiritual successors., but its influence is at its most twisted and fresh from within Devotion.
In Devotion, you explore your family's apartment through miscellaneous years in the 1980s. You find clues to solve not very intricate puzzles (they're a step down from the morbid logic in Detention, Red Candle's first game); you read notes, medical records, and school reports. You listen to conversations on the phone. You watch the television of your young daughter singing on a show. Music and sound is what lulls you into Devotion, and it's the unsettling imagery and environment that glues you.
Over the past few days, you've likely seen Devotion's name in headlines. Yesterday, the drama culminated in Red Candle Games plucking its own game from Steam (or its publisher removing it, it's still unclear), in addition to deleting some of its social media accounts and cleaning out any mention of Devotion from its YouTube page—which still hosts trailers for its previous game Detention. Red Candle Games was worryingly trying to make it seem like Devotion never existed, or so it seemed.
It's a bit of an overcorrection, but one that protects its team, as they're taking pause to reflect its future business and do another run of QA on Devotion in case any other "unintended materials" are present like the Winnie the Pooh reference. For those in western continents, the response has been widely one of confusion and anger; most seeing it as a sleight against the international notion of free speech. It's not the first time something of this nature has happened.
With China's propensity for censorship, the country is known to ban or censor anything related to dissent against the government. Just last year, after China abolished term limits for its presidents (meaning Xi Jinping can now be in office indefinitely), China censored phrases online like "I oppose," "animal farm," "disagree," and "personality cult" to halt the backlash.
From hashtags, to entire websites like Twitter, to memes, censorship is abundant. The latter is where the controversy surrounding Devotion lies. On a fulu (a supernatural talisman) in the game, a twist on the popular Winnie the Pooh meme poking fun at president Xi Jinping was discovered, which roughly read "Winnie the Pooh Xi Jinping Moron" on a seal, surrounded by characters with swear words. After backlash, Red Candle Games removed the meme, noting that it was initially placeholder art that slipped through. The Winnie the Pooh meme gained traction years ago on social media channels like Weibo, with the popular character being compared to Xi Jinping. Winnie the Pooh was outright banned in the country as a result—the character's appearance in the recent Kingdom Hearts 3 even censored out with an awkward blur.
Devotion isn't under fire from the Chinese government directly though. It's facing backlash from the country's netizens. Even with Devotion being taken down from Steam, some have turned their ire to Detention's Steam page to review bomb it. "Excellent art should never be polluted by politics," one review reads. Another outlines how character names have been interpreted, specifically an evil character only revealed in the ARG leading up to Devotion, as an insult to mainland Chinese.
On Reddit, a Chinese player outlined how popular Detention was in mainland China, and the accidental easter egg in Devotion felt like a betrayal to the audience, "The game was actually beloved by the Chinese community during the first two days after the release, the top entries in many social media. When Mainland China players discovered those Easter eggs, it was regarded as a big slam to those who liked and supported Red Candle for a long time, not to mention the conflict between the supporters and resisters of the unify. This is regarded as equivalent to say 'those who purchases our game is indeed idiots' to mainland China players. [sic]"
A resounding trend with the pushback is that of betrayal, in addition to sentiments that arguments for Taiwan's independence and other "politics" have "no place" in a video game. Others are just worried this will lead to Steam being blocked in China officially, period.
Others online have offered counter interpretations, such as the daughter's name Mei Shin being homophonic in Minnan dialect, closer to "superstition"—something that fits in neatly with the narrative. Others have said that the controversial ARG character's name isn't mocking mainlanders and can be interpreted as something else entirely; elsewhere the name Baozi appears in a newspaper and has been thought to be another meme-related insult on Xi, but is actually a nickname for someone on the developers' team. The support for Red Candle Games has spread wide, with many across the games industry at large posting in support of the developers. Some have even started a small scale hashtag movement on Twitter with #CandlesNeverFade.
It's murky context for a title following up one of the most overtly political adventure-horror games in recent memory. In its 1960s-set predecessor Detention, Red Candle Games recontextualized the real-world horror of the White Terror period (1947 to 1987), wherein thousands of Taiwanese were executed for perceived or actual opposition to the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang. 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned and tried during the era, with the execution toll still being uncertain but many believing it is much higher than the approximate 3,000 estimate. Taiwan was under martial law for nearly half a century around this time, and was once the longest under it before Syria surpassed it.
Much like Detention, Devotion unabashedly meditates on Taiwanese culture, and how families deal with success, failure, sickness, and ultimately mental illness. As you come to expect in seeing the ruined apartment, things don't end well for the family, and Devotion leads you on a journey of finding out how and why.
Devotion may bill itself as horror, but it's primarily a family drama with horror elements. You live through the hardships of having a sick daughter, and not knowing what to do to help her. You live through career stumbles, buying into an unsavory cult. In brief sequences as Mei Shin, you observe the father figure, maybe peering through a peephole in a wall and making noises to distract him, or trying to calm yourself down when you can hear your parents arguing loudly just a room over. Devotion may bare its own cultural resonance, but its story and themes are universal.
Luckily, it sounds like Devotion won't be offline forever. It's still a uncomfirmed as to whether it will come back to Steam, or some other platform in its place. (Some have pointed to Epic Games Store, which has no review section to avoid review bombing, but Tencent also owns a 40 percent stake of the company, making it unlikely.) For now, it's floating on the hard drives of those who heard the word of mouth hype for Devotion bright and early, or, like me, loved Detention back in 2017. Devotion is equally heart wrenching and captivating, once again showing the gaming world that horror's at its best when its grown at home, and has something to say.