Detention’s Resolution of Taiwanese Martial Law

返校 [Detention] (RedCandleGames, 2017)

Last year, I was thrilled when I heard about a Taiwanese team of developers creating a game set in Taiwan’s martial law period (1940s-1980s). It has sold well, reaching wide English and Chinese-speaking audiences. Though not one of the bigger countries in a USA/Europe context, Taiwan has always had a presence within gaming history, from early RPGs  to more recent titles also addressing Taiwan’s political history.

The gameplay is standard point and click horror with the occasional puzzle. The main character, a female student named Ray, has both a reality and a horror/dream-state world. The player guides her through both. The horror world has motifs of prison, otherworldly monsters drawing from Taoist and Buddhist culture. These motifs, as well as textual documents in the game, contribute towards a sense of unease and repression, partly intended to portray the martial law period. During this period, people were unable to create art freely (literature and film were often repressed in this period), unable to study freely, and people who broke with the status quo could find themselves imprisoned (or worse).

The game’s story is a little cryptic, but it turns out that Ray committed suicide during the martial law period, due to mental stress from a dysfunctional family, and pressure/jealousy from a failed relationship with her high school guidance counselor. Before her suicide, she ratted out an illegal reading group in her school, leading to the imprisonment of a classmate, the guidance counselor and a female teacher.

Since the main action of the game is controlling Ray, keeping her safe, and exploring her alternate reality, the game succeeds primarily as a horror game, and secondarily as historical exposition/exploration. The game shows events related to the martial law such as school propaganda, Ray ratting out a reading group, teachers being taken away by the police. Though these events make sense to use as background for a horror narrative, I would be more interested to see the issues explored in a more nuanced fashion – perhaps looking at why people went with the status quo (as either oppressor or oppressed), or went against it (and faced consequences) – rather than a sort of blanket horror atmosphere.

At the end of the game, it skips into the future, after martial law, where you briefly play as the newly-freed classmate of Ray, who was originally imprisoned due to Ray’s snitching. At this time, the weather is sunny and cheery, the environment, calm. There are no obstacles or monsters in the school.  This historical transition comes off as a simplification of the end of martial law.

I don’t think the developers personally view it this way – they had done lots of research, grown up in Taiwan, etc. – but the ending conveys the sense that of Taiwan being in one of two states: martial law or no martial law – skipping over the intervening periods of transition – creating a gap. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is worth noting as an effect of jumps in time within narratives.

(See http://www.taiwandc.org/twcom/tc31-int.pdf for a news brief from around the time of the martial law lifting).

Policies changed quickly after the martial law lifted – art collectors were eventually able to investigate Taiwan’s history of objects and propaganda. Scholars could study and research events of the war and the previous ruling system. Taiwan became a stable democracy, though favor for the Kuomintang (KMT) party is still relatively high. The KMT ruled during the martial law period, and falls in and out of power with each government election. The remnants of martial law still float amongst Taiwanese society and diaspora.

Despite my criticism I don’t mean to paint the game as ineffective in shedding light on the martial law period. I bring up the criticism as a point of inquiry into how such a setting could be used in other effective ways. According to the many Steam reviews and tweets about the game, non-Taiwanese players learned about a part of history for the first time, and some Taiwanese reflected on the progress of their society. It’s nice for non-Taiwanese to learn about the country, as Taiwan usually only comes up in the news when being talked about relative to US-China tensions, or its odd name in the Olympics. And according to developer interviews, it was their goal to help non-Taiwanese learn about Taiwanese culture in the same ways games from other countries have helped them do the same.

Incorporating ancestors’ experiences into games

In bringing up the issues with martial law as a backdrop, I want to think about how a historical event can be represented in a game by ancestors of those who lived through the event.

How should a person represent an aspect of their ancestor’s history in a game, what should be left in or out? How prominent within the game should the period be? Should it be a direct representation, abstracted, etc?

I think it’s important when doing a reading of a work, or creating your own, that you recognize the limitations of analysis/creation. From analsysis and criticism’s standpoint, a game cannot possibly represent every aspect and view of the causes, events and repercussions of something like martial law – or perhaps any event. As a creator, when trying to make work about a period of time, at some point you just have to focus in some way, rather than trying to cover all your bases.

My feeling of the time period being mostly a background for atmosphere in Detention seems mostly correct based on interviews with the developers, who picked it as it fit a preconceived narrative theme. I personally would have liked a little bit more investigation, characters, etc., but at the same time knowing the challenges inherent in making a game, I can’t fault the developers’ intentions, especially in light of their success at reaching players outside of Taiwan.

And there is a benefit to the ‘time gap’ I brought up earlier – though the game may sharply jump from the time period of martial law to the aftermath, that alone still conveys to a player, “How did Taiwan get from point A to point B?” Even though Detention does not investigate that point, it brings up the point for discussion. And so it makes me think that, we may leave gaps in history or analysis in the works we make,  but if framed carefully, those gaps can become launchpads for players’ further research or interest. The gaps may simplify the process of social change, but gaps are better than no gaps, and I think Detention’s team knew this well. A gap in time does not necessarily imply that the historical transition was “easy”. The choice to end the game this way, I think, is much better than to just end it during martial law. Doing otherwise may have seemed more exploitative of the “Martial Law” aesthetic – purely used to make a horror game and mesh with the main character, Ray. Or, possibly unrepresentative of Taiwan, which was definitely not a goal of the development team.

Loose Ends

Who has free reign over making work of a particular period? That is a sticky question whose answer can’t be easily generalized. I would like to say I welcome investigations by any person of something like the Taiwan martial law. I believe it is much more up to the skill of the game designer, than their ethnic background, to determine whether or not they will do an effective job in investigating the various vectors of history pointing to and from the period.


Related links…

Review – http://www.thestar.com.my/tech/tech-news/2017/02/22/taiwan-white-terror-brought-back-to-life-for-gamers/

Interview – https://newbloommag.net/2017/02/22/interview-detention-game/

Guide to the game’s plot/endings: http://www.oneangrygamer.net/2017/01/detention-game-endings-explained/22848/

Buy Detention here.

 

 

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