Devotion, the video game, is a first-person horror title by the Taiwanese developer Red Candle that was on its way to becoming a crossover hit.
And then someone discovered an Easter egg within the game, a scrap of paper that invoked a curse on Winnie the Pooh.
All hell broke loose.
Taipei’s No Party for Cao Dong is massive in China — the band went from small shows in dive bars to filling out stadiums, and now you can find its songs in KTV booths nationwide. Every bit of that fame is deserved.
No Party for Cao Dong is an incredible band: loud, harsh, uncompromising, intelligent, and emotionally resonant. But it owes the bulk of its acclaim to the sheer force of its songwriting.
Earlier this year, the band was approached by Taiwanese game developer Red Candle Games to write the theme song for its long-awaited second title: a first-person horror title called Devotion (还愿 huányuàn). Set in a 1980s Taipei apartment, it was a meditation on religious belief, the weight of parental and societal expectation, and demons both psychological and…Taoist.
The game was a follow-up to Red Candle’s award-winning and fantastic debut, Detention (返校 fǎn xiào), which tackled weighty issues like what pervasive censorship does to a society and how societal trauma must be confronted before it metastasizes into literal monsters.
The song “Devotion” would be Cao Dong’s first release since its 2016 debut album. Like Red Candle’s games, the group’s songwriting expertly layers hidden meanings,-burying secrets within the verses. “Devotion” turned out to be a signature Cao Dong song, weighty yet effortless, melancholy yet beautiful.
Cao Dong and Red Candle, it was a match made in hell — which is to say, a special kind of horror game heaven.
I can speak personally to both Red Candle games’ qualities: they are spectacularly well-observed and intensely unsettling. Horror feeds on subverting the familiar, and the games capture material culture in Chinese cities in a way no one else has even tried. Devotion is, without a doubt, a minor masterpiece and should have been Chinese narrative gaming’s first crossover hit.
For the first week after its release, many gamers in mainland China felt the same way. The live-streaming channels on Huya and BiliBili were dominated by Devotion. Thousands were moved to tears by Cao Dong’s elegiac coda to the game’s story. There was an entire cottage industry dedicated to explaining the cultural context of its detailed world and picking apart its many Easter eggs.
Alas, you probably sense where this is going.
One day, a gamer discovered a scrap of paper, hidden deep in the game, which invoked a curse on Winnie the Pooh, alluding to Chinese president Xi Jinping:
The backlash was swift — the game was thoroughly scrubbed off the Chinese internet. It was soon removed from sale (after an intense period of review bombing by mainland gamers), the publisher’s business license was canceled, and Red Candle went into game developer exile, where it remains to this day.
Cao Dong’s “Devotion” was just a footnote to this saga, but its relegation to obscurity even within the band’s canon is a disappointment. It was a strong contender for song of the year, but instead it lives as a spirit haunting the band’s fandom. Its best song yet, doomed to wander in limbo.
The closing lines are almost prophetic:
hái xiǎng hé nǐ tánlùn yǔzhòu hé tiānkōng
I still want to talk
about the universe and the skies
huò shì shātān lǐ de suì shí hé rénshēng
About the ground beneath our feet
and about life.
nǐ huì bù huì háishì tǎnshuài de xiàozhe
But can you still laugh at…
wǒ de huāngtáng
wú chù hǔnluàn
yě wú chù shì nǐ wǒ
…there’s nowhere left for you and I.
Friday Song is SupChina’s weekly sign-off. Let us know what you thought of the week that was in the comments below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.