Detention, a 2D psychological horror game originally released on PC and PS4 and out now on Switch, unfolds into one of the most unique horror games I’ve played. As it elegantly blends religious and thematic East Asian references with modern aspects of the mid-20th century, Detention offers a glimpse of not just life during that period, but its effects on domestic culture in that time. The crux of its story doesn’t rely on its historical setting; rather, it lives in the smaller details like newspaper clippings, photographs and ticket stubs. It’s the rare game that I’ve found both unnerving and educational at the same time.
Set in 1960s Taiwan, the game takes place during the White Terror, a period of civil suppression and unrest under the Chinese government. Free speech and open criticism are severely restricted, if not forbidden. You play as two high school students, Wei Chung Ting and Fang Ray Shin. They don’t appear to know each other, but both try to escape their school after waking up to find it empty. Something seems off — the river appears to be full of blood, and malevolent spirits are roaming the grounds. Their world is now drab, relatively colorless and gray. It’s a haunting, ominous atmosphere that struck me on a personal level.
After seeing my first “monster,” I thought of the ghost stories that my mom used to tell me. To escape detection from a ghost, you have to hold your breath as you pass it. It’s a similar mechanic here with avoiding enemies: don’t breathe, and don’t make eye contact with them when they come close. These kinds of stealth movements are a core part of the gameplay, and they make a tense experience that much more unnerving.
Detention has no combat; there are mythological demons and creatures to avoid, but a lot more mysteries to unravel. And those mysteries are mostly contained within the school, where you spend time discovering its new areas, picking up clues and triggering flashbacks to piece together what happened. As more of the school opens itself up, so do Fang and Wei’s memories. But the further you go, the more warped your surroundings become.
Making progress made me feel like I was falling down a rabbit hole; towards the end of the game, I couldn’t help but think of Alice: Madness Returns. This too, is a journey into the depths of someone else’s psyche. There’s something voyeuristic about plunging into someone else’s mind and watching the scenery morph. Everything changes as you learn more about Fang. Fond memories are shrouded in neon, galaxies of color. But at any moment, a sparse, black and white school auditorium could morph into a stage spotlighting an execution or murder. A kitchen in disarray leads into an elaborate maze of doorways or a hospital wing.
Detention never demands pre-existing knowledge of Taiwanese or Chinese history in order to communicate its message. I had a vague understanding of the tension between Taiwan and China that came after Japanese occupation: Reading unapproved books from the government could land you in jail. Openly criticizing the government could do the same, if not warrant execution. You’ll see flashes of strangers in cells with bags over their heads in the school basement or hanging nooses. But like the game’s usage of color (or lack thereof), these disturbing images and incidents are used sparingly but powerfully.
While Detention feels a bit slow-moving at first, it hits its stride as you uncover more of why you’re stuck in the school. The historical context is what makes Detention so haunting — these are stories and memories that could’ve come from anyone in the White Terror era. It provides a perspective unique to the horror game experience; it doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares or piles on the gore. It uses elements of truth to evoke fear. Diving into visualizations of the human psyche and watching its bad memories? Now that’s unsettling.