On Feb. 23, four days after its release, popular PC game Devotion is unavailable for download in China after it sparked charged debate online. The game initially captivated Chinese netizens, until Weibo users pointed out hidden political messages.

Update: The developer behind Devotion has removed the game from the Steam store across all regions today, citing technical issues that cause unexpected game crashes. It also said that it wants to use the opportunity to ease the pressure in its community and further review the game for other unintended references. The statement comes on the heels of an apology dated Monday, which called the hidden references an “awfully unprofessional mistake” and asked players for time to address it.

The Taiwanese “first-person horror game depicting the life of a family shadowed by religious belief” was released on Feb. 19 on PC game distribution platform Steam. In the days following Devotion’s launch, the relevant hashtag #还愿 (huanyuan, #Devotion in English) quickly received over 120 million views on Weibo. The hashtag and original posts have disappeared from the popular Chinese social media platform.

Online discussion on the distribution platform, the world’s largest PC game online distributor, quickly turned sour on Feb. 23. Unlike other social media, Steam only allows users who have downloaded the game to comment on its page.

For instance, one player with the handle “xia,” or “summer” in English, gave the game a positive review in simplified Chinese on Feb. 21, calling it “possibly the best horror game in China.” On Feb. 25, the user, who identified as a Chinese national, added that they felt “shocked by the insidiousness of the developer” but wouldn’t change the review, calling upon people to take the matter more rationally. Other Steam users responded with fierce criticism, saying that summer’s comments show a lack of integrity for a Chinese person.

Before that, the comments in simplified Chinese that were rated as “most helpful” showed a positive view of the game. Currently, reactions on Steam are divided. Based on TechNode’s observations, players who comment in English and traditional Chinese generally give positive reviews, citing its “quality art design,” “polished details,” and “great atmosphere,” whereas players who comment in simplified Chinese condemn the developer for slipping politically charged content into a game with great potential.

On the day that Devotion disappeared from the Chinese version of Steam, the developer company, Red Candle Games, issued a public apology on its Facebook and Steam pages. It addressed players and netizens who were offended by references to highly controversial topics pertaining to Chinese authorities. The game’s publisher, Indievent, announced that it ceased all partnership with the developer.

The debate revolved around hidden references in the game to Chinese President Xi Jinping. These “Easter eggs” are obscured, minute details that are not easily spotted in the gameplay, but are perceived as intentional. Among them is a seal that appears on a wall, featuring a traditional Chinese symbol for sinister spells. Next to the seal are the characters of the President’s name and those of a popular children’s cartoon that he is sometimes likened to.

The developer company claimed that an unnamed employee was responsible for this and other critical references to Chinese authorities and that their actions went undetected by the rest of the team.

As of Feb. 24, information about the game posted after Feb. 23 cannot be found on Chinese search engine Baidu. The website returns zero results for searches of the game in Chinese, and searching for it English will only yield results posted before Feb. 23. Video playthroughs of the game have also disappeared from Chinese video sharing websites AcFun and Bilibili.

Discussions about the game on Twitter and Facebook are also heated. In addition to taking sides, many users are confused about what the developer is trying to achieve with what they consider to be a childish way to express political views.

“It’s okay to express your own views, even political ones. But if you know your [sic] audience are [sic] not with you and it’s meaningless to provoke them, you don’t insult them by calling who they support idiot,” said a Twitter user with the handle “Sinner7122”, whose profile claims that she is an environmental engineer based in Beijing.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect two announcements from Red Candle Games dated February 25 and 26.

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail: tony.xu@technode.com

Eliza was TechNode's blockchain and fintech reporter until July 2021, when she moved to CoinDesk to cover crypto in Asia. Get in touch with her via email or Twitter.

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