Feature: Inside Red Candle, Taiwan's Iconic Trailblazing Indie Developer 1
Image: Push Square

Red Candle’s atmospheric side-scrolling horror Detention has been adapted into a full-length novel, a blockbuster live action movie, and a high-profile Netflix television series in the near-seven or so years since it debuted – but you wouldn’t know it upon entering the Taiwanese developer’s humble workspace. A non-descript Taipei street – flanked by the usual suspects of convenience stores and road-side eateries – makes way to a fairly uneventful staircase, wherein a team of 16 are toiling away over new title Nine Sols.

Despite its very evident mainstream success, there’s something distinctly homely about the developer’s office, which is underlined by the scattering of carefully discarded shoes on the other side of the entrance. Overlooking this litter of soiled sneakers and collection of Crocs is a shelf of awards, as well as a fish tank and some potted plants. The lighting is somewhat subdued and the layout could be best described as intimate – a far-cry from the sterile, white-washed cubicles of your average city office.

None of this is surprising, of course, when you hear the studio’s story. “At first, all we wanted to do was finish Detention,” explains co-founder Vincent Yang when asked about the team’s 2015 origins. “To begin with, we were founded with six co-founders. We all had this consensus that Detention was something quite interesting, and we didn’t have anything like that in the market back then. To put Taiwanese culture up front and present it in one game was unusual at the time.”

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Detention is unashamedly Taiwanese. Set in the 1960s during a period of real-life political strife known as the White Terror, the game’s horrors are not strictly reserved to the fictional ghouls that roam its high school backdrop’s corridors. “We’d never seen anything like this before,” adds Yang. “It was very eye-catching and we all thought, ‘Okay, this is something that we never thought of, but it could turn into something really cool.’”

The original seed of the idea was conceived by Shun-ting ‘Coffee’ Yao, who brought a prototype of the game to a local indie convention, prompting the six original co-founders to eventually commit to the project. For Yang, quitting his day job to work for Red Candle full-time was an easy decision. “I was working for a bank back then, but my job was boring,” he remembers. “So essentially, I quit my job and started working as an indie game developer. I was working on my own mobile game at the time, which ultimately didn’t get released because of Detention.”

While the six co-founders were unwaveringly committed to completing the ambitious outing, none of them predicted its subsequent success. “We felt very fortunate because, to be honest, back then we didn’t think it was going to be a big hit,” Yang continues. “Like I said, no one had ever played an authentic Taiwanese game before.” That unusual backdrop ultimately helped elevate the release above its peers, however, and it’s something the studio would lean even more heavily into for 2019’s first-person adventure Devotion.

Yang, though, believes exposing Taiwanese culture to the globe is not Red Candle’s responsibility – it just makes sense for the studio to explore the subjects it knows. “If we’re making a European game that’s set in medieval times, none of us are exposed to that culture,” he admits. “So, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time studying it. We’re going to have to double the efforts on what is the best way to represent what we’re trying to create. And in a sense, I think that’s sort of taking the long route. Why would we?”

According to Yang, looking to its own culture for inspiration has the added benefit of allowing its software to stand out in a crowded indie market. “In terms of Japanese games, or European games, or American games, there’s tons of them,” he observes. “Our own culture and heritage, the Daoist elements that we grew up with, that’s how we differentiate ourselves in the global market. And we’ve found success in it, too.”

Feature: Inside Red Candle, Taiwan's Iconic Trailblazing Indie Developer 13
Image: Push Square

Of course, while the studio enjoyed unprecedented acclaim with Detention, its strong Taiwanese flavour would lead to unexpected political controversy shortly after the release of Devotion. Some art assets accidentally left in the final game’s build were alleged to mock the Chinese Communist Party’s Xi Jinping, which led to the title being review bombed on PC gaming storefront Steam. Despite receiving support from Taiwan’s vice premier Chen Chi-mai at the time, the title was eventually removed from sale, and remains unavailable on Valve’s platform today.

Two years later, Red Candle eventually re-released the game on its own website, but it’s never been ported to PlayStation like its predecessor, Detention. For Yang and the rest of his team, it’s clearly a sore subject. “You can't separate the two things, right? The game is the controversy,” he sighs. “We rarely go out there and do stuff like interviews. We let our games really represent us. But the thing with Devotion is it gives people the wrong idea of what we're trying to say. And so that really hurts.”

Divorced from the controversy, though, Devotion is another remarkable game from Red Candle – and with even more impressive production values than its predecessor. Inspired enormously by the throngs of walking simulator-style horror experiences made viable by Hideo Kojima’s infamous Silent Hills teaser, the title takes place entirely in a Taipei apartment complex in the 80s, and its authentic atmosphere expands unnervingly to the tiniest details, like each room’s décor and the presentation of the television broadcasts which are interspersed throughout the campaign. While the storm surrounding the title means it’ll always be remembered for its alleged political message, the release is more about religious fanaticism – and the dangers of it.

As Yang reflects on the controversies that ultimately consigned Devotion to obscurity, the office is aflutter with activity as the team tests levels from its newest title, Nine Sols – a distinct departure from the type of releases Red Candle is known for. An action platformer with rhythmic gameplay similar to FromSoftware’s iconic Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the obvious Taiwanese influences of its past two titles are more difficult to identify here.

“We're a team that really wanted to explore new things, and after Detention and Devotion, none of our core members left the company,” Yang begins when asked why it’s decided on such an enormous departure for its newest project. “We've been working on horror stuff for so long that we all feel kind of burned out by it. We only have limited things that we can share on one subject. So, to come up with yet another horror game, without resting for a bit, I think that's difficult for each member.”

Nine Sols sounds like a reset for the studio, then, but is there a danger it could leave the community it’s cultivated over the last several years behind? “Not to say that our local audience is not important, but I think every game has its own purpose,” explains Yang. “And I feel like Nine Sols’ purpose is to broaden our player base and showcase us to the world. in a sense, that's one of the risks we have to take. Locally, people may not enjoy it. You can't win everything at once, right?”

Yang believes that by putting gameplay first, as opposed to atmosphere and narrative, the developer has an opportunity to achieve real global recognition. “In a way, side-scroller action games are mainstream. So, that's something that we want to try. What if we make a game that's more focused on gameplay and more focused on the Western market? That's what we wanted to find out.”

Despite this very obvious change in direction, Nine Sols is still looking locally for inspiration, with the game’s lore blending elements of Daoism with cyberpunk. “Without giving away spoilers, all I can say is that there are a lot of traditional Daoism ideas that we wanted to incorporate into the game,” Yang reveals. “We wanted to represent those ideas in the game. Players may want to start Googling stuff – in fact, that would be cool, that's our goal.”

If the gameplay is a departure from the atmospheric narrative horror of Red Candle’s previous releases, so too is the art direction – although its influences are obvious to see all around the organisation’s office walls. “We took a lot of influence from Japanese anime and comics,” admits Yang. “Growing up in Taiwan, you just happen to be exposed to a lot of movies like Akira. So, stuff like the famous opening of Ghost in the Shell, where there's the parade in Japanese street, we felt that's something that we can do with our own culture, too.”

And despite the change in influences and inspiration, it doesn’t look like the developer has turned off its audience entirely, as Nine Sols absolutely blew past its NT$3,000,000 target (~US$97,000), raising an enormous NT$13,600,000 (~$445,000) in total. For Yang, this served as reassurance the studio was heading in the right direction. “We’d been working on the game for three years, since the release of Devotion in 2019, and were a bit short on cash, so we thought [the crowdfunding was] a win-win,” he remembers. “We launched the campaign and if people liked it, that meant we were heading in the right direction. If it never got funded, we would have known there’s something wrong with the project.”

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Image: Push Square

However, Red Candle is aware it’s attempting to infiltrate a market already occupied by multiple standout side-scrollers, such as Dead Cells and Hollow Knight – both of which were early influences for the game. Early prototypes leaned heavily into the art direction, but Yang admits they lacked a je ne sais quoi, which only changed once the team was exposed to the aforementioned Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

“We all played it, and we felt like there's something in Sekiro that we can translate that into the 2D platformer world, which is the deflecting system,” he says. “And the funny part is, it syncs up with our setting as well. If you're familiar with Daoism, there's a concept of Taiji. And the Taiji way of combat is to receive energy from the enemy and return it to the enemy's self. The person who performs Taiji never uses his own strength. Instead, he uses the strength, or the chi, they say, from nature. And we feel like that whole system goes so well with the deflecting system.”

Yang believes it’s this mechanic, along with the game’s striking setting, that will help it to stand out. “I'm confident to say that you cannot find anything like Nine Sols in the market right now,” he exclaims. “A 2D game that's focused on deflecting! That, combined with the Daoism and cyberpunk setting, is what makes us different.”

But as we head into 2024, it’s been almost five years since the controversial release of Devotion, so how much longer do we need to wait? “Right now, all the stages are set and most of the grey boxes are all planned out. So, now we need to finish it up, in terms of all the hand-drawn stuff and all the animations.”

Yang explains that this hasn’t been a straight-forward project for Red Candle’s artists. “I always feel bad for our artists,” he gasps. “Because we're asking them to do, essentially, really crazy background stuff that normally games don't do.” He explains that ordinarily games will blur out the backdrops as it’s not the centre of attention, but in Nine Sols every asset is in focus and densely detailed. “Normally you see that in comic books, but you don't see that in games. That's cool. But even at this point, I don't know if that's the right decision or not. All I can say is there's no turning back now.”

And it’s that bold, fearless thinking that’s defined Red Candle since its inception. In the near-decade since its six founders bravely quit their dependable day jobs in order to realise Detention’s vision, it’s had to navigate a political nightmare and reinvent itself. And with the developer acting as a trailblazer in the space, Yang admits the sheer number of local productions has been steadily increasing over the past ten years.

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Image: Push Square

“Taiwanese developers nowadays have more resources and they're more willing to work on their own little project, but I have to say the risk is still pretty high,” he admits. “Less than one per cent of the indie games are going to make it. And that's just the harsh reality that everyone's going to have to face. But I think in terms of quantity and quality, it's increased so much over the years. So, I'm optimistic about the future of locally made indie games.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Thanks to Vincent Yang, Iris Lin, and the entire Red Candle team for inviting Push Square inside your studio and taking so much time to talk to us.