As it stands, if you don’t already own Devotion , you can't play it. The game, developed by the Taiwanese team Red Candle Games, is no longer on Steam. This is maybe, hopefully, temporary. But at this moment, it's a game mired in mystery and controversy, a messy geopolitical situation threatening to overshadow what is also a brilliant videogame.
Devotion , the second game by Red Candle, is a quiet, sad horror game about a small family, a sick child, and a cult. Set in Taiwan in the 1980s, it's a minimal, focused experience, taking place largely inside one small apartment. As the game progresses, the space changes and shifts, opens up and closes off, becomes dense with memories and terror. Devotion gives the player an opportunity to uncover a disturbing but emotionally realistic family history, one inch of apartment space at a time.
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Yet it is also a game that has been, perhaps improbably, at the center of an international political firestorm, banned from Steam in China, scrubbed from much of Red Candle Games' social media, and as of earlier this week, pulled from Steam internationally for another pass at quality assurance that may, or may not be, related to the game's political dimensions.
The centerpiece of the controversy is a small talisman in the game (now removed, and claimed by the developers to have been placeholder art), with text reading, roughly translated, "Winnie the Pooh Xi Jinping Moron," referencing a meme connecting the cartoon bear with China's president, Xi Jinping. The meme is considered an unlawful criticism of the president and is not allowed in China. References to the meme are scrubbed from Weibo, the country's largest social media network, and have caused Winnie the Pooh to be banned from the country entirely. Devotion 's inclusion of the meme, even as a throwaway placeholder, caused players in China to review-bomb the game , something that eventually expanded to the point that it disappeared from Steam.
It's a conflict that's further exacerbated by the relationship between Taiwan and China. The Chinese government considers Taiwan a breakaway province, while the Taiwanese government and many of its citizens consider it a sovereign nation of its own. Taiwanese independence is a hot-button issue in both places, and for a Taiwanese game released in mainland China, then, even subtextual forms of advocacy can come under heavy scrutiny. Amid the controversy, Red Candle Games's Chinese publishers have cut ties with the company , and discussion of the game is now banned on Weibo.
Is Devotion a political game? That's not an easy question to answer. It's a game concerned with superstition, devotion to false causes, and the destruction that those dynamics can cause. One could certainly see how those themes could apply politically. And Detention, the developer's previous title, is starkly political, a horror game set during Taiwanese martial law in the 1960s. But in its brief runtime, Devotion is far more concerned with the intimate, the personal, than the overtly political, leaving those undertones to be teased out by audience interpretation instead of outright textual statement.
Devotion is now impossible not to see doubly, as both a brilliant piece of familial horror and a story of backlash and political misunderstanding.
What Devotion tries and succeeds at doing is use its focus on limited space and a small cast of characters to breed fascination and unease. The way the game unfolds almost entirely in a single apartment is reminiscent of PT , and pulls the player into a mind-set connected to its characters. As the family at the game's center becomes embroiled in cult ritual, so too does the player become embroiled in crossing through this small space at multiple points in time, solving puzzles with a sort of ritualistic fervor, as if, by putting things as they should be, the player can unlock a path toward a more promising future. It's a game that speaks to familial trauma, the way homes can become places loaded with danger and tragedy, the past baked into the walls.
Could a home be a nation, and could the trauma be broader, and more charged, than a simple family drama? Of course. And Devotion is now, even more than it would have been otherwise, impossible to divorce from that context, impossible not to see doubly, as both a brilliant piece of familial horror and a story of backlash and political misunderstanding. Red Candle Games has denied that it had any political intent with the game, but it will always be there because of this, lurking around the edges.
This is especially true if the game does not return to Steam. Now it runs the risk of becoming a game more like PT than it first appears, a game rendered inaccessible by situations far beyond the scope of its existence as an interactive piece of art.
That's a shame, because Devotion deserves to be experienced. If and when it returns to a sellable platform, I absolutely recommend it. And if it doesn't, then it's still a game worth reading about, and considering as a victim of its circumstances. Like the family at its center, Devotion is a precious thing caught in a net of complex social forces. And as for the family, one can't help but hope for freedom for Devotion .
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