Well this is a strange turn of events. The critically acclaimed psychological horror game “Devotion” by Red Candle Games was at the center of an international controversy soon after it was released on Steam in February 2018. The game contained a poster which provoked a variety of heated responses from different sources because it contained an insulting joke aimed at the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
For some, it may seem like including insults or jokes at political figures is an innocuous expression of their freedom to criticize powerful figures. The insult was not a threat, it was not a major focus of the game, and the developer also issued a public apology, stating that the poster was not intended to be included in the final game, but it was placeholder artwork which mistakenly got included in the final release.
But the Chinese government had a very different take on this, where their tolerance for publicly released media that is perceived to be mocking or attacking the country’s leadership is extremely low.
Seemingly unintentionally, this game from a small team in Taiwan found itself at the center of a heated debate over freedom of expression and censorship that spilled out around the world. It ultimately resulted in the game being pulled from sale on Steam entirely, and then the Chinese government taking action against the Chinese based publisher of the game, Indieevent, having their business license revoked, resulting in them shutting down completely. This happened across a backdrop of Valve putting together the now launched government-approved version of Steam for China, a potentially massively lucrative endeavor for Valve, that will require them surrendering a greater level of control to the government than they would typically do in the vast majority of other regions they operate in.
Many thought that this was perhaps going to be the last we would hear of the game in question, with the developer taking an apologetic stance seeking to de-escalate the controversy, and posting a message on Facebook in July 2019, explaining their position:
“This incident has significantly and adversely impacted all parties. Our partner has been making every effort to assist Red Candle. While mediation is still in progress, Red Candle’s co-founders have reached a unanimous decision to not re-release ‘Devotion’ in the near term, including but not limited to obtaining profit from sales, revision, IP authorization, etc. to prevent unnecessary misconception.
As we reflect on the situation, we notice many players, industry friends, and the media are starting to understand that the incident was indeed a malfunction of project management, not a deliberate act. If in the future, the public would be willing to view this game rationally and allow us the opportunity to rebuild trust with our players, Red Candle would reconsider re-releasing ‘Devotion’.”
And it would seem that this opportunity has arisen, with the news that a time-limited physical-only release of the game is coming, to be exclusively sold in the developer’s native Taiwan via the developer’s own website.
For 980NT$ (about 33 US Dollars) there will be a normal edition, which includes the game, a storybook, a bookmark and some stickers.
For 1200NT$ (about 40 US Dollars), there’s a version that includes the about, plus the game Original Soundtrack on a CD.
The catch is that these will only be available for a very limited time, with sales beginning today, and ending on June 15th. This is a temporary offer, with the game being pulled from sale again after a week. It’s not clear if they will ever repeat this, or if this is some kind of trial run for plans to distribute it more widely in the future, but this is perhaps a release that horror fans can throw their support behind, or that will satisfy those who advocate for freedom of expression. This is bound to become somewhat of a collector’s item, being such a limited release and being only readily available to a select group of customers. The site even warns that “Overseas players should not place orders”, and it’s hard to imagine what hurdles someone outside of Taiwan would have to jump through to be able to get their hands on a copy.
Perhaps this is the final chapter in the story of Devolution, or perhaps in the coming months and years, Red Candle Games might find another way to get their game into the hands of players around the world. There are no straightforward answers for how to resolve situations like this, where Red Candle Games clearly want to attempt to move past what they consider to have been a mistake, but in the eyes of the Chinese political leadership, the damage has already been done. It’s hard to imagine any major games platform agreeing to distribute the game internationally if they also have plans to operate their business in China going forward, and Red Candle Games themselves don’t seem enthusiastic about the idea of any kind of action that could inflame the tensions that this controversy has caused so far.
The nature of PC as a platform, where you don’t actually need any particular platform’s approval to release a game does give developer Red Candle Games an opportunity to self-publish and self-distribute this physical edition. Were this a game that had been released for a console, or perhaps on the iOS app store or on Google Play for Android, this situation would have played out very differently, where it would have been nigh on impossible to take full control of their game. Whilst it’s unlikely that Devotion would ever return to Steam or appear on any of the other large platforms for PC games, given that Red Candle Games retained the rights to publish the game themselves, a small scale self-distributed release was possible, and in fact, might be the only possible way left for this game to reach player’s hands.