Three Visits to Detention: the Game, the Movie, and the Netflix Series

(Note: Detention‘s Character names are translated differently into English across different adaptations. For clarity’s sake, I’ve used the original game’s spelling and shortened names throughout. For one Netflix-specific character, I’ve used the spelling given in the English subtitles.)

Which video games get adapted to other mediums is seemingly random. It happens according to so many inscrutable, arbitrary whims that bringing up a list of such adaptations doesn’t impart some measure of understanding so much as it just gives me a goddamn headache. But even when accounting for this chaotic environment, where people have certainly met in a board room somewhere to discuss whether you can give a Tetris block a personality, the number of times that Red Candle’s 2017 indie game Detention has been adapted is a little shocking. Here, after all, is a three-hour Taiwanese horror story with a very specific premise: in the 1960s, well into Taiwan’s decades-long period of martial law known as the White Terror, Fang Ray Shin wanders an abandoned, otherworldly rendition of her high school, Greenwood. And yet, there’s an award-winning film, an eight-episode Netflix series, and a novel based on it (which I was not able to analyze at length here due to the lack of a full translation).

During the White Terror of the game’s historical setting, any left-wing ideas or reading material carried with them the very real threat of imprisonment, torture, and death. When the 2019 film depicts a typical day at Greenwood, it shows students marching in single-file, gender-divided lines on either side of the school’s chief disciplinarian, a veteran who still wears his uniform. Occasionally, he stops someone to search their bag, and other men in military garb can be seen throughout the school dragging one teacher away. Nevertheless, a club for banned books operates under the nose of such authorities, sanctioned by teacher Ms. Yin and guidance counselor Mr. Chang.

Ray’s home life, we learn, has grown difficult and her school performance has slipped, necessitating regular meetings with Mr. Chang. To degrees of reciprocity that differ between versions, Ray develops a relationship with the counselor, and people very much begin to take notice. Ms. Yin warns him about getting involved with a student, particularly when increased scrutiny would further endanger the book club. Ray thus views Ms. Yin as an obstacle to her relationship and informs the authorities about the book club, thinking that only the teacher will be held responsible.

Instead, everyone is implicated — Mr. Chang and the club members are put in trucks with hoods over their heads and sent away to some terrible fate. Wracked with despair and ostracized by the other students as an informer, Ray commits suicide.

This storyline does not differ much between each version, but they manage to retell the story while altering Ray’s position in it. In the game, she’s essentially the solo horror protagonist, the avoider of ghosts and solver of puzzles in this sinister version of Greenwood. The film, which was made available for digital purchase last year, retains the nightmarish version of the school but pairs Ray with Wei Chung Ting, a student from the ill-fated book club, for most of the story. And the 2020 Netflix series makes perhaps the greatest change of all, taking place largely in a late 90s conception of Greenwood where a transfer student, Liu Yun-hsiang, encounters Fang Ray Shin as a manipulative, vengeful spirit.

Detention (2020)
Detention (2020)

Expulsion

Despite the apparent shift in focus, Ray’s appearance remains the same, seen in the black skirt and white shirt that make up her school uniform. She has short hair held back from her face by a clip, and she carries a gift from Mr. Chang with her, a pendant of a deer made from white jade. Rather than the friendlier, softer appearance she takes in the versions where she’s the lead character, however, her gaunt face and big eyes give her more of a willfully sinister quality.

But her role in the series isn’t quite so stark of a departure as it might sound. The story of Detention depicts Ray within a purgatorial cycle since she killed herself rather than face her complicity, and the Silent Hill-esque depiction of Greenwood is an outgrowth of this denial. That she gives shape to much of the ghostly occurrences in the Netflix show is more or less consistent with this fact, extrapolating that Ray’s cycle has continued for decades. Eventually, it ensares Liu Yun-hsiang, who begins to lose her sense of self while the events of her life start to mirror Ray’s. The show does get around to depicting the inciting incidents during the 60s, but much of it works like a sequel. (The 2017 novel, from what I can tell based on a translated excerpt and a quick summary, also depicts people who come to Greenwood after the fact, though the place is in ruins rather than totally functional.)

By contrast, the game asks us to piece together these details over time. Ray’s journey through the school provides hints of what happened through found documents and environmental details, recurring imagery of hooded figures and other horrors that pop in for a jump scare. Though Wei is the POV character for the game’s prologue, we quickly switch over to Ray, and both are totally disoriented by the setting. The exploration process is one of discovery and reluctant remembrance, where the frightening images recede as Ray comes to remember what she has done. The back third of Detention is scarcely a horror game at all, primarily featuring abstract landscapes of repressed memories while the details come slowly into focus.

The film and the TV series, however, are more straightforward in their presentation. We follow Wei through the beginning of the movie; we learn about the book club right away, and we see him arrested and tortured for his participation in it before the nightmare realm finally manifests. He sticks around as the story continues, voicing his shock when spirits reveal Ray to be the informer. In the game, his participation concludes quite early since Ray finds him hanging upside down in the auditorium, dead. It’s an early, grisly puzzle; in order to proceed, she must cut his throat and collect his blood in a bowl.

This image of Wei also shows up in the film, but much later. Whereas its early appearance in the game is meant to be ambiguous, perhaps as little more than an unsettling image to kick off a game in the genre built to supply such images, the film clarifies its meaning immediately as Ray pulls a book from his throat and presents it as evidence. By informing on the book club and inadvertently implicating Wei, she has betrayed him, depicted through her mutilation of his body (though we later learn, in both the game and the film, that this is an imagined image and that Wei is still alive).

Detention (2019)
Detention (2019)

Suspension

Each version of Detention features a different way “in” for the audience. The show and the film pair up characters, so that each may be a sounding board to express their innermost turmoil, externalizing the emotions through conversations with other students. In the series, Ray is not a traditional sort of ghost that shows up for a scheduled scare; much of the time, she is more of a confidant to Liu Yun-hsiang. And through its 50-minute episodes, the series in particular has the space to really dig into these events and their accompanying emotions, devoting an uncomfortable amount of time to things like Liu’s own relationship with a teacher. We witness the event that affected Ray through the eyes of another, and in that observation we come to understand as she takes her revenge on some of the school’s staff.

But for as much as video games willfully cultivate the trappings of film and television and in many cases invite the comparison, the narrative conventions differ significantly. Like so many other games, Detention is built on an insularity more reminiscent of prose. We are privy to a character’s innermost thoughts, thinking little if they start to talk to themselves aloud. We are placed in direct conversation with their actions and their feelings, often going so far as to act them out; there’s no constant companion character like the adaptations because, in the game, that role is filled by the player.

The film in particular explains its imagery from the outset, providing us with context and more literal depictions like how some teeth that appear in a puzzle are explicitly from the mouth of the janitor, who was arrested and tortured simply for giving the book club a room key. Similarly, the enormous lantern ghost is shown in the film wearing a military uniform. Many of the game mechanics and their accompanying puzzles make only cursory appearances in these adaptations (if they appear at all), but their place in the game is far from simple busywork inherent to the medium: they serve to draw us further into the narrative and the role of Fang Ray Shin so that we feel it more deeply.

And because of our direct involvement, Detention is able to be coyer about its metaphors, leaving a lot of things ambiguous or unexplained. We don’t demand an immediate explanation because we are invested first and foremost in the predicament of a character we control; we are embroiled in Ray’s process of discovery, our thought processes meant to echo as she catches glimpses of the truth but only puts it together at the end.

Detention (2017)
Detention (2017)

Transference

In terms of typical expectations for a horror story, the film adaptation of Detention seems most effective. Up through a more traditional third-act climax where Ray must rescue Wei from the congregation of spirits so that he, at least, may live, it retains the atmospheric dread that the game and the series lose over time. It manages to interweave creepy images throughout its entire runtime. It is, on its face, a shrewd rendition of the story that I was quite impressed with for feeling like a natural translation without seeming redundant, and that was pretty much the thrust of this article until I got around to writing it.

The Netflix series is long, in the way that Netflix shows always seem to be. I don’t want to oversell it; it often sounds better in theory than it is in practice, with even the expanded plot spread thin across the episode count. It frontloads its few predictable scares in the first few episodes (for the best, admittedly — they look hokey) and ends on an unsatisfying note, as though it’s trying to temper some of the profoundly bleak direction it has taken.

But adapting the game this way, the horror becomes secondary. Interpersonal drama gets such focus that the series might more accurately be classified as a high school drama, the nights tending to pass with nary a bump to be heard. The most unsettling moments in the film and the first half of the game are increasingly fearsome representations of Ray’s avoidance, but in the end they are tools of that avoidance; it’s easier to face an abstract representation than the thing it stands for.

In the game and the film, we eventually see a present-day image of Greenwood. An older Wei looks over the place, his youth stolen from him by a long imprisonment. The school is in ruins and set to be demolished, as though the things that happened in it stained and soured the earth to a degree that’s impossible to salvage (the novel, too, describes a school building that’s been abandoned). If the TV series is by far the least traditionally scary and ends the most optimistically, its premise is nevertheless the most disturbing: it depicts a Greenwood still standing, still staffed by the people who leveraged an authoritarian regime to their own ends.

After a replay, the thing that has stuck with me about Detention is the dissolution of its horror. It feels hugely significant that it just stops. The difficulty with a lot of horror that’s left as very (very) obvious metaphor is that, once stripped back to its realistic dimensions, the fears might seem tame by comparison. But for Detention, once the game purges itself of everything made to obscure the truth, that truth remains the most awful thing to behold. Once the ghosts are gone, there’s only the responsibility for an ultimate ethical betrayal: selling out the minuscule camaraderie of the mutually oppressed and then watching the consequences.

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