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Wot I Think: Detention

Smart, historical horror

Hold your breath, close your eyes and hope that the lingering dead slip by without noticing you. Their tongues bulge from their mouths and they shudder between worlds. Detention [official site] is a side-scrolling point and click game, made by a small team of Taiwanese developers. It's made up of puzzles and very occasional stealth sections, with no combat whatsoever. Despite a heavy dollop of Silent Hill, it's a horror game unlike anything else I've played thanks to the smart use it makes of its historical setting. If you're interested in thoughtful, fearsome games, don't let this one slip by.

Detention is built on a foundation of real life political horror. Set in the 1960s, more than a decade into the 38-year period of martial law known in Taiwan as the White Terror, it's a story of forbidden knowledge. Rather than the eldritch tomes of Lovecraft country, the knowledge here comes from books and ideas that most of us would consider ordinary, but that the government of the time treated as subversive and illicit.

You don't need to know anything about the specifics of the period or the place, partly because there are universal elements to this particular form of control, but also because Detention's writing is strong enough to present necessary information clearly, even when it's not quite clear what is real and what is imagined. This, you see, is a game that is concerned with the history and politics it represents, but that uses them as the scaffolding around a personal nightmare. Like The Devil's Backbone or Under the Shadow, it is a ghost story set against a background of conflict and oppression that bleeds into the haunting.

On the whole, it succeeds. There are two playable characters, switched between as the plot unfolds, and controlling them is a simple matter of clicking on the screen. Despite the 2d plane and lack of depth in the screen, this is more or less a traditional point and click adventure. Puzzles require some backtracking to use newly found inventory items, and you'll never need to keep track of health bars, sanity meters or stocks of ammunition. Instead, you'll spend most of the two or three hours it takes to play through the game figuring out how to move the story forward by bringing the right item to the right place.

You're in a school, set across several floors, with just a few rooms per floor, so building a mental map of the area isn't too tricky. As the story plays out, the location becomes less stable and if it weren't for the exquisite sound design, it's the way that Detention uses the decay and distortion of environments that would show the influence of Silent Hill most strongly. Here, as there, places are inexplicably abandoned and aged, and then removed or reshaped altogether. Sometimes you're given limited control, in a roundabout way, of the way things are arranged and connected. Crucially, however, each of the chapters does have a baseline spatial solidity, so you're not fumbling around in a maze.

The puzzles are mostly logical, though the logic itself is a little twisted. At one point I read a note, shivered at the gruesome act it described, and then realised I had all of the tools necessary to perform that act. I did it without hesitating, simply because it seemed like the obvious way to advance. It was a rare moment of disconnect between the character I was controlling and the actions demanded of her. That it even stood out is a testament to development studio Red Candle's ability to intertwine the stranger aspects of the story, visually and textually, around its political and personal core.

There are monsters, or rather spirits, but confrontation leads to death, or something very like it. Failure is handled elegantly, with a brief interlude that provides hints about the mistake you made, delivered in a scene that fits beautifully into the world of the game rather than being dumped on a loading screen. The stealth required to avoid the spirits isn't complex and I only died a couple of times, when encountering a new type of threat for the first time on both occasions. Mercifully, even though there are static save points in the form of shrines, dying returned me to the room immediately before the fatal encounter rather than to the last save location.

Detention isn't the kind of horror story that goes full out to terrify and startle. There are a couple of shocks, though nothing that pushed my aversion to jump scares too far, but behind the ghosts and the gore, there's a melancholy kind of dread. The horror of being in an impossible situation, of making terrible decisions, of seeing no way to improve your lot and then inadvertently making it a whole lot worse. It's not simply a story in which the government was the real monster all along – though the political situation is certainly a monstrous backdrop – because Red Candle are more interested in how people behave within a system rather than looking at the system itself.

And that meant that I was never lost and never felt like I was being fed loads of historical exposition. I did learn a little about the White Terror, but I learned more about the game's characters and their specific experiences. To an extent those are intended to be reflective of a wider cultural experience, but there's enough detail to make this a human story rather than a parable. All of that is possible thanks to an English translation that makes for better reading than many game's originally written in English; a few insignificant typos aside, Detention is spot on.

The text isn't the most important part of the story though. It's told through scenery that is initially bleak and a little bland (and reminiscent of The Cat Lady and Downfall), but finds colour and strange new angles on familiar sights at unexpected moments. And it's told through sound. I'm not even sure if there is a score so much as multiple layers of drones, death rattles and noise. It's somewhere between the drones that Trent Reznor used to scratch across film soundtracks in the old days, and the clattering oppression of Akira Yamaoka's best ambient work on Silent Hill. Not the guitar music; the rooms that screamed and hammered at the inside of your skull.

If it weren't for a final act that stretched itself a little too thin for my liking, spooling out the denouement for longer than necessary, I'd have enjoyed almost every minute of Detention. The ending is painfully effective, despite that stumble before the finishing line, and the whole game is far more well-crafted than the vast majority of indie horror games. More than anything though, it's such a pleasant surprise to discover a new setting for somewhat familiar fears.

Detention is available now, via Steam, on Windows, Mac and Linux, for £9/$12/€12.

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