Even as time marches on and new technologies give us fancier and prettier ways to blow things up on screen, there will always be a relative handful of us who can’t get enough of the old school point-and-click adventure game. Once a staple of late '90s and early '00s gaming, with classics such as Grim Fandango, Blade Runner and Syberia, the genre has found itself continually slipping into obsolescence over the years, with developers opting for high octane gameplay over simple exploration and puzzle solving. So whenever I get a chance to dig into an old-fashioned adventure game, I jump at it. Detention offers the classic gameplay adventure fans have come to love, but wraps it up in an ambitious, daring story that takes place in a surreal, unsettling world.
Set in 1960s Taiwan, during the height of the White Terror (a period of 38 years of martial law designed to crack down on political dissidents, which the game draws on heavily for its narrative), Detention focuses primarily on a high school senior named Fang Ray Shin as a typhoon bears down on her school, trapping her and fellow classmate Wei alone overnight. As a series of events separates the two, Ray later awakens to find herself in alone in the auditorium, her only companion dead, the world around her transformed into a nightmarish landscape haunted by spirits known as the Lingered. In order to escape she must uncover the truth of what’s happened by gathering clues, solving puzzles, and avoiding gruesome death.
Like any point-and-click adventure, Detention’s gameplay revolves around exploration of the environment to find clues and objects to further your progress. As you move throughout the school, you’ll find yourself blocked at various points, tasked mostly with unlocking doors through a variety of means. The gameplay stays fairly conventional through most of Detention’s four hour run, though at times, especially near the end, it departs drastically from established formula, throwing more complex mechanics into the mix requiring some non-linear problem solving.
Shh, Don’t Breathe
Whereas Detention’s point-and-click mechanics may feel a bit stale by genre standards, its survival horror aspects are much fresher, more innovative. Throughout the game Ray comes across several Lingered, ghostly spirits that stalk the halls and attack anyone who crosses their path. As this is an adventure game, you’re not at liberty to dispatch these specters in any reliable way. Your only hope is to make yourself so still and quiet that they simply don’t notice you. It’s not just enough to stand motionless, as Ray must also hold her breath when the Lingered get too close, divert her gaze or try other tactics, lest she disturb them. The careful will find various clues scattered about that hint at how to deal with the various Lingered, and the careless will die. While it’s possible to escape if spotted in some instances, most of the time it means an instant death. Thankfully the game gives you a few alternative means to make bypassing the Lingered easier, such as food offerings that can distract them for a brief time.
This aspect of the game could have easily become rote and boring, had it been too frequent or consistent, but thankfully it is neither. You may go half an hour without seeing a single Lingered, or you may encounter several in just a few minutes, sometimes right as you cross into a new room, activate a switch, or perform one of a dozen different actions. This works to create a feeling of anxiety that never lets up and allows the environment and your imagination to become your biggest enemy, always wondering what is around the corner.
Detention relies heavily on its environment to generate much of the tension and anxiety present throughout, and to that end uses some attenuated, hand-drawn graphics with a muted and oppressive color palette, with occasional pops of super-saturated color to great effect. It makes for a wonderful aesthetic, a world that simultaneously feels real but paper thin, as if you could poke your finger right through it.
The 1960’s setting isn’t just window dressing, either, as the game does a wonderful job of recreating a convincing retro style that was apparently universal throughout that decade, be it Taiwan or the United States, while also drawing on elements more unique to Chinese culture, mythology, and religion. For most western players it is sure to create an atmosphere that is at once recognizable and completely foreign, and this is certainly intentional.
As you progress, the reasoning behind the visual choices becomes apparent, as most every design choice in this game works in conjunction to push a single narrative revelation that feels tantalizingly close but forever out of reach all the way until the payoff. I’ve never been much of a fan of most lo-fi graphics in indie games because, all too often, they seem more like the result of budget constraints and not actual artistic inspiration. Detention is one of the few exceptions, having struck me throughout as favoring the exact art design that Red Candle Games would have gone for regardless of resources, and the end result is something that is both minimalist and mesmerizing.
I Am You, You Are Me
I honestly wish there was more I could say about this game without giving away key aspects of the experience. Detention likely will not win over many people who aren’t already fans of either survival horror or adventure games, and that’s a damn shame. While the game has some pacing issues, and a few puzzles can only be described as having illogical solutions you’ll mostly come to simply through attrition, this game is a triumph.
Detention presents a compelling mystery that touches on culturally sensitive and even taboo subject matter, with innovative gameplay, fantastic art direction and a narrative payoff that you’ll remember for years to come, no matter which of the multiple endings you receive. If you weren’t a fan of the genre before, this is the game that should change your mind. If it doesn’t, nothing can.
10/17/2017 Ryan Hartmann