Video game review (?): Detention (spoilers)

The question mark in the title is there because the first thing I have to admit is this: I’ve never actually played this game, only watched it being played in someone else’s videos. How can you possibly review a game you’ve never played? Well, you can’t, really. Video games are made to be played. Part of the point of reviewing them is to tell other people who might play them what that experience is like, and I can’t do that here.

So this isn’t so much a true review as a record of my reaction to the story that Detention tells, and I’ll summarise that this way – this is the only video game I’ve ever seen whose story provoked an emotional reaction in me that wasn’t “well, that was pretty silly” or “well, that was OK, but it’s very derivative some movie or other I’ve already seen.” To me, it seemed both good and original, and combining those two is pretty unusual.

Of course, nothing is ever completely original. Detention is a survival horror game. For anyone who isn’t aware of the genre, the basic idea is that you play a character in some kind of horror scenario – zombies, monsters and so on – but minus the arsenal of weapons, limitless ammunition, hand-to-hand combat skills  and overriding objective of “blast the hell out of these things” that you get in the average video game where you encounter those things. You may have no weapons, or only limited weapons or ammunition. You usually aren’t some kind of highly trained badass either; more of a normal human being, and the point is more “avoid the monsters and survive” than  “shoot them and survive.”

Detention follows that template, up to a point. For most of the game, you’re playing Fang Ray Shin, a 17 year old Taiwanese girl in a 1960s school who (more or less) wakes up to find herself one of only two people in the school, everyone else having supposedly been evacuated because of a typhoon. She quickly finds that she can’t get away from the school and the other character mysteriously disappears. The game is you guiding her around the empty school buildings and slowly uncovering the truth behind what’s going on, whilst avoiding being killed by…well, I’m not quite sure what the things roaming the school are. A sort of cross between a ghost, a zombie and a vampire, I think (I’m not sure if their nature is intentionally kept a bit mysterious, or I just don’t know enough Taiwanese mythology).

The appearance of zombie-ghost-vampires clearly indicates that “the truth” here is a bit more than an oncoming typhoon, and eventually it emerges that actually, this isn’t your school so much as your personal hell. Ray betrayed people close to her to the authoritarian military government of 1960s Taiwan who were then executed or jailed, she committed suicide out of guilt and her reward is being stuck in this place. The player’s choices in the game either keep her stuck in that cycle or free her from it, although since “freedom” appears to mean “wandering the earth as a ghost forever” even the good ending isn’t all that great.

I think the biggest reason I reacted positively to the game was that, despite being a horror game, the scariest thing in it is not the monsters (although they are pretty creepy) or even the setting (although that’s arguably even creepier). The really scary thing is making a terrible decision and then never being able to alter its effects, just live with the consequences. Which after all, is the scariest thing in real life as well. It’s a very existentialist video game; Jean-Paul Sartre, who after all wrote a play about characters trapped in hell by their terrible decisions, would have approved.

The game’s also well written enough to make the central character sympathetic despite her treachery. She is given reasons for doing what she did and didn’t intend the results to be quite what they were. Indeed, overall, the characters are realistic and believable people living at a particular time in a particular place. And, I have to admit, if you started off describing any video game to me by saying “This was made in East Asia and the central character is a teenage girl” my immediate reaction would be “OK, are there bad anime cliches involved in it? Am I going to want to take a shower afterwards, because I’m supposed to regard the underage girl as a love interest or sex object or something?”

That isn’t true here. Ironically, the plot rests on an older character treating Ray as a love interest (and vice-versa), but given the consequences, you can hardly say it’s being approved of. And “Taiwan in the 60s” isn’t exactly a well-explored setting, in the West anyway. My knowledge of Taiwanese history was basically “Oh, the Chinese Nationalists went there after they’d lost the Civil War in 1949. Then it dropped right out of history because Communist China was the major world power and no British people were involved.” (History, as taught in British schools, generally regards things as important if they either involved British people or a major world power, preferably both, and even better if the major world power involved was Britain). So this is a game you can actually learn a little from, if you follow it up. That’s also not that common.

Thanks to Slowbeef, who did the Let’s Play I watched.

 

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