My time with The Medium has convinced me that if videogames ever hope to be held in the same regard as literature and cinema on the storytelling front, they need editors – someone whose entire job is to determine what stays and what goes, and to arrange the remaining pieces into something focused and coherent.
Team Bloober is clearly full of talented people, and The Medium has flashes of brilliance at every turn – evocative images, strong gimmicks and gut-wrenching story beats. It’s also full of awkward tonal shifts and underexplored themes. There’s enough material here for three productions of this size, leaving me with the rare criticism that The Medium probably should have been longer. It speeds through everything as if hoping that we won’t have time to ask questions, and then still has the gall to end on a sequel hook, as if the devs somehow didn’t get everything off their chests this time around.
Our titular medium is Marianne, able to commune with tormented souls. She runs a funeral home in Krakow, helping spirits transition to the afterlife. She has no knowledge of where her gift came from, but not fifteen minutes into the game, she receives a phone call from a stranger who purports to share what he knows about her past if she agrees to meet him at a remote workers’ resort, abandoned decades prior when a nightmarish massacre supposedly happened there.
The facility itself, Niwa, is a relic of Poland’s communist days, and anyone who’s seen footage of present-day Pripyat is likely conditioned to feel a chill up their spine whenever they’re shown Eastern Bloc architecture in a state of decades-long abandonment – universal shorthand for “something awful happened here.” And while a massacre certainly qualifies as “awful,” further investigation reveals that the cuts run even deeper – child abuse, black science and the freaking Holocaust are all on the table.
Marianne has the ability to peer into an alternate universe where lost spirits wander, and while Niwa itself is a triumph of production design, this mirror dimension is where Bloober truly lets its artists run wild. Drenched in perpetual burnt umber, covered in fleshy surfaces and unnatural growths, the ghost realm is the sort of hellscape that belongs on the cover of a heavy metal album, though The Medium is a considerably more somber affair than that.
This alternate dimension is also The Medium’s signature gimmick. The material and spiritual realms share the same basic environmental wireframe models, and oftentimes, instead of having us navigate each version of this world individually, The Medium will go splitscreen and show us both simultaneously as we move Marianne and her spiritual double through them in tandem. A table on the left side of the screen might be shown as a pile of corpses on the right, and so on. Marianne has special powers in the spirit world, and obstructions occasionally only manifest in one realm or the other. The puzzles practically design themselves.
For a while, The Medium is straightforward enough – we explore the environment, digging for clues and engaging in light puzzle-solving. As we learn more about the resort’s tortured history, however, Marianne begins confronting her demons, both figuratively and literally.
The call to a remote and seemingly deserted location, a hellish alternate reality that only the main character can see, a series of encounters with monsters that personify past traumas… anyone even passingly familiar with horror games can see how The Medium is positioning itself as the modern successor to the dormant Silent Hill franchise. Bringing in that series’ mainstay composer, Akira Yamaoka, to score the game wasn’t an accident, either.
But while The Medium desperately wants to be a personal journey, the baffling decision to make Marianne an amnesiac robs her of any intimate connection to this madness, as it’s hard for her to be tormented by things she just learned about today. Hell, she even quips on a regular basis, calling a pair of bolt cutters “Agent Cutters” or referring to the act of pushing a dumpster as “the great dumpster heist of 1999.” These moments aren’t cute or funny — they’re just out of place in a story where child abuse and the Holocaust come up. If the main character isn’t going to take this seriously, why should I?
We get constant glimpses of more interesting events that once played out in Niwa, but Marianne just flits between them, feeling like a side character in her own story until the last few minutes when Bloober suddenly decides that she needs to have a potent emotional reaction to something.
The Medium’s most promising narrative beats involve a secondary character who has the power to invade a person’s subconscious. It happens a couple of times and they’re visually awe-inspiring moments, playing like a more hellish version of similar sequences from Bloober’s own Observer. This is where The Medium’s most sensitive material is brought up, and they do warrant the ambiguous trigger warning that is shown at the game’s boot-up.
At a glance, the subject matter is handled tactfully, refusing to blatantly spell anything out and forcing us to read between the lines. But Bloober just races through it, and the only reason that this stuff is ultimately brought up is to illustrate why certain characters are mentally tormented — and really, that could have been caused by anything. I’m not of the opinion that any subject matter is inherently off-limits provided that it’s treated with care, but pulling from real-world traumas that Bloober knows will trigger people without any real justification other than to add “flavor” to the narrative just feels icky and exploitative.
This rampant identity crisis bleeds into the play itself. The Medium has the looks to rival any modern AAA game – ray tracing and everything! – but production values of this magnitude apparently meant that Bloober couldn’t settle for the game being a gussied-up walking simulator like their recent titles. So, every once in a while they insert mortal danger into the mix. There’s exactly one enemy in The Medium, and without wishing to be hyperbolic, our encounters with this creature are the worst thing in the history of videogames.
The demon in question – the Maw – can kill Marianne in one hit, and since there’s no combat in The Medium, our only option is stealth. The first problem is that the game’s controls often have a mind of their own.
The Medium employs the lost art of fixed camera angles, which I love as a horror tool that lets developers dictate what the player sees. However, the game doesn’t have ‘tank’ controls, meaning that every time the camera switches to a new perspective, there’s a moment when our thumbstick inputs don’t match what’s happening onscreen until Marianne re-orients. It’s only a mild annoyance when we’re just exploring, but it’s hell when trying to escape instant death.
Worse still is that The Medium never communicates how its stealth mechanics work. We can crouch and hold our breath, but there’s no real indication of how those actions benefit me since I’d often be hidden behind cover and holding my breath and the Maw would still charge me regardless. When the Maw crosses over into the material world, he becomes invisible except at very close range. That seems to apply in reverse, as there were cases when I’d cross his line of sight without aggroing him, but not always?
The stealth sequences are so confined in structure that there’s usually only one way to get through them, and figuring out the exact steps just involves sitting through the same long, unskippable death animation over and over. Other games in which we’re being stalked by unkillable menaces – Alien: Isolation, for example – have clear rules and failsafe options. Here, we’re just playing the world’s most annoying rendition of Dragon’s Lair.
Admittedly, the Maw encounters are brief and infrequent, but then why include them to begin with if they’re so frustrating and half-baked? They’re one of the many aspects that The Medium should have been either expanded upon or dropped completely. The fact that every other monstrosity we meet is dealt with via cutscene indicates that Bloober understood their limitations to some extent and resisted the urge to shoehorn half-assed boss battles into a game that didn’t call for them. Why they didn’t follow suit for the Maw is beyond me.
Ultimately, The Medium just isn’t effective horror on any front. It isn’t scary, since its one primary threat is too silly and irritating to be intimidating. But it also isn’t the sort of horror that gets under a person’s skin and lingers long after the credits roll, like the early Silent Hill titles that it clearly takes inspiration from. That’s because, despite the presence of weighty subject matter, The Medium doesn’t appear to be about anything – and if it is, Bloober lacks the finesse to properly communicate it.
My best guess is that The Medium is broadly “about” trauma, but Marianne herself clearly isn’t suffering from it since she’s learning about all of this for the first time. Marianne can glimpse memories of people who once inhabited this place – her powers are thinly-defined and seem to change depending on what Bloober wants to show us at any given moment – and thus we see people coping with dark experiences. But they’re just glimpses. If The Medium wanted to be a serious exploration of trauma, it should have centered on one of those characters, instead of a protagonist who reacts to everything with goofy quips like she’s Peter Parker.
Absent solid scares or a cohesive theme, all that we’re left with is some effective atmosphere, and it goes without saying that stellar audiovisual presentation alone can’t carry a game these days.
My exhaustion with the live service schemes and open-world busywork that currently define mainstream games makes me want to support smaller studios like Bloober Team who seem genuinely interested in pushing boundaries. Sadly, The Medium is its own kind of dispiriting, if only because I feel like I’ve been down this road so many times. For every experiment in interactive storytelling that actually reaches its potential, we seem to get a thousand projects like this one — it’s got promising ideas and good intentions, but has no idea how to organize these thoughts into something coherent.
The Medium wants to move the industry forward, but is instead a reminder of how much progress is still to be made. I want to applaud it for not playing it safe, but if a mess like this is the best that a developer with so much obvious talent can produce… then perhaps we deserve Ghost of Tsushima.
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