The uncanny valley, a sociocultural phenomenon first hypothesized by Masahiro Mori, proposes “that a person’s response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance.” Puppets, corpses, and other humanlike objects appear across countless different societies as symbols of the strange, unknown, and terrifying. RedCandleGames, an independent Taiwanese game studio, utilizes the core principles of the uncanny valley to prey upon their audience’s innate fear of the not-quite-human. Detention‘s visuals and narrative explore this notion of how horror can come from anywhere, even our own everyday life.
Taiwan and the White Terror
To understand the setting behind Detention is to delve into a complex web of politics, civil strife, and oppression. Set in 1960s Taiwan, the game provides a snapshot into a society ruled by a longstanding history of tension and hostility. Taiwan as a sovereign nation can trace its origins far back to the late Industrial Age. After nearly 200 years of Imperial Chinese rule, Taiwan became a dependent territory of the Empire of Japan. Taiwan switched hands once again in 1945 after the surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces in World War II. It had returned to Chinese rule, but at this time China was undergoing a bloody civil war. The conflict resulted in China’s Communist Party gaining control of the mainland, with the opposing Nationalist faction exiled to Taiwan.
In the years that followed, Taiwan underwent a period of internal strife known as the “White Terror”. For the next 38 years, the nation was kept under strict martial law so as to quell any potential dissidents or uprisings. A mix of systematic corruption, torture, and widespread censorship created a pervasive environment of fear and oppression among the civilian population. The death toll of civilians affected by the Nationalist Party’s severe crackdown remains unknown, yet assuredly massive. The government’s primary target was Taiwan’s intellectual elite, as it feared students, scholars, and teachers would speak out against them or sympathize with Communism.
It is this backdrop against which Detention takes place.
Diving Into the Uncanny Valley
Detention tells a simple and familiar story of distrust, fear, and betrayal through the lens of the supernatural and the uncanny valley. As someone previously not aware of Taiwanese culture, myths, or religion, the disquieting unfamiliarity of Detention’s treatment of the supernatural amplified the horror I felt. The uncanny valley manifests in the way bits of story are told. We piece together a picture of a fractured society broken down by oppression and fear; self-interest drives people to act less than human, giving them an unsettling, inhuman quality.
The game begins in a high school classroom, a normal enough setting that quickly devolves into something far more sinister. Most of Detention‘s narrative centers around a young teenage girl named Ray. At the beginning of the story she and Wu, another student, are stuck at school just as a storm is about to hit. Their aborted escape and ensuing search for shelter transports them into a haunting, dilapidated version of their school. Reality is heightened in this ethereal realm: ghostly specters roam the school, magic talismans cover walls to ward off evil spirits, and events happen as the world sees fit.
“By consistently having callbacks to reality, Detention anchors itself between familiar territory and the utterly strange: the uncanny valley.”
Although possessing knowledge of Taiwan and its period of martial law will greatly inform the player’s experience, Detention does a fantastic job of providing contextual clues. Through character dialogue, flashbacks, and in-game journal entries, you are able to paint a larger picture of a society repressed by fear. The scope of the game’s narrative focuses more and more as the story progresses and Ray’s background is slowly revealed. All the while, the player is figuratively and literally assaulted by strange, otherworldly terrors, and visions. By consistently having callbacks to reality, Detention anchors itself between familiar territory and the utterly strange: the uncanny valley.
Visualizing a Sense of Uncomfortable Familiarity
Detention‘s visuals make use of the uncanny valley to convey the sentiment that something just isn’t quite the right. The atmosphere of the world is very similar to our own, but off in just a few too many places. There’s an eerie segment in the beginning of the game, as the storm is about to pick up. The player walks outside and hears the howl of the wind through the trees. It seems normal until you inspect the scene a little more closely: the trees swell and shake as if they were breathing.
The mix of puppet-like movement, the photorealistic cutouts, and the overly stylized environments strike a discordant note of unsettling terror. There is no specificity in movement, as everything moves in broad strokes, very similar to traditional shadow puppetry. But Detention is greater than the sum of its parts. It does not simply rely on stilted object movement to evoke a sense of unease.
The character models are monochromatic and simplistic when compared to the heavily detailed backgrounds and environments. A strange amalgamation of CG, hand-drawn and painted assets, and photorealistic cutouts comprise the patchwork graphical design. It shouldn’t work, but it’s precisely because of that visual dissonance that it succeeds in placing the game’s art style firmly within the uncanny valley. There are so many different aspects that just feel wrong, but the game stacks them in such small and subtle ways that it’s hard to put your finger on it.
Making the Most of its Medium
At its core, Detention can be summarized as a walking simulator with basic logic puzzles and a simple story. However, that would be doing the game a grave injustice. As with the visuals, the game is greater than the sum of its parts. Although the focus isn’t on the gameplay, Detention works best as a game. When the player is in control of the situation, fear is amplified on a much more personal scale. The basic act of walking past a monster or pressing a button to turn off a light evokes a sense of fear, as everything that happens on-screen is a direct result of your actions.
While simplistic, the few systems in place allow for some interesting mechanics on the player’s part. Detention‘s core gameplay takes after survival horror and adventure games, like Resident Evil. There are a decent amount of logic puzzles that are just difficult enough to provide a nice little “Aha!” moment to the player. Said puzzles typically involve exploring the school for necessary clues or items, which plays back into the other big aspect of gameplay: monsters.
“In the moment, the combination of visual, aural, and tactile cues help with the suspension of disbelief. In the moment, you feel fear.”
The monsters in the game are few, yet incredibly varied. Modeled after what are presumably Taiwanese myths and legends, the monsters in Detention visually encapsulate the uncanny valley: vaguely human but clearly deformed. Like the survival horror games Detention takes after, interacting with monsters is a deadly affair. Your only means of dealing with them is either to distract with offerings or run away (most of the time you will be doing the latter). The one mechanic that you consistently have at your disposal is the ability to hold your breath and avoid detection.
The breath mechanic is a wonderful way to instill tension within the player, as most monster encounters require you to hold your breath to the point of passing out. As the sound melds into white noise and your vision fades, you hope that your breath lasts just long enough to allow you to run to safety. In retrospect, there’s a very clear illusion of tension. But, in the moment, the combination of visual, aural, and tactile cues help with the suspension of disbelief. In the moment, you feel fear.