Devotion and Transactional Love

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What is familial love based on? Sometimes it’s an inherent love because of bonds, biological or otherwise, that bind people together. But sometimes it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement where each party does something for the other. That sounds like a cold way of describing family, but when you spend so much time doing for each other, expectations can form and can go from reasonable to entitled before you know it. When you view the people you’re supposed to love as part of a transaction that benefits you, the place that you call home can start to warp and rot. Devotion, the latest game from Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games, makes this very literal and shows the dangers of transactional love.

Devotion mostly takes place in a single apartment, though it changes based on specific time periods and thematic links to what was happening to the family living there. The story is about that family: The father, screenwriter Du Feng Yu, the mother, retired superstar Gong Li Fang, and their daughter Du Mei Shen. The main crux of the story revolves around Mei Shen’s sickness, which prevents her from going to school or on regular trips, as she cannot handle the strain of leaving the apartment very often. When she does leave, it’s to perform on televised talent shows, as the family has been training her to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a superstar.

One of the first signs you come across that hints that something malevolent is going on with the family is a discarded script that Feng Yu wrote that boils down to how it’s a child’s duty to find financial success and take care of their parents in return for all the years of care and nurturing the child received when they were young. There’s no notion of caring because of inherent love in that scene, only the child’s duty and how they owe their parents something tangible. Having and raising children is seen as an investment, and them growing up the culmination of a transaction that benefits the parents.

The transactional foundation upon which Feng Yu built his family infects every part of it to the point where Li Fang feels that she can only get what she wants out of life by engaging with this distorted way of operating as a family. As the finances start to run dry thanks to Mei Shen’s illness and Feng Yu donating so much money to a folk god in service of helping Mei Shen recover, Li Fang wants to return to performing, something she gave up to have a family but still very much wants to do. Her proposal was that it would bring in more finances and keep the household’s head above water. Feng Yu rejects this proposal, but the fact that Li Fang even framed it this way at all shows how Feng Yu’s outlook warped their home life.

His daughter, too, learns about how the world revolves around transactions and exchanges from her father. A storybook he reads to her about a quest a little girl goes on to save her father from a fatal illness. To do this, she needed to water a seed with sacred water resulting in a field of tulips that cured the father. This taught Mei Shen a very simple lesson of cause and effect, leading to her learning how to fold origami tulips and trying to make enough to have her own field and be cured of her affliction.

How you interact with the apartment, too, drives home the transactional nature of how the father viewed his daughter. As you explore every incarnation of the apartment, you progress by finding items that represent something about the family and using them in specific places. This is a very horror game trope, but it takes on extra meaning in Devotion. It shows that the very nature of this home was built on a transactional model.

Viewing family in this way is a very rigid, narrow way of looking at what really is a complicated set of relationships with no easy answers. Feng Yu sees the world as one big web of equivalent exchanges. If you just give the right thing to the right party, you can get what you want. That’s why it was so difficult for him to accept that Mei Shen’s illness was actually born from extreme anxiety. In addition to the general stigma mental illness has, it’s also something that you can’t really negotiate. Most physical ailments have a clear cure, and you need only pay a doctor to start down the path of recovery. Mental illness isn’t so simple, though. There’s no way that pills or vitamins will lead to wellness. It’s much more complicated and messier, something you can’t transaction your way out of. Feng Yu rejects this because it doesn’t fit into his view of the world.

That’s what leads him directly to religious fanaticism to solve this problem. The lack of an easy exchange in solving anxiety issues meant he needed to find a new one that would fit his worldview. Giving money to Mentor Heuh in the name of offering to the god Cigu Guanyin in exchange for making his daughter well made more sense to his twisted way of seeing the world than dealing with the very complicated reality of an anxiety disorder. We see the depths to which Feng Yu is willing to go in a sort of allegorical ceremony where he scoops his eye out of his socket and yanks out his tongue in exchange for making his daughter well again. While this isn’t real exactly, it does represent his absolute commitment to transactional love.

His devotion to this worldview culminates into fanatical tragedy when, at Heuh’s direction, he submerged Mei Shen in a bathtub full of snake wine for seven days without interruption, killing her in the process. But the damage was already stacking up prior to this. Li Fang left him, and his apartment morphed into a shrine to Cigu Guanyin. In playing Devotion, we see the apartment morph and change based on moments that happened in this home, and the damage is everywhere. One configuration is so fell that it looks like a hellscape covered in eyeballs.

It’s true that families do things for each other, and it can look like a transactional exercise. But real, healthy familial love doesn’t come with strings attached. There’s no expectation of reciprocation. You do things for your family because you love them and want to see them happy and thriving. If everything is a transaction based on equivalent exchange and mutual self-interest, resentment will build and the home becomes as twisted as the apartment appears in the game. Real familiar love expects nothing in return. That’s what makes it beautiful.

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