Content warning for violence against children and domestic abuse. Some story spoilers for the game ahead.
For a genre ostensibly rooted in powerlessness, horror rarely places the player into the role of somebody who is truly powerless. Though most horror games have selectively disempowering situations, there is almost always a way to triumph. While the streets of Silent Hill echo with the smacks of flesh monsters, the beasts are as vulnerable to bullets as any antagonist. Even in the Amnesia series, which removes violence as an element of player agency, the narrative still offers the player a form of triumph in the end. The screams are prelude to the same thrill of victory that fuels so many of gaming’s escapist fantasies.
Detention, a terrifying and bleak horror game by Red Candle Games, asks a far tougher question: Is there anything scarier than tasting freedom and happiness, then finding yourself completely powerless to keep them? It’s not afraid to answer, either, with a resounding no.
Detention tells the story of Fang Ray Shin (Ray for short), a Taiwanese schoolgirl growing up during the White Terror period following Taiwan’s breakaway from mainland China. From 1949 to 1987, Taiwan operated under a state of martial law marked by brutal crackdowns on anti-government activity and a ban of Communist texts and other writings deemed unacceptable by the government. Thousands of people were arrested. Hundreds more simply “disappeared.”
In the game, Ray’s personal hell is carefully constructed out of her cultural surroundings and personal circumstances, thereby communicating the multiple sources of her suffering.
No single foe is to blame for the tragedies in Detention. Instead, a multitude of structural, and therefore unkillable, societal circumstances conspire to damn Ray, rendering her—and by extension the player—powerless.
The game largely takes place in a dilapidated version of Ray’s school, with spirits wandering the halls and Taoist symbols decorating the otherwise ordinary classrooms. The game provides Ray with no means to fight back against the supernatural forces she encounters. Instead, she is forced to avoid the lingering ghosts by holding her breath. Yet, even Ray’s means of evasion emphasizes her powerlessness against the foes she encounters. Ray can only hold her breath for so long, and while she’s holding her breath her movement slows dramatically. This leads to tense moments as she creeps past shrieking spirits, the screen slowly losing focus until she’s forced to breathe, regardless of the consequences. The penalty for detection is often a piercing scream, a momentary chase, and a quick death.
At first, Ray’s school seems to be fairly analogous to the Otherworld in Silent Hill or the abandoned temples in Fatal Frame. It seems to be in limbo between reality and the spirit world, mixing the mundane with the ethereal. However, the setting also ensures that the player is trapped, not by cultist magic or generic ghosts, but by the White Terror, both physically and metaphorically. One of Ray’s teachers, Instructor Bai, was a former soldier in the Taiwanese military known to be “a relentless killer during the war.” Despite rarely appearing in the game, his presence, and by extension the government’s, is ubiquitous.
One of the first notes Ray finds reads, “Due to our ongoing war with mainland China, instructor Bai is asking students to rat out anyone who may be pro-Communist or show signs of treachery. There are big rewards for informants.” This note is found plainly hanging on a bulletin board next to bits of school minutia. Even school kids are tools of the state to enforce ideological conformity. Ray’s everyday school experience is haunted by government agents that could—at any time—whisk anyone away for a perceived offense. In some ways the ghostly children that linger in the halls of the abandoned school are preferable to other students: at least you know where the ghosts stand.
In addition to the oppressive setting, the White Terror also creeps into the puzzles that Ray encounters, twisting seemingly standard use-item-on-obstacle gameplay into metaphors and morality plays. One of the game’s first puzzles centers around sacrificing a boy named Wei, a fellow student.
After the game’s prologue, Ray awakens in her school’s auditorium with Wei dead, dangling by his feet above a stage behind her. At first there is nothing to be done for Wei, and ordinary exploration takes precedence. That is until you find a razor blade, a bowl, and a note that reads “the prophecy is revealed when a sacrifice is made with the blood of the innocent.” In order to progress, Ray must turn her blade on a helpless, fellow student. Though the game frames this bloodletting through the lense of an occult ritual, the symbolic weight of turning a blade on a fellow student to get ahead in a broken, senseless world evokes the authoritarian state Ray grew up in. In order to progress, Ray must become complicit in the violence and betrayal that governs the world around her. She is powerless to resist.
Detention continues to blur the lines between reality and symbolism in its frequent use of flashbacks and non-linear level design to emphasize Ray’s powerlessness. Scenes from Ray’s past transition in and out of regular gameplay, leaving you with a better understanding of what led her to wander a haunted school, but with no knowledge of how to escape. The game uses symbolic, emotional, and logical anchors to connect one location to another via inconspicuous doors and hallways. One of the clearest examples of how Detention plays with time and place is how it depicts Ray’s home life.
Even when she returns home, Ray is unable to escape terror. After spending much of the game wandering around school evading ghosts, Ray walks down an otherwise unremarkable hallway and finds a radio. By tuning it, she’s transported to her room. Depending on which radio station she tunes into, she is transported into different moments of her life.
The game demonstrates that the tension in Ray’s broken home is as unsettling as the haunted halls that preceded it. The first radio station on the dial transports Ray to her childhood, where her parents are living in resigned civility: her mother suffering silently as a housewife, her father slipping into alcoholism. In order to progress, she is forced to walk through her dining room, her mom crying at one end of the table and her father drinking at the other. When she doubles back through the dining room, the lights are out and both of her parents are gone; a phantom conflict plays out as bottles fling themselves and chairs slide under their own power. But she’s lived it all before. There is no place where Ray is safe and free to live as she chooses.
At least, that is, until she meets her school guidance counselor, Chang Ming Hui.
Mr. Chang’s introduction stands out for how it expands Detention’s emotional palette. While the game frequently uses decayed and industrial environments coated in gray, olive, and brown to showcase Ray’s depression and anxiety, her guidance counselor’s arrival takes place in a partially-flooded forest with beautiful pink grass. At first he is only a silhouette sitting in a boat, filled in with blinding yellow and sky-blue, a blinding ray of light in a dreary world. He offers escape from the hell that is Ray’s life, and she is elated to find hope of any kind. He quickly reaches out to Ray in a way that is both charming and discomforting: he offers Ray the guidance she needs in the broken world she finds herself, but in doing so oversteps the boundaries of his role as a counselor. Mr. Chang says, “Believe it or not, our society wasn’t always like this…oppressive and cold…Perhaps we should take a stroll down the boulevard on the weekend.” Even when Ray is offered reprieve from her isolation and the crushing weight of society, the sanctuary is tainted. Rather than just receiving guidance, Ray is lured into an inherently imbalanced relationship that she cannot control.
This is uncomfortable for entirely new reasons, placing a young woman under an older man’s thumb. Ray is still powerless, still under the control of another. For Mr. Chang, Ray is a lover. For Ray, Mr. Chang is everything.
There is no happy ending for Ray when Detention concludes, and what sets the game apart is how inescapable that conclusion is. Ray’s plight echoes throughout the game, from enemies to environments to puzzles to cutscenes. The further she progresses, the tighter the noose wraps around her neck.
Yet there is no convenient scapegoat for Ray’s torment: her entire society is complicit in the sin. And so Ray is stuck criss-crossing through time and place seeking an escape that fate cruelty dangles out of reach.
At a moment of bleak understanding Ray herself asks, “Do I ask for too much, is life just a neverending bitterness… or is it all just me?” And divine judgement answers back… yes.