Anyone longing for a more full-fledged psychological horror experience in the vein of “P.T.” should check out “Devotion” — a taut, well-constructed game about a screenwriter who goes to perverse lengths to try to cure his young daughter’s mysterious health condition. Though it originally launched in February 2019, “Devotion” was pulled from Steam, soon after its release, when it was review bombed by users. According to Eurogamer, some users took offense to a wall poster in the game that made fun of China’s president Xi Jinping. Although “Devotion’s” Taiwanese developers removed the offending material, they have yet to find another major distribution platform for their work. Currently, it is only available through Red Candle Games’ digital storefront.
In “Devotion,” players spend most of their time as Du Feng Yu — a once renowned screenwriter who, in the years following the birth of his daughter Mei Shin, has found it hard to sell his work. Du Feng Yu is married to Li Fang, a former actress and recording star who gave up her career in deference to her husband’s wishes.
At the outset of the game we find Du Feng Yu seated on the couch watching television while his wife is off-screen chatting as she prepares supper in the kitchen. In a breezy tone of voice, she mentions a neighborhood boy who she suspects is hanging out with a sketchy crowd before stating how relieved she is that their daughter is content to stay at home. After alluding to a “mentor” who is helping their daughter realize her dreams, Li Fang calls out for Mei Shin and then repeatedly asks where her daughter is which causes Du Feng Yu to bury his face in his hands. The screen briefly goes dark before returning to the living room where Du Feng Yu is seated alone on the couch at night watching a static-filled television screen.
Eventually, after getting off the couch and making his way through a hallway where drops of blood trickle from the ceiling, Du Feng Yu enters the apartment as it was in 1980, when he and his wife first moved in, before the birth of their daughter. After moving a few things from their packing boxes and arranging them about the place, the screen blurs and Du Feng Yu is back in the apartment where the wedding picture above his bed shows his face crossed out. After exiting the apartment and walking down a narrow hall he stands before another version of his apartment door where in a box on the wall by the door he finds a door key labeled 1986. Inside the apartment are life-size dolls of the couple watching TV and working together at a desk in the corner of the living room. Later, Du Feng Yu will find another key that shows the apartment in 1985.
During the first part of the game, players move between the three different apartments, which are connected by a small common area and solve none-too-hard puzzles mostly by moving items from one timeline to another. Thus, for example, an album found on a wall during one stage of the family’s life must be taken down and placed on a record player at another time in the apartment’s history.
What gives these basic tasks their value is the excitement that comes from simply moving through the game. “Devotion” brilliantly wraps spaces in on themselves so that performing an action can lead to radical shifts in the environment or the character’s viewpoint. For example, when Du Feng Yu removes the record from the wall, the perspective shifts to that of his daughter looking at him from behind the hole in that wall as he sits at his desk in the corner of the living room. Initially he is distraught from what he is reading. From close by Mei Shin’s mother tells her not to disturb her father, but just as she does Du Feng Yu furiously sweeps the items off the desk and violently turns in the direction of the peephole.
There are striking moments where changes in time and setting occur in the space of walking a few steps in one direction then turning around. As players dig further into Du Feng Yu’s story familiar spaces open into unfamiliar ones that speak to Du Feng Yu’s guilt and idolatrous reverence of his cultish mentor — a woman whose insidious influence wreaks havoc on the family.
Although I took notes on “Devotion” as I went through it, I found myself playing through 3/4 of it again because I wanted to re-experience the intricacies of its spatiotemporal sleights-of hand. (The game isn’t long.) I stopped where I did the second time around because it was past my bedtime and because the game’s dramatic conclusion features a scene of self-mutilation that I wasn’t clamoring to see — in context, though, it is an effective horror scene (The before-the-credits ending is conspicuously beautiful.)
“Devotion’s” defining characteristic is its ability to submerge a player in the mood it creates. It is a morbid experience worth having.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.