'Devotion' Mines Genuine Emotional Terror From a Familiar Source: Home
Red Candle Games' latest is an effective, emotional trip through one family's nightmare.
All images courtesy Red Candle Games
Content warning for light discussion of violence and other horror themes, including abuse and death. Very light story spoilers ahead.
Like so much great horror, Devotion—the latest from Red Candle Games, creators of Detention—knows that some of the scariest and most truly fucked up stuff happens at home. It happens among family and friends and mentors, maybe even among well-meaning family and friends and mentors. It occurs both in plain sight and behind closed doors, in the inner sanctums that are supposed to be a person’s safe place from the terrors and toils of the rest of the world. Domestic spaces, thanks to their inherent emotional weight, are absolutely scary as hell.
The game uses this domestic terror to craft a tale that is often creepy and even more frequently sad. It weaves many threads about family, childrearing, religious devotion, and career success into a dense narrative that puts the player in the position of Du Feng Yu, a screenwriter who lives with his wife, ex-singer/movie star Li Fang, and his daughter, Mei Shin, in 1980s Taiwan.
Taking inspiration from other domestic horror-adventure games (like P.T. and Layers of Fear), it bears the usual mechanical hallmarks of a first-person “walking simulator” with puzzle elements. For most of the game, you don’t actively fight or hide from any monsters/ghosts/demons, but you certainly encounter terrifying things as you traverse the Du family residence across three different time periods: the same house in 1980, 1985, and 1986. Importantly, things change on you—the arrangement of rooms, the objects around you, and perhaps… other presences… shift and stir at certain times. Sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. But instead of being used for shock value alone, these changes fit into the puzzle structure and bolster the game’s creepy (and deeply sad) themes.
That is, the things in the room don’t just change to freak you out, they change to freak you out and tell the disturbing tale of what happened here, and what that felt like for those who had to endure it. There are perspective shifts in this game that are brilliant and wild, gameplay segments that jump entirely out of the genre, welcome tricks of lighting and setting and tone that make the house feel alive with pain, yes, but also with a whole mixed well of emotion. The Du family goes through some serious shit across 1980, 1985, and 1986. There are career setbacks. Money problems. Illnesses. Pressures and pulls that come from family, from gender expectations, from the simple, frustrating weight of being a person in the world.
The game does so much with motifs, particularly doll iconography. Simple, terrifying, 3D doll models are used to perfect effect throughout the game, as stand-ins for game characters and representational symbols alike. Before she married, the mother, Li Fang, was a famous movie star and singer, known for her talent and beauty. Mei Shin is a young girl who aspires to her mother’s stardom, via singing competitions. The doll allusions are obvious, yes, but effective, both in making the connection to feminine beauty standards and being creepy as hell when used as they are here.
There are other objects you encounter again and again as you go through the house’s many iterations. Religious statues. A massive CRT TV, perhaps playing Mei Shin’s singing competitions as she rises to her own version of stardom, just like mom. Pills. Pin-ups. Tulips. Scripts discarded by Feng Yu, most of which you can read. Objects and knick knacks with evolving meanings as you come to understand the family’s relationship to one another. As they understand what they’re doing with each other, and to each other as time goes on.
With the scripts especially, you get a sense of Feng Yu’s career downfall. His stories have gotten weirder and more personal. There’s a lot of weight here on storytelling value and creative life, and the unique pressures that fall on people who have to perform (or write great stories) for a living.
But the strongest thread throughout Devotion, the one that complicates the Du family’s life on multiple dimensions, is his faith. His slavish devotion to one deity, Cigu Guanyin, who he believes will solve all of the family’s problems if he proves faithful enough. It’s heartbreaking. And Devotion goes all the way with it, pulling no punches in its depiction of someone willing to do anything for their family, including some truly disturbing acts. I won’t spoil anything, but Devotion’s final act goes places—but all of them are earned by the amount of character development that came before. I believed Feng Yu was willing to do these things. I believed why. And still, I can’t get these images out of my head.
I do wish we got a bit more of Li Fang’s perspective throughout the story. She’s presented as a successful star who gives up a lot in order to try and be an ideal wife and mother, and she gets a pretty raw deal in return. But her story, as opposed to Mei Shin’s and Feng Yu’s, is presented in snippets—a phone call with her mother here, a radio interview there, a flashback here. It would’ve been a strong choice to give her voice a bit more weight in the story, seeing as she is one of the three major players here.
With that in mind, this is still an very rare adventure game I plan to go back and play through, at least some sections, to see if I missed anything. Some clue that gives more context to Feng Yu’s faith-as-madness. Another pass at the 1986 house after its final (I think) transformation. Any last scrap I can find to tell me more about these characters I’ve had such an intense experience with over the game’s 5-ish hour (for me, anyway) playtime. I feel like I know these people, so thoroughly have I combed through their lives. I’ve walked in their shoes. I’ve gone through some really fucked up things with them.
I feel like I know them and know this house, and all the nightmares that lurk in the walls. It’s a scary, sad, messed-up place. And I’m very grateful for the stay.