To make a successful film adaptation of a video game is to understand the strengths and limitations of both mediums. Amongst the many differences, the most fundamental one is that a film is something that is watched, whereas a game requires your constant interaction. This is why horror games can be so fun and terrifying to play and why their stories can make such an impact; they don’t progress without your physical involvement. You have to be the one who opens the door. You have to be the one who holds your breath while sneaking past a ghost. You have to be the one lost in a seemingly abandoned school, whose hallways lead to a darker labyrinth of secrets and horrible creatures.
This is probably why I was so excited for Detention, an adaptation of a Taiwanese indie horror game that explores the White Terror period in Taiwan through a high school with a haunted past. Even as a premise for a film, there is so much potential here, to take a real historical period of martial law in the country and use horrific tragedies to haunt the present. But the real challenge comes when the film has to make a decision about how to tell its story.
For those who are unfamiliar with the game, which I took the liberty of playing and completing before I saw the film, you play as Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang) and Wei Chong-ting (Tseng Ching-hua), two students who wake up in their classroom only to find their school abandoned, boarded up, and haunted. What happened? Where is everybody? Is it all a nightmare?
The game is played as a 2D point-and-click narrative, in which you solve small puzzles to reveal the next piece of information, as you slowly uncover the story of an underground book club at the school, where a group of students and teachers would read banned material and dream of one day being free of repression, to think and speak for themselves. Of course, the more you progress, the more the school becomes a surreal, nightmarish purgatory that suggests a blend of the fantastical with the psychological (in a similar vein as Silent Hill).
Which brings me to a significant advantage the original game has over this film. While a film is fundamentally composed of a camera perceiving reality, a game is fundamentally created out of nothing. With that, a developer can create only half of a world or half of a room, fill up the rest of the background with scary “static effects,” and still succeed in scaring us. We are effectively immersed because our sense of scope and vision is intentionally limited; a delightful paradox in video game narratives.
Detention performs admirably in recreating some of the most frightening images and backdrops found in the game, from deceased victims dangling from the ceiling to rows of people with bloodied sacks over their heads applauding their country’s greatness. The production design is out-of-this-world, especially for a Taiwanese production. Seeing Ray holding a red candle, as she slowly makes her way down the hall, sends as many chills down my spine as it does adrenaline in my veins. It literally looks like the game brought to life on the big screen.
But director John Hsu comes so close. You can see him trying his very best to capture a sense of dread on screen, but his technique with camera and editing falls short. There isn’t enough thought put into framing a shot, knowing when to sit on a wide, knowing when to pan, or knowing when to make the camera turn a corner. Think about The Shining and how Stanley Kubrick forces us to turn every corner with Danny while he’s riding his trike. It’s unsettling even before we see the twin girls.
When cinematography, sound, and editing converge, a single shot effortlessly creates goosebumps, even if the literal image on screen isn’t horrifying (yet). But too many times, Detention will rely on music cues, jump scares, or even a drop in frame rate to convey its characters’ paranoia. Despite having the most atmospheric location, the film ends up being more concerned with explaining what’s happening narratively than soaking the audience in mystery.
With the game being very goal-oriented, full of mechanics where you collect objects that lead you to unlock rooms and clues, we are effectively given a story full of mystery that slowly unravels the past. Here, the film directly incorporates the past as its own timeline, as it jumps back and forth between what happened then and what’s happening now in the haunted school. This cross-cutting makes for a busy story that’s eager to connect all the dots for you the second they are introduced.
Interestingly enough, it is the film’s very dedication in exploring character backstories and motivations that sets it apart from the original source material, that is Detention works better as a melodrama than as a horror movie. Wang received a Golden Horse (essentially Taiwan’s Oscars) nomination for Best Leading Actress for her work on this film; a surprising but well-deserved recognition. She captures Ray’s emotional limbo, from her depression to her self-realizations when the plot reveals come. While the game can rely on fading from one surreal nightmare to the next, creating a portrait of Ray’s psychological torment, the film needs to rest on performances. Detention thankfully sells this part with great commitment, resulting in a tense and emotionally satisfying climax and ending. If it went on a bit longer, I would have cried.
Despite Hsu not completely nailing the horror aspects of Detention, he has a steady hand in exploring drama and character. In fact, I would say he takes a step further than the game and makes better use of the historical White Terror setting. The idea of using Taiwan’s darkest chapter in its national history to paint a portrait of fate, guilt, and memory is undeniably powerful, and the film is lucky to have such a talented actress like Wang, who carries nearly every emotional beat in the script.
Once again, Detention shows how video game adaptations are so difficult to pull off; it needs to tell a story while honoring the engine that drives the playthrough of the game. But the desire to attempt video game storytelling on a cinematic medium is still alive and well. Detention has already received a second adaptation, that of the 2020 Netflix series, consisting of eight 1-hour-long episodes. I won’t be surprised if Red Candle Games, the video game company behind Detention, will see their next entry, Devotion, adapted into a film. In fact, I would love to see Hsu come back and have Devotion be his next film.
I admire Hsu’s passion for helping Red Candle Games in making demons of a historical period take physical shape, in order to help us make sense of it and move on from it. The takeaway messages are full of substance, which is more than what most horror films have to offer. With Detention being his debut feature, Hsu and his team ended up creating a horror film whose melodramatic elements lingered longer than the ghosts did. Yes, that could be interpreted as both a good thing and a bad thing.
It goes to show how far we’ve come in storytelling on the video game medium and just how much a film adaptation needs to be its own animal. Again, the two mediums have fundamentally different tools to engage an audience. We are still not quite there yet in perfecting an adaptation, but Detention is a small, noticeable step in the right direction.
Detention is currently in limited theaters and virtual cinemas, released by Dekanalog.