Across the Board Art Culture Stories

Playing a Taiwanese Horror Game with my Taiwanese Mother

When I first began researching to write about Asian American representation in video games, I was immediately faced with a challenge: I couldn’t find any Asian American games to review. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t surprised, but amid a surge in music and film representation for Asian Americans, from 88 Rising to Minari, I was hoping to find something similar happening in my own favorite medium. Unfortunately, the video game industry is still struggling with representation in general. Of the few titles representing Asian Stories in video games, one of the most popular is Red Candle Games’ Detention.

Cover image for Red Candle Studio’s first title, Detention

In his article for IGN, “Asian American Game Developers Are Dreaming of Their Own Minari Moment,” reporter Matt Kim wrote, “Detention, a horror game set in 1960s Taiwan, and made by a Taiwanese studio, came up repeatedly in my conversations with different [Asian American] developers.” In 2019, Red Candle Studios released their second game, Devotion, which up until earlier this year, was unavailable outside of Taiwan. As I called my mother asking her to play it with me, I had a feeling Devotion was the perfect candidate for this article, and over the course of our three-hour playthrough, it turned out to be everything I wanted from modern video games and more.

Familiar Spaces

Nothing really prepares you for the first time you experience a representation of your own life in a piece of media, but that’s what happened when I booted up Devotion for the first time. I saw on the main menu a living room with the same ceramic tile flooring as my grandmother’s apartment, and a wicker chair just like the one in my own living room back home. As I progressed through the game, I stood before the same household shrines I prayed to with my grandmother as a child. I opened the same red metal doors that I had stepped through to see my aunts and uncles the last time I was in Taiwan. As I walked through these familiar spaces, memories surfaced from the last time I visited my Taiwanese family, over half a decade ago.

My mother told me at the end of the game, that she barely paid attention to the story because she kept seeing items from her childhood: school report cards just like her own; daily diary assignments (日记) she wrote in school; advertisements on the wall; newspapers used as placemats, eating dinner in front of the tv, the same way her childhood best friend did. All these memories left my mother with the strong impression of lived experience coming through in Devotion.

A paper tulip grows into a real tulip during my playthrough

“In another game,” she said, “there might be a dragon, and you would go, ‘wow a dragon,’ but you don’t think about why there’s a dragon, or did the creator have some bad experience that made them put a dragon here.” Because the game is telling a uniquely Taiwanese story, my mom was excited and able to engage with it in a way I’ve never seen her do with other stories. She would tell me about every detail in a scene, trying to break down all the culturally significant objects of interest. Even the music in the game is performed by one of my favorite Taiwanese bands, No Party for Cao Dong. Devotion is one of the few mainstream titles representing an Asian experience, so I feel lucky that it is so closely connected to my own identity.

A song by No Party or Cao Dong, featured in Devotion

Overseas Themes

The game takes place almost exclusively within a family apartment, shown in different states throughout the 1980s. Each year is signified by a Chinese New Year decoration on the door, painted with the year’s corresponding zodiac animal. For me, seeing familiar symbols like this was a cool addition, but the impact for my mother was more significant. Storytelling details like this helped her follow the plot and understand what was going on in a way that Western storytelling techniques and symbols couldn’t.

The hallway to the apartment is plastered with Daoist talismans meant to exorcise ghosts

For example, Devotion references three folk tales, connecting its story and religious imagery to Chinese history. One is a folk story from Fujian about the deity Guanyin, another is a children’s book about Aboriginal Taiwanese people, and the final is in reference to the story of Mulian rescuing his mother. Even in the underdeveloped space of video games, there are games referencing Western religious themes, (such as the great visual novel, We Know the Devil), so I was so excited to see Devotion using Chinese mythology as a plot device (and including a story about Aboriginal Taiwanese only makes it more powerful). These inclusions allowed my mother to understand the themes on a deeper level, and hearing her tell me about these stories gave me insight into Taiwanese culture that would otherwise be inaccessible to me.

Mulian travelling to the underworld to free his mother

Devotion tells the story of a 1980s Taiwanese family of three: Du Feng Yu, the father, Mei Shin, the daughter, and Li Fang, the mother. Li Fang is a former actress and recording star, and Mei Shin experiences a lot of pressure from her parents to be a famous singer like her mother. This parental pressure was immediately recognizable as that which my Asian friends from all nationalities and regions have experienced, so seeing a representation of that Asian American experience in its original cultural context of a household in Taiwan was powerful. I saw the traditions and practices underpinning how my friends and I were raised in America.

In one scene, a baby Mei Shin crawls along a red carpet, massive objects swinging back and forth above her head: A massive calligraphy brush; a Chinese government stamp with a tiger carved into the top; a giant abacus; a toy syringe. She crawls past these objects until she reaches the end of the carpet, up some stairs and onto a tiny stage. She stands before a toy microphone and looks out at the lone audience member, her father.

A Taiwanese family practicing zhuazhou on a baby’s first birthday. The item the baby picks up is symbolic of their future.

The practice being represented is known in Chinese as Zhuazhou (抓周): a ritual held on a child’s first birthday, where parents place various objects symbolizing career choices before the child. This practice underpins the expectation of many Chinese parents for their child to repay them in some way for the years of care they provided, whether that means achieving goals they could not achieve in their lifetimes (like becoming a famous singer), or taking care of them when they grow old.

Devotion also critiques traditional Asian views toward mental health. Mei Shin experiences panic attacks throughout the game which are exacerbated by arguments at home and pressure from school and her parents. In one scene, her father refuses to take her to a psychiatrist, yelling, “My daughter isn’t insane.”

I was excited to see Devotion taking part in a discussion about Asian attitudes toward mental health alongside American pop culture phenomena like the film Everything Everywhere All at Once (which has an equally incredible depiction of mental health). As a second-generation Asian American, I only have a fraction of the cultural context needed to understand a lot of Taiwanese media, but this issue is one that is familiar to me, and that I can engage with. Of course, these themes have even more relevance to modern-day Taiwan. Days after we finished playing, my mother sent me a news article about the drummer of No Party for Cao Dong, the Taiwanese band that made Devotion’s music, who had died by suicide in the past year. I was left wondering about the similarities and differences in Asian American and Asian attitudes toward mental health. To what extent is the Asian American experience informed by the history coming from the birthplace of our parents?

Asian not American

As I played through the title, I wondered if this uniquely Taiwanese story in video games mattered as much for Taiwanese people in Taiwan as it did for me. I wondered if it was only powerful for me and my mom because we were separated from our cultural roots.

A temple in Tainan, Taiwan, 2015
From left to right: My grandma, my mom, me

Red Candle Studios clearly put significant effort into localizing for English, but ultimately there are many aspects of this story that are opaque without an understanding of Taiwanese and Chinese history. For example, Devotion’s original Chinese title has a double meaning only revealed after the end of the game (which I won’t spoil), and it could be read as a criticism of Chinese traditionalism and Confucianism, themes fully disconnected from Western culture.

We are shown the terrible consequences of both the father and mother’s traditional beliefs. Mei Shin’s mother places incredible pressure on her. Her father thinks his wife wearing revealing clothing is embarrassing and believes managing the finances is a man’s job (while spending the family into debt buying religious offerings and expensive auspicious fish.) Mei Shin and her father’s love is framed as a tragic but natural part of the parent-child relationship, twisted by a culture that believes a child’s position is to respect and obey their parents, regardless of their parents’ choices. Mei Shin’s love is unconditional, even as both her parents do awful things to her. In this way, Devotion is a complicated interrogation of Chinese history and family values.

Chihiro holds her breath so spirits don’t smell her humanity while crossing the bridge in Spirited Away

Ultimately, Devotion made me see Taiwan, and my own connection to my family differently. Growing up, despite neither of my parents being religious, I was infatuated with Buddhism and Daoism as a way to grow closer to my Taiwanese heritage. I’d always been drawn to Asian religious imagery; I loved movies like Spirited Away for their depictions of Asian spirits and ghosts. But as an American, I’m ultimately detached from the culture and history that defined the meaning of those symbols. My own understanding of these symbols is only aesthetic. As an Asian American, we are often taught to be proud of our cultural background, but Devotion showed a negative side of that background I had never considered, while also revealing deeper struggles in Taiwanese society that I found myself relating to, perhaps more deeply than I had to the images of Taiwan I remember from my past.

Devotion is one of the only mainstream video games by a fully Asian studio telling an Asian story right now, though I am very excited for Game Science’s upcoming Chinese mythology title, Black Myth: Wukong. Devotion isn’t the Asian American title I set out to play, but despite being only Asian and not American, I felt incredibly connected to it regardless. This game raised complicated questions for me about the difference between Asian and Asian American representation, and I hope that in the years to come, Red Candle Studio will be able to light the way for video games by other Asian developers – maybe even something by an Asian-American studio – so that we can explore these ideas further. You can find Devotion (as well as Red Candle’s other game, Detention) on their website.

More Reading

Asian American Game Developers Are Dreaming of Their Own Minari Moment

Sleeping Dogs Is The Best Mainstream Game About Asian American Identity

6 Must-Play Video Games in Honor of AAPI Heritage Month

Photos: Featured Image, Cover of Detention, Hallway in Devotion, Mulian rescuing his mother, Zhuazhou ritual, Spirited Away Bridge Scene

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