Devotion, from Taiwanese indie house Red Candle Games, is a game made up of hallways. That sounds mundane, as if I’m constantly just walking from one place to another, endlessly and forgettably. But every hallway in Devotion is its own little hell. Their lights flicker; some are covered in vines, or stained with mysterious, fresh blood. And I can’t run down any hallway, nor do I ever try to escape from them. In Devotion, all I can do is move forward toward the promise of greater horrors.
There are no traditional horror trappings here, like zombies or serial killers. Devotion weaponizes the mundane. It takes plain hallways, layers them with mood, and strings them together into a game. Each space is its own uniquely fashioned torture. I worry less about a surprise awaiting on the other side of the door or in a corner, since this game lacks jump scares. Instead, I’m afraid of what will happen to me should I walk further and further down a bleeding hall.
It is 1980s Taiwan. I am a member of a Taiwanese family that has long been torn apart by rejection, illness, and forfeited dreams. For the majority of the game, I am Du Feng Yu, the patriarch of this trio; he is a screenwriter who fights with his wife, Gong Li Fang, over her insistence that their daughter, Mei Shin, continue her legacy as a talented singer. Mei Shin soon falls ill, and Feng Yu becomes obsessed with finding a way to help her — and with a religious, cultish figure who suggests he has a nonmedical cure.
But the supernatural stuff comes later. At the beginning, I’m sitting in front of an old television in my living room. I can hear my wife making dinner. Everything is normal, and yet, of course this is a horror game. Because while I can’t yet move to explore the house in this first scene, I can see a long, curving hallway, with doors just slightly cracked along the pallid walls.
That hallway serves as the location of most of Devotion’s puzzles, which combine a lot of walking with a lot of pointing and clicking.
Along the way, I learn about the tension of the family, communicated through an assemblage of notes I pick up through numerous iterations of my home. I spend the game traveling between four periods in the family’s life, scavenging for hints of their fate by way of objects, photos, and letters. In the 1980 version of the family home, husband and wife share a bed in a modest room full of pictures of the wife’s past. By the late ’80s, that bed is gone, as are the pictures; the light has left their eyes.
It must be said that there’s no easy way to play Devotion right now. Not long after the game’s mid-February launch, a group Chinese Steam users flooded its page with negative reviews. The review bombing was a reaction to a reference to a meme about that compares the Chinese president to Winnie the Pooh. The joke — strictly condemned by the Chinese government — was hidden in the games’ assets.
As a result, developer Red Candle Games removed Devotion from sale in order to scrub the game of the offending note, as well as to address technical issues with the game.
”The whole team of Red Candle Games bears the responsibility of this awfully unprofessional mistake,” a message announcing the temporary removal reads. “It is not Red Candle’s vision to secretly project extensive ideology, nor is it to attack any person in the real world.”
As the game remains all but erased from digital storefronts, questions of its future remain. Will Devotion be limited to those lucky enough to snag it before it went offline, an unplayable cult favorite akin to P.T.? Or will the game break free of the internet archive, so that horror fans may have a chance to experience Devotion for themselves? Here’s hoping for the latter, and soon.
The environment conveys pieces of the narrative, but the puzzles themselves do a nice job of illuminating the cloudy backstory. A lock on Mei Shin’s closet in a later version of her home, for example, can only be solved by revisiting the past, so that I can experience a memory of Mei Shin’s that reveals the code.
Devotion is a game that’s more than just fetching keys, clues, photos, and other effects to unravel the family’s depression and subsequent destruction.
The scares are subtle, but no less unsettling. At times, dolls will appear in previously empty rooms to represent the family members on a second visit, their unfeeling eyes leering straight ahead. Eerie noises emanate from the walls. I remember hearing dogs bark endlessly in the family kitchen, but there was never a dog to be found. The program on the TV loops as an announcer leaves viewers with bated breath, tallying the final scores of a hugely popular singing competition that forever haunts its loser, Mei Shin, whose mother pushed her daughter to take up her mantle as a famous songstress.
This isn’t cosmic horror or an excuse for jump scares. Devotion’s horror is more pronounced and intimate than that of most of its contemporaries. The different years’ versions of the house change as I move between them, based on the pieces of the family’s lives that I’ve come across. Every time I revisit it, new decorations appear, sometimes small, sometimes much larger. The living room may have been rearranged. The family’s pet fish may suddenly be dead, even though he was alive and well the last time I visited that year. I may find that Mei Shin’s room becomes increasingly cluttered with drawings and photos of her mother when she was younger, still a famed singer, in one period; after picking up a note in an earlier period that talks about Mei Shin’s mysterious illness, I’ll return to the previous version of her life and find it even more claustrophobic — or, worse, empty. Perhaps I’ll find blood on the walls.
The unknown of what I may encounter at every turn is what drives me through Devotion, perhaps more so than the story itself. As it’s told in a mostly nonlinear fashion, the story is not the most easy to parse, even if delving into it is compelling. I didn’t manage to collect all of the nearly 40 backstory-revealing notes before hitting the game’s climax, nor did I think, at the time, that doing so would matter as much as it turns out to. I missed out on some needed context to the game’s higher-level themes and backstory, particularly surrounding religious cults in this repressive Taiwanese society, which have a strong resonance in the game’s abstract ending.
There’s plenty of nightmarish imagery populating that last half hour of the game to keep me going and, ultimately, to put the final pieces together. But these levels highlight that Devotion’s story is perhaps more convoluted than complex. An enemy surfaces with minimal context; their relationship to Du Feng Yu is mostly explained through collectibles. To hinge a conclusion so much on heady themes (like the divisive nature of spirituality and religion) when the previous hours of the game are more devoted to untangling the whats and whys of the Du family itself feels like a quick-turn change of pace.
Devotion is beautiful and mesmerizing, contorting mundanities into menaces. Transforming a simple story about a family into something so haunting and complex is what keeps me trudging forward — even as my fear of the truth grows with every step I take. Though I’m always afraid to, I still make it to the other end of the hallway, knowing that I’m already steeped in the mounting horrors that this game so successfully provides.