As a native Brit, with a Taiwanese partner, I have only recently (just over 8 months) become acquainted with Taiwan outside of say media coverage at COMPUTEX. Luckily, I’ve a keen interest in history and my partner feels very strongly about topics with regards to her home country.

I’d suggest to anyone that takes an interest in this article/game/debacle or the wider issues referenced, that they read up briefly on the turbulent history of Taiwan/R.O.C (Republic of China).

The preface to this then, is that Taiwan has a storied and troubled history with China. Namely, the invasions, suppression and atrocities committed against the Taiwanese people but also it’s political blacklisting of even Taiwan’s official name and government, as well as any international support of their independence, doling out punitive measures to the “guilty” parties offering any such support or reference to Taiwan as an independent nation.

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As to me personally; I’ve long been in unashamed awe of much of East Asian culture, cuisine, art and traditions. I’m also a lover of anything horror, films and videogames especially, and very much more appreciative of independent efforts than mainstream outputs. I always try to seek out new media that isn’t perhaps as widely known or critically received but still well reviewed or regarded, the cult hits. I only recently got around to playing Tacoma but it was well worth the wait, what an incredible, beautiful, and haunting experience that will stay with me.

For my partner however, my passion for gaming, or at least the time I sink into it, is one of the more maligned parts of our relationship. So I’ve made an effort to show her how games, in my opinion, can be the highest form of art (my reasoning being that they contain almost every other form of art rolled into one; 2D and 3D art and design, music, writing, directing, acting etc). This is what led me to find a game called Devotion.

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An indie horror game by studio Red Candle Games, set in a Taiwanese apartment block in the 1980's. It was perfect. We both adore horror, it was set in Taiwan and developed by taiwanese people themselves, in an apartment block similar to that which my partner lives in with her family when she returns to Taiwan for the holidays, and it was about creepy cults/religions.

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Perfect.

So I was surprised when I found out that this was the studio that also developed Detention, another highly regarded indie release (which again has sat installed on my PC but unplayed for a shamefully long time). What I did not know at that time was that this prior game is also set in Taiwan. So recently I endeavoured to get them both ready for my partner and I to actually play together. I was surprised again when my partner had already heard about Devotion herself, when I asked her if she would like to play them with me. So we agreed to sit down one night and indulge. I was very much looking forward to a delightfully creepy but cute night with my partner... It’s sorta cute, demented and morbid but cute, right?

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Then this happened.

Screenshot: Nathan Grayson (Kotaku)

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The topics and the game themselves were both by now a little close to heart and at the forefront of our minds and so we’ve watched the ensuing farce, that has practically deconstructed a promising budding game studio and completely absorbed all of the previous positive acclaim that this game was in receipt of not hours before, with an extremely cynical outlook.

Review bombing” is the process of inundating a games public online profile on various storefronts with negative (or positive) reviews which suit the political or personal motivations of the perpetrators. Generally it is used for pummeling a game with negative reviews to overwhelm any previous positive reviews and scores. Effectively sinking it, lowering its ratings and popularity and thus likely causing a drop in sales. Usually this is all in retaliation for some perceived slight generally against the gaming community themselves. It is a pretty irredeemable tactic when in the wrong hands and it is very often in the wrong hands and used to achieve negative results. On the contrary though, for a game that is say criminally under-represented/appreciated to receive a positive review bomb campaign is a nice flipside to this nonetheless misrepresentative and perhaps dishonest tactic.

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So I was a little shocked when Devotion began to pop up in my feeds, regarding a negative review bombing campaign that was under way after a player found a Fulu talisman in the game containing references to a meme regarding the lifetime president of China, Xi Jinping, and his utterly bizarre but popular comparison to Christopher Robin’s fictional children’s character Winnie the Pooh.

Screenshot: The Fulu talisman in Devotion that caused offence. Purportedly a placeholder for the real art which was not, for some reason, updated ingame before release. The literal translations are “Winnie the Pooh”, “Xi Jinping” and “dumbass”. Translating chinese is not a peferct science, but I have verified these with my partner and they’re roughly correct. (Image from dcard.tw, others available on Reddit.)

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The purportedly offended party in this instance, is patriotic “Chinese gamers”. This is in quotations due to the Chinese government being known for using operatives to manipulate just such a mediastorm to further its misinformation and fuel its propaganda machine, actively taking part in said campaigns or wholly creating them. So we don’t even know if any real chinese gamers are offended or not, but the damage has and is being done regardless. As of now the game has been removed from sale on Steam and it’s store page no longer exists, but not before it went from largely positive reviews to a phenomenal amount of negative reviews (lots of these reviews by players who had played less than two hours in total, some mere minutes, presumably so they could leave a review but still be eligible a refund under Steam’s policies (how efficient).

So what I can say definitively? About China, a country without a real democratic system instead host to a one party monocracy, who is widely known for their propaganda, their “firewall” (preventing free, unfettered and unmonitored access into and out of the country) and plenty of recorded and unrecorded human rights violations and humanitarian atrocities over the centuries. A country where games consoles were banned until fairly recently, and the support and availability is still on shaky ground (unfortunately even more so now), whereby most people have to pirate as well as use VPN’s to access anything including games. For Chinese gamers, or even Chinese people at large, to feign offence and indignation to the reference of a meme that dissenters in their own country purportedly invented is quite rich all on it’s own. If indeed these are real people (at least some of them must be, right?), then how can they simply be that out of touch with their own reality? To potentially pirate or temporarily buy a game, barely play it, all just to leave a negative review for an offence against their leader.

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Unfortunately, perhaps without realising it the storm of controversy they themselves have created or contributed to has jeopardised, if not gaming at large, at least the surety of a legal Steam client that has long been in the works for the country, trying to clear Chinese certification and censorship.

And in the end, for what purpose is all of this happening?

The behaviour of the chinese, as time wears on, on a national and international level; towards people (even it’s own) and to other countries especially Taiwan, has been absolutely reprehensible and goes largely unchecked. They consistently commit human rights violations almost on a daily interval as well as, more pertinently, making open threats and promises to the Chinese people that Taiwan is not independent, it is a part of China and it will be part of China. The widely acknowledged inference here is that it is only a matter of time before China makes more aggressive political overtures and perhaps even takes military action against Taiwan, to “reunify” it with the “Mainland” China.

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So how can these Chinese gamers not see through the wall? Happy to be used instead as tools by their government, just pawns in a longer game. That is a much larger question, to which there are many answers, none conclusive and final.

But the real damage here is being done to a naive game developer and studio who were on track for a bright future. With bad actors using Steam and it’s numerous flaws (and I really do mean without number) to exploit a system ripe for such and bury an important, valid voice. A voice from a country that has already many times been silenced, violently, by the Chinese. A voice that deserves to be able say critical, honest and even if they so desire slightly childish things about a country that has long subjugated it.

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Even aside from Red Candle Games and Devotion, is this all something that should be supported by Valve who make, and profit significantly, from Steam as a platform and the games it provides. Are platforms, like these, not for those individual voices that might otherwise be drowned out, to be clearly heard instead and even appreciated? Steam is nothing without it’s games and their developers.

All of this, just as Valve are pushing for Steam to be adopted into China. Is that worth sacrificing a game developer for? How many sacrifices will make it worthwhile and be enough? Studios filled with developers whose hearts and lives are poured into these games, hoping they can cut through the bestsellers and the bile alike on Steam, and now some of which whose lives are in utter turmoil.

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If Steam, as it is wont to do, sits idly by and does nothing once again how can we as gamers continue to support them? Much like being so enamoured with your dictator that you would go to great lengths to defend them and smear others in their name, are we still under the misguided rule of our overlord, for so long our monocracy in PC gaming storefronts?

There are already contenders to the throne ready to replace the behemoth if it falls, but how many will it take down with it first and at what cost?

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I for one, am extremely hopeful for and very invested in the future of Red Candle Games. I can only hope that they recover from this debacle and that their next game, in order of magnitude, will continue their exponential success and acclaim but perhaps, just perhaps, it will also instead be free of any fears of offending the Chinese audience anymore and might embrace a more critical, political and independent voice for Taiwan R.O.C, because they deserve to have that.

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UPDATE 1

Unfortunately, the Chinese publisher of the game, Indievent, recently had their business license revoked in China.

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The international repercussions of such small mistake, by an independent video game developer no less, prove how fraught the situation is right now and serves to highlight the hubris and reach of the current Chinese government.

UPDATE 2

Red Candle Games issued a formal statement on the 15th of this month via their Twitter. In it they take full responsibility and apologise profusely for the whole debacle, whilst also revealing their decision not to re-release Devotion in “the near term”. As well as seemingly forfeiting any profits from the game as of now. This is quite a drastic and magnanimous decision, especially as their previous game Detention has recently been turned into a film (that looks very promising might I add), set for release September 20 this year in Taiwan (no details however on a Western release).

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A less scrupulous developer, would most certainly cash in on the amount of attention this game has received since the trouble began. Red Candle Games however stated that they wished to “prevent unnecessary misconception” and “have absolutely no intent to state a publicity stunt”. As well as the more frank admission that “the focus of the game has shifted drastically since the erroneous art asset was found”.

It appears their lengthy near silence, was spent reflecting deeply and composing this heartfelt message. A wise idea given the circumstances. They do offer hope however, implying that they will continue to develop games in the near future. I personally look forward to putting this in the past and seeing what they will do next, hopefully they can recover quickly and maintain their upward trajectory as a promising indie studio creating meaningful horror games.