Personal & Political Horror
Detention‘s horror doesn’t come from its creatures. Not to say that the game’s unique monstrosities, drawn from Taiwanese/Chinese folklore, don’t frighten as they come creeping or rushing toward you. It’s that Detention‘s story creeps under your skin, telling a tale that is frightening in its ordinary evil, steeped in events that could happen to anyone in such a difficult situation. You will be running from monsters in Detention, but how far must you run to escape the demons inside?
Detention follows a pair of students who have become strangely trapped inside their school. Set against the backdrop of 1960’s Taiwan under martial law, Detention seamlessly weaves political cruelty, personal woes, and monstrous mythology into an unsettling story and game, having the player navigate it through side-scrolling corridors, figuring out sickening puzzles as you unravel the narrative.
Detention is murky and foreboding before you even know what’s going on. Through use of limited colors and black and white, the game sets up an oppressive atmosphere that builds upon the dreadful story. It also makes careful use of shadow, obscuring things just enough to have your imagination start to work on what you think is moving in the dark.
The music adds to that sense of fear, playing mournful songs when it decides to break the uncomfortable silence. The music continues to build upon this relentless sense of unease that the game creates through visuals and story, driving home that you are in a hopeless place. The sound effects somehow make that even better, creating sickening tones, lonely footsteps, and frightening cries that wind you up even tighter. Between look, story, and sound, it’s horror perfection.
Solving puzzles is your only means of escaping this atmosphere. The puzzles are thankfully straightforward, avoiding some of the nonsense point and click games can get up to. The solutions to each puzzle may be obvious, but Detention excels at providing creepy aftermaths, sickening interruptions, or some sort of cultural flavor that makes each puzzle chilling and interesting.
Detention also paces its scares extremely well, knowing when to leave the player to stew for some time. Pacing on jump scares is very hard to pull off, either going so long the player gets bored, or so often the player gets annoyed. Detention does it right, though, keeping you just the right level of uneasy.
Your fears will be dialed up when the monsters are about, though. These shadowy creatures and lantern-bearers look great as they shiver or tiptoe about the levels. Having them draw upon different cultures gives them a unique look I haven’t often seen in horror games, and it meant I didn’t automatically understand how to avoid or get past them. Using different creatures created a little bit of extra tension to start off, which was a wonderfully creepy touch.
“Detention seamlessly weaves political cruelty, personal woes, and monstrous mythology into an unsettling story and game.”
To get around them, you have to hold your breath and walk. Slowly. You can only hold your breath for so long, though, before you gasp it in. Given that the creatures keep somewhat unpredictable routes, you might be just about ready to get by one when it suddenly turns around, catching you breathing. You’re forced to run or be killed in these moments, and while you can survive a few hits, the scream they loose will have you scrambling and afraid.
Holding your breath is yet another well-designed, tense mechanic. You can’t just run away and accomplish your task. Instead, you have to face these monsters head-on, doing so with an uncertain avoidance technique. The game only hints that you’re running out of breath with some screen blur, so you also don’t know when your air will run out. It makes for fearful moments when you sneak by.
That being said, the game seems to forget about monsters and its dodging mechanics in the final third of the game. It focuses exclusively on its story and some creepy environments, and while these work, and the story is excellent, it’s a shame to have the monster-avoiding mechanic discarded so long before the ending.
Even without monsters, the final section manages to unsettle. The story is a bit predictable, but watching the cruel way events come together draws you into the final act. It’s the sort of thing where you can see the awful end that’s coming, but you’re powerless to look away. It tells a tale of personal horror in a world ripe with political horror, connecting the two in ways that will leave you shaken.
Detention is excellent horror. It chills with its sounds, visuals, and story. It draws the player into frightening confrontations with unique monsters, forcing them to face fears rather than flee them. It tightens the noose with its story, telling a tale unique to the period and its politics, while also bringing the player into personal horrors that could skew close to their own lives.