I'm normally pretty excited to mull over which games of a given year are my favorite, but 2019 has left me a little bummed. The process reminded me that one of my favorite games of the year, Devotion, still hasn't returned to Steam after it was abruptly pulled from the digital storefront days after release. And there are still no signs that it's ever coming back.
I'm thankful that I forgot to uninstall Devotion after I finished it the first time so that I still have the game on my PC and can replay it or show it off to friends whenever I want. But I do want others to have the opportunity to buy and play the game too. GameSpot reached out to Devotion developer Red Candle Games to talk about what went into making one of 2019's best games and also ask whether it still has a chance of coming back to Steam in 2020. Though that still doesn't seem likely, Red Candle did reveal there's still a slight chance and, in the meantime, it has begun development on a brand-new game.
What Exactly Happened To Devotion?
For those who missed the controversy that Red Candle found itself in earlier this year, here's a quick refresher. In February 2019, Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games came under fire for an art asset in its sophomore effort, Devotion, that compared Chinese president Xi Jingping to Winnie the Pooh, a joke that is forbidden in the country. Upon the discovery of the asset, the Chinese playerbase on Steam began heavily review-bombing the game. Red Candle managed to implement a patch that removed the asset almost immediately and then apologized for its inclusion in the first place--adding that the asset wasn't even supposed to be in the final product.
However, after the Chinese government forced the removal of the game from the Chinese version of Steam and Red Candle's partners (publishers Indievent and Winking Skywalker) cut ties, the developer ultimately removed the title from Steam entirely. Devotion hadn't even been available for a week. In July 2019, Red Candle followed-up the takedown with a written statement that, though it didn't outright say, heavily implied that the game will never be released on Steam again--an assumption that has held true months later.
GameSpot did manage to download and review the game prior to it being taken down. In our Devotion review, Richard Wakeling gave the game a 9/10, writing, "The sorrowful story [Devotion] tells meshes malice with tenderness, metaphor with stark truths, and achieves it all with the nuanced kind of environmental storytelling other games can only strive for … Home is where the heart is, and Devotion is a shining example of what the horror genre is capable of."
Creating One Of 2019's Best Horror Games
Devotion is a first-person psychological horror game set in a 1980s Taipei apartment complex where you play as struggling screenwriter Du Feng Yu, who lives with his wife (retired singer Gong Li Fang) and daughter (aspiring child singer Du Mei Shin). In an interview with GameSpot, Red Candle said, for Devotion, it took inspiration "from games such as [the playable teaser for Silent Hills], Layers of Fear, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Outlast," and utilized the structure of both classical and modern horror films (the team specifically mentioned the "visual composition and sound design of the film Hereditary" as a major inspiration) and implemented research from religious texts and local news stories from the 1980s. It all comes together to tell a deeply disturbing story about the deterioration of Feng Yu as he struggles to financially support his family, handle Taiwan society's growing acceptance of female empowerment, and come to terms with a mysterious illness plaguing his daughter.
Prior to Devotion, Red Candle developed Detention--another horror game set in Taiwan; this time in the 1960s during the dictatorship period of the White Terror. It's also very good, and thankfully it's still available for purchase. My appreciation for both games largely stems from their respective environmental storytelling. Both stories take place in a country that doesn't make many appearances in video games, and Red Candle does a remarkable job of bringing the setting of Taiwan to life through horror. The 1960s and 80s were periods of great cultural change in Taiwan, and Red Candle utilizes the unsettling unease of both time periods to inform the structure of Detention and Devotion and create their pulse-pounding senses of dread.
"The 1980s was a period when old and new values overlapped, and that Taiwan has always been rich in its diverse religious culture," Red Candle told GameSpot. "From these rough ideas, we started to shape the story of Devotion and set the confinement to let everything happen inside a family's apartment … While the home is a personal space for the universal audience, we also wanted to utilize the concept of the family to reflect on the values in the then-society and faiths. Hopefully, it could somehow also spark our players to look into their cultural values at home."
Though it tells a fictional story, I continue to ponder the fate of Devotion's characters and the overall message of the game (the terrifying power of faith) months after finishing it because of how deeply relatable the whole experience is. It makes for a horror game with a pretty powerful lasting impression--the fact that it also educates you on Taiwanese culture is a lovely extra.
"Many of our teammates grew up playing Western and Japanese games," Red Candle said. "Though we were and still are deeply fascinated by these games, we hoped that one day we could somehow be able to show the world a game that tells the story of Taiwan."
The developer continued, "One thing we did notice is that before Detention, there are not so many games exploring the history of Taiwan. Since the release of Detention, we saw that fellow developers in Taiwan started to be more liberal in terms of game development by exploring different sorts of themes, issues, and stories. While we don't think that such change has a direct link with Detention, we are happy to see that the gaming industry in Taiwan has become more diverse and vibrant."
So as you might imagine, given how good these games are, I'm more than a little miffed that most people still can't play Devotion, as it makes it very difficult to find people to talk to about it. I don't blame Red Candle; the team was put in a terrible situation, one I hope doesn't befall any future indie developers. What happened to Red Candle is tragic--especially because Devotion is so good.
What's Next For Red Candle Games
For now, Red Candle is looking beyond Devotion and developing a third game. "After developing two horror titles, our team felt like taking a break from horror games and making something different," Red Candle said. "Thus for our next project, we are now experimenting on a different genre. As an indie studio, we are still trying to experiment on different ways of game design to implement immersive and interesting playing experience. That being said, perhaps in the future, one of our teammates will come up with a brilliant idea and we might again work on a new horror title, so it all depends on where our creativity might lead us to."
Red Candle still isn't ready to put Devotion back up on Steam nor is it ready to talk about whether the game will ever be put up for purchase again. However, the developer did clarify a sentence from its July 2019 statement, which reads: "If, in the future, the public would be willing to view [this game] rationally and allow us the opportunity to rebuild trust with our players, Red Candle would reconsider re-releasing Devotion." That particular sentence has stumped some fans of the game, who have wondered what the developer means by "rationally." The developer told GameSpot that when it says, "rationally," it means that Red Candle will consider re-releasing Devotion only after the gaming community realizes, based on Devotion's overarching theme and message, that it literally makes no sense that the game was trying to create any sort of political dispute or proclamation.
"The theme of Devotion is about a deep dive into faith," Red Candle said. "One can wonder: Why would Du Feng Yu cling to the hope that a ridiculous religion [can] make his life better? ... Other than religion, there are also different kinds of faiths in the story--the faith that 'the world is too small for [Feng Yu's] talent,' 'a man should be the man of the house,' and 'my daughter cannot possibly be mentally ill.'
"These deep-rooted beliefs blind the eyes of Feng Yu, leading up to him making irreversible mistakes in life," the developer continued. "Eventually, these mistakes cause him to believe that [a cult] was the only hope left for him and his family. This links to one of the core themes of Devotion: Those making big mistakes in life do not necessarily carry malicious thoughts … The theme of faith [can] be applicable to many subjects in different cultures and environments … The title of 'Devotion' could somehow provide a voice to the local and foreign players: Why do you make this choice? What is faith? Why do you believe in this faith? With these thoughts in mind, [there is] no way that Red Candle would deliberately cause disputes for the apparent reason that said disputes [have] nothing relevant to [do with] the theme of Devotion."
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