Devotion is a first person psychological horror game set in 1980s Taipei. In it, you play as the father in a family of three as he explores his clearly haunted apartment through the years. As the player, you must investigate and interact with the apartment to learn what happened to this home and the family in it.
Gameplay and How Devotion Tries to Transform the Player
Devotion is a game that can be progressed by completing puzzles, collecting notes, and interacting with objects. For the first half of the game, this is all done in the same apartment unit. The entire game seeks to investigate the past, so there are four different years that you explore the apartment through. Though the apartment regularly transforms, often due to shifts in time, the general map remains the same.
This refrain of space, coupled with puzzles necessary to master knowledge of this space, triggers a common desire from players who tend to play puzzle-heavy, story-based games: master the space. Devotion does satisfy the desire of learning, as all players learn the entire story to complete the game. However, to maintain the horror element, the predictable and classic experience of complete puzzles and learning in a linear way is warped. Jumpscares and flashbacks push the player out of the apartment regularly, only for them to re-enter and have the space look almost completely different. Rapid changes to the environment curtail the player’s perceived ability to complete a puzzle or task presented in front of them. However, the embedded narratives in these relatively unfamiliar environments contain the sort of information the player was attempting to find in the first place.
A good example of this would be the player’s first interaction with the apartment. When getting oriented with the space, the player is able to interact with different objects to learn about the Du family. The apartment is entirely open for interaction except for the locked bathroom. This gives the player their first perceived objective: find something in the apartment to unlock the bathroom and learn more. This pushes the player to keep interacting with different objects in the apartment, in search of a key. However, there is no key. Rather, there are so many different puzzles and pieces of information presented to the player that they may forget about or give up on unlocking the door. The information that’s provided in this non-linear way of storytelling seeks to do two things. One, stem the player’s desire to focus on one immediate, seemingly unimportant object. Two, this stemmed desire is in favor of the amount of exposition that player receives from going with the game’s mashed up way of storytelling.
Bringing this back to the door example:
One, the interest in unlocking the door pushes the player to search for a key
Two, the player’s search for a key is intercepted by jumpscares, other puzzles, and general flow of storytelling. These are the ways that Devotion tries to stem desire for spatial mastery.
Three, the initial objective of unlocking the door is either forgotten or deemed unimportant in comparison to the other things brought to the player’s attention
Four, the player is eventually taught about the locked door’s importance in a way that they weren’t expecting to.
Devotion centers on a family of three. The mother is Gong Li Fang, a retired actress. The father is Feng Yu, a failing playwright. Together, they have a daughter named Du Mei Shin. All three members of the family hope for Du Mei Shin to succeed as a famous singer. She was featured on a televised singing competition for some years where she experienced a winning streak. Unfortunately, many unfortunate events occur for the player to end up in Devotion’s destroyed, clearly haunted apartment. As the father continues to fail with his plays, the family is met with financial struggle and stress. This stress gets to their daughter Mei Shin who eventually experiences difficulty breathing. She loses her winning streak and, due to the amount of hope that her parents have pinned on her, this is a great cause of frustration for the entire family. Mei Shin sees multiple doctors who find nothing physically wrong with her, and eventually suggest psychiatric evaluation. Mei Shin’s parents are in denial of any mental health issues, and seek out religion to help. The mother turns to traditional prayer while the father turns to a cult. Feng Yu throws a lot of money and focus on this cult which, given their financial situation, causes a rift in his marriage, resulting in the mother leaving their home. This, as a result, worsens Mei Shin’s anxiety and, ultimately, Feng Yu’s desperate devotion for a cult cure. The story ends with Feng Yu completing a cult ritual that causes him to gouge out an eye, remove his tongue, and trap his daughter in a rice wine bath for one week straight. This kills Mei Shin, ending their story.
Embedded Narratives in Devotion
A large amount of Devotion’s exposition and storytelling is rooted in embedded narratives. When speaking of embedded narratives, Henry Jenkins states that “a story is less a temporal structure than a body of information.” Devotion really demonstrates this with its use of collected and interactive items. To aid in storytelling, these items are scattered and repeated to create a story in the player’s head that, despite not being shown in a connected way, forms a linear and comprehensive story.
The role of embedded narratives in storytelling is well-explained as Henry Jenkins states, “One can imagine the game designer as developing two kinds of narratives – one relatively unstructured and controlled by the player as they explore the game space and unlock its secrets; the other prestructured but embedded within the mise-en-scene awaiting discovery.” Embedded narratives in Devotion are relatively unstructured, but a lot of the cutscenes, jumpscares, and exposition waiting is carefully placed to uncover a coherent, “pre-authored narrative.” Embedded narratives can exist to enrich the main, planned-out story, and devotion does this well.
Here is an example of an embedded narrative in Devotion:
Tulips are littered throughout Devotion. Our first interaction with tulips in Devotion comes when we interact with a page from the father’s play. In it, we see a scene where the daughter, Mei Shin, folds a paper tulip for her father Feng Yu. On the page, we learn that the father’s play was met with unsuccess, and that Mei Shin folded paper tulips as an act of love. We see a paper tulip again in the back of a storybook that Feng Yu always read to Mei Shin before bed. At the end of the game, we see many paper tulips as the gameplay shifts from Feng Yu’s perspective to Mei Shin’s. In this scene, Mei Shin’s love for her father coupled with Feng Yu’s angst toward his failed dream connect to portray a more whole narrative in the final image: Mei Shin and Feng Yu’s love for each other (depicted by the storybook tulip) was impacted by Feng Yu’s failure (indicated in the play). This adds up to the final narrative of Mei Shin riddled with anxiety as she folds paper tulips alone. In the face of difficulty, her father stopped paying attention to the things that brought them joy.
The importance of this embedded narrative is that it gives the player a greater understanding of the amount of loss experienced in this family. The tulips, along with other embedded narratives, help to increase Devotion’s emotional stakes, allowing the family’s tragic end to be considered truly devastating.
These embedded narratives are so effective because they speak to the past in a nonlinear way that does not give the player the full picture initially. However, as more embedded narratives come into play, the pre-planned narrative continues to grow into full effect. With this, the puzzle-piece thought process that comes as a result is even more effective than either of these storytelling methods being used on their own. Completely linear storytelling allows for predictability, whereas a complete lack of linearity leaves room for unresolved convolution.
And, going back to how Devotion stems the idea of mastery, embedded narratives help by widening the parabolic scope of the game. Learning the importance of the tulips in Devotion, for example, is satisfying because it gives the player deep insight into the characters’ relationships to each other. In my own experience, the tulips are emotionally evocative enough to make the player thankful for the ability to learn about them. This, in part, distracts the player, temporarily or otherwise, from the desire to do a simple cut-and-try gameplay that looks and feels completely linear.