Two years after it was controversially pulled from Steam, the Taiwanese horror game Devotion has returned to the international market via self-publishing.
Its developer Red Candle Games announced on March 15 that it’s set up its own e-shop for all of its current and future games. Both Devotion and its previous game, 2017’s Detention, are sold as DRM-free, stand-alone applications for PC and Mac. A bundle of both games is priced at US$41.
It’s a bold move for an indie developer. It’s also one of the last options Red Candle Games had for selling an international version of Devotion, which has ended up as one of the most thoroughly deplatformed games in modern history. Devotion was delisted on Steam two days after its original launch, its original publisher subsequently dropped it, and GOG picked it up for sale in December of 2020 before abruptly reversing that decision later the same day.
It’s the kind of thorough, industry-wide memory holing that’s usually reserved for “troll games” like Active Shooter, where the entire point is tasteless shock value. The problem with Devotion wasn’t its content, however. Instead, it was pure political backlash.
Devotion is a surreal horror-themed “walking simulator” in the spirit of P.T. or Layers of Fear. It’s a bottle episode of a game, primarily set in a nightmare version of a single apartment in 1980s Taipei. Over the course of the game, you unravel the story of a troubled show-business family by visiting their apartment at various crucial points in their lives. It achieved a score of 85 on Metacritic, with particular praise for its strong atmosphere, clear environmental storytelling, and underrepresented setting.
The controversy arose when Chinese players found a poster found on the apartment’s wall at one point, with text that read “Xi Jinping Winnie the Pooh moron.” Jinping, China’s president since 2013, has been unflatteringly compared to Pooh by comedians and critics, which resulted in China banning Pooh-related media in 2018.
More to the point—and this could be considered a mild spoiler for Devotion—the poster in question is reportedly a Fulu talisman, which is a powerful magical symbol in traditional Chinese culture, and is drawn in-game to appear like it’s a curse. It’s roughly equivalent to a voodoo doll.
Red Candle Games quickly patched the offending poster out of Devotion, and offered an apology on the game’s Steam page, claiming that it was a placeholder image that had accidentally made it into the retail version of the game.
The damage had already been done, however. Devotion had quickly picked up a following among Chinese fans and streamers. Once they found the talisman, many of them immediately turned on the game and review-bombed it into the next dimension.
Red Candle Games promptly removed it from Steam for “further QA,” and its publisher Indievent cut ties with it shortly afterward. The Chinese government subsequently yanked Indievent’s business license in July of 2019, entirely due to its involvement with Devotion. That left the game in limbo, although Red Candle did release a Taiwan-only physical edition in the summer of 2020.
The moral of the story, then, is that if your game has ever included an explicit magical curse laid against any public figure, let alone the president of a neighboring nation that you are at least nominally reliant upon to maintain your business licenses, you may want to take that out before you push the retail build.
I said it had a moral. I didn’t say it was a broadly applicable moral.
For now, Devotion is back on the market, although the lack of DRM means that it’s almost certainly up on most of the piracy sites by now. It’s worth paying for, though, both as a solid indie horror experience and a peculiar historical artifact. There aren’t that many banned titles in video game history, and Devotion may be the only one that got banned on the basis of accidentally including black magic. If you ask me, that’s worth $17.