Découvrez les enjeux sociétaux et politiques de Taïwan au travers de ses jeux vidéo
To read the french version of the article initially published on Immersion
Tour du monde jeu vidéo Isabelle Arvers Immersion

TAIWAN A PLACE MARKED BY HISTORY 

As I arrived in Taipei, I am first taken by a sense of relaxation, taking in the smiles and scents; everything is under control as it was in Seoul. The buildings are in no way uniform, from barracks to wooden roofs and from cute traditional accommodation to industrial buildings all mixing in lush greenery and rice fields. Colours have faded by time and humidity; tarnished blues, greys and maroon shapes collide with the vivid green of nature. I breathe in the air charged with the scents of earth, trees and massive leaves and I am submerged by the incessant noise of the insects who seem to be omnipresent. A new step of my journey around the world discovering local video games and cultures begins in Taiwan.

During my residency, I am staying at the Treasure Hill Artist Village, which makes me immediately dive into the historical dimension of Taiwan. This space which was planned to be built for a short amount of time is riddled with makeshift construction which used to house the veterans of Tchang-Kai-Chek’s Kuomintang. Slowly, villagers from different rural areas of Taiwan moved into the space and many of them have stayed permanently. As forgotten witnesses of a time which has come to pass, this construction has been slowly taken over by artists who have mingled with the previous inhabitants whilst renovating this space perched on a lush hill.

Marco Casagrande in his article ‘Cross over architecture and the Third Generation City’ wrote that “Treasure hill is the attic of Taipei: it carries memories, stories and traditions of past generations. It represents the soul of Taipei and is starkly different from the newer industrial city”. The developers working on Detention, a survival-horror game from the Taiwan based studio Red Candle Games were inspired by Treasure Hill.

The game is set in Taiwan during the ’60s, in the middle of the ‘white terror’ when the island was ruled by martial law imposed by the Kuomintang which lasted until 1987. During this period up to fourteen thousand people – many of whom were intellectuals – will be imprisoned and accused of being sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party. 

During my trip, I discover that the young and independent games are often much more pertinent than the mega-productions in order to understand and discover the local culture and history of Taiwan. Particularly when it comes to addressing sensitive or controversial issues. Erotes Studio, for instance, makes it a point to systematically include political narratives in the visual novels they make. My encounter with the team is made complicated due to our mediocre English and my total lack of knowledge of Mandarin, which makes it hard to address the political issues which are so prevalent in their visual novels. Nonetheless what transpires from our conversation is that we are all interested in the same issues and understand each other on a deeper level.
As I attempt to explain to them my endeavour, my world tour of video games in which I am focusing on feminist, post-colonial and queer practices, they immediately mention their game The Rainy Port Keelung. The plot focuses on a local event: ‘the incident of the 28th of February’, which was an uprising against the government which happened in 1947, and the ensuing clampdown by the militants of the Kuomintang. It is one of the major recent historical moments for Taiwan and was decisive in the creation of an independent Taiwan. The Rainy Port is set in Keelung, a seaport nicknamed the ‘rainy port’ by locals. In the game, we discover the lives of ordinary citizens during this very violent period of history which remained a taboo and was not discussed until the end of dictatorship in Taiwan in 1987. 

They then mention the game Blue Blood Lagoon, another one of their visual novels which are set in Penghu and archipelago south-west of Taiwan. It is set in 1949 and the army forces all male students to join the army from one day to the other. Blue Blood Lagoon enables the developers to shed a critical gaze upon this period of history and on the forced conscription of thousands of young Taiwanese men. The game also explores dynamics related to gender as we follow a young woman who dreams of having the appearance of a man to be conscripted in the army.

May Jasmine – which is the only game by Studio Erotes to have, thanks to its steam community to be translated in English – is set in in the May 1988 riots in Indonesia. The main character Yu-Cheng He is born in Taiwan and moves to Indonesia to find work, but he ends up being swept away by violent riots against mandarin people. These riots have their roots in economic issues and policies, are aimed against Chinese people, of which over a thousand will be killed before the riots came to an end. What is discomforting and powerful about the games made by Stuiod Erotes is the use of an anime aesthetics – which tend to be used in romantic stories which revolve around female protagonists – in violent, intense and deep social and politically themed games which is a starkly different use of this visual universe. 

The developers working with Red Candle Games don’t feel the necessity to address political or historical dynamics. That is at least what I am told by one of their developers when I finally get to meet them. The studio has stopped giving interviews since one of its games (Devotion) has been banned from China after it was available for only 6 days on Steam. It was banned due to a Winnie the Pooh meme which is visible in the game, the yellow bear is often used to mock the president Xi-Jinping, the all-powerful president of the Peoples Republic of China. The developers forgot to remove it from the finished version, and when the game was released it created a rather heated scandal with real consequences on the import of independent video games in China, greatly stunting a market relying on distribution in China. 

When I ask Vincent Yang what was the initial intention behind Detention, he explains that it was it come from a desire to “make a game about Taiwan, our history, our culture: to show how people used to live. Considering that horror games are the most successful on the market, we integrated gameplay mechanics originating from the horror genre to appeal to a large audience.” Imagined first by Doy Chang, the founder of Red Candle, the game is set inside a high school in the 1980s. The Team at Red Candle is structured around this first title which Doy Chang presents a couple times to developers during the Indie Meet up, organised by Johnson Lee in Taipei. They are then brought together by the common will to make a game about Taiwan with its atmosphere and its sometimes traumatic past. 

“Very few video games have been made which take Taiwan as the background of the game”, continues Vincent Yang. “There are so many American, Japanese, European video games that focus on their history and their cultural references. We wanted, for once, to put forward a game that has to do with Taiwan. To try and make our game stand out from other games we thought of the horror survival genre. A game which Youtubers could play and which people would be afraid of. We wondered what in the history of our country could be scary. That is why we through of the White Terror, a period of history which people have difficulty mentioning to this day. We chose two high school students as main characters because high school is a symbol of innocence, an age where people are not truly aware of political ongoings and when we seek to rebel without truly considering the consequences. It is, therefore, the gameplay genre which dictated the subject of the game.”

RED CANDLE STUDIO’s NEIGHBOURHOOD IN TAIPEI 

The team was inspired by stories that came from their own families. The developers interviewed some of their family members in order to derive material to nourish the narrative dimension of the game. Nonetheless, they present the game as a work of fiction, to not be criticized for being historically inaccurate. In Detention, we embody Wei and Fang who have been locked into their high school. Everybody has disappeared after a warning about a looming typhoon. Classrooms are empty and only spirits are roaming the school. In this 2D point and click game, which is at times deeply worrying, there are puzzles tied to Taoism and Buddhism, we discover progressively the heavy and harsh story in which books mentioning freedom are illegal and families are encouraged to spy on and denunciated everybody. 

To imagine the setting of Detention, the developers at Red Candle made many trips to Jinfeng, a village north of Taipei and to Treasure Hill. The whole atmosphere replicates Taiwan during that historic period; a messy conglomerate of buildings resembling old factories but inhabited by people. “Actually, continues Vincent Yang, the word that best defines Taiwan is chaotic. There are advertisement signs everywhere, it’s crazy. At the same time in older villages, you may still find old red brick houses that are reminiscent of the Japanese colonization. We stick to two architectural styles in Detention, particularly in regards to the high school. Mirroring both the chaos of the city and the organised oppression which is embodied in cold and straight lines making up buildings. 

As I ask him about the potential political significance of the game, Vincent Yang admits that indirectly the games points at issues pertaining to freedom. “Its the game itself that brought us to this concept, it sounds strange but that’s how it went. There is, for instance, the monologue of the professor, in which one of the sentences revolves around freedom. That sentences were edited in three weeks before the launch of the game, but ended up becoming a defining sentence for Detention.” The game has in some sense it’s own life and journey throughout the development of it, and what it was intended to be is not what it has come to be: a cultural object enabling us to discover a political moment which tends to be ignored or hushed. 

The latest game Red Candle has launched has also gone through an unexpected journey, a more tumultuous one. Devotion is a psychological horror game, this time built on 3D graphics played in the first person. It was censured by China seven days after its release. After a long debacle mirrored by tensions between China and Taiwan, the team chose to remove the game completely from the online platform. 

Devotion gives the player the possibility to discover Taiwan in the 1980s when the island was discovering liberal economics. At that time, Yang explains: “Taiwan went through a real economic boom, we never saw our parents because they were always working. We would buy everything and anything, the most important was to buy and to consume. It was often our grandparents that had to raise us in those days.” That’s how the developers built the game, by finding inspiration in their own youth. Thus the apartments and houses of their grandparents were rebuilt in the game, and the game was nicknamed “Grandma Flat Simulator”. 

In Taiwan, styles mingle, between traditional ceramics and European styled furniture, a mesmerizing fusion of old and new and embodying multiple belief systems. The island is famous for its wealth and mixture of religious practices. The majority of the island are Buddhist and Taoist, but colonial invasions have established communities of Catholics as well. Beyond religions, polls show that 80% of the population of Taiwan believes in popular forms of animism or shamanism, thus spiritual practices are very rich and varied. People in Taiwan believe that spirits and nature are sentient, and there appears to be a deep sense of belonging to a cosmic whole or totality in which nature plays a major role. There are deities for everything: Mountains, Rivers, Seas etc.. Vincent Yang adds that: “There is a deity in Kitchens that protects us from fire, another for the bathroom: we believe in everything as long as it works”.

That is how one gets lost, in the way Du Feng Yu does, the main character in Devotion, a failed screenplay writer who ruined his career and his family because of his devotion to the Mentor Heuh sect. In the game, we are trapped in a series of rooms filled with offerings for the deceased members of the Du family. It is through a series of flashbacks that we learn how Feng Yu loses himself. Feng Yu’s wife, Gong Li Fang, is a retired singer who comes back to life and embodies his bad conscience, reminding him the wrong he has done throughout his life. As I ask Vincent Yand about ghosts in Taiwan, I learn that ghosts are not seen as inherently negative as we do in the West. Here spirits are part of the normal ongoings in day to day life: “What is important is that humans are in harmony with nature, that we respect it”. Ghosts come to personify natures and the environment in which humans exist, constantly reminding them where we come from. 

ISABELLE ARVERS