**The following review is not spoiler free**
Making art is hard. Painting, music, or film, it doesn’t matter what form it takes, it all requires labour. Sometimes that work has to be done out of love, as difficult as it may be. And in turn, we do things for those we love that might just cause more hurt. Devotion is a game that explores what happens when these two concepts intersect, and the issues that come with acting out of “love”. It’s a tough game to get through, not because of any challenge that is present in the game, but because themes within the game are weighty and complex.
Originally released in 2019, Devotion was pulled within days of release, due to a controversy involving an in-game talisman that Chinese players found to be an offensive reference to their President, Xi Jinping. Two years on, the game is now available once more, offering a rare insight (for Western players) into Taiwanese culture through the lens of the horror genre.
Devotion is not a hard game to complete. It’s essentially a walking simulator for the majority of the time, with some light puzzle elements scattered throughout. You play most of the game as Du Feng Yu, a struggling screenwriter, and it is set over three different years in 1980s Taiwan, with most of the action taking place in an apartment.
The game explores Du Feng Yu’s life, his wife, a successful but retired singer named Gong Li Fang, and their daughter plagued with a mysterious illness, Du Mei Shin. The game is never explicit as to whether the events you are experiencing in the roughly three-hour runtime are happening or whether the horror is just a hook to tell the story, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.
The game utilises its genre incredibly effectively. There may be the usual tropes like jump scares, dimly lit hallways, and even a creepy doll, but the game shines with its use of doors in building tension. Every time I would approach a door I couldn’t open before, or the entrance to the apartment in a different year, I would hesitate. The apartment would change in sometimes incredibly subtle ways, meaning I never knew what I was in for behind every door. What I was most afraid of wasn’t necessarily in the literally horrific things that might lie in wait, but the ways in which Du Feng Yu would change, and how his family life would change.
Over the course of the game, you learn that Feng Yu is a mediocre screenwriter, never finding any success throughout any of his attempts of scriptwriting. His failures ultimately lead him to place the onus of stardom onto his daughter, Mei Shin. She’s encouraged by her father to pursue a singing career, but she struggles to make any headway, in part due to her illness. This is where the idea of love becomes complicated. There’s a moment in the game where you are looking through Mei Shin’s eyes, through a hole in the wall in their apartment, watching her father working at his desk with scrunched up paper littering it. She wants to play, but he continues to ignore her pleas until he slams his fists and pushes everything off his desk. It’s moments like these that were honestly the hardest to get through, more so than any of the more traditional horror elements. This moment, in particular, encapsulates Feng Yu’s inability to balance his love for his work, and for his daughter, showing how little he understands her.
Love and art require hard work. Through notes you find throughout the game, you can see that Feng Yu at least has some amount of love for his daughter. And it’s clear he loves his work too, due to his unwavering commitment to it. But loving something, or someone doesn’t mean the actions you take are the right ones.
Over the course of the game, you learn that Mei Shin’s mysterious illness is just simply anxiety, resulting in severe panic attacks, something that would be obvious now, but the 1980s were a completely different time. You also learn of Feng Yu being a part of a cult, and that he gives money to it that he doesn’t have. On top of that, he takes his daughter to see a “mentor”, a member/ leader of the cult that claims she can heal his daughter. But of course, it doesn’t work. There’s a visceral, surreal moment in which you the player as Feng Yu gouge out one of his eyes, and pull out his own tongue for the fictitious god Cigu Guanyin. I struggled to go through with it; I didn’t want to press any more buttons, I didn’t want to cause any of this harm. He expresses his titular devotion towards the “religion” he is a part of, his daughter, and the soul of his failing career that her forces to inhabit Mei Shin by doing so. But in turn, it reveals so much about how he views art and people.
The game is about Feng Yu’s failure as a creative, father, and husband. It questions the worth of art when people are hurt in its process. His daughter in the end is expendable if it means some amount of his creativity makes it out into the world, and after all, his daughter was something he made. Once I put the game down, I was just sad. There’s horror in the ending, but not one that elicits fear. Feng Yu messed up, he ruined his own life and is directly responsible for the pain he endures. It’s all on him, and I as the player didn’t leave the game adrenaline-fuelled, fearful for my life; I left it emboldened in my refusal to cause any kind of harm to someone else for the sake of “art”, because it will leave me with nothing but solitude.