[Before we go any further: If you’ve ever enjoyed any horror title of any sort you really must buy this game. You’ll love it. Now then, about this article: You can’t talk about Devotion in any meaningful way without also addressing many of its key plot points, so while I won’t gleefully go out of my way to deliberately ruin anything please be aware this article contains major spoilers]
Where the heck do I begin with something as… as… raw as this?
Let’s start with something simple: This is a horror game, right? So! It makes sense to ask ourselves “Is it scary?”, doesn’t it? And the answer to that is a resounding “Yes“. Devotion’s very scary, and I say that as someone who officially broke their own Scare-O-Meter many years ago – most games with [un]dead people, violent mutants, and thick shadows for things to hide in leave me shrugging my shoulders. Devotion? I genuinely screamed out loud at one early event, and found a later segment so horrific I struggled to look at the screen. On its own that’d be an impressive feat but it’s especially surprising to find this happening in a horror adventure that uses the same spooky template as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (excellent) and Michigan (terrible), titles where the number of times you’re actually in any danger at all can be counted on a worm’s fingers. There’s a very good reason for this: Devotion isn’t concerned with wasting time trying to convince you your digital avatar’s in any physical danger – the lead character’s not afraid of death, or pain, or violent assault – its aim is to slowly heap layer upon layer of little emotional deaths on him until they become an utterly suffocating sadness, a patchwork of sorrow charting a wonderful family life that could have been so perfect forevermore helplessly slipping through his fingers.
What makes Devotion’s horror so chillingly effective is how ordinary it is, how you come away at the end of it emotionally overwhelmed; justifiably angry, sad, disgusted, and filled with pity at once. The source of this misery, of Du Feng Yu’s small family’s inexorable slide from successful showbiz careers to destitution and eventually utter despair, is not a supernatural entity toying with the souls of the spiritually weak, a terrible virus passing through an unlucky town, or a violent madman coldly picking his next victims – it is, as the game presents it through its unwavering first-person point of view, ours. We are asked to view the world through Feng Yu’s eyes – prize-winning writer, dedicated husband, loving father – to recall the past few years of right going so very wrong from his own unreliable point of view:
If only directors hadn’t rejected his scripts [failure].
If only Li Fang, the talented and beautiful star who gave it all up to be with him, had stayed at home and performed her wifely duties [abuser].
If only the mystical Cigu Guanyin had heeded his prayers and made his daughter well again [deluded].
If only the ritual had worked.
As the player a litany of everyday tragedies mount up until you feel you might drown in them yourself, superficially harmless details eventually revealing themselves to be further evidence of Feng Yu’s completely preventable drift into oblivion: The gigantic red arowana – pointedly a symbol of luck and prosperity – was a huge expense the family couldn’t afford and nobody other than Feng Yu wanted. Feng Yu telling us – telling himself – that Li Fang “just stopped” having beautiful superstar PR portraits taken after they got married, no idea why. The little shrine to General Tendu, god of theatre and art and appropriate for both husband and wife, eventually pushed aside in favour of Feng Yu’s outsized table of worship devoted to Cigu Guanyin, the chosen deity of Feng Yu’s sham faith healer.
Feng Yu’s small home is a prison of his own making.
But in a move even more harrowingly close to real life than the last it’s not quite as simple as pointing the finger at one designated bad person and then calling it a day; there’s a terrifying power to these very ordinary lies, the ones where we insist if only we’d been more devoted to our chosen tasks, or if other people had been more devoted to us, or to their talents, then it all could have worked out so very differently. Mei Shin, the sweet daughter of Feng Yu and Li Fang, could have told her genuinely doting father she had already found a way to handle her undiagnosed panic attacks instead of being so devoted to him she did her best to comply with the increasingly dubious and dangerous rituals suggested by the money-grabbing “healer” her father became devoted to. Two once-successful parents didn’t have to push such a shy child into the spotlight and then devote all of their time and energy into keeping her there, causing Mei Shin unbearable anxiety. Li Fang’s mother could have been supportive instead of telling her distressed daughter all marriages have their ups and downs, and quietly devoting herself to her husband was a better choice than the public shame of separation.
So many near escapes for everyone, so many simple little things that could’ve gone a different, better, way…
The quiet domesticity of this stomach-churning horror means there is no divine judgement for Feng Yu to endure, no cackling enemy to overcome, no trapped spirits to appease, no secretive pharmaceutical company to bring to light – only an awful and relentless uncovering of what he did, of ultimately how locking his precious little girl in the bathroom for a week, submerged in ritual wine to “cleanse her soul” as she begged and begged to be let out until she eventually died, solved nothing. Silent Hill 2 famously gave us a broken man and offered us several ways to either make him better or let him spiral further down into the depths of personal delusion. Devotion chooses a more painful path, giving us a broken man and then showing us all the ways he could have handled things differently: he could have swallowed his ridiculous pride and allowed his wife to be the main breadwinner, he could have let his daughter see a psychiatrist instead of angrily exclaiming “She’s not a lunatic!” before throwing all their money at bogus spirituality, but he chose – chose – not to, and at the end of his journey all we have is the same broken man as before. Neither condemned nor redeemed, Feng Yu’s self-made
nightmare reality is nothing more than the logical conclusion of his previous actions, Devotion’s finale less a climax and more a letting go – you can’t help him, and he doesn’t want to be helped anyway.