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.
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.
Guide to the game’s plot/endings: http://www.oneangrygamer.net/2017/01/detention-game-endings-explained/22848/
Buy Detention here.
If you see this game on the shelf, don’t touch it, don’t even look at it. You would have much more fun spending your money on a dentist appointment.
I implore you to avoid this game at all costs, and play just about anything else on the market with the joy in your heart that you aren’t playing Time and Eternity.
There’s no need to talk about why the game is bad – look at any reviews. If we idealize any popular JRPG form, TE doesn’t stand up to it. I had thought that the game may have been more popular for the original audience in Japan, but a cursory glance at the reviews shows that Japanese-speakers didn’t like it, either. One review title reads something to the extent of “it’s impossible for something to be this shitty”, its first line asking if the 5-star reviews were written by the game’s developers.
A few reviews mention the positives – which I agree with – there are some absurd story beats which end up seeming like pasted-over stories from some writer’s life, cut and past into the fantasy of TE’s world. In the game’s first main arc, you have to defeat the Assassin’s Guild, but you end up running into the Assassin’s Guild Fan Club, which has monthly magazines about the true guild. Some point later on a side quest, you have to remind a journalist walking around a field as to what his job is. As it turns out, he completely forgot his purpose for being there, the main male protagonist even questioning how he can do his job when all he does is walk in small circles.
But what’s more fun, at least for a few hours, about TE, is how the ways in which it is broken point to ideas about JRPGs/games in general.
I get a small sense of “Why on earth do I exist?” from many of the NPCs. Why does any NPC exist? It’s a well-treaded subject, and as I played TE I found myself being able to see the writers behind the game. Because the writing was so flat, the characters so predictable and shallow, it’s almost as if I could see the spreadsheet and outline of plot points and story beats to hit laid bare before me, the game’s mismanagement, tangible.
It makes me question long, 20+ hour games. The game sends you back in time – to fix something – only to have a time paradox erupt and require you to go slightly less far back in time. I quit at the beginning of the second arc. Perhaps this would work in the right hands, but there was no way the game was going to get better, and I didn’t want to play the same thing for another arc, so why bother?
Most long games suffer from repetition wearing thin over way-too-long playthroughs. In this sense, TE made a great choice to have fighting be (a flawed) 1 on 1 system, but made a poor choice to spawn battles every 20 seconds and have most battles require killing 3-4 enemies in a row.
The same wearing thin can occur by separating any of the story beats by hours of fighting, or some other repetitive task. Take Persona 5, which was harmed by dungeons that always went on for an hour or two too long – thus wearing thin its difficult balance between seeing the benefits of the dating-sim aspects of the game influencing your stats in the game’s dungeons. Unfortunately P5 worked just well enough that it didn’t bother most people enough, so I’d assume that for Persona 6, the dev team will probably try to make it even longer!
This points to the popularity of Undertale. Undertale eliminates the long-playtime inaccessibility of JRPGs, and combines and simplifies popular aspects of the genre such as character development, NPC dialogue and battle systems into a 3-5 hour package with enough variance from playthrough to playthrough. Its most interesting setpiece being that its game world, abstractly, is a character with its own development and reactions that you can influence through the battle system.
For the record, I enjoyed both P5 and Undertale but didn’t encounter much new territory from a thematic standpoint, though some of P5’s arcs (and its characters in general) were very fun. TE was terrible across the board, though playing it makes apparent that in many JRPGs I’m going through the motions of the battle so I can just see the next bit of a story. Repetitive area after repetitive area, fighting recolors of 6 enemy types, with a few sidequests and treasures to find before advancing the plot. How many JRPGs are like this, but slightly better and with these mechanical cores harder to see?
As far as shorter playtimes go, from a development standpoint there’s less to worry about in terms of player pacing, and a higher chance players will “See Everything”, or at least get into a position where they can dive deeper into repeated or alternate playthroughs. There’s a lower chance that you’ll wear your story themes or characters thin through repetition or a grating, endless battle system, a higher chance you end up presenting the more interesting ideas by trying to work within a smaller playtime. Does a game really need 40-80 hours to cook and say something interesting? I don’t think so!
Next time: A review of Deidia’s soundtrack, maybe some post-release thoughts on Even the Ocean and intuited limits on the narrative possibilities of games?
Spoilers for FF15.
The best part of FF15 is in the second playthrough or a spoiled first playthrough – it’s a part that you can only experience once given the knowledge of the game’s final arc and what happens to the world (before you save it, of course…!)
FF 15’s main plot consists of 14 chapters.
The first time you play FF15, you spend Ch. 1-8 driving around the open world of Lucis, playing as Prince Noctis, advancing the plot, fighting monsters, character-developing the main cast.
Your time in Lucis, is colored and contextualized by mystery of what will happen to the world and the characters.
Eventually you progress onto Chapter 9. The game becomes linear – taking place not in Lucis, but on a long train trip through the Evil Empire’s country. By the end of the train ride, daytime has vanished, and the Darkness has taken over the world (oh no!).
NPCs and characters worry about this in an unproductive way, not taking action, because of course, it’s a Final Fantasy world and there’s no way a normal person has any ability to affect change – only you, Prince Noctis, do!
What this all leads up to is a huge ‘whoa’ in Chapter 14 – where you end up, 10 years later after separating from your 3 friends, at an early area in the game, alone as Noctis. This area was a pleasant beach resort but is now overrun by a ton of demons. You’ll probably decide to run past them. You end up in a car driven by a character who you encountered as a kid in the first arc. You head back to the first area of the game, surveying the countryside and watching demons run around everywhere, as you talk to this driver about what’s changed, and what hasn’t. Your friends are still alive. The gas station, Hammerhead, where you started the game, is now more or less an outpost for demon hunters.
For all its flaws, I think this progression is pretty brilliant – a logical conclusion to the slow insertion of hopelessness and (on average) reduced sense of power in the player throughout the game’s 2nd arc.
Anyways, you sacrifice yourself and save the world. Hooray.
OKAY SEAN WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF FINAL FANTASY 15??
Now we’re ready to talk about that!
The best part of FF15 is the emotion of inhabiting Lucis’s landscape in your second playthrough, knowing what tragedy will befall it. Viewing its visual spectacles, going on fun hunts with your band of buddies, and still having that colored by knowledge of the world’s future.
It’s the feeling of know that every anxious NPC and person you are talking to, is doing too little, too late. Whether anyone likes it, eventually once you’re on that train, daylight will wane away, demons will grow, people will die. You know things will end up linearly, on a slow train ride through deserts, as the world turns to dark.
As an NPC in the Train Arc says on the radio – the shifts happened so slowly that no one noticed it until the effects were extreme.
Hmm… that sounds familiar…
And I say emotion, because once you drill into it, you realize this is a pretty dumb game overall and the reason that emotion exists is because of a silly fantasy narrative where almost every non-hero is literally Pointless.
The social system the game creates is one in which NPCs have zero power to do anything collectively, except maybe give you money which helps you save the world (oh wait, did I just make an argument for the existence of collective action by NPCs in JRPGs? Hm).
But still, it’s a powerful feeling. You grow to hate the night while playing FF15 – you can’t fast travel, overpowered enemies spawn. And this feeling is accentuated because the entire world and everything positive about it will be lost to that night.
Maybe this parallels our world now – talks of organization against fascism. Of course, our world is different. If people band together, they can do something! We don’t have to wait for a Prince Noctis. Still, those emotions of oh, shit about the future, that perpetually color our air, are worth noting.
It’s worth bringing up a game, Even the Ocean, which has a similar feeling on its second playthrough.
Spoilers for Even the Ocean
Even the Ocean is carefully colored by a silent tone of growing dread, culminating in the ending, where everyone dies. You can completely miss this by playing through quickly or skimming dialogue.
On a second playthrough, things are toned similarly to FF15 – you know the world will end, except in ETO, the world ending is permanent. So you get this sense of dread thinking about how people are idly sitting by or misinterpreting the situation, rather than, it’s a crazy fantasy plot and Prince Noctis and the Gods will swoop in and save it all!
It’s a hopeful, maybe realistic ending, once you drill down – one in which it’s acknowledged that there could have been change, a way to avoid the events of ETO’s ending – had people known to act together earlier.
Thanks to this piece by @eatthepen on jrpgsaredead whose observation about a weird feeling hearing a song play while driving, spurred me on to write this short piece.
If you liked this piece, consider buying Even the Ocean and telling friends about it!
A note on this blog coming back
Decided to re-consolidate things here… Medium was kind of annoying and weird to manage. Website works, but it’s nice to have this stuff working here and it looks like wordpress has decent backup exporting. Plus there’s old stuff here already.
On the blog name, not sure. It’s a term I use to describe my music, and I kind of like the juxtaposition it makes in your head. Blogs need a name, I guess.
Some essays from the time in between: http://seancom.nfshost.com/writing.html
It’s been 3 years since posting on here! Other than that writing, well, Joni and I finished Even the Ocean. Funny that the last post here was “goals of Even the Ocean”. I think we did a good job overall, the best we could. It’s not selling great. Oh well. Bad time to release and everyone wants to write about Hot Dogs 2 and Dishonorable the Second, and soon, This Game Again 15 and etc. (oops i just wrote about it too). We might get more coverage in coming months?
I kind of wish the press or Youtube or Twitch people, would do less talking about spreading diversity and then, uh, stamping it entirely out by never reporting or talking about minority work. I understand the economic issues behind why this isn’t always possible… but still!
A lot of other things happened, but are of less concern to this blog. I guess one main thing is that I now teach at SAIC for the Experimental Game Lab class, in which I taught a bunch of minority work and had students make their own games. I hope to write about that in a few weeks once it wraps up, as well as release course materials (I’ll be teaching it in the spring, too.)