By Leon Chen
At first glance, the apartment in Devotion might be mistaken for a haunted space. When asked about the setting, Red Candle’s PR director does not really suggest differently, describing the apartment’s “truly terrifying” nature as deriving from “hideous secrets” and a “dark history…created by its residents” (Nicole Carpenter, The Verge). Typically, a haunted space’s dark history is responsible for its haunting, with hostile entities threatening any who enters. However, Devotion resists the haunted space trope insofar as the supernatural phenomenon in-game are more metaphorical than literal. In the post-credits scene, the protagonist sits in front of the TV, offering what seems to be the first and only glance at the world as it takes place outside of the protagonist’s mind. The other, playable sections of the game make more sense interpreted as taking place within the protagonist’s mind as warped memories, a dream, or a string of hallucinations. Devotion’s setting, then, is not a haunted space, but rather a mind which takes the shape of a haunted space. Some of the more intricate and revealing aspects of Devotion’s horror derive from this endeavour to map the mind, or at least parts of the mind, in three dimensional space.
In more traditional haunted house games, it is the player’s survival instincts which account for the scare factor. The player character’s literal survival against hostile enemies prompt the player’s fear of death or danger. This isn’t really the case in Devotion, however, as the game features neither combat nor game over screens. Although P.T. (which inspired Devotion) is also a walking simulator, survival still features as a game feature, as the ghost can kill the player. This might partially explain why, as some people responded in class, Devotion is less scary than it is unsettling, atmospheric, or creepy. From a gameplay perspective, the imminent threat to survival simply does not exist, which is narratively consistent with the fact that the dark history of the house was created by the protagonist himself. The few exceptions are the occasional jump scares, which again capitalise on the player’s literal survival instincts to be scary.
So how does Devotion craft its unsettling, creepy atmosphere? As Devotion takes place in the protagonist’s mind, Freud’s interpretation of the oceanic feeling might be relevant here. Admittedly, Freud’s interpretation is vague–the ‘oceanic feeling’ seems to invoke religiosity, eternity, and a sense of reassurance which derives from “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.” What do we make of this? If we think of this ‘oceanic feeling’ as a sense of one-ness with the world, the converse must be a feeling of distance from that which is familiar to us. This is not too far off from ‘fear of the unknown’ or unfamiliar, but this wording is too vague, because the novel or unusual need not always be unsettling. Rather, we might think of the converse of the oceanic feeling–a disconnect from the things we take for granted as intuitive and knowable, temporally, spatially, and logically. Devotion systematically denies the oceanic feeling through ‘player amnesia,’ non-euclidean space, and non-linear storytelling.
I’d like to talk about ‘player amnesia’ in the context of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This game achieves a similar denial of the oceanic feeling based on its premise. In Amnesia, the player wakes up in an unfamiliar place, in an unfamiliar body and mind, with no explanation. The player character’s amnesia is expressed through an entirely lacking exposition. Although playing the game gives more clues about the player character’s identity and backstory, these clues are often in the form of cryptic notes which grants this information piecemeal. More importantly, the introduction of a monster hostile to the player character happens before any clear picture of the player character’s memory emerges, denying the oceanic feeling we might feel towards possessing our memories and mental faculties. In parallel, the player in Devotion is thrown into the apartment with no exposition, and the story gradually progresses through screenwriter notes. In terms of setting, the game also interferes with our intuitive understanding of time and space. The non-euclidian nature of the apartment distances the player from an intuitive, familiar experience of space which might otherwise connect him, by common experience, with the knowable logic and rules which govern reality. This is exacerbated by a repeating, inescapable loop of the apartment in non-linear time. The horror that we might be trapped indefinitely contributes to an unsettling claustrophobia.
The last comparison I’d like to make is between the apartment’s loops and our discussion of mazes. In class, Aiden made a very astute observation about the linearity of the game. Deceptively, there is a ‘hub’ area which unlocks mid-way through the game, allowing access to the apartment at different time periods. These branching paths give an illusion of choice, but ultimately, the game can only be completed in one progression path, and there is only one ending. Thematically, this is consistent with an interpretation of the game’s events as a twisted recollection of the apartment’s history. Because the horror exists in the protagonist’s memory, it reflects an immutable past–there can only be one ending because the horror he committed is irreversible, despite guilt or regret. In some way, I think this is one of the most effective aspects of Devotion’s horror. If we interpret the maze as recollection, and by extension, life up until that point, we might question the teleology of progression. Devotion denies an ultimately ‘satisfying’ ending–if there is only one horrifying path and one guilt-ridden ending, traversing the maze was essentially hollow and meaningless.