header is screenshot from Halloween Horror 2019
Devotion, Delusion, and Design Honesty
Daniel Fries

This article discusses plot points from Devotion.

A popular device in games is for some antagonist to reveal that the player has been doing their evil bidding by following the game’s commands up to that point. It’s not really a device unique to games—we seem to love these sorts of twists across all kinds of media—but it shows up in them a lot because most narrative games give the player enough agency to assume a role and relate to the rules and context of the story. The illusion, in these cases, is that this agency is on the player’s terms, tied to her real-world agency. The reveal is that the game has compressed the player’s choices to fit within its own narrative. Sometimes this feels ridiculous—How can I have been the murderer all along?—sometimes it’s a gotcha, or part of a larger question about agency in general.

Devotion, by Red Candle Games, departs from this trend by telling the player at the very beginning that the protagonist Feng Yu is deluding not the player, but himself. It is clear from the shifts between alternate versions of his home—one a bright but eerily empty fantasy apartment and the other a dark damp husk of it—that he is struggling with a disconnect between his faith and his reality. Feng Yu, seeking treatment for his mysteriously ill daughter Mei Shin, looks for help not from a psychiatrist but from a cult leader. Against the wishes of his wife Gong Li Fang he spends more and more money on ineffective and dangerous remedies. In her disagreement he sees disloyalty, and responds with aggression and abuse

As a result of the early reveal, the game turns out to be about exploring the nature and extent of that delusion. The player accompanies the protagonist through mounting domestic tension and his moral and financial destruction. The horrible conclusion of the family’s story feels inevitable. In choosing to hide less from the player, Red Candle created a game with an honest emotionality. The horror pushes her into seeing things from Feng Yu’s perspective, while impressing the point that his perspective is deeply dangerous to himself and those around him. He is the character the story is told through, but the player is kept at a fair distance from him, given that more of the game is in observation than in direct action. Proximity to him is part of what frightens. The atmosphere is thick with dread: Each detail or anecdote the player uncovers makes his overconfidence and aggression more repulsive.

Feng Yu looks at his hands a lot. From the first-person perspective, this is used to establish where we are and who we are, like a kind of glance in the mirror (most of which are covered or spookily empty in Devotion). Occasionally, the perspective shifts to Feng Yu’s daughter Mei Shin, which is communicated each time with a similar glance at her hands. In one of these sequences, her parents loudly fight in the other room. Mei Shin’s vision closes in, clenched mouths and teeth visible on the screen, schoolwork layering on top of them. By clacking marbles together in rhythm, she figures out a way to calm her panic attack. This contrasts sharply with the climactic sequence of the game, in which Feng Yu follows the instructions of Mentor Hueh and the deity Cigu Guanyinand—using scissors and a spoon, dramatically destroys his hands and eyes. Up to this point, hands visibly serve as the means through which characters interact with the world—and as a grounding point, consistent between characters.

Near the end of Devotion, the protagonist Feng Yu enters into a trance. The player’s vision is filtered: It’s all a hazy green and purple. Feng Yu walks through a representation of Buddhist Hell, with suffering souls around him crushed by rocks and burned by fire. Eventually he comes to two doors and walks through the unblocked one. This space (among others) feels like something out of a Bloober Team game: The environment shifts and perplexes the player. Hallways lengthen, and the apartment itself is replicated four times as the game jumps back and forth in time through the last years of martial law in Taiwan. The specifics of history don’t play a significant, explicit role in the plot, but they parallel the conditions within the home: A thick fog of paranoia otherwise established through secret debts, overheard conversations, and a peephole. The bathroom door, marked with a stained glass yellow tulip, is constantly locked. The apartment is lit like the home scenes in In Our Time or City of Sadness: Warm pools of light don’t quite fill to the corners of the space. It’s not quite comforting and not quite frightening. Devotion presents perfect family life as nearly attainable—the player and Feng Yu hope for warmth, for a peaceful resolution. The player can never quite walk into the kitchen when it sounds like Gong Li Fang is cooking and singing to herself. One can almost imagine a family living here, but not quite—it’s uncanny.

In some respects, Devotion eschews realism. It is not without cuts in the action, it isn’t an immersive sim, and the hub world of Feng Yu’s apartment lobby lets him move through time, traveling between several versions of his family’s home. He brings key objects back and forth across the years. At the same time, when the player opens the door to reveal Mei Shin’s death, the game ends. In horror stories and in videogames, the body count is usually higher, whether to frighten or to raise the stakes, but aside from the occasional jump-scare, the really terrifying parts of Devotion come from Feng Yu’s dedication to the sham treatment of Mei Shin’s anxiety. He refuses to acknowledge her mental illness and kills her—and the player follows along, watching it happen and have happened in the layered timelines of the story. There’s a long history of unethical treatment of mentally ill people and the story of Mei Shin’s death feels entirely plausible while people continue to fight against vaccines and sell dangerous fake medicine.

Although she only really appears as a possessed ghost to Feng Yu, it’s maybe easiest to imagine and identify with the fears held by Gong Li Fang. The player eavesdrops on her phone call with her own mother and can recognize from the text material that Feng Yu is abusing her and demanding she quit her job to focus on a traditional mothering role. Her struggle is to free herself of him, which she is able to do, but Mei Shin rejects her in favor of Feng Yu, whose obsession with the cult of Cigu Guanyin drives him to kill her.

Devotion was available on Steam for about a week. As is well-documented elsewhere, it was removed after some players discovered a joke about Chinese President Xi Jinping on a supposedly placeholder asset and China revoked the business license of the game’s publisher. Whether it returns to Steam or remains accessible only as recorded playthroughs and previously-downloaded copies, Devotion continues to feel like one of the most relevant and valuable games of 2019. The game warns against abuse of power and the religious, business, and domestic structures in which it manifests. It uses a shifting subjectivity to tell an honest story about darkly realistic topics. It is frightening and earnest—an essential horror.

Daniel Fries has writing about design, AI, and esports that lives at Kill Screen, Heterotopias, and Unwinnable. Find him on Twitter and at dwfries.com